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Veteran’s Memorial Reef planned off coast of Sanibel

By Staff | Nov 23, 2011

The USCGC Mohawk during a cruise among the icy North Atlantic Sea Photos provided by the USCG

The retired United States Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk, a vessel distinguished for its service in World War II, will add a new chapter to its naval legacy early next year when it is scuttled off the coast of Sanibel Island and transformed into a veteran’s memorial reef.

While terms of the contract are being finalized, county staff anticipate The Mohawk could arrive in Lee County by early 2012, remain anchored for a time to allow for public viewing and be sunk by early next summer to create an artificial reef 13 miles off the coast of Sanibel.

Mike Campbell, a senior environmental specialist in the Marine Services division of Lee County’s Department of Natural Resources, says the initiative began “as a concept” more than a year ago. In resolving to locate and acquire such a vessel, Campbell says the County confronted one major challenge – coming up with the requisite funds. The goal was made all the more possible due to the awarding of a $1.5 million grant from the West Coast Inland Navigation District. A multi-county special taxing district comprised by the counties of Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte and Lee, the WCIND assists in the development of waterway projects that promote safe navigation and marine recreation. Campbell says the securing of those funds were not only sufficient for the purchase of The Mohawk, but also enough to cover the cost of towing it here and cleaning it of contaminants prior to scuttling. In other words, Lee County will incur no expense for that which Campbell says will be “the most high profile artificial reef project the county has ever seen.”

The Mighty Mo’

While the annals of naval history are often overshadowed by the glorious chronicles of carriers and destroyers, the service and sacrifices rendered by Coast Guard crews of cutters like The Mohawk proved no less deserving of honor and have been credited by some historians as “the backbone of the Atlantic Fleet.”

A 1941 picture of the USCGC Mohawk

One of three “Tribal” (or “A” Class ) cutters built in the shipyard of Pusey & Jones Corporation in Wilmington, Delaware, the 165′ long hull Mohawk, with a gross tonnage of 1,005, had a fuel oil capacity of 43,600 gallons allowing for a range of more than 3,000 miles at a cruising speed of 13 knots.

In “Last of Her Tribe,” Historian J.C.Carney writes, “It is extremely difficult to find a record of any American convoy that did not have one of the “Tribal-Class” on escort duty. They were small in size, yet totally competent.”

According to Carney, The Mohawk’s competency was put to test on a frigid November day in 1934, the very afternoon it was commissioned to duty along the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. A month earlier, it had been christened by Anne Gibbons (daughter of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Gibbons), but on this day, in what should have been a period of testing the Mohawk’s sea-worthiness, word came that sister-ship USCGC Comanche had been damaged after hitting a rock in the Hudson River. Despite being untried, The Mohawk was ordered to immediately assume the Comanche’s duties. On her first trip down the Delaware, the ship made her first rescue by freeing the Norwegian freighter Braa which had become ensnared within ice more than a foot thick. That event would prove to be a foreshadowing of things to come for the ship later affectionately dubbed as “The Mighty Mo.”

From the Delaware, crew of The Mohawk would soon find themselves traversing the waters off Cape May, New Jersey, patrolling for illegal rum-runners in an effort to quash nefarious enterprises that stubbornly persisted in an era that followed the repeal of prohibition.

Then, in 1940, as the war in Europe escalated, Executive Order #8929 mandated that all Coast Guard Cutters be transferred to the control of the U.S. Navy.

By 1942, American leaders had negotiated an arrangement with the exiled Danish King allowing for Denmark’s territorial possession of Greenland to be used for the purposes of the U.S. military. The move successfully stymied Axis forces from control of the area as The Mohawk became an invaluable member of the Greenland Patrol.

The tumultuous tides of the North Atlantic proved no more relentless than the dutiful crew of The Mohawk who broke ice to ensure the steady passage of supply ships, assisted vessels crippled by unforgiving elements of nature, conducted weather patrols and maintained communications, as well as an ever watchful eye for German installations and submarines.

The Mohawk remained especially vigilant to the terror wrought by German subs. In terms of her rescues at sea, the most notable may be that involving the USAT Chatham in August of 1942. The Chatham is distinguished as the first American troopship lost to German torpedoes in the war. That loss was made all the less grievous as the Mohawk was there assisting in the rescue of 239 crewmembers who survived the blast. The Mohawk would later provide similar aid to the British Freighter SS Barberry, rescuing 20 sailors after German forces struck their ship. This accounts for a mere fraction of her service.

Beyond the rescues at sea, The Mohawk is credited with launching as many as 14 assaults on German subs.

Author Michael Hadley writes that Coast Guard Crews often had little training in dealing with the problem of submarines. In his book, U-Boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters, Hadley asserts it was only “by guessing, by guts and by God” crews were able to survive.

