The last remaining ship of the Battle of the Atlantic - the longest continuous military campaign in World War II- made its way along Matanzas Pass off Fort Myers Beach and reached its final port on San Carlos Island last week.
The former USS Mohawk (WPG-78) is currently docked at Kelly Brothers Marine Construction off of Main Street and is waiting to be transformed for her final service as a veterans' memorial reef -just days before Memorial Day- in the Gulf of Mexico off of Sanibel. It departed Key West Monday afternoon for her two-day, farewell journey to this part of Southwest Florida and arrived at its current location shortly after 11 a.m. Wednesday.
The claim to fame of the former U.S. Coast Guard cutter was being 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.
The former USS Mohawk is towed around Bowditch Point an into Matanzas Pass.
"This ship is most likely one of the most historically significant pieces ever to be used for this purpose. We are very lucky," said Mike Campbell, the project coordinator and Lee County's Natural Resources senior environmental specialist. "It's all about honoring our veterans and providing a positive economic impact on our community."
The Miami Dade Historical Maritime Museum donated the 165-foot cutter to Lee County. PNL Towing out of Miami was the main towing vessel in front of the historic relic, while Kelly Brothers supplied the assist tug from behind.
Campbell said County officials were notified that the museum was looking at options to get rid of the historic vessel before it sank at its dock. The most sensible option was to donate it for an artificial reef, although breaking it down for salvageable parts would have netted close to a $250,000.
"The museum actually had plans to scrap the ship," he said. "It could not afford to fix it or keep the ship anymore. It's old, dilapidated and couldn't stay afloat anymore because it's rusting through the bottom.
"But, being a museum, it didn't want to just scrap this piece of national history. Doing the honorable thing was what they wanted. We were able to take them up on that offer."
A grant from the West Coast Inland Navigation District will cover the $1.3 million needed to prepare and sink the vessel.
"We are over-preparing on this, just to ensure that it will be environmentally safe," said Campbell. "We are actually cleaning all the PCBs that may be aboard as well as the wiring and the hydrocarbons and asbestos as needed. We are also outfitting it with four-ton trim, twin machine gun replicas. So, we are not stripping it down to bare bones."
The preparatory process will take one to 1-1/2 months. San Carlos Maritime Park, next door to Kelly Brothers, is also being used as a staging area.
"It's a commercial boat ramp that the county uses for derelict vessels and stuff like that," the project coordinator said. "After we get it clean and safe, it'll be towed out to the reef area.
Wrecks and man-made reefs are known to restock our waters with fish for the benefit of scuba divers and fisherman alike. 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.
"The man-made reefs contribute to the positive influences on the fish population," said Campbell.
The Mohawk's sinking is scheduled for July about 20 miles offshore. 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.
Commander Mark Fedor, captain of the current Mohawk, called the plan "an honorable continuation of the legacy of the Mohawk and the United States Coast Guard."
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.
A recent study by Florida Sea Grant and University of Florida researchers estimates that anglers and divers who use Lee County artificial reefs spend nearly $60 million annually.
"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," he said. "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."