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Tugboat heroes

They braved the roiling, stormy seas of the North Atlantic. They jumped aboard sinking ships and saved lives. They ran head-on into flaming magazines of ammunition to put out fires.

The accomplishments of the World War II Deep Sea Rescue Tugboats were many, yet these heroes have gotten hardly a footnote in the history books. Laguna Beach Filmmaker Robin D. Williams hopes to change that with his new film, “Mayday! Tugs of War — Europe.”

“They’re bona fide heroes,” Williams said. “They’re very humble and they talk about it like it was nothing, but you know it was a hell of a thing to go through.”

The film, which won the Sponsor’s Honorary Mention at the 2007 Indie Fest Film Festival Nov. 2, explores the feats of tug crews from various countries including the U.S., Germany and the United Kingdom.


Williams has spent his documentary film career making movies about some of the most influential men in history including Charles Lindbergh, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Christopher Columbus. The story of the WWII tugmen was a story he’s been wanting to tell for 50 years, but could never figure out how to go about it.

The fascination with the small ships began in Cobh, Ireland, where Williams first saw one of the strange vessels docked in the harbor. On the voyage back across the Atlantic, Williams’ ship was imperiled by a storm. The large ship was tossed around by the waves. Williams marveled at the crews of the tugs who braved similar storms on much smaller craft.

“They’re very special and very unique vessels,” Williams said.

The tug crews were tasked with saving ships torpedoed by Nazi U-boats. The tugmen would come aboard and try to shore up the holes punched in the hulls. They would then tow them back to the safety of a harbor or sometimes run them aground.


It was an important part of the war effort. Not only were they saving lives, but they saved valuable supplies needed for the war effort in Europe. At one point, the U-boats were sinking 24 ships per convoy sent out of Nova Scotia, he says.

“Those guys had to go out no matter how bad the storms were and save people,” Williams said.

He filmed veterans of the crews telling their stories and even used folk songs by tugboat crewman Jim Radford. He also used rare archival film of the period to illustrate the risk these men put themselves in.

Williams has another film in the works that will explore the WWII contributions of rescue tug crews in the Pacific Theater of Operations. The film is shot, but he needs to gather to money to edit it.

Williams says growing up in Laguna Beach gave him a jump start on his path.

“From the very beginning of my career, Laguna Beach gave me the ammunition to get started,” Williams said.

After getting involved with theater at Laguna Beach High School, Williams later headlined some dozen shows at the Laguna Playhouse. He says the stage experience had a major impact on his film career because it taught him how to tell a story.

But it was more than just the theater experience that Laguna gave Williams. He says being able to interact with local artists throughout his childhood let him expand his own art.


Though his hometown planted the seeds of his filmmaking, it was Williams’ natural curiosity and imagination that carried him along in his career. He used to sit on a rock at his local beach and pretend to go to far-off places.

“I would sit on that rock and sail around the world at Cress Street,” Williams said.

Copies and trailers of “Mayday! Tugs of War — Europe” are available at the film’s website,