When you visit Tuncurry's John Wright Park just across the bridge from Forster you might like to reflect on the thriving sawmilling and shipbuilding industries that were once the economic drivers of the twin towns of Forster Tuncurry.
In fact, the beautiful John Wright Park was once the centrepiece of John Wright's enterprise that started in 1875 with the construction of a sawmill and ended in 1954 when the last Wright-built ship was launched.
WT85 (Wooden Towboat No. 85) is of special significance as she represents the enormous contribution made towards the WW2 effort and is believed to be the only Wright-built vessel to have survived until today.
With the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, the 'Directorate of Small Craft Construction & USA Small Army Boats' required an armada of small ships to support the war effort in the Pacific and negotiated with the Australian Government to start the construction of a large number of wooden vessels - including 45-foot long wooden tow boats.
Contracts were entered into with shipbuilding firms around Australia, including Wright's at Tuncurry and Ryan's at Taree.
In the meantime, the reality of a possible Japanese invasion of Australia was on everyone's mind with the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) and battles along the Kokoda track (late 1942).
It was not until 1943 when construction commenced.
Wright's shipyard started to deliver hulls ready for engine installation in Newcastle or Sydney in 1944.
US Army WT85 was among the first batch of five wooden tow boats to be completed.
She was taken out over the Tuncurry-Forster bar by Jimmy Nicholson in his boat Eldorado on July 24, 1944 and handed over to the 66-foot US Army WT68, to be towed to Sydney for final fitting out.
By the time the tow boats were commissioned, the United States Army no longer had a requirement for small vessels; she was then transferred to the Australian Navy and re-named Koolya.
At the end of the war the Commonwealth Government was faced with the prospect of getting rid of a vast amount of ex-wartime equipment and Koolya was disposed of at auction.
She was sold in 1948 to ferry operators Nicholson Bros. Harbour Transport in Sydney and re-named Protrude.
In 1972 she was bought by Stannard Ferries and, after refurbishment, was later sold to former employee Aaron Maher.
The whereabouts of the elusive WT85 was unknown and then came the breakthrough needed - maritime researcher Mori Flapan indicated that in 2007 she was last reported seen at anchor in Blackwall Bay on Brisbane Water near Woy Woy.
In early 2014, intrepid researchers Alan Wright, Terry Wright and Chris Borough hired a small boat to try and locate WT85 but were unsuccessful.
After years of researchers trying to locate the vessel, Terry Wright found her moored at a breakwall running from the Iguana Nightclub at Gosford.
It was with considerable jubilation when a small group from Forster Tuncurry was able to walk onto the Gosford breakwall on October 24, 2015 and finally set eyes on this elusive but tough little boat.
Further research undertaken by Terry Wright managed to locate all owners since Aaron Maher.
After sinking overnight after heavy rain at Gosford on February 26, 2018, WT85 was re-floated and towed to Abbotsford Boatshed in Sydney where she is about to be restored by her new owner, Roger Kyle.
Although WT85 had been converted to a pleasure boat and was in poor condition, the original motor was still operational and there was a prospect that she could be taken and restored to her former glory.
From a historical perspective, this vessel is of immense significance to the community of Tuncurry and one day we might see her return to her wartime birthplace.
To see more of Chris and Graham's research, click here.
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