Oro Verde’s Untold Story
Before the sinking of the Ex Uss Kittiwake, Grand Cayman’s goto wreck dive was hands down the Oro Verde. At first glance, the wreck might seem to be a a pile of twisted metal and rust, scattered across the sandy bottom of Paradise Reef. But wait, if you dive a little deeper you’ll find that theres a lot more to this pile of metal than meets the eye.
Originally built for the US Army Transportation Corps, the FS-217 left it’s dry dock at Higgins Industries in New Orleans and was delivered to the Army Air Forces where she was named the Colonel Armond Peterson. After spending 11 years doing costal surveys off the Lesser Antilles and Central America, the Colonel Armond Peterson was placed in reserve on the 17th of February, 1956. Shortly there after, the 181 foot ship was acquired by the U.S. Navy and was renamed the USS Palm Beach. She was converted to a Banner class “environmental research ship (AGER-3)” at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and commissioned into service on May 13, 1967. The USS Palm Beach was deployed to the North Sea and also toured the Mediterranean during its two-year career with the U.S. Navy. Technical research ships were used by the Navy to gather intelligence and intercept wireless communications from hostile nations during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s. The USS Palm Beach was the sister ship of the USS Pueblo, which was captured by North Korea while spying off its coast on Jan. 23, 1968, and remains a captive vessel today.
The USS Pueblo was engaged in a routine surveillance of the North Korean coast when it is intercepted by North Korean patrol boats. According to U.S. reports, the Pueblo was in international waters almost 16 miles from shore, but the North Koreans turned their guns on the lightly armed vessel and demanded its surrender. The Americans attempted to escape, and the North Koreans opened fire, wounding the commander and two others. With capture inevitable, the Americans stalled for time, destroying the classified information aboard while taking further fire. Several more crew members were wounded.
The capture of the “Pueblo” compromised the missions and technical equipment used by other AGER “research ships” such as the USS Palm Beach making the Palm Beach useless and shortly there after was decommissioned and struck from the Naval Registry. The vessel was passed through the hands of a few owners before eventually being acquired by a Panamanian company and renamed the “M/V Oro Verde”.
Below is the propaganda video sold by the North Koreans at the site of the captured USS Pueblo.
Over the next ten years, the M/V Oro Verde spent her days hauling bananas from Ecuador to Miami, hence the name Oro Verde or “Green Gold”. The bananas were loaded while they were still green, eventually ripening and turning yellow just as they reached the loading docks in Miami.
Local legend has it that bananas weren’t the only cargo of value carried by the Oro Verde. Stories of a mutiny over a load of marijuana found by the crew have been told by scuba diving enthusiasts since her sinking in 1980. Although it’s difficult to say with any certainty if there is truth in the story, we did stumble across an article published by the Miami Herald that would lend credence to her and her crew being up to no good. It seems that someone wanted to sink her years before her date with destiny at the bottom of Grand Cayman’s crystal clear waters.
The Miami Herald
Cigar Box Bomb Attached to Ship
By Gene Miller
Herald Staff Writer
A homemade bomb in a cigar box, attached by a magnet to the hull of a British cargo ship, failed to explode at the Miami City Docks Tuesday – apparently because an undersea bomber didn’t set it correctly. “It should have gone off,” said Capt. Tom Brodie, chief of the Sheriff’s office bomb squad.
The ship the 180-foot 692-ton Oro Verde, was due to sail late in the day for a five-day trip to Cristobal, Panama. From there, after unloading, its normal route takes it through the Panama Canal to Ecuador.
“We don’t have the slightest idea why anyone would want to blow up our ship, ” said Robert Trost, operations manager for Chester, Blackburn & Roder Inc., Miami agents.
Horace Barron, a crane operator loading general cargo, first noticed something peculiar attached to the hull several feet below the water line.
“He’d looked at it for a couple of hours and didn’t know what to think,” said Bob Kretzschmar, a sheriff’s deputy assigned to docks.
The ship was on the north side of Pier C, berth three.
But before it arrived there at 7 a.m., it had unloaded bananas at the parking lot dock of the Banana Supply Co. on the river. The ship reached Miami Sunday.
“The crane operator started talking to the crew and someone finally decided to call the Coast Guard,” said Kretzschmar.
“The Coast Guard took one look and said ‘Call the bomb squad.'” This was at 11:28 a.m.
Capt. Brodie, accustomed to frequent false reports, also needed but a single glance. He took off his shoes and shirt, jumped in, and deactivated it.
The time-bomb, put inside a wooden Cuban cigar box consisted of a cast-made explosive, pentalite, and weighed about two pounds.
Attached to it was an acid pellet triggering device floating underwater in a prophylactic. It looked like a ping-pong ball in a balloon from the surface.
When the pellet or ampule is crushed, the acid begins to eat at the wire. When the wire gives, a spring releases a hammer which strikes the primmer of the cap.
“Someone didn’t set it right,” said Capt. Brodie. “It should have gone off.”
Pentalite, he said, is a “very high order explosive, a step above TNT or the normal plastic explosives. It would have blown quite a hole in the hull.”
Investigators said they didn’t know whether or not the ship would have sunk.
Capt. Brodie said that pentalite is often used by militant Cuban exiles here. There was one unverified report that the CIA once had an interest in the ship.
One thing is for certain, in September 1980, the M/V Oro Verde was placed on the bottom as an artificial reef for visiting scuba diving enthusiasts from around the world to enjoy. The sinking was carried out by local legend and Scuba Diving Hall of fame member, Kem Jackson. Mr. Jackson’s marine adventures began as a child, growing up on the water and becoming a seaman at an early age. His diving career and lifelong friendship with Bobby Soto began in 1965, when he became one of the island’s first dive masters at Bob Soto’s Diving. Kem was Bobby Soto’s right hand man and chief engineer until the business was sold to Ron Kipp in 1980.
In the video below, Kem describes in detail the sinking of the M/V Oro Verde.
On September 12, 1988 with winds reaching 175 miles per hour, hurricane Gilbert made landfall in Jamaica. With a 40-mile-wide eye, the hurricane covered the entire island. The tin roofs that covered most homes were no match for the winds–about 80 percent of the island’s homes were seriously damaged and approximately 500,000 of the country’s 2 million people were left homeless. Nearly every home on the island lost electricity. Worst of all, more than 200 people lost their lives. As the massive storm continued it’s destructive path westward, Grand Cayman braced for impact. Luckily, Gilbert passed just south of the island, leaving behind torrential rainfall and a massive storm surge that picked up the then intact Oro Verde and smashed her against the shallow dive site, Paradise Reef.
Having spent her working life running costal surveys for the US Army Air Force, spying for the US Navy during the Cold War, running bananas from Ecuador to Miami, and possibly smuggling drugs all while working for the CIA, the M/V Oro Verde now lays quietly on the bottom, 55 feet below the surface of Grand Cayman’s cobalt blue water.