The USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg was used as a troop transport ship in World War II. When Japan surrendered, the Vandenberg was the first Navy ship to return to New York Harbor. The ship was then used to bring refugees from Europe and Australia to America, to track missiles for the Air Force, and for tracking rockets and space shuttle launches. On May 27, 2009, the Vandenberg underwent its final mission: to become the world’s second-largest artificial coral reef. It took the ship less than two minutes to sink.
Strategically made holes in the Vandenberg’s body, along with carefully placed explosives, allowed the 17,250-ton ship to find its place upright on the ocean floor between 10:20 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday. The Vandenberg now lies about 140 feet below the ocean’s surface, seven miles south of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Although the ship sits over 100 feet deep, certain sections of it rest only 40 feet beneath the surface.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Website, the Vanderberg artificial coral reef “will contribute stable, long-term habitat for scores of marine fish species and provide exceptional diving and fishing opportunities for Florida residents and visitors.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shared another encouraging project outcome, estimating that the reef will generate an annual increase of approximately $7.5 million in expenditures in Monroe County, which encompasses Key West.
The project also completes the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail, which consists of an arrangement of purposely sunken vessels ranging from the area around Key Largo to the Vandenberg’s new location, as reported by the Associated Press.
The Vandenberg was selected for this 13-year project over approximately 400 other decommissioned military vessels. According to Andy Newman, spokesman for the Florida Keys Tourism Council, the deciding factors included: "her topside structure, her smooth, interesting hull lines, big girth," and, referring to the Vandenberg's role in the 1999 motion picture "Virus," with Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland, "her starring role in a motion picture."
Seventy percent of the project’s $8.6 million in funding went toward ridding the vessel of contaminants, according to the Associated Press. This work, which occurred in two shipyards in Norfolk, Va., cost around 75,000 man-hours.
A number of the Vandenberg’s veterans made up the crowd of approximately 300 boats that gathered to watch its sinking. One of them, Patrick Utecht, worked on the ship for more than 20 years. He said his reaction toward the Vandenberg’s final mission was one of elation.
"I can say that many of us [crew members] were thrilled that where she was going, she would keep her name and place in history," said Utecht.
The Associated Press reported on another veteran, 64-year old Charles Patrick Sherlock, who served as a telemetry technician from 1976 to 78.
"It's kind of scary to think about, actually, we used to live on that ship, and see how quick it went under,” he said. "I am planning to come back in a few weeks with a group of guys (fellow Vandenberg veterans) who could not be here today, so we can all dive it."
Divers were scheduled to evaluate the Vandenberg’s structural stability on Wednesday. Upon the completion of these assessments, the new reef will be opened to the public, at which point Sherlock and any other interested divers can begin to explore.