This is a story about a resurrected police boat, named after a hero cop who died in the line of duty saving the lives of a woman and her daughter almost 40 years ago.
By Cynthia Brown
|Upper left: Greg Porteus, former NY State Trooper who is the owner, captain, and pilot of Launch 5. Lower left: Officer Henry Walburger saved two lives while sacrificing his own in 1964. Right: Crew of Launch 5.|
Everyone who hears the incredible story of Launch 5 is captivated by its history. It was first commissioned as a NYPD police boat where she spent 30 years patrolling the waters around the island of Manhattan, speeding officers to crime scenes, protecting property and saving countless lives on the treacherous seas of the New York Harbor. Launch 5 even had a career in the movies, appearing in many films including Saturday Night Fever, Crocodile Dundee and Splash.
Like all New York City police boats, when Launch 5 was commissioned, it was named after an officer who had died in the line of duty. Launch 5's namesake was Henry Walburger, a patrolman who was shot to death in 1964 saving the lives of a woman and her daughter in their second floor apartment in Harlem.
When the department decided to retire the boat after 30 years of active duty and sell her to a private party, she was soon abandoned and left to rot on the muddy, polluted bottom of the Passaic River in New Jersey. But the famed NYPD police boat was not forgotten, and when retired New York State trooper Greg Porteus and his cousin Phil went looking for a tug to restore, someone from the Coast Guard directed them to the spot on the Passaic River where Launch 5 had come to rest. "It was almost 40 years later," Greg Porteus said, "but people still remembered that boat and the story of Henry Walburger."
Patrolman Walburger's sacrifice
It was a hot, steamy July morning back in 1964, when NYPD Officers Thaddeus Malysz and Henry Walburger were on routine patrol in Harlem. At 6:45 AM, a call came in for a burglary in progress. The officers rushed to the address and discovered the suspect had broken into the building. When they arrived on the scene, the man was inside a second floor apartment, holding a black woman and her daughter hostage. Officer Walburger raced up the fire escape in the back of the building. As he approached the second floor landing, the suspect leaned out the window and opened fire.
Hank Walburger was hit three times. Mortally wounded, he fell back over the railing of the fire escape landing of the roof of a shed below before rolling off and over a fence and hitting the ground. Several of Hank's fellow officers were able to get the gun from the suspect and make the arrest, but Hank Walburger died on the way to the hospital.
In 1964, the black community and the nation were reeling from some of the worst racial violence in our history. In New York City, the summer of 1964 was called the "Long Hot Summer," and there were not a lot of stories in the papers about white cops risking their lives to protect black people. Only 32 at the time, the young patrolman left behind his wife Sandra and three children, four-year-old Henry, two-year-old Debbie, and 18-month-old Scott. Barbara Pierre Franklin and Genevieve Pierre were the mother and daughter whose lives Officer Walburger saved that day. Together they wrote a letter to Henry Walburger's widow, Sandra, to express their feelings about the New York City cop who died so they could live. You can read an unedited copy of the letter on page 44. The bravery and sacrifice of Hank Walburger became a legend in the city with a thousand legends, and two years later in 1966, Launch 5, one of the first of four steel-hulled, 52-foot, twin screw diesel launches put into service by the NYPD Harbor Unit, was named after Patrolman Henry Walburger. The boat was commissioned on November 18 with Hank's widow Sandra and her oldest son Henry standing proudly by. After 30 years with the NYPD patrolling the waters of the New York Harbor, Launch 5 was retired and sold to a private owner who soon abandoned her on the Passaic River in New Jersey, where it was stripped and sunk.
In 1998, Greg Porteus, a retired New York State trooper, and his cousin Phil, a ten-year United States Coast Guard veteran currently serving with the New York Fire Department Fireboats Unit, were looking for a boat to restore when they ran into a Coast Guardsman who told them there was an abandoned NYPD Harbor Launch at the bottom of the nearby Passaic River. "Phil and I headed up there," Porteus remembers. "I recognized the top of the pilot house sticking up out of the water and I knew I wanted to rescue this boat." Greg knew the distinctive shape - his father Jerry had spent 25 of his 30-year NYPD career in the elite Harbor Unit. Many times, on his days off, he would bring his young son Greg down to see the boats and hear their stories.
