Stacy Davis Reporting
Fabled Military Ship Sinks To New Career
Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis may have passed away this weekend after her battle with breast cancer, but her legacy was living on Monday in a rusty old military ship docked on the Elizabeth River .
The General Hoyt S. Vandenberg is one of the many ships that Davis worked to clean up from the aging James River Fleet, a collection of x-military ships tied together in the waters just off Newport News . In a few months, the warship will be on its way to becoming a productive part of the economy and environment as an artificial reef in the Florida Keys .
That's exactly the kind of new life that Davis wanted to see for the ships. They are extremely expensive to scrap. The $5 million project to clean up the Vandenberg and sink here will hopefully come back in the way of tourism for Florida , where divers flock to the Keys to wreck dive and in educational opportunities. The ship will be outfitted with wireless transmitters that students can link into to learn about the fish and other inhabitants of the reef. Scientists will also be using the ship for study.
"These ships that have served so well in the war and then beyond the war are destined for scrap, projects like this artificial reef program gives at least some of them a chance at being productive," said James Connaughton, the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality and direct advisor to President Bush.
The Vandenberg isn't just a warship though. She was the first transport ship to return troops from the World War II and received much fanfare as she pulled into New York Harbor .
Archie Marconi was onboard when the ship was named General Taylor. The atomic bombs had just been dropped in Japan and they got word they would not be needed in the Pacific. Marconi remembers the joy he felt on her decks.
"Basically the fact that the war was over and we were going home and this ship was taking us home," said Marconi.
After it's war duty the ship became a rescue vessel, transporting refugees from Europe . Reinhold Kuska escaped the former Yugoslavia with his family in the 50's aboard Vandenberg.
"I'm really overwhelmed," said Kuska, standing on the deck for the first time since that cruise that took him to a new life in America . "It's unbelievable. I have not heard of this ship since I was on it when I was sixteen. When I came over here I didn't speak English. But soon after arriving I joined the Navy and maybe that had something to do with this ship. It was the first ship I'd ever been on."
After its days as a rescue ship, the Vandenberg became a spy ship, tracking Russian missiles and satellites. She also worked for NASA tracking the Mercury and Gemini space missions.
It was those distinctive satellite dishes that attracted Oscar-winning director John Bruno for his 1999 movie "Virus." The ship was perfect as a spooky Russian research ship infected by aliens, The movie starred Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland. It was shot in Newport News where the Vandenberg had been sitting rotting since 1984. Bruno saw her potential as a movie set, but had no idea of her illustrious career.
"I'm going to call it the Forrest Gump Junior of ships," said Bruno, who is now filming a documentary on the Vandenberg's final chapter. "It has this incredible history that I didn't even know."
Now that once-warship, once-rescue ship, once-spy ship, once-space ship, once-movie ship...will head for it's new role at the bottom of the ocean in Florida . Her sinking is set for May.