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USS Mohawk becomes county reef

By Staff | Jul 3, 2012

A historic battleship that had been resting and somewhat rehabilitated at a San Carlos Island dock was set to be sunk for its final service as a veterans’ memorial reef Monday.

Since mid-May, the former USS Mohawk (WPG-78) had been docked at Kelly Brothers Marine Construction off of Main Street on Fort Myers Beach, where it was stripped down to make it environmentally safe and outfitted with twin machine gun replicas.

The last remaining ship of the Battle of the Atlantic – the longest continuous military campaign during World War II – was set to be dropped in the Gulf of Mexico off of Sanibel roughly 20 miles offshore in a revival of sorts.

Project Coordinator Mike Campbell, Lee County’s Natural Resources senior environmental specialist, reported the ship was positioned and prepped for sinking Sunday, July 1, while the actual sinking took place at 11 a.m. Miami’s PNL Towing, the company responsible for bringing the ship to Southwest Florida, provided the towing with an assist tug by Kelly Brothers.

“This makes the ship a lasting memorial,” said Campbell. “The plan was to sink it on Independence Day, but we didn’t have enough people working that day.”

A lot of debris was removed from the former U.S. Coast Guard cutter, including wiring and residual hydrocarbons.

“We removed anything that was loose or could be dislodged or float off from the ship,” said Campbell. “It was lowered by explosive cutting charges.”

Divers and anglers will find her in 90 feet of water near Charlie’s Reef, which was installed on July 1999, located 28 miles due west of Red Fish Pass. More than a dozen artificial reefs lie within a 15-mile radius off Sanibel and Captiva, making these Florida barrier islands great for snorkeling and scuba diving.

“Divers will be able to enter it as soon as we declare it safe and reset the anchors,” said Campbell, who stated it should fall on the same day as the sinking.

The claim to fame of the former U.S. Coast Guard cutter was that it was the last ship to radio Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower that the weather was clearing for the D-Day invasion in 1944. That legacy is considered one of her most famous deeds.

Before its final port, the historic relic was docked in Key West at the Miami Dade Historical Maritime Museum. However the historical vessel was rusting through the bottom and the museum was looking at options to get rid of it before it sank.

Although breaking it down for salvageable parts would have netted close to a $250,000, officials decided to employ a more patriotic option and donate it for an artificial reef.

Lee County officials inquired about the 165-foot ship and revealed their intentions before being awarded its donation. A grant from the West Coast Inland Navigation District covered the $1.3 million needed to prepare and sink the vessel.

“This ship is most likely one of the most historically significant pieces ever to be used for this purpose,” said Campbell at the time of the boat’s arrival to San Carlos Island. “It’s all about honoring our veterans and providing a positive economic impact on our community.”

Commissioned in 1935, the USS Mohawk was assigned to the North Atlantic escort operations. She launched 14 attacks against submarine contacts between Aug. 27, 1942, and April 8, 1945.

Now, as a reef, the historic relic will “contribute to the positive influences on the fish population” and become an economic revenue engine to the area’s tourism industry.

A study by Florida Sea Grant and University of Florida researchers estimated that anglers and divers who use Lee County artificial reefs spend nearly $60 million annually.

According to county records, Lee County has had an active artificial reef program since the early 1990s. County staff members actively pursue grants from state, federal and private sources in an effort to create new artificial reefs.

“I’m really proud as a community we were able to take part in this just from honoring our veterans to the economic prospects of it,” Campbell said when the ship arrived in Southwest Florida. “Every place that I am aware of using ships as artificial reefs have made a very significant impact on that community.”

Campbell referenced the Vandenburg in Key West and ships sunk in the Pensacola area to value the increased economic revenue in those parts of Florida.

“They made a tremendous amount of money in business taxes and jobs. The Tourist Development Council of Pensacola loaned the project $1 million. They got their money back in three days off increased bed tax revenue,” he said.

“It is a great honor. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Lee County to be able to participate. This is the last ship of the Battle of the Atlantic, the last ship of what they call the famous class of ships.”