As anyone who has been around a harbor knows, tugboats are special boats that assist other vessels into and out of port. Tugboats’ primary purpose is to help move larger ships by towing, pushing and guiding them. They help much larger ships dock at a berth or leave a berth. They may serve many other purposes as well, such as helping propel barges, oil platforms, log rafts, etc. Tugboats may also work as salvage boats and icebreakers. Some also have firefighting accessories to provide firefighting assistance.
While tugboats are usually much smaller than the ships they assist, they are powerful boats due to strong structural engineering and their propulsion systems.
The Kiowa story begins
On June 22, 1942 – less than seven months after the U.S. entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – construction got underway on a U.S. Navy tugboat that would serve in the war.
The USS Kiowa was named for the Native American tribe that originally lived on the Great Plains. The tugboat was built by the Charleston Shipbuilding & Drydock Company at its Charleston, South Carolina, shipyard. The Kiowa was launched at the shipyard In November 1942.
Officially commissioned into the Navy as a fleet tug in June 1943, the Kiowa’s first skipper was Lieutenant William O. Kuykendall. That summer, the Kiowa was stationed for several months off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada, in the North Atlantic. Her key duties included towing a wide range of military ships and floating equipment.
The Kiowa was reassigned to the New York City harbor in March 1944. Her crew prepared the tugboat for more significant wartime responsibilities. The Kiowa then made her way across the Atlantic Ocean to England; she would take part in the D-Day landings of Nazi-occupied France. The U.S. Navy tugboat was part of the largest amphibious operation in world history.
The Allied landings of beaches in Normandy took place on June 6, 1944. (To read a FreightWaves Classics articles about the logistics of D-Day, follow this link.) Kiowa was part of a fleet of ships designated Task Group 122.3. The task force’s mission was to provide support as needed as Allied troops stormed the beaches of northern France.
The Kiowa transported an array of firefighting and salvage equipment on D-Day, and its crew helped disabled ships and landing craft. The Kiowa and its crew continued to service Allied vessels off the coast of Normandy until July 25. “She was subsequently awarded a battle star for her contributions to that large-scale Allied victory,” which led to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.
In the fall of 1944 the Kiowa returned to the United States. During the remainder of the war, she operated along the nation’s Eastern Seaboard, assisting and towing disabled vessels and escorting merchant ships to the convoy lanes. In addition, Kiowa served as a tanker, refueling ships at sea.
1946-1959 and historic salvage efforts
During this period the Kiowa served as far south as the Panama Canal Zone and as far north as Newfoundland. Her duties included towing ships and engaging in salvage work.
An unusual assignment took place in May 1959. The Kiowa participated in the fledgling U.S. space program – she “recovered the nose cone of a Jupiter AM-8 missile that NASA had fired 300 miles into space from Cape Canaveral.” The missile’s nose cone contained two passengers, a rhesus macaque named Able and a squirrel monkey named Baker.
According to NASA records, “the missile’s nose cone splashed down in an area of the Caribbean Sea located about 40 miles north of Antigua.” The Kiowa’s crew retrieved the nose cone “and the spacefaring monkeys inside it at that site.” The two monkeys were the first to survive a spaceflight.
The Kiowa took part in another high-stakes salvage effort in 1966. A hydrogen bomb fell into the Mediterranean Sea when the U.S. Air Force B-52G that had been carrying it collided with a refueling aircraft. The Kiowa was one of 28 U.S. Navy vessels sent to the Mediterranean to aid the Air Force in the search for the missing bomb. The search took over two-and-a-half months, but the bomb was located by a Navy submersible and retrieved from the seabed by another underwater vehicle.
The end of the line
The Kiowa remained a ship of the U.S. Navy in active service until 1972. At that time she was loaned to the Dominican Republic under terms of the Security Assistance Act. She was removed from the U.S. Naval Vessel Register on September 15, 1979, but continued to serve in the Dominican Navy under the name Macorix. The former Kiowa was decommissioned by the Dominican Navy in 1986 and returned to the U.S. Navy. The tugboat had served the U.S. Navy for 39 years and the Dominican Navy for 14 years.
On December 12, 1994, the former Kiowa was sold for scrap by the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service.