Sunday, May 10, 2009


The first thought I had as I started shooting this series of the Vandenberg was, "damn that's a big boat!"
Working from "stem to stern", noticing davits and doorways, ladders, stairways, lookout stations, air ducts and windows, rails, rigging and rust, I realized there was more space aboard than was needed for a full compliment of crewmen to sail her.

Wondering about the satellite dishes looking just a little out of place, I somehow knew that the service the ship was originally built for was probably not the last thing she was called to service for. Add to that the mysterious Russian writing on the walls and my second thought was, "she must have one hell of a backstory".
It turns out she does. . .

The ship was built 1943 at the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California. Henry J. Kaiser was the guy who developed the famous "Liberty Ships" and "Victory Ships" that were prefabricated and could be assembled at any one of his 7 shipyards in a little over two weeks at a quarter of the cost of conventional shipbuilding.

The ship was first commissioned in 1944 as the General Harry Taylor and for the next year, until the end of WWII in 1945, she served as a transport ship in both the Pacific and European theatres. (General Taylor who himself died in 1930, had been the US Army Chief of Engineers in the mid-1920's. There seems to be a Navy rule against naming ships after anyone among the living.)

With the war ended, the Gen. Taylor was back in New York loaded with returning troops (imagine that, once upon a time we really did bring the troops home) in mid-August, 1945.
A good story goes that as she was being guided to her pier, the harbor-master's tugboat played Bud Green, Les Brown and Ben Homer's "Sentimental Journey" over their loudspeakers.
A month later, the ship was ordered to Baltimore where it was de-commissioned.

In 1957 the Gen. Taylor was called back into service to rescue 3000 Hungarian refugees at the end of the horribly unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution against the Soviets and transport them to safety in Australia.
Then 4 years later, in 1961, to help fight the Cold War, the old General was ordered to Brooklyn's 56th St. shipyard for refit as a "Missle Range Instrumentation Ship" and in 1963, was re-commissioned as the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg.

She then served for the next 16 years heavily involved in space and missile tracking missions. (General Hoyt Sanford Vandenberg himself, who died in 1954 - there's that pesky dead guy rule again - was one of the founding fathers of the United States Air Force.)

In 1979 the USS Taylor/Vandenberg was again de-commissioned and it's 36 year career in the military was over.

I'm mostly sure I haven't seen it but, in 1999, a movie called "Virus", starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Southerland came out and featured the Vandenberg.

I looked up the movie's plot line and learned that the story was about a tugboat that, after a serious storm at sea, came across a deserted Russian ship infected with a monstrous mutating virus from space. I can only guess the movie gets "Hollywood" from there but the ship's appearance in that flick more than likely accounts for the Russian writing I spotted on her the walls.

A year later, ARK (Artificial Reefs of the Keys), who must be movie goers, chose the old ship for possible deployment as an artificial reef off Key West and the Navy transferred the ship's title to the Maritime Administration. In 2007, the Vandenberg was finally approved for transfer to the state of Florida for use as an artificial reef.

The Vandenberg arrived in Key West on April 22, 2009 and while I was shooting this series of pictures, the work crews were busy at their work, boring huge holes in her sides to let the air out and the water in when the ship is sunk. (it adds another whole new dimension to Shakespeare's notion of "drawing one's last breath" don't you think?)

Finally, in late May or early June 2009, depending on time, tides, harbor traffic and political special interests, the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg will be towed 6 miles out to 140 feet of water and sent to the briny deep as a dive attraction for humans and affordable housing for sea creatures.
Because I'm not a diver (or a sea creature), once she's out there and under I won't see the old girl again. So I'm glad I spent a little time with her this week and learned a bit about her rich 66 year history.

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