The Sinking of the Gen Hoyt S. Vandenberg


We had been told not to blink or you’d miss it!! As we pulled out of the Key West City Marina on the morning of May 27, 2009 hurrying along to the spot seven miles south of Key West in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, missing it was the last thing we wanted to do! The chance to witness a ship whose service spanned two generations accept her final service assignment was compelling and exciting. An honor!

The process to secure funding, obtain permitting, clean up any possible environmental contaminants and tow the Vandenberg to Key West was 13 long years in the making. The decommissioned military missile-tracking ship, The Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg would begin its final service as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s largest artificial reef. As we made our way for a spot with the sun behind us for best lighting on the ship, the vigilant police boat barred our way perhaps thinking we were trying to get too close. However, we set anchor  positioned rather centrally at the front edge of the anchored vessels waiting to witness history while helicopters flew overhead.

The demolition team had set charges positioned at intervals beneath the waterline in the ship’s bilge area and we awaited the signs that the button was pressed to ignite the sinking of the Vandenberg. Thinking of the ship’s long history starting with first duty in 1944 as a US Army transport ship named the Gen Harry Taylor until its renaming in 1963 as the Gen Hoyt S. Vandenberg for its last military duty  tracking the US Space Program’s Cape Canaveral launches, it was hard to reconcile the Russian lettering filling our sight fore and aft portside. Yes, this honorable long serving vessel achieved public notoriety 1996  when Sea Star Productions filmed the movie “Virus” for Universal Studios.  The movie starred Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland, and the Gen Hoyt S. Vandenberg assumed the role of a Russian science ship possessed by an alien life form. The Russian lettering remained until the day of her sinking.

At approximately 10:21am,  sounds of detonation crossed the distance and puffs of smoke appeared at intervals along the water line. As smoke rose and the ship’s stern tilted ever so slightly upwards, for just a moment I thought she’s there, it’s not so fast; I blinked and she was gone. The little flip of water on the horizon I captured was more an accident than a plan as the magnificent vessel descended perfectly settling upright on her keel in 1 minute and 44 seconds. A perfectly executed sink plan was achieved.

As an artificial reef, the ship now serves as a recreational resource for divers and fishermen and a boon to the economy drawing divers from all over the world. This ship completes the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trek. This is a series of scuttled ships that begins with the Spiegel Grove in Key Largo and now ends with the Key West’s Vandenberg. The 523 foot long ship lies in 140 feet of water,  but the Vandenberg is so large, the second largest in the world scuttled for the purpose of becoming an artificial reef, that much of her super-structure is as shallow as 45 feet. This allows exploration by various levels of divers.

Vandenberg also serves as an underwater classroom for the Florida Keys Community College and as a platform for reef monitoring research according to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Management Plan. Marine life began colonizing quickly and the vessel is now home to pelagic and reef fish. Everything from Goliath Grouper down below and Marlin and Sailfish on upper levels make Vandenberg home, not to mention innumerable varieties of other marine flora and fauna. One of the most important roles is that she serves to relieve pressure from surrounding natural reefs to draw activity away from those sensitive formations.

In her final role, the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg rests on a site to be enjoyed, to educate, and to remind us of those who worked on this ship in our country’s service over so many years.

Happily, we pulled anchor and along with so many other tiny vessels dotting the area, headed back to Key West. Having skipped breakfast, we headed towards one of the local restaurants on the water. Others had the same idea so we all companionably rafted up. Sharing seating with a couple of Key Westers ,we enjoyed the stories of all the preparation we were not witness to and the spontaneous, if brief, mutual bond of having been seven miles out watching history unfold.

USNS Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg on her scuttle day May 27, 2009



Vandenberg_Scuttle3240 -s



Read More: For a complete historical outline of this remarkable vessel, visit this link!

Big Shipwrecks

Sink the Vandenberg by Valeo Films

Video of Vandenberg Sinking-Daily Motion

Vandenberg Sinking Video-Vimeo

Diving the Vandenberg-Vimeo

As Ever,


~ by Judy on October 5, 2013.

6 Responses to “The Sinking of the Gen Hoyt S. Vandenberg”

  1. I’d heard of this, but not seen any pictures. Thanks!

    • Click on the links..second from the bottom is a good one of the sinking up close!! For me it was about being part of it and getting to be a witness to such a fun thing.

  2. Interesting that you mention the importance to you of being part of the event. As I was reading, I was thinking of the various kinds of camaraderie experienced through all this – from the military personnel who served aboard, to the folks responsible for a safe scuttling, to all of the observers and breakfast eaters!

    It’s a great series of photos. I hadn’t heard of it – now I’m looking forward to looking through the other links. Thanks!

    • Sometimes it really is about the shared experience. I remember the morning as having a bright haze, which is why we tried to move further over so the sun would be more behind me, and I’d love the photos to have been better. Yet, I felt happy with all of it because even with the pictures, only so many people were there to take any so I feel they are a somewhat limited commodity. We were there! That’s more than good enough! On the videos of the sinking you will definitely see some happy folks and camaraderie among the guys responsible for a safe and perfect descent.

  3. Such an interesting story conveyed in words and picture. I have to admit I like Gen Hoyt S. Vandenberg’s present assignment better than what it used to do. Must be fun to dive in and around it. A very nice series of photos telling the last minutes of Gen Hoyt S. Vandenberg above the water’s surface.

    • My abject apologies for not seeing and responding to this sooner!! Yeah, I like the present assignment much better too and by now many divers and sportsmen and science sorts, have visited the ship in her new watery domain! I still have to smile at the thought of the Russian lettering from a movie being the last to grace the vessel. It is a good memory having been there to watch the scene unfold.

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