WWII Army boat still rides the waves
The battleship-gray, 85-foot military craft bristling with four .50 caliber machine guns navigating the waters off Long Beach, Calif., is a head-turner.
What I’m seeing churning through the Pacific waves belongs neither to the U.S. Navy nor Marine Corps. It also has no name. Its only markings are “U.S.A.A.F. P-520” painted in black on the stern and both sides of the forward pilothouse.
This vessel is a relic of wars past… a 73-year-old former U.S. Army Air Force crash-rescue boat that served during World War II and the Korean War to save air crews whose aircraft had ditched at sea or to recover the remains of those who suffered fatal accidents over water.
Built in early 1944 at the Wilmington, Calif. Boat Works Co., P-520 was one of 140 Army rescue craft built in 63, 85 and 104-foot lengths at several U.S. shipyards for service during the two wars. While at its Wilmington berth, P-520’s neighbor was the USS Carson City (PF-50) a 304-foot Navy patrol frigate that had a crew of 12 officers and 170 enlisted men.
In WW II, many of the boats, including P-520, rescued Army and Navy airmen whose planes had been shot down while supporting U.S. amphibious landings on Japanese-held Pacific islands. During the Korean War, several of the boats engaged in clandestine operations as well, inserting South Korean agents into Communist North Korean ports and inlets.
According to Capt. Jerry Tretter, the craft’s current owner and skipper, P-520 and the other 85-foot boats were made of wood, could reach a speed of 30 knots and had crews of 16, all enlisted men. The boats had no heating or air conditioning and temperatures in Korea ranged from 20 degrees below zero to 100-plus. The men, who slept in tiered, narrow bunks, often went weeks without showers as the water tanks held only 500 gallons which was used for cooking and drinking. In wintertime, the tanks often froze and it was not unusual for ice to form on the crews’ bunks.
How P-520 eventually ended up in the hands of Tretter and his family is itself an intriguing tale, I learned.
Declared too old and obsolete for further service following the end of the Korean War, P-520 and the other rescue boats still seaworthy and operable were brought back to the U.S. and sold by the federal government to commercial fishermen, maritime freight haulers, collectors and yachtsmen.
One of those yachtsmen was multi-millionaire Richard E. Loderhose, whose father owned the United Paste and Glue Corp. in New York. “Dick” Loderhose also was an accomplished organist, founder and president of the American Organ Society and collector of historic church and theater organs.
In 1997, Loderhose sold the glue business he had inherited from his father, moved to Southern California and purchased the P-520 for $10,000 from its previous owner. Loderhose spent what he described as a “fortune” to rehabilitate the boat and turn it into a yacht. Once this was accomplished, he named it the “Music Man.”
In 1997, Loderhose, tired of maintaining P-520, turned it over to Delbert “Bud” Tretter, Jerry Tretter’s father, who owned the Alamitos Marina Shipyard adjoining Alamitos Bay in Long Beach.
Bud Tretter, a longtime sailor who had competed in several Transpac races, a commercial diver and himself an Army rescue boat crewman during the Korean War, had always yearned to own one of the 85-footers, and spent approximately $1 million to renovate the boat that had fallen into disrepair under Loderhose’s stewardship and replace its original 1,500-horsepower V-12 twin Packard gasoline engines with equally-powerful Cummins diesels.
In addition to his maritime pursuits, Bud Tretter became connected to the Hollywood motion picture and television industries. He served as a technical adviser for the 1963 feature film “PT-109” which chronicled the heroism of Navy LTJG John F. Kennedy (played by Cliff Robertson), the future U.S. president who saved crewmen from his patrol boat after it had been rammed and sunk in the Pacific by a Japanese Navy destroyer in August, 1943. Five months after the movie was released, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Tretter also was the technical adviser for the 1962-1963 ABC television series “McHale’s Navy” that starred Ernest Borgnine, and he captained the Navy patrol boat featured in the series’ opening scenes.
On June 18, 2012, Bud Tretter died of diabetes and kidney failure at the age of 80 and left his shipyard, marina and Army rescue boat to his son, Jerry, who frequently skippers it to coastal ports where he displays it at boat shows and parades and takes military veterans on day-long Pacific cruises.
Tretter, who like his father, served on active military duty as a crewman on a rescue boat (but in the Coast Guard, not the Army), told me he is considering donating the boat to a museum such as the Battleship USS Iowa Museum in Los Angeles harbor, Barber’s Point Naval Museum in Hawaii or the Smithsonian. He wants P-520 to be seen by countless thousands in future years. “The old boat will soon begin to show its age, it’s one of just a handful of Army rescue boats still in existence, and I want it to be preserved forever,” he said.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.