Did you know? The first American casualties in World War II following the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor occured when the US Coast Guard cutter Alexander Hamilton was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Iceland in January of 1942.
On August 12, 2013, over 60 years after the Alexander Hamilton sank, the Team Blue Immersions dive crew set out on a special expedition down to the wreck. Their mission: to affix a memorial plaque honoring those who were lost in the attack.
Alexander Hamilton and the US Coast Guard
The Alexander Hamilton’s keel was first laid on September 11, 1935 – the same date that the ships’s namesake was appointed as the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury in 1789. The cutter was sponsored by Mary Schuyler Hamilton, the great-great-granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton.
To this date, five ships named after Alexander Hamilton have served in the US Coast Guard. Which is not surprising considering that Alexander Hamilton is the founder of the US Coast Guard. In April of 1790, Alexander Hamilton drafted a report for Congress in which he outlined the construction and funding of revenue cutters (single-masted vesssels) to protect the coasts and guard against the smuggling of goods. His specifications were incorporated into the Funding Act of 1790, which was signed into law on August 4, 1790. This was the beginning of the US Coast Guard, then known as the Revenue-Marine and later the Revenue Cutter Service.
Alexander Hamilton’s involvement in the creation of the Revenue Cutter Service was so great that he addressed the most minute details, even down to the number of pistols, axes, and lanterns each ship should have. His letter of instructions to commanding officers proscribed exactly what was expected of them in their duty. Many of Hamilton’s protocol had remarkable durability; for example, the guidelines that he created for boarding foreign vessels were still being used during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.¹
Coast Guard Cutter Alexander Hamilton WPG-34 (1937)
Launched in 1937, the cutter was assigned to the Navy soon after the Pearl Harbor attack. Serving as an escort for a convey heading to Iceland, the Alexander Hamilton was torpedoed by German submarine U-132 on January 29, 1942. Twenty-six servicemen died from the attack on the Alexander Hamilton.
When the ship capsized the day following the attack, the ship was determined to be unsalvagable and sent to the bottom of the ocean. The first vessel to be sunk in the Atlantic during WWII, the Alexander Hamilton found its final resting place just 28 miles from the Icelandic coast.
Dive Expeditions to the Alexander Hamilton
And there the Alexander Hamilton lay undiscovered for close to sixty years. In June of 2011, Team Blue Immersion, a team of technical divers based in Dahab, Egypt, successfully dived down to the wreck for the very first time. The Alexander Hamilton lies upside down at 311 feet (95 meters) below sea level. This dive set three Icelandic diving records, including the record for deepest dive ever made in Iceland.
This month, Team Blue Immersion, along with the cooperation of Ocean Reef Inc set up a new dive expedition. This dive would be more than an exploration; the crew would attempt to attach a memorial plaque to the ship to honor those who died in the January 1942 attack. “Dives to a depth of 95 meters/311 feet present dangerous challenges. Extreme environmental conditions, a complex task of carrying and applying the memorial, and film equipment complicate this tenfold,” explains Erik Brown, one of the divers on the expedition.
Despite the challenges of the near hour-and-a-half dive, the Team Blue Immersion successfully attached the plaque on August 12th. “I think it is important closure to such an important story, not only in historical contexts, but also for the people who were left behind from such a tragedy,” says Jonas Samuelsson. Indeed, the Team has received many messages of support and gratitude from the families and friends of the Alexander Hamilton. Team Blue Immersion has plans for a documentary about the ship and the expedition to leave the memorial plaque.
A new Cutter Hamilton
Interestingly, this is not the only piece of recent news related to Alexander Hamilton and the Coast Guard. On August 10th, just two days before the Team Blue Immersion reached the 1937 Cutter Alexander Hamilton, a new US Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton was launched in the water for the first time. This ship will be the sixth cutter named after Alexander Hamilton. The AHA Society was contacted by the Coast Guard and informed that the formal christening ceremony will be held for the ship in October. Check back for more information.
Update (August 4, 2014): The Cutter Hamilton was christened on October 26, 2013 in Mississippi, with Alexander Hamilton’s 5th great-grandson Douglas Hamilton in attendance. Learn more about the christening ceremony and Douglas Hamilton’s participation in the article ” National security cutter Hamilton christened at Ingalls, ship honors father of Coast Guard” The Cutter will be commissioned on December 10, 2014 in Charleston, South Carolina. Representatives from the AHA Society will be in attendance for the commissioning ceremony.
Update (December 8, 2014): The President and Vice-President of the AHA Society attended the commissioning ceremony for the newest Cutter Hamilton on December 6th in Charleston, South Carolina. View the official AHA Society photo album from the ceremony and of the ship.
¹ Chernow, Alexander Hamilton. Pg 130.