Friday, November 4, 2011

Sinking The Mohawk

I originally ran this essay in January 2009 and now, nearly three years later I read the sad news that the Mohawk is to be sent to southwest Florida and sunk as an artificial reef. The Key West Citizen says the other floating museum, the Ingham will remain but the Mohawk needs a $400,000 overhaul to stay afloat and the money isn't there. So it is to be scuttled off Sanibel Island for divers to visit. Of course this sudden announcement will also benefit the grandiose plans for a high end marina in this area which have been blocked in part by concern about what to do with these ships... Considering the artifacts and the preservation of the record of life aboard this, the last of the Atlantic Convoy escorts of World War Two, I think scuttling this ship is criminal. But we live in a world where money for what we value is no longer available if it doesnt go to benefit the one percent. Horrid news.

There is a military looking ship tied up at the Truman Waterfront docks, it's actually a floating museum and it's open to the public for a modest fee:The US Coastguard cutter Mohawk was built in 1934 as a light ice breaker (!) for use in the Hudson River and it was designated as a Coastguard Power Gunboat (WPG). The Mohawk saw years of active service helping convoys across the freezing waters of the North Atlantic:After the war the Mohawk served in the Coastguard for years until its engines literally gave out and it was towed to a scrap yard. By some miracle this ship, the last of its kind, was saved by a bunch of devoted former shipmates and it is still undergoing the process of restoration in it's berth:The ship served with distinction during the Atlantic convoys, facing off against German submarines, a fact proudly recorded in paint:The ship's crew saved 500 sailors from drowning and lost one's ship's dog overboard. The captain refused to turn back to save the frantically paddling dog and suffered the hatred of the crew for the rest of his time on board; such is the force of sentiment even in the middle of a war... and the story is still told by the devoted restorers working on the ship today.The Mohawk attracts loyalty not only from former crew members but from the people who currently operate and maintain the ship at the dock. They have amassed a huge quantity of artifacts from the period and they talk avidly to former crew who come back to visit the old ship. The visit starts with a meet and greet with the man taking the money. He showed us pictures of the ship in action and pictures of the ice that covered the superstructure during winter convoys: The visit is self guided with the entire ship pretty much open to inspection and quite fascinating it is too, as the shop is filled with artifacts from the time it served in the war. First the galley (kitchen) where they made all meals for the 100 sailors and 14 officers on board. The stove operated on engine oil and apparently that same fuel seasoned the food according to some of those artifacts I mentioned earlier:Then there was the radio room with it's type writers and it's radio equipment. And a photograph. I was told the operator photographed still comes back to the ship every year to keep an eye on it's restoration progress:From the radio room there are steep steps to descend to lower levels:To the wardroom, the communal area of the ship where people hung out together. The silver barrel in the foreground is a coffee urn, and the literature advises the tables in the background were well illuminated so they could double as operating tables...The men shared modest quarters, all 100 of them, the petty officers shared smaller cabins but used the same primitive bunks to sleep on:The officers in the rear of the ship (abaft) got greater comfort with more privacy and more luxurious bunks. However the whole proposition of putting to sea in a narrow beamed 165-foot ship was likely to be pretty rough. The ship rolled like crazy, something that was illustrated in a video made from an 8 millimeter film shot in Greenland in 1942. The video showed the successor to the drowned dog, called "Ricky Bow Wow" playing on the ship (his id card is on display next to the television):Then we saw crew members trying to stay upright as the ship plowed through relatively small waves in the North Atlantic. I got seasick just watching the video:The modern crew member and restorer we met in this area, Chip the ship's engineer, had tons of stories to tell about life on board the ship and encounters with crew including a former enemy. One notable U-Boat Captain came to visit the Mohawk told of seeing the Mohawk through his periscope while cruising for convoys to blow up. Chip kept Bruce and Celia entertained and I listened with one ear while I meandered with my camera: It was a great place to wander, check out the old pin ups (Mae West) and newspaper clippings of one sort or another, including the ship's newsletter:And an original poster:And there was the depth charge itself ready for launch on deck:It was a cold windy day when Bruce, Celia and I visited the Mohawk, so they huddled and listened to the stories below decks out of the cold north wind while I wandered the corridors:Then I poked my head into the steering compartment which housed the spare wheel:Before heading on deck to brave the breeze and check out the topsides, working my way forward, starting at the fantail:The Truman Waterfront seawall is a good place for the old ship to be tied up. It puts Mohawk right in the middle of the action, across from the cruise ships and in the same basin as the National Marine Sanctuary patrol boats, not to mention the current crop of race boats in town for the annual Southern Ocean Racing Conference sailing regatta. And the seawall is also part of the old navy base which is still visible in parts:Indeed when this was an active Navy port this very seawall was where submarines, similar to Mohawk's old nemesis, were tied up. Happily those were friendly submarines, but not nearly as friendly and as welcoming as Mohawk is today.


Jack Riepe said...

Dear Conch:

The disrespect of these WWII monuments to the integrity of the men who served in them is the signature smear of our times.

Fondest regards,
Twisted Roads

Chuck and the Pheebs said...

Museums no longer fare well in an age of search engines and soundbytes. The cost of upkeep on a 65+ year old ship greatly exceeds incoming revenue, so the scuttling comes as no surprise.

It's sad - but these engines of war were never meant to live more than a few years. Disposable defense.

There's a lot more of this sort of thing out in the Pacific, I've had fun exploring sites and museums these past few months.

fxrguy said...

Damn, I knew I should have visited her when I was down last November. Served on a destroyer and a cruiser when I was in the Navy and love to tour old war ships... Oh well!