The battleship-gray, 85-foot military craft bristling with four .50 caliber machine guns observed navigating the waters off the Orange Coast is a head-turner.
What spectators lining the shore see 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.
For the several months during WWII, P-520, which was constructed entirely of wood and could reach a speed of 35 knots, also was attached to a special Army emergency rescue unit located near the Balboa Yacht Club in Newport Beach. Its mission was to pick up downed airmen from Orange County coastal waters who were flying out of the Santa Ana Army Air Base in Costa Mesa, which had been established in January 1942, a month after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Built in early 1944 at the Wilmington 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.
In WWII, 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 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.
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 Newport Beach 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 docked it at the Balboa Bay Club of which he was a member.
He named the vessel “Music Man 1” and, after buying four other former rescue boats, named them “Music Man 2,” etc. Loderhose also purchased the old Bay Theater at the corner of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Beach, where he installed and played, at special performances, his prized 1927 Wurlitzer organ.
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, diver and 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 diesels.
In addition to his maritime pursuits, Bud Tretter became connected to the Hollywood motion picture and television industries. He served as a technical advisor for the 1963 feature film “PT-109,” which chronicled the heroism of Navy LTJG John F. Kennedy (played by Cliff Robertson) 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.
Tretter also was the technical advisor for the 1962-63 ABC television series “McHale’s Navy,” which starred Ernest Borgnine, and 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. He left his shipyard, marina and Army rescue boat to his son, Jerry, who frequently skippers it to Orange Coast ports, where it has been displayed at boat shows such as those held at the American Legion Yacht Club in Newport Beach. Jerry Tretter, 56, also takes military veterans on day-long cruises aboard P-520 and enters it in area-wide boat parades.
Jerry, like his late father, also served on active military duty as a rescue boat crewmen. But his choice of service was the Coast Guard, not the Navy.
Tretter says he is considering donating the boat to a museum, such as the Battleship USS Iowa Museum in San Pedro, 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 a contributor to Times Community News.