James Dunsdon drove his Trucks through the darkness of a cold December night in the Cascade Range, nearly 200 miles north of Sacramento. It was about to snow and he was in a hurry. His headlights flashed on the vehicle in front of him, and for a moment Dunsdon thought he was dreaming. There, a World War II Allied landing craft glided down the winding mountain road. It was still wet, dripping wet, as if it had just been lifted from the Mediterranean in 1943. “It just looked incredibly surreal, this ghost boat,” he says.
Dunsdon wasn’t exactly surprised. After all, he had been the one who spotted the boat on the shores of Shasta Lake in the fall of 2021, and he had planned to recover it in the months that followed. On that long and cold December day, he and a small crew had revived the boat from its watery grave. But it was this knowledge that made the vision so remarkable. “The boat had gone from invading Sicily to being a truck on a night in northern California with a blizzard looming,” he says. “That’s crazy.”
Dunsdon’s Hunt for the Ghost Boot started with a rumor. The volunteer firefighter was working in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest when he heard about a mysterious boat that had been sighted somewhere along the lake’s meandering 365-mile shoreline. This was made evident by the region’s drought, which had reduced water levels by nearly 200 feet this summer to the lowest level in more than 40 years. Dunsdon liked to hike in the woods on his days off, so he decided to look for the boat. Step one: Google.
Dunsdon found a video on YouTube showing the boat from afar. As a hobbyist of military vehicles, he immediately recognized that this was not just a sunken motorboat or a stranded pontoon. “It looked to me like a WWII boat, and I knew enough about it to know there weren’t many of those around,” says Dunsdon. Now determined to find the ship, he looked around and approached the area of Bridge Bay on the southern shore of the forking lake. He also analyzed the video and tried to identify the location based on the position of the sun. In October 2021 he finally set off into the forest.
Dunsdon hiked several miles to the lake, but his planned route was diverted when a forest fire broke out. He kept walking along the bank and then he saw it. “It looked like it just landed on the beach,” he says. The ramp at the front of the boat was exposed, a familiar sight to anyone who has seen images of the D-Day invasion on Normandy beaches.
The boat actually dates from WWII. It is an LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel) known as the Higgins boat after its designer Andrew Higgins. These 36-foot wooden boats, which could maneuver in as little as 10 inches of water and land on beaches, were an integral part of Allied strategy. “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us,” said Dwight Eisenhower in 1964.
Once ubiquitous, Higgins boats are now rare, with fewer than 20 known to have survived. As Dunsdon approached, he found this specimen to be in excellent condition. “It felt like a movie prop,” he says. For Dunsdon, that meant finding the boat wasn’t enough. He had to save it too.
So he turned to the staff at Shasta-Trinity National Forest. They also wanted the boat rescued, but with two major wildfires raging in the area, it was difficult to focus on a salvage operation. “There’s a lot of treasure and history out there in the forest,” says Ruth Esperance, the National Forest’s public affairs officer. They asked Dunsdon to submit a salvage proposal – but he had no salvage experience. His worst fear was damaging the ship in the process. However, there was a deadline: When the rainy season set in in late autumn, the boat would probably be submerged again.
Originally, Dunsdon had planned to use a digger and crane, but by the time he received the salvage permit a few weeks later, the lake had begun to rise. So it was Plan B: divers and airbags to get the boat to an accessible stretch of shore where it could be loaded onto a trailer.
As a rescue team he Gathered – a few pros and a few friends – they prepared to refloat the 80-year-old boat in December 2021, first raising and securing its open ramp. That gave Dunsdon a clear view of the bow and the still bold white numbers painted there: 31-17.
With that clue, part of the boat’s history became immediately clear. Higgins boat 31-17 was assigned to the USS Monrovia, a naval ship that was General George S. Patton’s headquarters when the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943. The boat later took part in the Battle of Tarawa in the Pacific. With additional archival research, Dunsdon is sure he will learn more about the boat’s wartime uses. “That Monrovia had seven D-Day invasions in WWII—each invasion was known as a D-Day in WWII—so this boat might have gone through seven D-Day landings, survived all of that, and somehow come back,” he says.
The mystery, which will be more difficult to solve, is how the boat found its way to Shasta Lake, 100 miles from the Pacific and thousands of miles and eight decades from the Pacific theater of World War II. Dunsdon speculates that the 31-17 may have been refitted at a West Coast naval base after the war and sold for surplus. “We really don’t know,” he says. “As simple as that.”
Higgins boat 31-17 now lies on Dunsdon’s property in Northern California, where he has become an amateur restorer. On the advice of a man who found a Higgins boat himself on a riverbank in France about 20 years ago, Dunsdon keeps the boat in a supportive cradle in a shady spot, with water sprayers to keep the wood alive for maybe a year under water was half a century – before drying out too quickly. Eventually, the boat will become part of the collection of the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Columbus, Nebraska, the birthplace of Andrew Higgins. “I’m not really the owner,” says Dunsdon. “I mean, legally maybe, but this is a piece of American history, world history.”