Kendall Raine
Kendall Raine at the base of the main mast of USS Vammen (DE-644).
Photo by John Walker

USS Vammen (DE-644)
Buckley Class Destroyer Escort
Found off San Clemente Island

Dive Report
by Kendall Raine

Diving a newly discovered wreck is a special feeling. When the wreck is deep and remote, the thrill of adventure is that much greater.

On Sunday August 1, 2010, John Walker and I had just such an opportunity. With the help of Scott Brooks, who generously elected to give up his chance to dive the wreck so he could act as our safety diver, we dove the wreck of the USS Vammen (DE-644), a Buckley Class Destroyer Escort which saw service in WWII, Korea and Vietnam before ending her career as a target vessel off San Clemente Island in 1971 as part of the Navy’s Condor Missile testing program.

USS Vammen before missile strike
USS Vammen a millisecond before missile strike by Condor AGM-53A (4-FEB-1971)
Official US Navy photograph by G. Edwards.
Photo courtesy of Capt. Billy J. Adams, SC, USNR, Retd

USS Vammen missile impact
Explosion and fireball immediately after missile impact (4-FEB-1971)
Official US Navy photograph by G. Edwards.
Photo courtesy of Paul Nitchman QM2 on USS Vammen (1961-62)

USS Vammen after missile strike
Damage inflicted to Vammen by Condor AGM-53A missile strike (4-FEB-1971)
Official US Navy photograph by G. Edwards.
Photo courtesy of Capt. Billy J. Adams, SC, USNR, Retd

In December 2009, Gary Fabian located a possible wreck site with the aid of multibeam sonar data for San Clemente Island, CA. The following month Capt. Ray Arntz confirmed the existence of a large wreck at this location with side scan sonar. From Ray’s side scan images, we knew the wreck was completely intact and upright. The side scan indicated approximately 300-310 feet LOA with superstructure and deck features clearly discernible. Several months of archival research was required to positively determine the identity of this ship. The documentation is very specific and we believe without question that the wreck is the USS Vammen. Physical inspection of the site confirms the wreck as a Buckley Class DE.

Side Scan Sonar Image of USS Vammen (DE-644)
Side scan sonar image of USS Vammen (DE-644) at San Clemente Island, CA. The ship is intact and upright on the seabed. Her main mast can be seen protruding into the water column indicating a list to starboard. Image by Capt. Ray Arntz.

In a year where the weather has made offshore exploration an exercise in frustration, we left Seal Beach on glass smooth seas and averaged over 26 knots over to San Clemente Island. The sun was poking its way through the morning haze as we arrived on site. Despite green water on top, we hoped for clear conditions at depth. Ray dropped the down line and John and I geared up. There was slight surface current running as we dropped into the water and scootered over to the down line. Our descent took about 4 minutes during which the visibility finally opened up below 200 feet. Brown and white basket sponges came into view about 40 feet above the wreck. As our lights found the ship it exploded in the familiar covering of pink corynactis and sponges on a base of greenish brown encrustation. As usual, Ray put the down line exactly where we asked him to-off the port side just aft of amidships.

We came in at main deck level. I looked up and could see superstructure silhouette against a featureless green background. I banked left and motored half throttle at deck level along the side of the ship. John scootered inboard flying a couple of feet over the main deck. I looked back over my shoulder and saw him cruising 15 feet behind and to my right underneath overhanging features of the superstructure. With his twin 35 watt lights attached to the video mounted on the front of his scooter, it looked like there was a car following me around. Excellent. The dive was going exactly as planned; we were dialed and in the groove. As we continued forward a large section of the main deck disappeared revealing a massive generator and interior features of the ship. We had obviously found the entry point of the Condor missile. The hull was blown away down to the water line and the interior destruction testament to the power of the ordnance. My guess is the missile went in just forward of the single stack.

Port Hedgehog USS Vammen
Port Hedgehog
Photo by John Walker

I cranked the scooter’s nose up and ascended the forward edge of the impact area, riding up onto the deck just below the bridge. Ahead of me was a large rectangular box like structure I recognized as the port side Hedgehog. The Hedgehogs were a mortar based ASW system added to the vessel in exchange for its second 3”/50 gun mount. As I looked forward from the Hedgehog platform I could see the forward 3" mount. The main armament on the Buckley Class boats were 3 3”/50 caliber guns. These were unshrouded, as opposed to guns on other DE, DD and larger class capital ships. As with the USS Burns, the barrel and breach of the gun was richly covered in corynactis.

Bow of USS Vammen
Kendall examines the bow of Vammen. Note the large barrel sponge on the bow chock.
Photo by John Walker

Bow of USS Vammen
The razor thin bow of the Vammen looking aft.
Photo by John Walker

As I approached the bow, I was amazed to see a beautiful large barrel sponge perched atop the railing at the very tip of the bow. Perfectly symmetric, the sponge looked like some kind of whimsical nautical adornment from the days when warships still carried an element of artistic expression in their design. The bow of a DE is razor thin, and flying past the bow and turning around presented an excellent view of the narrow beamed ship. John was close behind so I moved out of the shot and headed down the starboard rail back towards the bridge. Climbing up the starboard side I flew past the bridge and was amazed by the narrowness of the deck hatches. I knew DE’s were compact, but clearly crew comfort was an afterthought to Vammen’s designers.

Stern of USS Vammen
The stern of Vammen covered in corynactis and barrel sponges.
Photo by John Walker

Heading aft, I flew along the deck looking for the triple mid-ship mounted torpedo launchers. These I did not find and it’s possible they were removed either as part of a refit or simply in preparation of the vessel as a target ship. I then dropped down to main deck level and flew under the overhang of the starboard 40mm gun tub. The fantail came up quickly as I flew through a thick cloud of fish and out over the stern. Like the Burns, the stern of Vammen is heavily encrusted and covered with sponges. The ship’s rudders were visible below and a large mooring chain extends down the stern and off into the sand. As John flew by I headed forward again, up and over the aft facing 3 inch gun and along the deck of the port side. From the barrel of the aft facing gun sprouted a pair of sponges- a perfect visual metaphor of the transformation of Vammen from weapon to garden.

Aft Deck Gun of USS Vammen
Vammen's aft 3"/50 caliber gun.
Photo by John Walker

Time came to complete our circuit. As I looked up for the silhouette of the down line, I was treated to the outline of the ship’s mast again, shrouded in fish and back-lit against the light green of the shallower depths. I scootered up and around the mast as John stayed low and shot up. Figuring we’d passed the up line, we headed aft again and found the poly pro line, starting our ascent right at 15 minutes.

Scott met us at 70 feet with back-up deco gas and took John’s scooter so he could get some video of both of us hanging out. We then started handing Scott used deco bottles. The water warmed up as the visibility dropped from 70 feet to less than 20 and we wound up an uneventful hang to complete our ascent into bright sunshine and a light swell. Getting back aboard Sundiver II was a breeze as our rigs were winched aboard and we slithered onto the swim step.

USS Vammen Video by John Walker