Written by Kris Land
Originally assigned the designation FS-289, the Sea Bird's construction by the Wheeler Shipbuilder Company in Whitestone, New York was finalized in 1945. The FS-289 first began making contributions to the United States Army as a cargo ship that same year. This beauty of a boat received a new designation as the New Bedford (T-AKL-17) and was acquired by the US Navy on July 1, 1950. In 1963, she was reclassified as the New Bedford IX-308.
In total, the USNS New Bedford served for nearly five decades in the Army and Navy. October 28th, 1994 finally saw the flag lowered on the vessels, thus ending its military career. While this was a significant event, it was made even more so by the ship's cinematic past. The USNS New Bedford was just as much a movie star as it was a Navy vessel, and was the largest 'actor' to appear in the 1955 hit film, Mr. Roberts.
The film brought the ship into the limelight, and rightfully so. Mr. Roberts starred numerous silver screen greats that still enchant us today. Household names including Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon and William Powell create a humorous spin on the atmosphere felt during the waning days of World War II. The USNS New Bedford's (IX-308) role in Mr. Roberts was arguably the ship's most well known mission, earning it both civilian and military admirers.
The IX-308's out-of-service ceremony incorporated elements of this important part of the vessel's history. The proceedings were highlighted by audio clips taken directly from the film. Those present heard memorable film quotes just as they had been spoken by the actors in the film so many years ago.
The ceremony was not limited to the ship's film history, but also touched on its long military career. The Mayor of the City of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the Honorable Rosemary Tierney, was in attendance along with retired Navy Captain Frederick R. Purrington. Purrington was a seasoned Navy pilot and squadron commander. He not only served for more than 20 years, but also survived six years and four months as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. Today he is heralded as one of New Bedford's most distinguished and respected residents.
The out of service ceremony commenced flawlessly, but did not end without one final act of good humor. Code 80's Steve Schultz appeared as Ensign Pulver at the end of the proceedings. He sprinted down the bow of the vessel with a palm tree. Schultz, or rather Pulver, launched the unsuspecting palm over the pier in one final act of defiance as well as in celebration and honor of the New Bedford IX-308.
1944: Camano Class Light Cargo Ship was laid down for the US Army as FS-289 at Wheeler Shipbuilding in Whitestone, NY.
1955 - 1963: Used as a cargo supply ship for the Texas Towers, a network of advanced radar stations located off the Eastern Seaboard. In 1957, Capt. Sixto Mangual was commander of the AKL-17 and in 1961 it was rechristened the USNS New Bedford. The New Bedford, sailing out of State Pier, was keeping vigil when Texas Tower No. 4 callapsed off the New Jersey coast during a January 1961 nor'easter.
2006: Design of the Tesla Turbine began on June 11, 2006. The Sea Bird was sold by Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service for commercial service.