The significance of Coast Guard Cutters in World War II was recognized in the memoirs of German Submarine Captain Peter Cremer.

“This organization was only incorporated in the Navy as a subsidiary force in wartime and was overshadowed by its big[ger] brother, so that its effectiveness was often obscured by more dramatic events,” wrote Captain Cremer. “It was hardly mentioned, although its activities in defense of human life and material deserved more respect and gratitude.”

Historian Carney goes as far to correlate the Mohawk’s service with a pivotal turning point in World War II, stemming from the ship’s role in providing intelligence on weather systems. The ship is cited as the last to radio General Dwight D. Eisenhower on the day prior to the Normandy invasion. While earlier plans had been scrapped due to inclement weather conditions, Carney suggests data from The Mohawk helped confirm forecasts were sufficiently clear for the landing at Normandy.

Surviving encounters with U-boats, ice bergs, and in one instance, friendly fire from the Royal Air Force, The Mohawk remained in service until 1953, surviving all others of her class. She outlived the Algonquin, Onondaga, Tahoma, Comanche (lost during Hurricane Hugo) and Escanaba (sunk in 1943).

Though the last of her tribe, her glory days remain at the forefront of thought by Coast Guard veterans like Bill Verge, the Mohawk’s current owner in Key West where the ship has served as a maritime museum since 2006.

Acknowledging the ravages of time and wear, and maintenance costs, Verge says “there’s a certain sadness” in seeing the ship reach the end of its time. Nonetheless, he draws greater comfort in knowing The Mohawk will be put to good use in creating a veteran’s memorial reef.

“Projects like this are much more preferable to veterans,” says Verge. “It’s so much better than seeing her scrapped and turned into razorblades.”

Ecologic and Economic Impact

The sinking of The Mohawk brings with it certain benefits to SWFL’s marine life explains Bruce Neill, PhD. The Executive Director of the Sanibel Sea School and Chapter President of Solutions To Avoid Red Tide, Dr. Neill says “there’s a ton of science in the marine world, in studying habitats, that indicates fish love structure.” Where there is more structure, one encounters more fish. There is however question, suggests Neill, as to whether artificial reefs are responsible for actually increasing fish populations or merely “aggregating” existing population. He says in other areas of the world, it is possible that such reefs simply help transition a structure-loving population of fish from one area into another area. But the situation with Lee County waters appears different, notes Dr. Neill. “We simply don’t have a lot of structure providing habitat for fish, therefore it appears, in the case of Lee County, projects like this actually help in breeding and increase our overall population of fish.”

Noting the effort that will be made to de-pollute the ship of contaminates prior to its sinking, Dr. Neill regards the project as something that will be beneficial to area fisherman and divers alike, especially considering the relative proximity to Sanibel’s coastline.

As far as economic benefits are concerned, Joe Weatherby of the Reefmaker’s Organization (who is working with the County on the project) points to a 2011 study involving a similar endeavor with The USS Vandenberg after it was sunk off the coast of Key West.

The study was conducted by Dr. Vernon Leeworthy, the chief economist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. In assessing pre-vs-post deployment factors involving tourism, diving and fishing operations, Dr. Leeworthy found that the Vandenburg project helped generate a $6.5 million increase in total recreational expenditures and as many as 105 new jobs for Monroe County. The study estimated such benefits to sustain for a period of decades.

Given the state and national media coverage The Vandenburg received during its scuttling, the promotional benefits could also be calculated in the millions.

None of the numbers are lost on Mike Campbell at Lee County’s Marine Services office. They are part of the reason why he feels (in his words) – “estatic.”

At present, Campbell says the county is busy preparing a contract, but he acknowledges “it’s the kind of contract we’ve never written before.” There are a few details that still have to be worked out, but his outlook is positive.

Describing “a perfect scenario of events,” Campbell says The Mohawk would arrive in Fort Myers early next year and be moored at a location that allows for public viewing. The “logical” choice, he says, would be the yacht basin at downtown Fort Myers. His department has yet to approach principals of the marina. The sinking off the coast of Sanibel would occur prior to summer.

For Campbell, The Mohawk is destined for further acclaim that will complement its existing legacy of service. “We’re going to create something very special, something that not only offers a very charismatic place to dive and fish, but also serves as an underwater tribute and memorial to the service made by our veterans.”

By all accounts, it would seem The Mighty Mo’ is about to do mighty good for Lee County.

Source Material for Mohawk History comes from:

USS Mohawk Memorial Museum Website at www.uscgcmohawk.org

USCGC Mohawk: The Last of Her Tribe by J.C. Carney

U-Boats Against Canada: German Submarines in Canadian Waters by Michael Hadley.

U-Boat Commander: A Periscope View of the Battle of the Atlantic by Peter Cremer

Coast Guard Historical Archives, online at www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/Mohawk1935.pdf