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The Spiegel Grove Wreck


The American sailors who served aboard the U.S. Navy's Spiegel Grove from 1956 to 1989 participated in some of the major military missions of the Cold War and formed friendships that would endure their entire lives.

Life was difficult in the cramped quarters aboard a U.S. Navy Landing Ship Dock (LSD), that ferried troops and amphibious landing craft to regional hot spots during the United States' Cold War with the Soviet Union. But looking back, most crew members said they would not trade their time aboard the Spiegel Grove.

The Navy brass knew the ship as LSD 32, but the first crew affectionately nicknamed the vessel the Spiegel Eagle. Later crews dubbed the ship the Spiegel Beagle. On a passageway floor, near the ship's barbershop, they painted a cartoon picture of Charles Schultz's Snoopy riding an alligator and inscribed the words "Top Dog" over it. The motto expressed the crew's goal of making the Spiegel Grove the best-run ship among the Navy's fleet of "amphib" transport vessels.

"When we were on board, we moaned all the time," said Kevin Flatley, a Spiegel Grove radar operator from 1980 to 1983. "But I've been to a boatload of countries and made lifetime friends," Flatley maintains a Web site dedicated to the Spiegel Grove and the sailors who served on the ship at .

When the Navy decommissioned the ship in 1989, and sent it to the U.S. "mothballed" fleet Virginia's James River, most crewmembers figured the ship would become scrap metal. They were heartened to learn that the ship was intentionally scuttled off Key Largo, June 10, 2002, as the world's largest, intentionally-cultivated artificial reef.

"I lived on the Spiegel Grove for a year and a half. I never thought I'd get to see my ship again," said Mike Dorney, an avid scuba diver who was a radar operator on the Spiegel Grove from 1988 to 1989. Dorney, who now lives in Gainesville, Fla., plans to dive on his old ship as soon as he can. "You can dive hundreds of wrecks, but you can't imagine diving on a wreck you lived on," Dorney said.

The Spiegel Grove was part of a fleet of amphibious transport ships that enforced America's Cold War strategy of containment. The strategy called for countering the influence of the Soviet Union by ferrying troops around the globe in "fast squadrons" that could rush to the aid of friendly governments.

The Spiegel Grove was named for the Fremont, Ohio, estate of Rutherford B. Hayes, who served as president of the United States from 1877 to 1881. The ship was built by Ingalls Shipbuilding Corp. of Pascagoula, Miss. For decades, the Spiegel Grove would steam out from its homeport of Little Creek, Va., to pick up troops and amphibious landing craft at ports such as Panama City, Fla.; Charleston, S.C.; and Morehead City, N.C.

While in port, the crew would turn on powerful pumps to draw seawater into ballast tanks at the stern of the Spiegel Grove. The weight of the water would submerge the vessel's pickup-truck-like well deck. Technicians would lower a door at the vessel's stern and float aboard diesel-powered landing craft. In the 1970s, the Spiegel Grove was one of the first ships to carry futuristic amphibious hovercraft that rode on cushions of air. Once the landing craft were safely tied down, the technicians would reverse the pumps to flush out the water. The Spiegel Grove also was built with a helicopter pad to accommodate small choppers for surveillance missions or to take VIPs to and from shore.

The Navy called the ship into action shortly after its maiden voyage in 1956 to enforce the anti-Communist "Eisenhower Doctrine." Crewmember Ralph Armstrong served on the ship from June 1956 to November 1957. He recalls steaming to Beirut, Lebanon, in 1957. A year later, the United States would land Marines in Lebanon to support the pro-American government there against insurgents supported by Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt.

In 1962, the Spiegel Grove cruised the Caribbean to serve as one of the emergency rescue ships during the re-entry of the second U.S. orbital space flight. The ship was in the region when Cmdr. Scott Carpenter's Aurora 7 spacecraft splashed down safely 1,000 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral. The Carpenter mission was significant because it came on the heels of John Glenn's successful orbital flight. It marked a shift in the momentum of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In 1971, Navy brass dispatched the Spiegel Grove to the Samoa islands of the Pacific south to assist with the splashdown of Apollo 14.

In 1976, the Spiegel Grove returned to the waters off Beirut to evacuate hundreds of Americans and foreign nationals during the escalating civil war there.

In 1982, the Spiegel Grove steamed to Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Fla., to pick up a small helicopter equipped with a surveillance camera, Flatley recalled. It then steamed to the Caribbean where the helicopter was dispatched to photograph the island nation of Grenada.

In 1983, the United States invaded Grenada, citing a request from the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. U.S. officials charged Cuba and the Soviet Union with turning the island into an offensive military outpost. Even during the height of the Cold War, crewmembers of the Spiegel Grove were occasionally allowed a break from the tension.

Retired Navy Capt. Craig Armstrong recalls the "old man," as the crew called the captain, ordering the ship to a dead stop during an Atlantic Ocean crossing in 1972. It was a swim call. "You posted guys with M-16s to look for sharks and then jumped into the water to cool off," Armstrong said. Armstrong also enjoyed tossing a baseball with his friends on the well deck. It reminded him of playing catch with his dad back in the Midwest. He said his brother-in-law is a diver who looks forward to seeing the well deck underwater.

The Spiegel Grove never came under hostile fire, but it had two brushes with potential calamity. In the early 1980s, the Spiegel Grove and its squadron mate, the U.S.S. Inchon, were steaming side-by-side when they collided. The impact all but destroyed one of two Spiegel Grove 50-ton loading cranes.

In 1976, the Spiegel Grove was anchored in Augusta Bay, Italy, when a merchant ship broke loose from its anchorage during a rain squall and bumped into the Spiegel Grove's bow, causing minor damage. Not all incidents were so dire. Flatley recalls the Spiegel Grove getting stuck in the mud while in Charleston, S.C. The ship's ballast pumps had sucked an assortment of silt and slime, and the well deck sank to the bottom. Crewmembers climbed into the murky ballast tanks to clean them before refloating the vessel. The crew aboard a nearby destroyer razzed the Spiegel Grove men mercilessly.

"We took care of that later, but that's beside the point," Flatley declared. "The Spiegel Grove was our ship and we were proud."

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More information on the Spiegel Grove and links to Key Largo visitor information are available on this website. Visitors are encouraged to contact the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, at 1-800-FLA-KEYS, Ext. 1. Elsewhere, dial 305-451-1414.

Contact: Andy Newman

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