I stepped off the rear of the dive boat into the water, grabbed onto a line that ran towards the front of the boat and pulled myself to the mooring ball line.
Letting the air out of my buoyancy control device (a jacket that helps divers float at the surface or control their buoyancy under water) I slowly descended, hand-over-hand, down the mooring ball line.
It was the kind of day the chamber of commerce dreams up — light breeze, flat sea, amazing underwater visibility and no current.
I had been waiting for this dive for some time. We were doing back-to-back dives on the USCG Cutter Bibb and USCG Cutter Duane.
I pulled down and down and down. Finally, as I approached the port (left side) railing, which lies 95 feet below the surface, the shape of the Bibb came into view. I was near the stern. Another mooring ball is located near the bow. The ship lies on its starboard (right side) in about 130 ft. of seawater.
Turning on my underwater light I finned past a hatchway leading to a corridor, decades ago filled with men scurrying to battle stations as the klaxon called, populated with all manner of fish, big and small.
The Bibb was among a group of cutters or “327's” famous for peace time and wartime service during World War II, Korea and Vietnam providing naval gunfire and search-and-rescue support, fighting off German U-boats, rescuing survivors from torpedoed convoy ships, and serving as amphibious task force flagships.
Built in the Charleston Navy Yard, the Bibb was launched on January 14, 1937 and commissioned on March 10, 1937. She was sunk as an artificial reef near Molasses Reef on November 28,1987.
Her sister ship, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Duane, born six months earlier, was intentionally sunk as an artificial reef about ½ mile from the Bibb on November 27, 1987.
According to naval historian John M. Waters, Jr., the cutters were America’s “maritime workhorses.”
“The 327’s battled, through the ‘Bloody Winter’ of 1942-43 in the North Atlantic–fighting off German U-boats and rescuing survivors from torpedoed convoy ships. They went on to serve as amphibious task force flagships, as search-and-rescue (SAR) ships during the Korean War, on weather patrol, and as naval gunfire support ships during Vietnam. Most recently, these ships-that-wouldn’t-die have done duty in fisheries patrol and drug interdiction. Built for only $2.5 million each, in terms of cost effectiveness we may never see the likes of these cutters again.”
The Bibb was under the command of Commander Roy L. Raney when German submarines were torpedoing allied convoys. A former officer who served on the Bibb, Henry C. Keene, Jr., noted:
“Raney was a leader. Men felt it the minute he took command and there was not a man on the ship who would not go the extra mile for the old man. The confidence the crew had in their captain seem to be reflected in his pride and confidence in his crew.”
The confidence paid off.
On 7 February 1943, the German submarine U-402 torpedoed the troopship SS Henry Mallory as it straggled behind the convoy. Lookouts aboard the Bibb sighted the Mallory’s lifeboats. Captain Raney disobeying an order to stay with the convoy directed the Bibb’s crew to rescue survivors.
While another cutter, the USS Ingham, assisted with the operation many of the Bibb’s crewmen leapt into the water to rescue the nearly frozen survivors, One of the Ingham’s crew described the scene:
“I never saw anything like it, wood all over the place and bodies in life jackets…never saw so many dead fellows in my whole life. Saw lots of mail bags, boxes, wood, wood splinters, empty life jackets, oars, upturned boats, empty life rafts, bodies, parts of bodies, clothes, cork, and a million other things that ships have in them. I hope I never see another drowned man as long as I live.”
Over half of the Mallory’s 498 passengers and crew died from hypothermia. But, the crew of the Bibb’s crew saved 202 survivors and the Ingham’s crew saved 33.
The Bibb then saved another 33 lives of the crew of the nearby SS Kalliopi, which had also been torpedoed, before returning to the convoy.
Later in World War II the Bibb was retrofitted and was assigned to the Pacific where she participated in the assault on Okinawa.
During the Pacific war, numerous attacks were made upon her without significant damage. She received credit for her successful shooting of a Japanese aircraft.
After the war, while the Bibb was stationed out of Boston, another notable lifesaving event occurred on October 13, 1947.
An overloaded American International Airway’s Boeing 314 Flying Clipper Boat, the Bermuda Sky Queen, was traveling from Ireland to Newfoundland in heavy wind. As the winds increased, the aircraft’s captain realized he would not be able to reach land and decided to land the plane as close to a Coast Guard vessel as possible to facilitate rescue.
The Bibb, serving as a weather ship, came to the plane's rescue saving the 62 passengers and crew. (For a Civil Aeronautics Board accident report see: http://www.rbogash.com/NC18612%20Accident%20Report.html)
On September 30, 1985, after a 50-year illustrious career, including service in Vietnam, the Bibb was decommissioned. Two years later she and USCG Duane were purchased by Monroe County to be included as part of the Florida Keys Artificial Reef program.
To ready her for her final mission she was cleaned, and her mast, armaments and hatches were removed.
Then, after the Army Corps of Engineers authorized her final resting place, the USCG Bibb was scuttled.
Because only a limited number of divers visit the Bibb, she has retained a relatively pristine condition. And, the marine life is excellent. During my dive, I saw large groupers, a bull shark, barracuda and all manner of other tropical fish.
Diving on the Bibb can be difficult. Only experienced divers with proper training, certification and equipment should dive on the ship.
The current is often strong. Divers have said that they felt like flags blowing in the wind when descending or ascending the mooring lines. The side orientation of the vessel can cause divers to become disoriented – especially if penetration is attempted. Because a replica of the Bibb, the USCG Cutter Duane, lies less than half a mile away, many divers choose to dive on the Duane, which is in an upright position making her more accessible and safe.
If you are not a SCUBA diver you can, without getting wet, visit a preserved cutter, the USCGC Ingham (WHEC-35), in Key West. The Ingham was the most decorated vessel in the Coast Guard fleet and the only cutter to ever be awarded two Presidential Unit Citations. (https://www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/ingham_wpg_35.asp)
The USCG Bibb was credited with saving over 600 lives during her illustrious career. She now provides refuge as an artificial reef to the marine life that lives in and around her. Diving on the Bibb is an awe-inspiring event that brings to mind her outstanding career, the brave servicemembers that served on her, and the folks who had the foresight to preserve her as an artificial reef in the Upper Keys.
For more on the USCG Cutter Bibb see: http://www.florida-keys-vacation.com/USCG-Bibb.html or http://uscgcbibb.com/
A history of the USCG Cutter Duane can be found at: https://www.uscg.mil/history/webcutters/Duane_WPG_33.asp
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.