Click Here To Subscribe View Cart  

Issue 589

05/24/2012 at 4:01pm

USS MohawkUSS Mohawk Makes Final Voyage

The gray camouflage, World War II-era ship sits alone in our back bay, docked at San Carlos Island, a shell of its former glory. Only a name and a number, painted in white on the hull, provide a glimpse into its storied past and national pride.

The former U.S. Coast Guard "A” class cutter and gunboat, named Mohawk (WPG-78), will find its final resting place 28 nautical miles west of Redfish Pass in the Gulf of Mexico. She will become the largest ship to be scuttled as part of Lee County's Artificial Reef program. Plans are to sink her to a 90-foot depth in the Gulf in July 2012 after the ship is cleaned and gutted.

Project Coordinator Mike Campbell with Lee County's Natural Resources says the ship was sinking at its former home in Key West because the bottom of the hull is rusted and disintegrating. The county is happy to receive the gift and to use it as a memorial to honor our nation's veterans.

"That's what it's all about,” says Campbell. "The unfortunate reality is that these ships don't last forever, and it takes a lot of money and effort to keep them afloat. Instead of being scrapped or melted down and turned into something else, this is a way to keep the name and the story alive.”

Lee County has had an active artificial reef program since the early 1990's. There are 20 artificial reef sites in offshore and inshore waters countywide, including Charlie's Reef where the Mohawk will be scuttled to join the tugboat Pegasus that was sunk there in 1999. Charlie's is the deepest county maintained reef, according to Campbell.

He says that artificial reef programs, like the ones here and in Key West, are economic generators that pump millions of dollars into the local economy. "It feels good to contribute to the community, not only with economic support, but also by remembering our nation's heroes.” Campbell noted the pride area residents take in supporting veterans, namely those returning from active duty in the Middle East, a timely theme this Memorial Day weekend.

The Mohawk is docked at Kelly Brother's Marine Construction yard just south of the Matanzas Pass Bridge, where it will take workers more than one month to clean and prepare it for the artificial reef. That work has already begun and Campbell hopes for a completion date in late June or early July. His office is working with Lee County's Veteran Services, American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars to plan a ceremony for the sinking of the ship.

In accordance with a November 1941 Executive Order (No. 89-29), the USS Mohawk, CG, was directed to serve as part of a naval fleet assigned to North Atlantic escort operations due to her light ice-breaking capability and 1,350 mile range. The 165-foot ship launched 14 attacks against German U-boats between August 1942 and April 1945. She fought in the Battle of the Atlantic and was an important participant in the D-day invasion, transmitting final weather reports to General Eisenhower the day of the attack. She sustained damage from an iceberg shortly afterward and had to return to port for repairs. Decommissioned in 1947 and put up for sale the following year, Mohawk was used as a pilot boat on the Delaware River for 30 years before landing in a Staten Island scrap yard.

After rusting away for 15 years in that scrap yard, the ship was rescued by the Miami Dade Historical Maritime Museum, restored and berthed at the Truman Waterfront in Key West. It became the USS Mohawk CGC Memorial Museum until being donated to Lee County and transported to our bay waters last week.

The ship, built in Wilmington, Delaware, 78 years ago by Pusey & Jones Corporation, cost nearly $500-thousand, but sold today for scraps would bring in an estimated $250-thousand. Instead, a $1.3-million grant from the West Coast Inland Navigation District will cover the costs to prepare and sink the vessel as part of the Veteran's Memorial Reef, where it will attract fish and divers.

Jon Hazelbaker, of Fort Myers Beach, worked as a commercial hardhat diver for 30 years and now scuba dives just for the love of it. About Charlie's Reef, he said, "It's good fishing and good diving. Visibility is usually better out there at that depth, which attracts both fishermen and divers.” He looks forward to finding Goliath Grouper swimming through the Mohawk's "massive engine room,” once the gunboat sits at the bottom of the Gulf. "It's a great spot for the Mohawk,” he added. "And I think it's great that they're using it in that fashion, as a memorial to our vets. It's gratifying to see [the Mohawk] being honored as an artificial reef instead of going to scrap. [She] saved a lot of lives during the war and will now serve as a living legacy, drawing living creatures to the reef, both divers and fish.”

According to MaritimeRestoration.com, she was the "last remaining WWII Convoy Escort Patrol Ship and Sub Chaser.” The Mohawk legacy continues, however, as its successor, USCGC Mohawk (WMEC-913), is currently active and stationed in Key West. It is actually the third cutter to bear the name of the Native Americans who once roamed the Mohawk River Valley of New York, according to a Coast Guard website. The first Coast Guard cutter to bear the name Mohawk was a first class, 205-foot, steel revenue cruiser commissioned in 1904.

"This Mohawk will last longer than the current ship,” adds Campbell. "It will be preserved on the Gulf floor, while the current one will most likely get scrapped,” once it is decommissioned. That's what Campbell means when he says the county is keeping the Mohawk story alive for future generations.

For a look back at Mohawk's former glory, read Bloodstained Sea - The U.S. Coast Guard in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1941-1944, by Mike Walling, 2004, International Marine/McGraw-Hill. Or for a closer look at the ship's final destination, plan a diving excursion in late summer to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, just off the coast of Captiva Island.

Chris Doyle