Florida Keys News
Friday, June 7, 2013
Crew remembers working the 'Vandy'

During the Cold War, mariners aboard the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg ship were busy in far off seas tracking missiles both foreign and domestic.

The ship -- now the second-largest artificial reef in the world -- that rests in 140 feet of water 6 miles off Key West was once operated by a motley crew who described a Cold War less tense than one might think.

"We used to trade with the Russian sailors," John Gentry said with a smile Thursday afternoon at Kelly's Caribbean Bar, Grill Brewery, surrounded by fellow former Vandenberg mariners who meet annually in Key West to relive former glories.

Gentry was joined by Mack Monroe, as well as Chuck Garrison, in describing how those aboard the "Vandy" would place "treasure" such as Pall Mall cigarettes in Styrofoam packaging and attach a small weather balloon to it.

Their Russian counterparts would cruise up, retrieve the package and reset it with treasure of their own.

"Sometimes we got Russian watches or parts of a military uniform," Monroe said amid smiles around the bar.

Things may have been deadly tense in Moscow and Washington, D.C., but the sea was the great equalizer that brought the mariners together, at least when it came to their "treasure" exchanges, Monroe said.

"It was great, but we got some Air Force holy roller who fouled it up for everybody," Monroe recalled. "He brought all these Bibles on board and made it his mission to put Bibles in."

Monroe paused and put his hand up to signify the gravity of the operation.

"He kept saying that it was his duty to spread the message and this and that," Monroe said. "We all told him over and over that it wasn't a good idea, but he went and put a dozen or so Bibles (in a package) and that was it. The Russians didn't reset it. He ruined it for everybody."

The Vandenberg was rare in that it was a "Navy ship used by the Air Force that was operated mostly by civilians," Garrison said, adding that many on the crew were former military.

The gang started meeting in Key West every year when the Vandenberg was sunk in 2009.

The eldest is 89-year-old Jack James, who said: "I don't even go to the beach."

More than 45 years at sea was enough, he explained.

The draft beer was flowing, as were the stories about the "Vandy" and the men who operated the 522-foot ship.

"Maybe we'll get a bottle of something expensive for the last man standing," Monroe said of the group.

"Vertical! For the last man who remains vertical," Garrison yelled, pointing at his wheelchair amid more laughter.

"We'll keep meeting until there's none left," Monroe said.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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