THE LAST LANDING FOR USS TORTUGA

"VIEW OF SAN MIGUEL ISLAND"
AS VIEWED THRU PORT HOLE OF THE TT.

BY PETER C. HOWORTH (As Reprinted from Sea Magazine)

The mammoth ship looked like a hallucination. How could such a large vessel get stranded so close to shore, I wondered. Only a strong southeaster, coupled with exceptionally high tides, could account for the Landing Ship Dock lying within an easy stone's throw off the beach at San Miguel Island. And an even higher tide would be required to float the hulk clear, I surmised, as I turned my boat for home two days later, the manager of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Francesca Cava, asked if I would join her and representatives from the Navy and the National Park Service in an inspection of the wreck named USS Tortuga. All three agencies wanted me to take photographs of the ship for their files. We left that same day, crossing the channel in minutes by helicopter and landing on the ship itself. The stern had been literally torn off when the ship was driven ashore. Waves washed in and out of the hull, which lay broadside to the beach. Fortunately, no oil or fuel leaked from the shattered hulk; the vessel had been "sterilized" by the Navy. Even the brasswork had been salvaged.

This venerable ship, built in 1945, was fated to end its days as a floating target. But a powerful "Southeaster" had intervened December 15, 1987, and the ship went 'hard aground,' locked in the grip of a reef so shallow I could have walked to the wreck from shore without getting my feet wet. To seaward, the Omni present swell boomed against the steel flanks of the ship. Like its namesake, USS Tortuga was amphibious. Its huge, U-shaped hull was divided into ballast tanks, which could be flooded, allowing assault craft to motor out through the massive steel door in the stern. The tortured metal "creaked and groaned," and I could feel shudders passing through the vessel as I continued my inspection, "even this cold steel hulk had a soul."

Last summer, the Navy decided to salvage Tortuga. Although the National Park Service manages San Miguel, the Island is owned by the Navy, but the surrounding waters are controlled by various federal and state agencies, so the Navy decided it would be best to remove the ship piece by piece, the "superstructure" was removed and the largest part of the hull was patched. The ballast tanks were pumped dry, and Tortuga finally was pulled off the beach. About 20 miles out to sea, the ship was allowed to sink to its final resting-place. The "stern section" will be allowed to break up, then it will be removed also, leaving no traces of Tortuga's last landing.

Correction on this statement. According to a Diver that has visited the area on San Miguel Island where the Stern was located, parts of the ship still remain & they are easily accessible. CW

A special thanks to Mr. Howorth for this article. He was one of the first people to board the Tortuga shortly after her grounding. Mr. Howorth took the splendid documented color photographs of the Tortuga.

BEGINNING OF SALVAGE REPORT

The following is a condensed version of a 250 page
Official U S Navy Salvage Report that was sent to me by
a very generous contributor.

  • 15 Dec. 1987 Tortuga grounding at San Miguel Island.
  • 2/3 Feb. 1988 Wreck-site salvage survey and environmental
    assessment.
  • 6/9 June 1988 Mobilization of contractor vessels commences.
  • 26 June 1998 Contract vessels arrive at Port Hueneme.
  • 27 June 1988 Operations at wreck-site commence.
  • 6 July 1988 Fleet Divers arrive at San Miguel Island.
  • 10 July 1988 First barge load of scrap steel departs from,
    San Miguel Island.
  • 20 July 1988 Fleet Divers depart from work site.
  • 16 August 1988 Tests of patched/plumbed tanks completed.
  • 17 August 1988 Fifth and final barge load of scrap steel
    departs from San Miguel Island.
  • 18/19 August 1988 Rigging for pull on bow of Tortuga.
  • 19 August 1988 Navajo commences loading of salvage gear.
  • 20 August 1988 Tortuga fore section removed from strand
    by contract salvage vessel and towed to scuttle site.
  • 20 August 1988 Navajo released and demobilized.
  • 21 August 1988 "Scuttling" of Tortuga fore section at sea.
  • 21/22 August 1988 Contract vessels released from job.
  • 23 August 1988 Mission concludes; all remaining assets
    and Navy Command van demobilized.
  • THE GROUNDING

    The ex-USS TORTUGA (LSD 26) went aground on 15 December 1987 at Cardwell Point, on the Southeast corner of San Miguel Island off the coast of Southern California. The ship, carrying neither personnel nor cargo, was being towed from Port Hueneme to an area west of St. Nicholas Island where it was to be used for an operational Tomahawk missile exercise. The grounding occurred during a storm with winds blowing east-southeast to 50 knots and seas in excess of 20 feet. Impact of the grounding caused a 100-foot section of the stern to break off and fall free from the 355-foot fore section, which had been holed in numerous places and was impaled on a large boulder. Storm winds reached at least fifty knots with of seas over 6 m (20'). Original plans called for sinking the hulk, but because of the inclement weather this was not possible before it went aground. The vessel came to rest on a rock and sand shore approximately 1,500 m west of Cardwell Point on the South shore of the island, at 120 deg. 18'45" W; 34. deg. 01' 10 " N. It lies within the boundaries of Channel Island National Park, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, California Channel Islands International Biosphere Reserve, and San Miguel Island State Ecological Reserve.

    BREAKING THE STRAND

    At 1215 on 20 August, wires to the wreck were tightened and TORTUGA soon began to move. By 1330 the bow of TORTUGA had swung out from the beach and was afloat in 20 to 25 feet of water with the stern still aground. At 146 the vessel was completely free of strand and floating. Power for the pull was supplied entirely by the salvage vessel's two after winches. All four forward anchors held in place throughout the pull. Maximum pulling force was estimated to be approximately 180 tons or 160 LT.

    TOWING TO SEA AND SCUTTLING

    A 2400-HP SPARTAN-class tug was at the scene when TORTUGA was freed from the strand and immediately secured a towing line to the relocated vessel. Aboard TORTUGA were four salvage personnel, who cut the two wires connecting the wreck to the salvage vessel. The towing phase of the operation got underway at once, while the "ARCTIC SALVOR" remained at the site long enough to pull in wires, pick up the four anchors and remove kelp. The at-sea dump site for TORTUGA was approximately 20 miles from San Miguel Island. It had been hoped that the tow and subsequent sinking of the wreck at the dumpsite could be accomplished the same day, 20 August, before dark. Daylight was needed for this final phase of the salvage operation to ensure safe removal of the four people aboard the wreck and to provide adequate light for photographic documentation. However, timing was such that the vessels arrived at the site at 2200, well after dark and simply circled the area at slow speed until daylight, 21 August. The well being of the personnel aboard TORTUGA had been attended to with supplies of food, blankets, lights, life jackets, and survival suits.

    On the morning of 21 August, the helicopter arrived at 0814 and began lifting the compressors off the wreckage, completing the equipment liftoff. At 0850a rubber Zodiac was dispatched from the ARCTIC SALVOR to come alongside the wreck. Two person's left TORTUGA at this time and two remained aboard, one positioned at the bow and the other at the stern. At 0910, lines from the tug to the TORTUGA were released, moving rapidly toward the middle of the vessel, the two remaining salvage personnel opened the valves to let the air bleed off from the tanks. As soon as all valves were open the final two salvors boarded the Zodiac and pulled away from the wreck.

    At 0925 21 August 1988 the ex USS TORTUGA (LSD 26) disappeared below the surface of the Pacific Ocean Forever...


    Tortuga Grounded on San Miguel