SEATTLE — Seventy-five years ago, as the largest seaborne invasion in history was underway on the beaches of Normandy, France, a group of 60 U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats wove through the water, dodging enemy fire and rescuing injured Allied soldiers.
The 83-foot-long wooden cutters and their crews, all part of Rescue Flotilla One, saved more than 400 people on D-Day, proving to be “instrumental in the invasion’s success,” according to the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office.
Despite the patrol boats’ pivotal role in the invasion, 59 of the 60 that saw action on D-Day are believed to have sunk, burned or been cut up for scrap.
The sole remaining Rescue Flotilla One boat — designated USCG-11 — also faced the scrap heap last year, until a King County couple stumbled upon a Craigslist ad for the 77-year-old vessel.
Matt Levy, a freelance boat mechanic from Hobart and self-described “World War II buff,” said that he was initially skeptical. The boat was old, rusty and rundown, he said.
“I thought, ‘It’s something I’d love to do, but it’s a big undertaking,’ “ Levy said. “But after learning all the history, I just said, ‘I gotta do something. I can’t let it just go away.’ “
In September, he and his fiancé, Kelly Thynes, bought the boat for $100, and got to work.
“We’re going to turn it into a living history museum,” Levy said. “So we want to basically go back to the original 1944 layout.”
The USCG-11 was initially built as one of 230 anti-submarine patrol boats to combat the German U-boat threat off the East Coast during the war, Levy said. But it ended up changing course. Instead, the cutter was sent to England to be stocked with first-aid kits, blankets and rescue nets, and join Rescue Flotilla One, according to the Coast Guard’s history of the vessel’s D-Day role.
On June 6, 1944, the cutter was stationed off Omaha Beach — one of the five landing areas off the coast of Normandy — and instructed to pick up wounded soldiers.
“Their job was to weave their way in between all the boats ... and get anybody that got shot, sunk, blown up,” Levy said. “They got to go pick the guys up out of the water, do firefighting duties and basically be a rescue boat.”
The cutter’s crew saved 40 people that day, he said.
After the invasion, Rescue Flotilla One vessels stayed in the English Channel and were used as utility boats that delivered mail, transported dignitaries and picked up downed airmen until December 1944, according to the Coast Guard. At the end of the year, the 60 boats parted ways, and the cutter was sent back to New York, then California, to be refitted and deployed to help in the Pacific War. By the time it had gone through the shipyard, the war was over.
USCG-11 was left in California for 20 years to work as a harbor patrol boat, Levy said. In 1963, a West Seattle man bought the boat at a surplus auction for $6,586, sailed it up to Washington and dubbed it “Tiburon.”
Over the next couple of decades, the owner used the boat as a cruising yacht, but as it got older and began to deteriorate — even sinking at one point — he began looking for someone else to take care of it.
A week after posting on Craigslist, he found Levy.
For the past nine months, Levy and Thynes have been repainting the boat, doing demolition work and beginning general repairs. But there’s still a lot of work to do, Levy said.
“We’re trying to solicit donations or grants to get funding for deep repairs ... and if people are interested, we’re always looking for more volunteers [to help restore the boat],” he said, adding that he expects full repairs will cost about $40,000 to $50,000.
Fortunately, Levy said, he’s used to doing big projects on ships, since he repairs industrial boats and factory fishing trawlers for work.
“It’s quite the endeavor,” said Thynes, his fiancé. “It’s a lot of fun for us. It’s kind of a unique bonding.”
Because of the work on the cutter, the couple has delayed getting married until next October. They want the Tiburon to be incorporated into their wedding.
“It’s a long long journey, but you take it a little piece at a time,” Levy said.
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, Levy and Thynes docked the cutter at South Lake Union near the Museum of History & Industry and welcomed the public to step on board.
“It’s almost like a time machine,” Levy said. “You look around and there are very few boats built this way anymore. A lot of that’s going away ... and we want to keep that spirit of history alive.”