Tearing the old NYPD police boat out of its muddy resting place was an incredible project and a lot of people advised the retired trooper not to even try. But giving a guy like Greg Porteus a list of insurmountable hurdles is a guarantee that not only will he clear them, he'll break everyone's record doing it. After extensive research and seemingly endless mounds of government forms and paperwork, Greg officially claimed ownership of the boat. Only a few days later, Greg Porteus and a crew of family members, cops, firemen, and Coast Guard Auxiliary were ready to begin the dangerous task of raising Launch 5 from 27 feet of muddy water. Greg brought in heavy equipment to get her up. "We used a caterpillar excavator to drag her up along the bull head," Porteus explained. "The boat weighed 25 tons and she was loaded with 25 tons of mud." Six huge pumps began to pump mud out of every compartment in the vessel. After 12 hours of non-stop work, the boat popped up. "We towed her up the Hudson River with a tug, got her out of the water, put her on a trailer and drove to Newport, Rhode Island," Porteus said. Newport, Greg explained was the only place in the country that would have people with the experience to restore the boat. "She needed a whole new hull, engines, mechanics and electrical work," he said. Greg was soon overwhelmed with the scope and costs of the project. But he found a guardian angel just in the nick of time. It was no surprise that the angel arrived in a New York City police uniform. "I'd have to say looking back at the whole thing, that without Mike Murphy we couldn't have salvaged this boat," Porteus said. "Mike was the guiding light for the whole project."
Mike Murphy, who just retired after 30 years with the New York City Police Department, spent his entire career in the NYPD's Marine Unit repair shop. When he was in the Academy, one of the bosses discovered that he had unusual mechanical skills, and after graduation, he was assigned to the marine repair shop located at the southern tip of Manhattan on the New York Harbor. "We had a new hull put on in Newport," Porteus said, "but Mike oversaw the whole thing. On his days off he'd head up to Rhode Island. He put in all the new caterpillar diesel engines and worked on all the mechanical problems. Without Mike, Launch 5 would not have had a second chance." Halfway through the project, Greg had a visit from Henry Walburger, Jr., who was only four years old when his Dad was gunned down in 1964. Henry had followed in his Dad's footsteps and was now a proud member of the New York City Police Department where he held the rank of detective. "He asked me if his Dad's name could be put back on the boat," Porteus said. "He told me that his Dad's spirit couldn't live in the mud, but when we pumped the mud out and the boat came out of the water, his father's spirit was freed."
By June 2002, all the repairs were done, and Launch 5 was moved to her new home in Ossining, New York, just 30 miles north of New York City on the Hudson River. The crew scrambled to finish the electrical work, install the required safety gear, paint, seal, and clean enough to be ready for a July 4th Coast Guard Auxiliary mission in New York Harbor. Four years and thousands of hours of hard work later, Launch 5 passed the Coast Guard's rigorous inspection and became an official Coast Guard Auxiliary boat - USCG Aux Operational Facility #523269. She now performs search and rescue missions for the Coast Guard. The boat has an almost mystical hold on Greg Porteus and the impressive crew he has recruited. Cliff Forrest, a former Marine sniper who has served the military in many of the world's hot spots including Somalia, spends all his spare time working on Launch 5. He's the craftsman who has overseen all the complicated carpentry projects on the boat. "This boat saved lives for 30 years and you feel that when you're on the boat," Cliff explains. "It affects everyone who comes out with us. "Lynn Valenti, who edits the news for Dan Rather and has been volunteering on Launch 5 since November 2001, agrees. "I spent all my free time this winter rewiring the boat, and it was a cold winter," Valenti explains. "And I would have spent more time working on her if I could. I think all of us feel very protective of the boat."
Since that first patrol on July 4th, 2002, Launch 5 and her crew have saved eight people from drowning, have responded to two marine fires and served as back up for both the Coast Guard and NYPD boats during their law enforcement and search and rescue missions. When President Bush came to the memorial services at Ground Zero on September 11, 2002, Launch 5 became the first USCG Auxiliary Facility to be assigned to a Presidential Protection Detail, an event that Lynn Valenti says is still her most memorable experience on Launch 5.
Editor's note: Bill Hughes, a writer and Coast Guard Auxiliary member, is teaming up with Brian McDonald (author of the critically acclaimed book My Father's Gun) to research and write a book about the history of Launch 5, Patrolman Henry Walburger, and the New York City Harbor Unit. Anyone with stories, old photos or anything else connected to Launch 5 or the history of the NYPD Marine Unit, please contact them at email@example.com. For more information on Launch 5 check out their website at www.launch5.com.
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