(DiverWire) The USS Mohawk CGC, painted in wartime camouflage, slipped sweetly below the surface Monday afternoon and opened her doors and hatches as the Mohawk Veterans Memorial Reef.
What a sight and what a celebration! There were over one hundred boats scattered across the horizon to witness the event firsthand. Some came the night before to camp out under the stars. Others arrived in the early morning to dive the nearby Pegasus wreck then raft up for the day, swimming and enjoying the water before the sinking. The rest trickled in as the countdown grew closer. During the preparation phase, there were also several law enforcement agencies circling the Mohawk to make sure everyone kept a safe distance from the explosives and potential debris field.
Finally the time had come, Mike Campbell with the Lee County Division of Natural Resources and members of Reefmakers LLC, a Key West company that specializes in sinking artificial reefs, finished work and were the last to disembark the Mohawk. They signaled the clock was ticking by shooting a series of flares. Anticipation was buzzing on decks and on the radios. Minutes ticked by and at 12:53 pm the loud bloom of explosives went off, sending a rooster tail of water, wood, dust and rust flying 100’ in the air. In 3 minutes, 22 seconds the vessel made her last wave out of the smoke stack and ten seconds later was resting comfortably in the sand in 90’ of water on Charlie’s Reef, about 25 miles off Ft. Myers Beach, Florida.
Once situated on the bottom, time was allowed for final underwater settling before survey divers were sent in to verify the ship was secure. First in was Mike Campbell, who did a quick round-about and surfaced with both arms raised – indicating Mohawk hit the bottom level and up-right. You could hear celebratory whistles and cheers miles away. Next the specialty teams dropped in: Lee County Sheriff’s Department divers re-counted blast sites and checked the temporary mooring buoys, Reefmakers looked at the structural integrity and retrieved the dedicated sinking cameras, and P&L Towing & Transportation checked and secured the permanent anchor lines. Once everyone surfaced, the green light was given, opening the site to divers. Conditions couldn’t have been better – clear sky, no winds, and blue water. Silt and sediment somewhat clouded the interior of the wreck but there was better than expected visibility around the exterior, considering a vessel with 1,500 tons of displacement just landed in the sand. Upon surfacing, survey diver Chris Norwood stated, “This is going to be a great dive. While setting the anchors this morning we saw a shark on the first anchor, barracudas moving around the smoke stack by the time the third anchor was secure, and two sergeant majors moving around the deck as we made our assent.”
First to put recreational divers in the water was the Ultimate Getaway, a private charter organized by Scubavice out of Ft. Myers. The trip sold out in 24 hours. It carried 20 divers plus passengers to watch the sinking and a local television crew to cover the special occasion. Divers were ecstatic to be able to descend on the new wreck so soon. Captain Rick Pitts, owner of the Ultimate Getaway, normally does weekend runs heading south to the Dry Tortugas. However, he sees a north run to the Mohawk location as a specialty day charter to dive the wreck trek along the west coast or as a combination location with other local spots.
With the Mohawk secure and welcoming her first guests, the mission was rendered a total success. It was time for our viewing boat, Tropical Breeze, to gather those who from Lee County and Reefmakers had spent the night on Mohawk and give them a well deserved air conditioned ride home. While underway, I chatted with other passengers and was lucky enough to meet Christina Faxon Cox and her family. They were excited to be on board. Her grandfather, Captain Henry Faxon, served on the USS Mohawk during its last run to port when being decommissioned. She told me an ironic story of how her father recently made a trip down to Florida for her daughter’s graduation. With the three generations together, (son, grand-daughter and great grandchildren) the family decided to go to Key West to tour the ship. They were all disappointed when they arrived, to find out the vessel had just been towed out of the harbor. Then they found out where it was going, her home town of Ft. Myers. Yes, her own backyard. Christina has always thought about becoming a certified diver. Now she had a compelling reason. If she can’t tour the ship her grandfather served on from land, she can tour it underwater. She plans on getting certified before the summer is over.
Others expect the Mohawk Veterans Memorial Reef will have the same or a similar effect on locals and other military families. “A ship like the Mohawk has generated interest and buzz among the whole community, and we are already experiencing a flux of new sign-ups in certification courses related directly to this ship,” commented Pete Williamson of Capt. Pete’s Diving Outfitters. Seahorse Scuba Schools has a boat strictly for students, and they see adding the location for advanced classes. Dean’s Dive Center already has sold-out trips for the next few weeks, and Ramiro Palma from Scubavice expects to keep the momentum moving by marketing to avid wreck divers from up north. He feels the historical significance of the wreck will entice the snowbirds to visit for beach and water time activities. Another perk is the mid-state location. Ft. Myers is a nice break on a drive-and-dive trip to south Florida or the Keys.
What makes this wreck stand out? “Great effort was placed on the topside details, putting the vessel back to her original military status” stated Campbell. “She’s been painted in her wartime camo, her anchor chains and prop are intact, the whale boat was replaced and replica guns installed. This is a one-of-a-kind veteran’s memorial.”
The 165’ “A” class Mohawk was built in 1934 and put on patrol and ice breaking duties on the Hudson and Delaware rivers until the outbreak of World War II. At that time an executive order directed her to serve as part of the U.S. Naval forces being assigned to the North Atlantic escort operations with the Greenland Patrol fleet. They were involved in 14 attacks against Nazi submarines. She and her crew rescued more than 300 survivors from torpedoed ships in the icy waters and was the last vessel to radio General Dwight Eisenhower that the weather would be clear enough to launch the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1955. Mohawk is the last remaining ship of her kind and is the Memorial Ship of the “Battle of the Atlantic.” Following her distinguished wartime career, she was placed “in reserve, in commission” service until being decommissioned in 1948.