USS Mohawk

World War II memories at Truman Waterfront

Keys Sunday contributorsMay 26, 2008 

America’s Greatest Generation, the men and women who served in our armed forces during World War II, are no better represented than by those who served as crew aboard a little steel ship named Mohawk — now berthed in Key West and open to the public.

USS Mohawk, originally built for limited patrol duties on the Hudson River and the Verrazano Narrows in New York, was constructed in a small shipyard in Delaware for the U.S. Coast Guard in 1934.

Built to heavy scantlings, her bow and bottom were massively constructed of multiple layers of steel to enable the ship to serve as an ice breaker at the mouth of the Hudson River to allow commercial shipping to pass freely in and out of the port of New York. Her designation was that of CGC (Coast Guard Cutter).

In 1940 Mohawk’s operational management was transferred to the U.S. Navy. Originally designed to berth 76 Coast Guard officers and men, the ship was reconfigured to berth 128 for its new role.

Mohawk was assigned to escort duty in the icy, often storm-tossed waters of the north Atlantic. Her primary job was to act as an intercept vessel to detect and destroy Nazi submarines, which at the time were decimating convoys sailing from the United States to Europe to deliver war material to the Allies.

During her 38 round-trip voyages to Europe, there were times that she carried as many as 300 people after picking up survivors from freighters that had been torpedoed. Crew members could hear torpedoes scooting under Mohawk’s hull on their way to hitting the deeper draft ships she was escorting.

This phase of her operations ended in 1942, when escort ships were ordered not to pick up survivors because while engaging in those operations they left themselves and the convoys they were protecting vulnerable to submarine attacks. Surviving members of Mohawk’s crew vividly remember their horror and feelings of helplessness when they heard the screams of the American sailors who were left adrift in the burning fuel oil in the sea.

During Mohawk’s tenure as a convoy escort and anti-submarine ship, she engaged nearly 20 U-boats in mid-ocean battles. She has eight confirmed kills.

Her armaments were plenty for such a small vessel. Depth charges from two stern racks, 3-inch guns fore and aft, rockets, and machine guns made up her standard weaponry.

Life aboard Mohawk was extremely difficult. Hammocks were slung in every space possible, and the crew had to share them — one at a time, of course.

With a designed draft of only 12 feet, Mohawk was not really an ocean-worthy vessel. Her length, 165 feet, and narrow beam of 38 feet, did not provide much comfort to the crew. Her flat bottom and rounded sides made her roll in moderate seas. When she plowed into heavy north Atlantic waves, she rolled from side to side constantly and pitched fore and aft violently. Surviving crew members, who have visited the ship in Key West, said that most of the time everybody aboard was seasick.

The more than 300 meals prepared each day for the usual crew complement came mostly from cans and were prepared in the ship’s galley, which measured less than 400 square feet. Exceptions were holiday meals. According to a menu given to the museum by a visitor from Wisconsin who had been a cook on the ship, the crew was served turkey with all the trimmings on one Christmas day.

The only cooking appliance was a double-oven, fuel-oil-fired, cast-iron stove. There were refrigerators aboard, but they did not hold very much fresh food — certainly not enough for six weeks at sea.

One of Mohawk’s most important accomplishments was her role as the last ship to radio General Dwight D. Eisenhower on the day before the Normandy invasion that the weather was going to be clear enough to proceed. Unfortunately for Mohawk, she hit an iceberg shortly after that radio message was sent and sustained a hole in her side. After a temporary fix in Greenland, she returned to the United States for permanent repairs to the hull.

Another unfortunate accident Mohawk survived was a friendly fire incident involving the British air forces. While on patrol near Iceland, she was misidentified by British airplanes, which bombed her, damaging the main deck. She had to run into Boston for emergency repairs.

Today, old memories come alive on Mohawk. Not infrequently, tears come to visitors’ eyes as they learn the accomplishments of the ship’s sailors under the very difficult conditions they had to endure.

Mohawk was found in a Staten Island scrap yard three years ago by Frans Boetes, now president and CEO of Mohawk’s Memorial Museum. She had been there rusting away for more than 15 years.

After some initial refurbishment in New York, she was pulled by tugboat to Miami, where many substantial repairs were made, and then towed to Key West where she is berthed today at the inner cay wall in the Truman Waterfront at the old Navy pier.

A memorial museum to be berthed permanently in Key West, USS Mohawk is owned by a nonprofit organization that depends entirely on volunteer labor, material and financial contributions. In the future, the organization plans to apply for grants to help continue the rehabilitation of this historically important little ship that, along with the iron men who sailed aboard her, helped win the Battle of the Atlantic.

Mohawk will soon be joined in Key West by the 35-foot captain’s gig used by President Harry S. Truman while he vacationed here. Built of wood in 1941, the boat has quarters for the president, Secret Service, and the Navy men who sailed her.

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