Anchored alongside its larger Canadian cousin at the downtown Juneau dock, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Ironwood gave no indication of its illustrious history nor its uncertain future.
Under the blue-eyed scrutiny of their skipper, crew members of the last active U.S. military vessel to have served in the Korean War spent Friday afternoon transferring refurbished buoys from the deck of the Canadian cutter Bartlett to the deck of the 57-year-old Ironwood.
In exchange for receipt of freshly painted, slim, cylindrical red nuns, the 30-ton muscle of the Ironwoods boom lifted and passed back a collection of mostly larger buoys in advanced stages of saltwater wear.
The Canadians picked up the refurbished buoys in Ketchikan on their way up here from Victoria, explained Lt. Cmdr. Joanna Nunan. Theres a company there that reconditions them. Now were giving them the ones that we picked up that need repair and theyll drop them off on their way back home.
The exchange is part of the business conducted during the annual, week-long training ritual known as the Buoy Tender Roundup, which takes places every summer at the Coast Guards District 17 headquarters in Juneau.
This years roundup featured the cutters Elderberry from Petersburg, Firebush from Kodiak, Sedge from Homer, Sweetbrier from Cordova, Woodrush from Sitka, Anthony Petit from Ketchikan, along with the Ironwood, also from Kodiak, and the Bartlett from Victoria, British Columbia.
Absent this year was the World War II-vintage Planetree, which was decommissioned and mothballed after last years roundup, according to Lt. j.g. John Humpage of the district office. The Planetree was replaced in Ketchikan by the Anthony Petit.
As Nunan, her crew and most of the approximately 300 other sailors know, this was the Ironwoods final roundup. The 180-foot cutter, launched in 1943 from a shipyard in Curtis Bay, Md., is scheduled to be decommissioned in less than two months.
This is the Ironwoods last mission, explained Nunan, a 13-year Coast Guard veteran who took command of the Ironwood 13 months ago. When we go back to port (Kodiak) at the end of next week, we will begin the business of getting the ship ready to be sold (to Nigeria). Toward the end of September were expecting a group of about 12 Nigerian naval personnel, who will be part of the Ironwoods future crew, to train with us and learn the ship and how everything works.
Were to be decommissioned Oct. 6 in Kodiak. Then on Oct. 9 we will get under way to take the ship to Seattle. It still will be a Coast Guard ship until we get to Seattle and turn the ship over to them.
Its very exciting, but its always hard to say good-bye to a ship. Cutters take on their own personality and life. There are sailors who have been sailing on the Ironwood for 57 years.
Nunan recited a history that featured eight home ports, beginning in Boston, and service in three wars, including Vietnam. Coincidentally, Madelyn Poland, the widow of the ships first skipper, lives in Kodiak.
During World War II, the Ironwood laid underwater aviation fuel lines for B-12 bombers at Pacific Island bases, fought fires on board ships attacked by kamikaze aircraft and tended buoys at advanced bases, Nunan said.
She said she has seen a photo of the cutter retrieving a NASA space capsule but has no idea of the date or mission.
The sale of the Ironwood is part of the U.S. State Departments program to find a good home for aging ships that can be of use to friendly, foreign governments for at least a few more years, according to crew members and officers. The price: $200,000.
The command staff takes a look at the age of each buoy tender, the cost of maintenance, the missions of the Coast Guard as a whole, explained Humpage, the unofficial fleet historian. Our entire cutter fleet is aging. The Coast Guard is trying to recapitalize the entire fleet.
One crew member explained dockside Wednesday night that the cutters seldom are offered for sale to the U.S. private sector because the cost of removing asbestos and other hazards from the oldest ships exceeds the price they could bring at auction.
Nevertheless, cutters of the Ironwoods vintage have been transferred to seafood processors and coastal shippers.
One of the old cutters, the Woodbine, is still plying the waters of Alaska, said Humpage. The last time we knew she was working as a fish processing boat.
The Ironwood will be replaced by the Spar, the first of the new, 225-foot buoy tenders to come to Alaska.
In a fitting, historical match, Nunan will be the first woman to assume command of one of the ships in the new class of cutters named in honor of the women who volunteered to serve in the Coast Guard during World War II.