A Subchaser Restoration Dream Shattered

(Note: Chronicle Online’s archives dating back to 30 March 1902 are the source for this updated information about SC 1057. Chronicle Online is a service of the Citrus County Chronicle, Crystal River, FL. We are indebted to feature writers Michael Terry, Terry Witt and Christi Stevens for several stories retold here about the trials and tribulations of the Bonner Lee and her once owner, Paul Purdum.)

The year 2002 saw the sad demise of SC 1057 in King’s Bay, Crystal City, Florida. This subchaser, named Bonner Lee, was for several years a prime candidate for restoration as a museum piece but circumstances, mostly political, interfered. The story is not a pretty one.

In 1997 Paul and Maria Purdum and a business associate purchased the vessel in St. Augustine, FL with plans to take it to Belize and turn it into a dive boat. The associate’s business failed, the Belize plans fell through, and the Purdums found themselves trying to find a home and a use for the Bonner Lee. Purdum brought the ship to Crystal River and moored it in the bay, immediately stirring up residents who didn’t want to look at the dilapidated ship from their neatly manicured yards.

Several World War II veterans, myself included, acquainted the Purdums with the 1057’s war history, the result being that the Purdums decided to turn it into a museum. As Paul Purdum said, “It wasn’t really our boat anymore, it was a piece of history.” But plans to dock the ship at the former Crystal River Yacht Club fell through. Then-mayor Curtis Rich, a King’s Bay resident, was a vocal opponent of the ship as were several other residents nearby. Then early in September 1998 the vessel began taking on water. Mr. Purdum sent a crew of workers to pump out the water but they were stopped by a Coast Guard officer because he thought he saw oil leaking from the ship. They waited eight hours for a Coast Guard special-response unit to arrive but by then the ship was resting on the bay’s bottom. The question Mr. Purdum asks is academic now but does raise further questions. “So who was responsible for my ship sinking? I was her captain, not her executioner.”

Then ensued years of political wrangling between county, state and city officials while the ship lay partially submerged. The Purdums, having bitten off more than they could chew, were vilified and humiliated by local politicians and King’s Bay residents. The ship sank for a second time in 2001. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission charged Purdum with owning a derelict vessel. Pleading no contest, Mr. Purdum was placed on a year’s probation with the condition that he remove the vessel from the bay within six months. In October 2001 the deadline elapsed and a warrant was issued for his arrest. But Mr. Purdum made the mistake of hiding from authorities for nine months. On 7 July 2002 the 47-year old Purdum, a native of Lake County, owner of an excavating and mining business who was always interested in boats, was finally sent to jail without bond. He admits he hid from authorities but says he did so in an effort to try to raise money and manpower to raise the ship and disassemble it. Having spent most of his own and his wife’s money he languished in jail broke and without options, while his wife Maria worked feverishly trying to figure out how to get rid of the boat so her husband could come home.

City Manager Phil Lilly took some positive steps by talking to several salvage companies and trying to facilitate communication and cooperation among the dissidents and the owners. Finally Tim Hudson, a Dunedin salvager, was hired by Mr. Purdum to remove the Bonner Lee from King’s Bay. But no sooner did Mr. Hudson begin work to patch the hull for raising, he was forced to halt. A diver, and a member of the Naval Reserve, Mr. Hudson was called to active duty. In May 2002 he returned to inactive status and resumed the salvage work.

Paul Purdum’s freedom came fifty-two days after he was jailed. He was released on his own recognizance on the condition he continue working to remove the vessel from the bay. The Purdums spent more than $70,000 to raise a ship that cost them only $45,000 five years previously.

For a brief moment in August the Bonner Lee rose from its watery grave only for Mr. Hudson to realize the ship had deteriorated beyond repair. Mr. Purdum has not been seen or heard from locally since he was freed. When he failed to show up for a court-ordered status hearing in November a bench warrant was once again issued for his arrest. County officials voted to apply for a state grant to be used to reimburse the county for every penny spent on the Bonner Lee’s removal. The county estimated the cost of dismantling the ship at between $102,000 and $109,000.

A grant for $102,000 was approved by the state but less than a week after receiving it questions were raised about who is responsible for paying the county landfill tipping fee. County commissioners finally agreed to waive the tipping fees or pay for the ship’s disposal at a construction and debris landfill. The salvage operation, now in the hands of Grubbs Emergency Services based in Brooksville, FL, again failed to get off the ground when the company withdrew from the $102,000 contract because of “media interest and sensationalism.” The contract for disposal of Bonner Lee was once again up in the air.

Finally, in March 2003 Venice-based Coastal Marine Construction Inc. was awarded the moving contract. A 140 by 40 foot steel barge equipped with an 80-ton crawler crane was towed into the bay a week later. Boats from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission accompanied the barge to assist in the onsite dismantling of Bonner Lee. By the end of March 2003 the debris from the once proud and doughty SC 1057, veteran warship of World War II, was on its way to Citrus County’s Central Landfill for disposal.