By Dan Friend
Two DeLand area World War II workers were recently recognized for their efforts during a presentation of "new" wartime DeLand tugboat history at the West Volusia Historical Society.
Both Ed Johnson and Marty McLaughlin worked for the American Machinery Corp. on Lake Beresford during the summer of 1945 at the young age of 16, finishing up the last small tugboats for the US Army. Until Dec. 18, they didn't know where any of those boats went 67 years ago. Nor did virtually anyone else, for that matter.
It's now known that many of the Beresford boats went directly to the European Theatre and several were lost during the war.
Virtually everyone in DeLand who wanted a job found one during the war. Not only was the DeLand Naval Air Station busy training pilots in Dauntless SBD dive bombers and Hellcats, with plenty of work for supporting locals; but many folks found work at the Babcock Aircraft Corp. building gliders, or at the American Machinery Corp's Beresford Boat Works where hundreds of people were employed building tugboats and barges for the US Army. As many historians have pointed out, it took the boom production times of World War II to really get us out of the Great Depression and the DeLand area was no exception.
The Army boat production was handled by the American Machinery Corp., based in Orlando. The Lake Beresford operations were known as the Marine Division and, beginning in 1943, the company began to build ST or "small tugs," along with barges. A total of 36 tugboats were completed by AMC, with an additional three being finished up by the Olsen Corp., which took over after the Army had cancelled the AMC contract. Many photos of the tug production and the wartime boat works still exist, but what really happened to those boats after they headed down the St. Johns to Jacksonville?
Actual operational details of the 39 U.S. Army "ST" tugboats, at least in part, can now be found on several websites created by tugboat enthusiasts, which probably did not exist just a few years ago. The interesting news is that instead of quietly moving around in stateside harbors or the intracoastal waterways, many Beresford boats were actively involved with the war in Europe from 1943 onwards, often in harm's way, and were arguably warships by any definition of the word. Well, perhaps war boats anyway, as they were less than 90 feet long.
Even with six of the Beresford-made "ST" tugs having no records other than a delivery date to the U.S. Army, what is available is still fascinating. At least four AMC tugs were lost during the war in the stormy North Atlantic or due to enemy action in Europe; and two (ST 676 & 677) survived being in the infamous NY 119 convoy. (This was a group of about 30 slow-moving tugboats and barges under tow which took over a month to reach England from New York when a 14 day trip was the norm for a slow convoy .... with seriously stormy North Atlantic seas causing 16 tug and barge losses including 3 ST's. Read "Ordeal of Convoy NY 119" by Charles Dana Gibson.
One AMC boat, the ST 43 "Tuther," or "Mars," even made it to New Guinea Leyte Gulf area in the Pacific Theater in February 1945. Who knows what it did and where it was from 1943-1944? A total of 14 boats out of the 39 made in DeLand can be traced to either the European or Pacific theaters, and at least two Beresford-built boats were instrumental during the D-Day invasion in assembling the "Mulberries," or floating docks, at Normandy for the supply and material landings; a vital and dangerous task to say the least. AMC ST 344 was in fact lost "due to war damage" possibly at Normandy. Many more boats may have actually gone over with no records remaining.
At this point, very little history is known about quite a few of the boats turned out by the little marina on Lake Beresford, which makes the information that is available very special. Sadly, the "little ships" of the US Army were considered of such little value that the ship's logs were collected after World War II by the Army, then later discarded as being useless historically and too expensive to preserve. Unless an owner or captain kept a separate log or diary that somehow was not turned in details will remain scarce.
Many small tugs (under 100 feet) of the time in North-Eastern Atlantic waters inclusive of the Beresford tugs probably carried machine and deck guns; and they were obviously in the thick of things. While performing towing, repair and rescue missions they also suffered from attacks as at least one hapless ST was sunk by a torpedo. But they also struck back, as at least one Army tug was given credit for shooting down a German plane. Many were lost to stormy weather, especially the North Atlantic crossings which were often more challenging to smaller tugboats designed for harbor duty than the enemy forces were.
One old-timer at the DeLand Naval Air Station Museum said the engines for the tug boats were installed at Jacksonville as the local crane was not capable of handling the weight. They were finished in DeLand, then towed to Jacksonville for the diesel engine installation. Most of the later AMC boats had a Clark 650 horsepower engine giving a top speed of about 9 knots or so. (The average speed of the infamous Convoy NY 119 was under 6 knots.) The records indicate all of the AMC boats were made of steel. The boats had a 10- to 11-foot draft; and were about 140-plus tons in gross weight.
Research on the ST-679 and the DeLand War Boats will continue, but only a time-consuming direct search of countless ship manifests and the few remaining records will reveal much more. The actual builder's plaque from ST-679 and a model of the boat have now been donated to the society. At least two of the old DeLand tugs still exist in France and Finland -- anyone up for a European tour?
At the age of 83, both Johnson and McLaughlin were amazed to hear work they had done 67 years ago at the age of 16 had made an important difference. They are the last known surviving workers of the AMC plant, but I remain confident that if those 300 wartime workers were alive today they would appreciate knowing that the work they did in DeLand during those war years actually had made a real and direct difference as well.
Dan Friend is president of the West Volusia Historical Society. He will be giving a presentation on the DeLand War Boats at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, at the Robert M. Conrad Research Center, 137 W. Michigan Ave., DeLand. To make a required reservation, call (386) 740-6813.