Post Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian
Since 1790, Coast Guard vessels have ventured into harm’s way to carry out the service’s missions. Some were overcome by conditions and tragically lost at sea, while others were able to complete their mission – relying heavily on the skill and courage of their crews. In the so-called “Perfect Storm,” the major nor’easter made famous by a bestselling book and film of the same name, the Coast Guard Cutter Tamaroa (WMEC-166) deployed into a maelstrom of heavy seas and high winds to help vessels caught in the storm. Despite the conditions, she managed to complete her SAR mission and return to port but not without a fight.
Last weekend marked the nineteenth anniversary of the Perfect Storm, also known as the “Halloween Nor’easter.” By October 28, 1991, two large weather systems were on a collision course off the East Coast – Hurricane Grace was moving from the southeast toward an un-named extra-tropical cyclone. The two weather systems merged to spawn a much larger and more powerful storm. By October 30, NOAA offshore weather data buoys reported sustained winds of more than sixty miles per hour with gusts exceeding seventy miles per hour and wave heights as high as forty feet.
The “Tam” would find itself at the center of the Perfect Storm and the centerpiece of Sebastian Junger’s recounting of the events that took place that fateful weekend. Built for the U.S. Navy in 1943 as a seagoing tug for towing damaged World War II warships, the Tamaroa (ex-USS Zuni) had only a single screw, a relatively high freeboard of ten feet and was nick named the “Automatic Trough Finder” by her World War II crew. In 1946, the Coast Guard received the surplus navy vessel into the fleet and by the time of the storm she was celebrating almost fifty years of service. The 205-foot antiquated cutter presented far more challenges to her crew in a monstrous storm than would the more modern twin-screw 210-foot Coast Guard Cutters.
Despite the challenges, Tamaroa and her crew would make several rescues in the midst of the powerful storm. One such case involved a New York Air National Guard HH-60 helicopter returning from its own storm-related mission. The aircraft was low on fuel, could not connect with its C-130 fuel tanker and had to ditch ninety miles south of Montauk, New York. When an HH-3F helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod attempted to hoist the downed aircrew but was unable to make the rescue due to winds blowing up to 100 miles per hour, the Tamaroa would prove the victims’ best chance for survival.
After a four-hour transit, Tamaroa arrived on scene but the sea state and winds had worsened. Commander Brudnicki, Tam’s captain, looked out from the bridge to see wave tops towering over the ship sweeping the deck and swamping the crew. The engine room crew worked feverishly to keep the fifty-year-old powerplant running. A breakdown during this critical point, especially with only one screw, would prove disastrous. With the aircrew fighting for their lives in mountainous seas, Brudnicki tried several times to position the cutter upsea of the survivors and drift down on them for the rescue. After two hours, the Tam succeeded in maneuvering next to the hypothermic aircrew. The deck gang dropped a scramble net over the ship’s side retrieving one airman before pulling up a group of three others. The downed H-60’s pararescueman, Rick Smith, was never found despite a massive search effort.
In recognition of Tamaroa’s heroic efforts to overcome technological and environmental obstacles and conduct her missions, the cutter received the Coast Guard Unit Commendation and the Coast Guard Foundation Award. In addition many of the crew received the Air Force Commendation Medal and eighteen of Tam’s crew received the Coast Guard Medal, the largest group to receive this award in the history of that honor.