Soviets, space shuttles – Kittiwake has seen it all

When John Morgan and his wife Toni
originally booked their trip to Grand Cayman, it was both a 20th anniversary
treat and to pay a fond farewell to Mr. Morgan’s old Navy ship, the USS
Kittiwake, which was due to be sunk this week to form an artificial reef off
Seven Mile Beach.

Mr. Morgan last saw the Kittiwake
on 14 November, 1986 – the day he was discharged from the Navy. The ship was
being overhauled at a yard in South Carolina at the time. Several years later,
he and Toni were on vacation near Virginia Beach, close to his home port. The
sailor asked if he could visit the Kittiwake but was told she had been
decommissioned and scrapped and they’d “made razor blades out of it”.

He said he never gave it another
thought until a few months ago when his wife found information online about the
planned artificial reef project.

“We got very excited about that.
Once we found out that they were going to sink the ship – April – we took scuba
diving lessons so we could see the sinking and go and dive it. We just got our
licenses two weeks ago and here we are,” he said.

However, the sinking of the ship
was postponed at the last minute due to issues with possible banned chemicals
in the sealant of various gaskets. A programme of events to accompany the
sinking was put off until after hurricane season, with a date to be announced
by project leaders Cayman Islands Tourism Association in due course.

“At first we were very
disappointed. Then panic mode set in when we were deciding to re-book or cancel.
There were heavy cancellation fees, too, so we thought we’d still come down and
still dive – it’s not as if we’ve missed the sinking, it’s just been postponed.
The big question is if we can save enough money to come back when it is sunk,
but that should be OK.

“There’s a lot of people I’ve lost
touch with over the years – good, good friends. I’ve been going on the internet
and made contact with some people. I was looking forward to catching up with
them. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen during this trip, but I
certainly hope to see some old friends when the sinking does happen. One of
them is living in Miami now, which is a little hop, skip and a jump,” said Mr.

Soviet spy ship

But the memories came flooding back
despite the postponement. On one occasion, recounted the sailor, his ship towed
a submarine from the United States to Scotland, officially to take a team of
scientists to study tilefish.

“A good friend of mine, a radio man
who was privy to information, said that what we were actually doing was
changing the location of the US boxes on the ocean floor that monitored Soviet
submarine activity. They had been compromised by the spy John Walker, who had given
the Soviets all kinds of information.

“While we were out there, the ship
was on the surface circling while the submarine was doing its bit down below.
Just like a James Bond movie, we heard commotion on deck, where we saw this
fishing boat with antennas all over – a Russian spy ship.

“Then, out of nowhere, an American
combat submarine surfaced between that boat and my ship, and another American
ship, a fast frigate, came steaming over the horizon and made its presence
known. Shortly after that, the Russian spy boat vacated the area. That was
pretty intense. I was eighteen or nineteen years old and it’s something that
will stand out in my mind forever,” recalled Mr. Morgan.

Space Shuttle

The Kittiwake was also part of the
task force that salvaged the remains of the Challenger Space Shuttle, which
exploded 73 seconds into its flight on 28 January, 1986.

“We’d just come back from salvaging
an air force F-15 that had crashed in about 300 feet of water. We salvaged
about 98 per cent of that plane – the Navy divers are the best-trained,
best-equipped and top notch.”

With typically near-the-knuckle
forces humour, Mr Morgan said that the standing joke at the time was that the 2
per cent they couldn’t salvage was the pilot. The Challenger salvage mission,
however, was a different matter entirely.

“When we salvaged the air force
jet, we were all taking photos of the wreckage that we brought up and laid on
the deck. But when we brought up the Space Shuttle, that was off limits. I
don’t have a single picture of that,” he said.

Another memorable moment, continued
Mr. Morgan, was when a technical error led to the ship being wired – in
layman’s terms – with reverse and forward gears topsy-turvy. The Kittiwake subsequently
ran backwards into a submarine – ironic indeed for a rescue vessel.

No regrets

Since leaving the navy, Mr. Morgan,
who works as a heavy diesel mechanic in Connecticut, said he has had various
careers but all have been in some way connected to his Navy training as a
diesel mechanic. He credited his time in the forces as giving him much-needed
direction and focus and for teaching him about life.

“Over the years I occasionally
regretted not staying in the Navy, but then again, I came home, met my wife
Toni, and we’ve got two wonderful kids and we’re vacationing in Grand Cayman,
so life has been very good to me,” he said.

The couple arrived on Friday, 23
July, and their story was picked up by the local business community, many of
whom offered free excursions, scuba diving and more in celebration of the couple’s
20th anniversary.

“We were very warmly greeted at the
airport by someone from the Cayman Islands Tourism Association, brought to the
hotel and introduced to a lot of complimentary things, like passes to local
attractions which we’ve been taking advantage of. It’s been absolutely

“Everybody that we’ve
encountered has been super-friendly, super-helpful and I couldn’t ask for more.
It’s been an outstanding vacation. It’s been above and beyond any expectation
that we had prior to coming down here. Stingray City and our scuba-diving excursions
have been our favourites. We went to Guy Harvey’s and the Lobster Pot, where
Gunter the owner greeted us personally. We had a fantastic meal and watched
them feed the tarpon, which was pretty exciting. Every bit of the trip has been
first-class,” said Mr. Morgan, who is already looking forward to returning when
the Kittiwake is sunk after hurricane season.

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