By Chris Haslam and Jonas Samuelsson
It is not every day one gets to be involved in an expedition which touches the hearts of so many, where a collaboration of people from all over the world sacrificed time and resources for a common goal; to give closure to those who lost loved ones onboard the US Coast Guard Cutter Alexander Hamilton, which was destroyed during WWII.
Three weeks after attacks on Pearl Harbor the Alexander Hamilton was reported for special naval duty in the North Atlantic. On 29th January 1942 while escorting a convoy to Iceland she was left fatally wounded after being torpedoed without warning by an undetected German U boat, which had been patrolling the Icelandic coast near Reykjavik. The explosion killed twenty men instantly with the total death toll rising to 26. Salvage attempts were unsuccessful and the American destroyer USS Ericsson fired upon the wreck three times to send her to the bottom of the sea, 45km from the coast. The Hamilton became the first US loss in the Atlantic after 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 surface invisible to the naked eye in an area not known to contain any wrecks. Soon after a survey vessel was dispatched to the area which did a multibeam sonar survey using a relatively low frequency system to scan the ocean bed. Although this survey did not provide high resolution on contacts it did reveal an uncharted wreck. As a result of these findings a subsequent operation was planned with the Icelandic Coast Guard Cutter Ægir to identify the wreck and to try and obtain a higher resolution side scan and bathymetric data from a Gavia Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) and video footage from an accompanying Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV). From the data gathered it was possible to ascertain that the vessel is lying on its starboard side roughly at a 45 degree angle in around 95 meters depth. It was also possible to see the evidence of the massive damage from the torpedo which left roughly an 11m long hole in the bottom of the ship. Further video data from the ROV determined without a doubt that this was the Alexander Hamilton.
After receiving information about the identification of the wreck from Icelandic friend Sigurdur “Sigge” Harlsson, Team Blue Immersion (TBI) members Jonas Samuelsson (Swedish) and Aron Arngrímsson (Icelandic) knew that they had to dive this historically significant wreck. On the 26th of June, 2011, Jonas and Aron joined Valgeir Petursson (Icelandic) to become the first team of divers to dive Hamilton. This was the start of an amazing journey that brought all involved memories for life.
After researching Hamilton in 2012 for her 70th anniversary, Dave Downey, cousin to Michael T. Vas who perished in the attack, discovered that TBI had successfully dived the wreck and immediately contacted them. As a result of these conversations it was decided TBI 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 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 give long awaited closure to the family members of the perished. Dave wanted the team to succeed but he thought the idea was more of a dream/ fantasy and there was no way it could be done due to politics, regulations, risk and cost. He stated “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 reason people don’t do these kind of things”.
Due to the complexity and degree of risk, fellow TBI members Erik Brown (Canadian) and Chris Haslam (Australian) joined the expedition team not only for their technical diving and video skills but to help out with logistics. The expedition would take nothing less than a highly dedicated team to implement.
As family members and others connected to the vessel found out about the expedition the list of supporters was forever growing, thoughts and prayers flooded the team’s inbox. It had now become very personal for the team and failure was no longer an option.
PART TWO – coming soon