USS Vammen Background
The USS Vammen is a Buckley-class Destroyer Escort that was sunk off of the “backside” of San Clemente Island. The wreck was first discovered by the UB88 team in August 2010 and the first divers on the wreck were John Walker and Kendall Raines and Scott Brooks as a safety diver.
The Vammen was built in 1943 by the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in San Francisco, California and launched on May 21, 1944. The Vammen was assigned to the Pacific Fleet as was initially stationed Pearl Harbor and worked on perfecting anti-submarine warfare and escort duties.
Destroyer Escorts are, well, as the name says, designed to “escort” and provide safety for other ships. This means they need to be heavily armed and be able to maneuver and move fast. The Vammen had a length of 300 feet and a beam of about 37 feet and the top speed was 24 knots.
The Vammen served in WW II and the Korean War. She was heavily modified for the Korean War to perform a specialized anti-submarine warfare role. As part of that role, she had a redesigned bridge and forward firing anti-submarine projectors nicknamed “hedgehogs.” It had long been a goal to get pictures of the hedgehogs. I had seen video that Ben Lair shot and they are very cool looking. Unfortunately, I started my dive at the stern and never made it forward enough to photograph them (more on that later).
The Vammen was later used in a lot of training exercises and even appeared in a few movings. She was used as a Navy Reserve Training ship and then de-commissioned and placed “in service” in June 1960. During the cold war she was reactivated and decommissioned in Long Beach. She continued to serve various roles in the Pacific during 1961-1962 and the resumed her role as a Navy Reserver Training ship from 1962-1971.
Condor Missile Testing
She was stripped and utilized as a target for the Condor Air-to-Surface missile test on Feb 4, 1971 and sank on 18 Feb as a result of the damage suffered during the testing. The Condor was a guided missile that the operator could use a television picture from the launching aircraft to direct the warhead.
Below are photographs of the Condor missile strike from the UB88.org site. The photos are attributed to the US Navy by G. Edwards and provided by Capt. Billy J. Adams, SC, USNR, Retd and Paul Nitchman. Note the extensive damage on the port side in the photo on the left below.
Typical Destroyer Escort Layout
As a reference point, below is a diagram of the layout for a typical Destroyer Escort.
Kevin Bond and I geared up on the Sundiver Express and hit the water right around 9am. Ray had put the downline on the stern. Our plan was a 5-6 minute descent, 15 minutes on the wreck and then about 90+ minutes of deco. We both had scooters and I had my camera setup.
Handling a scooter and a separate camera setup is a PITA. I definitely need to come up with a better plan and I’m working on that. For this dive, I would scooter along, take some photos, swim a bit more, take some photos, scooter a bit, take photos, etc. All the while dropping and picking up either the scooter or the camera.
Because of our limited bottom time (and the time involved in taking photos), we only really visited the stern area of the ship and I never made it far enough forward to photograph the hedgehogs. Kevin didn’t want to leave me alone for too long so he kindly didn’t scooter off and he only saw the back half as well. I guess this means we just need to return to visit the front half.
The total runtime of the dive ended up being 2 hours and 25 minutes due to my deco stops being 10 feet below the indicated stop (including the last stop at 20 feet instead of 10) and due to some extra deco time.
I also started testing using a climbing ascender to leave tanks on the downline. In Southern California, due to unpredictable conditions and other factors, we generally take all of our tanks with us on the dive and don’t leave them on the downline. The benefit to this approach is that you always have all the gas you need to bailout no matter what — even if you can’t get back to the downline. The downside is bulk and complexity of tanks on the dive. Kevin had four bailout tanks and I had three. Below is a picture of Kevin of the stern of the wreck (the fourth bailout tank is on his right side and you can’t see it in this picture).
I had left a climbing ascender clipped to the line on the descent and then on the ascent during deco, I clipped off my 40 cu ft tank of O2 to see how it would do as the line moved around. The results were good and I’m continuing to think about ways to streamline diving while ensuring safety. I’ll be posting more about that in the future.
As a reference guide to the photos, I’ve included two historical photos below with photo numbers in round bubbles that show the location from where the photos were taken. I haven’t tried this before, so hopefully it helps orient the reader to the location.
Photo 1 – 3″/50 Caliber Stern Mounted Gun
Photo 2 – Kevin passing by the tower
Photo 3 – Heading around the platform towards the bow
Photo 4 – Headed towards the tower
Photo 5 – Looking upwards to the tower
Photo 6 – Starboard side davit
Photo 7 – Collage of the gaping hole caused by the Condor missile and a generator (?) inside the ship
Photo 8 – Bridge from the port side
Photo 9 – Looking toward the bow with the 3″/50 cal gun in front
Photo 10 – Depth Charge Racks (at the stern)
Photo 11 – Kevin of the stern heading back to the downline for our long decompression schedule
Photo 12 – One last look at the depth charge racks as we start our ascent up the line
I owe a huge debt of thanks to Ray, Kyaa, and Craig at Sundiver. As I mentioned in my previous post, and it bears repeating, it takes a lot of skill, experience and knowledge to get divers safely in and out of the water on 300+’ dives. There are very few dive operations I would conduct these type of dives with.
Kevin Bond for being a great dive partner. He was patient as I stopped and took detailed photos. It meant that we both didn’t get to see the whole wreck and he stayed close while I took photos. We’ll get back to see the front half sooner or later….
A special thanks to my wife for supporting my ambitions and dreams.