Tug John Purves
john purves

Perhaps the last thing one thinks of when viewing the gleaming black hull and bright red superstructure of the historic tug John Purves is “grizzled war veteran.” With the onset of World War II, many in the United States found themselves answering their nation’s call to duty. So it was with the tug John Purves (then named Butterfield). Trading her civilian paint scheme for a fresh coat of haze grey, the tug soon found 20mm machine guns added to her deck gear and Army sailors reporting aboard to replace her civilian crew. Military orders issued, she headed for the West Coast in the service of the United States Army as USAT Butterfield (LT-145). USAT is the military speak for “United States Army Transport.”

149 feet in length, this massive sea-going tug was built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation in 1919 at Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her wartime exploits were not her first stint in the service of the U.S. Government, having served as a floating Navy radio station in the Caribbean from 1919 to 1922. The tug was acquired by the Newaygo Tug Line of Milwaukee in 1922 and departed the warm Caribbean waters for a lifetime of service on the Great Lakes. In 1937, she again traded hands and became the property of the Consolidated Water Power & Paper Company of Wisconsin Rapids. She was employed towing pulpwood barges in Lake Superior. The tug was still with Consolidated when the Army drafted her to support the war effort.

Designed for rugged ocean service and a proven Great Lakes storm warrior, the tug was assigned the challenging mission of supplying Army garrisons in the Aleutian Islands. LT-145 served valiantly from 1942-1945. Having sailed the waters around the Aleutians during my days with the U.S. Coast Guard, I can personally attest to the fact that just getting to and from these rugged little island safely is an accomplishment in itself. The weather up there truly tests the fortitude of both ship and crew. Add a determined enemy and the challenges of towing a barge in open-ocean and it is astounding that LT-145 (a.k.a. John Purves) is still with us!

Protruding in a long, sweeping curve for more than a thousand miles westward from the tip of the Alaskan Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands were a strategic target for both sides during WWII. Dividing the Pacific Ocean from the Bering Sea, these rugged volcanic islands were vital to control of the “Great Circle” shipping route and offered a gateway to further incursions into Canada and the west coast of the United States. The Aleutians are constantly swept by cold winds and often engulfed in dense fog. The weather becomes progressively worse in the western part of the chain, but all the islands are marked by craggy mountains and scant vegetation. Despite such inhospitable conditions, neither the United States nor Japan could afford to assume that the other would reject the Aleutians as an impractical invasion route. It was in this often forgotten theater of war, plagued by howling gales, towering waves and frigid temperature that LT-145 and her brave crew did their part to win the war.

At war’s end, LT-145 joined countless other WWII veterans and returned to her civilian life. She again joined the Consolidated Water Power & Paper Company fleet on the Great Lakes and went back to doing what tugboats do. She was acquired by the Roen Steamship Company in 1956 and spent many years home-ported in Sturgeon Bay. Roen sold the tug in the early 1970s. She wore the colors of several different companies over the next three decades, completing a long and distinguished career on the waters of Great Lakes before being donated to the Door County Maritime Museum in 2003 to begin a new life as a museum ship. Immaculately restored back to way she looked when she sailed for Roen Steamship, John Purves now lives a quiet life, introducing countless Maritime Museum visitors to life aboard a tugboat. But beneath hear shinny read paint still beats the heart of a warrior. When next you cross the historic Jefferson Street Bridge and catch a glimpse of the humble red tugboat, pause for a moment to reflect and honor her valiant service to the nation.

The Purves’ wartime service makes the Door County Maritime Museum eligible for “Fleet Membership” in the Historic Naval Ships Association (HNSA). Established in 1966, the HNSA provides a forum that enables and encourages organizations managing naval museum ships to exchange ideas, discuss problems, and provide mutual support for each other. It has grown into a global institution and has come to be regarded informally as “the world’s third largest navy.” At the beginning of 2008, fleet members represented twelve nations, 115 organizations, and 175 vessels of all types. The tug John Purves proudly joins other naval museum ships on The Historic Naval Ship Association website (www.hnsa.org).

To honor John Purves’ wartime efforts, the Maritime Museum worked with graphic artist Doug O’Dell to create an image of the tug with her wartime LT-145 persona “ghosted” in her reflection. Mr. O’Dell is a Coast Guard veteran and former president of the Coast Guard Tug Association. He graciously donated his time and talents to create the image.

The tug John Purves is open for guided tours from 10 am to 3:30 pm daily from May through October as well as weekends only in April and November. Visit the Maritime Museum website at www.dcmm.org for additional details.

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, Inc., is a coalition of non-profit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.


Museum info: Door County Maritime Museum
Address: 120 N. Madison Ave. Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235
Phone: (920) 743-5958
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