Returning crewman dives the Kittiwake

It had been 60 years since ex-crewman William McLenahan had seen the USS Kittiwake.

But he returned to snorkel the vessel in her new resting place in Grand Cayman.

“I’m 81 years old,” Mr. McLenahan said. “While I was in the US Navy, I served on the USS Kittiwake for two years and two months in 1951 to 1953 during the Korean War as an electronics technician, Second Class Petty Officer, and as an advanced undersea weapons man for acoustically-controlled torpedoes.

“When I was on board, the Kittiwake carried a crew of 107 total including seven officers – all mavericks who had worked their way up through the ranks. No US Naval Academy graduates from Annapolis.”

Mr. McLenahan explained that if a submarine was down, and could not get back up, the Kittiwake’s primary duty was to locate the sub, anchor over it, send deep-sea divers down to attach a cable to its escape trunk, send a diving bell down the cable to the sub’s escape hatch, and return the sub’s crew to the surface after repeated trips.

“The divers then attached heavy rubber hoses to the sub’s compartments. The Kittiwake carried large air compressors and huge compressed air tanks that forced air through the rubber hoses into the sub to displace water and re-float the sub.

“The Kittiwake’s various other duties included serving as a moving floating target for training submarines in firing torpedoes. The submarine would set the torpedoes to run deep so that they passed harmlessly beneath the ship. Even though not armed, a 21-feet long, 21-inch diameter, 2,100 pound dummy torpedo speeding at 21 knots would still do a lot of damage to a ship if it hit. Even though supposedly harmless, it was uncomfortable watching the boiling wake of the torpedo as it bored down on you. At the end of the torpedo’s run, it would float until we could retrieve it for re-use later,” recalled the seaman.

Following his time with the Kittiwake, Mr. McLenahan said, he graduated from the University of Illinois as an electrical engineer before rising to become principle product design engineer for Honeywell. He retired in June, 2000 at age 69.

Revisiting the vessel

And that was that, until the McLenahans heard on the Today Show that the Kittiwake was sunk off Grand Cayman as a dive wreck in January 2011.

“If we would have known in advance, we would have come down to watch her sink. We did watch the videos of her sinking on the Internet. It was a sad ending, but still better than just being cut up for scrap metal.

“I had not seen the Kittiwake since I was discharged from the US Navy in Norfolk on May 12, 1953 at the conclusion of my enlistment after three years, eight months, and 26 days.”

Wanting to see the vessel for himself, the McLenahans took a trip to the Cayman Islands in February, 2012, staying for a week at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort. As well as snorkelling the Kittiwake, adventures included Land Rover safari, the Island Helicopters Stingray Tour – including taking pictures of the Kittiwake from above, an Atlantis submarine dive and a glass-bottomed boat cruise with Seaworld Observatory.

“While on Grand Cayman, the personnel at Red Sail Sports at Grand Cayman Beach Suites, and especially James Dudley, were very helpful and accommodating in fitting me with swim fins, face mask with prescription lenses as I’m very near-sighted, snorkel tube and so on. I had detailed discussions with James about his concerns of the Kittiwake’s deck and compartment layouts, armaments, diving bell, crew’s quarters, helm locations, etc.

“The skipper and crew on the Calypso were also especially attentive to (possibly) their oldest passenger and diver. Their help with the diving gear, and getting me into and out of the water safely was also greatly appreciated,” Mr. McLenahan said.

As for Cayman itself, he has great memories of the time spent here.

“We were royally treated by everyone on the island,” he said. “We enjoyed our visit to Grand Cayman and the Kittiwake’s last resting place, but we were relieved to finally be back home.”

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