May 14

Museum Report: The Tug That Fought

Tuesday, May 14, 2019 11:07 AM

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The World War II tug John F. Nash floats alongside a pier near the H. Lee White Marine Museum in the Port of Oswego, New York. Since this photo was taken, the vessel has been painted gray, to more resemble her wartime appearance.

Alongside the quay at the Port of Oswego, New York, an old warrior stands guard. On her stack, she proudly displays her “kill mark”: the silhouette of a fighter plane and swastika. Her twin .50-caliber guns still point skyward. She is U.S. Army large tug LT-5, the John F. Nash, originally christened the Major Elisha K. Henson and launched on 22 November 1942. During my three-hour tour of the 115-foot tug, I saw everything from the captain’s cabin to the spike-mounted “stinger” guns on the small gun deck abaft the pilothouse. It was during Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, that the sailors manning those guns earned the swastika painted on the oceangoing tug’s stack.

During World War II, the Army built and commissioned 200 large tugs. After sea trials, the Major Elisha K. Henson accompanied a convoy across the Atlantic, where she became part of the 5,000-ship armada that would ferry men and equipment across the English Channel during and immediately after the Normandy landings.

This survivor of the Battle of the Atlantic and Normandy invasion proudly wears her battle ribbons and carries two other distinctions as well. The Nash is the last fully operational World War II, U.S. Army large tug in existence. Ironically, while she soldiered on in relative obscurity, it was the fresh water of the Great Lakes that protected her. Had she been assigned to a coastal port, the ravages of saltwater corrosion might have doomed her to a much shorter working life.

As I stepped aboard with my guide, Ron Wilson, who volunteers at the H. Lee White Marine Museum (owner of the vessel), our first stop was the wheelhouse. It was a journey back in time. From her wooden wheel to her pair of matching brass engine-order telegraphs, the Nash is equipped with the latest nautical technology for 1943. Her brass-topped binnacle houses a magnetic ship’s compass, and installed on the portside bulkhead is an original sound-powered telephone. This device enabled the bridge crew to speak with the engine room even if the ship’s generators had been knocked out. It was considered fairly high-tech during World War II. Directly behind the binnacle, a clinometer is mounted. This device displays the tug’s angle of heel/list. After answering several dozen questions that I fired at him, Ron suggested we move on to the captain’s quarters.

The tug’s “kill mark” on her stack was earned when she downed a German fighter over the English Channel.

Directly behind the wheelhouse, the captain’s cabin is a cozy refuge from the cold steel of which the rest of the ship is built. The bulkheads are fashioned from teak and mahogany, as are the bunk and secretary. These are the original furnishings. On the secretary’s writing platform sits the tug’s logbook. But perhaps the greatest anomaly, for me, was the blanket on the bunk. As opposed to white wool emblazoned with the blue Navy anchor, this one was olive drab, an Army color for an Army ship. I snapped a few photos and read a couple of pages from the logbook. Then Ron guided me to the mess.

Befitting the tug’s crew of 11, the small mess area includes a massive diesel-fired stove. It’s still used on a regular basis: Every Sunday morning, a dedicated group of eight volunteers comes aboard to maintain the engine and generators. They are Navy veterans with years of diesel-engine experience. A ninth, a retired Navy cook, prepares breakfast using that same stove. But it’s on the bulletin board where you will find the mess’s most interesting details. One of the original brass gun sights from the Nash’s pair of .50s is mounted here, along with her two remaining rounds of belted .50-caliber ammunition.

Part of the tug’s massive 1,200 horsepower diesel engine.

Next we descended a steep companionway, emerging near the engine room, the largest part of the ship’s interior. It houses three electrical generators and a monstrous 1,200-horsepower Enterprise DMG-8 diesel. The engine dominates the space. It’s so large that I could not frame all eight cylinders in a single photo. I’d estimate it to be 20 feet in length, and each of the cylinders is about 18 inches in diameter. Everything about the power plant is big, including the 400-gallon oil tank that keeps the motor continually topped off.

The engine room also houses a gyro-compass and a parts crib. As there are only about 400 original Enterprise diesels still in operating condition, the volunteer crew spends an inordinate amount of time painstakingly maintaining the engine. With no ability to simply order spare parts from the manufacturer, when something breaks, the replacement has to be custom-machined by hand.

Also, because World War II warships were not generally designed with a keen eye toward fuel efficiency, the Nash burns 2½ gallons of diesel fuel per minute. At a top speed of 13 knots, that works out to roughly 12 gallons a mile. But because she carried 40,000 gallons of fuel, the Nash was still capable of crossing the Atlantic without refueling. She probably could have traveled much farther, since during her convoy duty, her speed would have been restricted. No vessel in a convoy was allowed to steam faster than the slowest ship. That could be five knots, making Atlantic convoys prime targets for U-boats.

Ron shepherded me ashore as we left the engine room. My time on board was up, and another tour was about to begin. I bid farewell, thanking him for the individual attention. I hated to leave this old warrior tug as we were just getting acquainted. So as a parting gesture, I pivoted, braced, and presented her with a regulation salute.

To learn more about the Army tug John F. Nash, visit the Historic Ships department in the June 2019 issue of Naval History magazine.