It’s not every day one gets to be involved in an expedition that touches the hearts of so many. People from all over the world, sacrificing time and resources, collaborated for the good of a common goal: to give closure to those who lost loved ones aboard U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alexander Hamilton, destroyed during WWII.
On Jan. 29, 1942, cutter Alexander Hamilton was escorting a convoy to Iceland when an undetected German U-boat left her fatally wounded. The ship was torpedoed without warning and the explosion killed 20 men instantly with the total death toll rising to 26.
Salvage attempts where unsuccessful and the American destroyer USS Ericsson fired upon the wreck three times to send her to the bottom of the sea; cutter Hamilton became the first U.S. loss in the Atlantic after the Pearl Harbor attacks.
67 years later
Shortly after receiving a new aircraft with specialized pollution detection equipment in July 2009, the Icelandic Coast Guard detected traces of oil on the water’s surface invisible to the naked eye in an area not known to contain any wrecks. A survey vessel was dispatched to the area and although the survey did not provide high resolution on contacts, it did reveal an uncharted wreck.
As a result of the findings, a subsequent operation was planned with the Icelandic Coast Guard Cutter Ægir in order to identify the wreck and obtain a higher resolution side scan and bathymetric data from a Gavia autonomous underwater vehicle and video footage from an accompanying remotely operated vehicle. From the data gathered it was ascertained the vessel was lying on its starboard side at a 45-degree angle with evidence of massive damage from a torpedo in the form of an 11-meter long hole in the bottom of the ship; without a doubt this was the Alexander Hamilton.
After receiving information about the identification of the wreck from Icelandic friend Sigurdur “Sigge” Harlsson, Jonas Samuelsson and Aron Arngrímsson – both members of Team Blue Immersion, or TBI – knew they had to dive this historically significant wreck. On June 26, 2011, Samuelsson and Arngrímsson joined Valgeir Petursson to become the first team to dive Hamilton.
After researching Hamilton in 2012 for the ship’s 70th anniversary, Dave Downey, cousin to Michael T. Vas who perished in the attack, discovered that Team Blue Immersion had successfully dived the wreck and contacted them. It was decided Team Blue Immersion would plan a second expedition back to the Hamilton, this time on behalf of the family members who lost loved ones in the tragedy. The expedition’s mission would be to attach a memorial plaque to the wreck, documenting the story of the men that sacrificed their life for the freedom of people all around the world and giving long-awaited closure to the family members of the perished.
Downey wanted the team to succeed but thought the idea was more of a dream and there was no way it could be done due to regulations, risks and costs.
“I knew TBI was capable but the deck was stacked against them and that doesn’t even take into account the other obligations a crew like TBI must have, let alone weather in the North Atlantic. There are lots of reasons people don’t do these kind of things,” said Downey.
Due to the complexity and degree of risk, fellow TBI members Erik Brown and Chris Haslam joined the expedition for their technical diving and video skills and to help with logistics. As family members and others connected to the vessel found out about the expedition, the list of supporters grew, flooding the team’s inbox; it had now become personal and failure was no longer an option.
Final resting place
After nearly two years of countless hours planning, arranging logistics and raising funds it seemed like the expedition was never going to happen. It wasn’t until Samuelsson started talking with Ocean Reef about using their specialized communication system for the dive and explaining the heartfelt story behind the expedition when the ball really started rolling.
The Ocean Reef-sponsored team landed in Iceland for the expedition in early August and after gathering equipment and acclimating to the region through practice dives, it was finally the day; the day two years of planning had come down to.
On Aug. 12, 2013, the divers headed down the shot line into the darkness. The visibility was not the best and the divers could not see far in front of them. They made a fast descent but there was still no site of Hamilton. Then at 85 meters her outline started to emerge, a couple meters more and there she was – all 2,350 tons of her.
“Being down there was like visiting another world. It was a dark, cold, eerie resting place for the Hamilton and some of her crew. Being the first four divers to stare at this piece of history was truly unforgettable,” said Haslam.
Now all that was left was to find a location to attach the granite plaque and start the ascent back to a world that felt so distant. The memorial plaque went on without a problem. It was a satisfying feeling for the team to be down there looking at the plaque attached perfectly to the Hamilton, the mission was completed and it was time for the long journey back to the surface.
The following story is printed with the permission of Team Blue Immersion – the content’s originator. The Coast Guard cannot and does not officially endorse Team Blue Immersion, Gavia, Ocean Reef or their activities.
About the author: Chris Haslam’s passion for the undersea world has taken him from his home in Australia to exploring some of the most amazing spots on the planet. At 30 years of age, Haslam is an instructor-trainer with ratings from SSI, PADI and TDI and has certified more than 1,500 students at various levels both recreational and technical. Haslam currently runs the companies Team Blue Immersion Sweden and World Dive Team.