CLAY COUNTY, Fla. – A World War II-era tugboat that was built in DeLand is one step closer to returning home.
ST 479 “Tiger” is moored at the end of Pier 1 at Green Cove Springs in Clay County, just south of Jacksonville.
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The one-time U.S. Army small harbor tug has traveled thousands of miles to get here.
Dan Friend, standing on its deck, drill in hand, has plenty of work to do before it will move again.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Friend said. “We need to have the whole thing sandblasted. We’ll have her looking like she did when she left. Battleship grey with numbers on the side.”
Friend says documentation for these boats was destroyed long ago, but he believes there is a good chance this one played an integral part in the war effort.
“More than likely, it was built in time to serve in Normandy to help the invasion effort to build the mulberry docks off the coast of Omaha Beach that were so vital, so crucial to our victory,” he said.
Friend, president of the nonprofit DeLand Historic Trust, Inc., stood above the engine room.
“Down here is the Clark Diesel,” Friend said, pointing down into the dark cavern below, his voice straining over the noise of a compressor running out on the stern and the noise echoing off steel walls. “The fact that it’s still here is amazing.”
Friend, a retired history teacher, has become an expert on World War II tugboats, and despite the rough condition of this one, he couldn’t be happier.
Friend has been working toward this day for the last ten years. It was then that he first learned about the boats, which were built in his hometown, from a display in a small museum in DeLand.
“I found a builders plaque from one of these tugs,” Friend remembered. “I’m a history guy, and I just kept asking myself, ‘I wonder where this boat went?’”
Friend needed to know more, so he searched online. That’s where he pieced together their history and learned the American Manufacturing Corporation in Orlando was contracted to build them for the Army shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“They said we can’t do anything in Orlando, but there’s this site, and we can build them on Lake Beresford,” Friend said.
“Within six months of Pearl harbor, they were building tugboats,” he added.
His search also turned up photos of a tug that was still being used and docked in a canal in Sweden. It looked just like the ones he saw in old photos.
Friend made contact with the owners to learn more. “Nobody in Stockholm knew it was a Normandy boat from World War II. Nobody knew,” he said.
Friend said a builders’ plaque on the boat, just like the one in the museum, confirmed it was a Beresford, Florida built tug. The plate identified it as ST 479 — one of 29 boats built in DeLand during the war.
Years later, the owners called back with an offer: Friend could have the boat if he could get it back to America.
Friend always thought the boat might make it back, but he didn’t expect it so soon. “That will be somebody else’s headache,” he laughed. “And when they called me, I was like, ‘Oh, we’d love to have it.’”
That’s when Friend got to work. “People have called me tenacious at times. When I find something that I believe in, and I’m willing to support it, I can be a little bit tenacious. It’s a good term,” he said with a smile.
Thanks to a generous donor, it was transported across the Atlantic and arrived at the Port of Jacksonville last month.
“I saw what it could be,” Friend said. “If we could get that boat home, take it out of the water and build a permanent site for future generations to realize how rare it is.”
Friend said several companies around the country built tugboats but few have survived - ST 479 is the only one to return to the U.S.
“This is the only one that has ever come home, and that’s what makes it unique,” he said.
Friend, working with other volunteers, doesn’t plan to restore the boat — only get it presentable for display.
“We’re within 100 miles of wherever we need to be,” Friend said. “We’re going to take our time, get things sorted out and hopefully, come home on our own power.”
Friend was nominated for the News 6 Getting Results Award by Nadine Bernstein who has been watching the progress on social media. “He’s getting results. He’s doing a phenomenal job,” Bernstein said. “It’s crazy to see this all happening. I thought, ‘This boat is in Europe. It’s never going to happen.’ But it is, it’s happening.”
Bernstein grew up in DeLand, but she said she didn’t know about its role in the war effort.
“Doing this was just an awesome thing,” Bernstein said. “It was worth calling a TV station because he was thinking outside of himself. It was really interesting, and the more I followed this tugboat, the more I was following what he was doing. It just seemed so worthwhile.”
Bernstein said she made a small donation to the 501c3 nonprofit. She hopes the exposure will encourage others to donate.
“I hope that anyone that sees this realizes what a worthy cause this is,” Bernstein said. “You don’t have to contribute a lot, just lots of people have to contribute.”
Friend said he’s launched a fundraising effort to go toward painting the boat before it makes its way down the St. Johns River to West Volusia County.
He hopes to have it displayed in Ed Stone Park.
“It’s exciting. Something built by our hometown people 78 years ago went to war, and now it’s coming home,” Friend said. “How can it be more exciting than that?”
If you would like to know more about the tugboats built in DeLand, Friend has created a website dedicated to collecting information on these vessels.