Naval History

Researchers find wreckage of lost WWII warship USS Indianapolis

Naval researchers announced Saturday that they have found the wreckage of the lost World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, 72 years after the vessel sank in minutes after it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The ship was found almost 3 1/2 miles below the surface of the Philippine Sea, said a tweet from Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen, who led a team of civilian researchers that made the discovery. Historians and architects from the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, District of Columbia, had joined forces with Allen last year to revisit the tragedy. The ship sank in 15 minutes on July 30, 1945, in the war’s final days, and it took the Navy four days to realize that the vessel was missing. About 800 of the crew’s 1,200 sailors and Marines made it off the cruiser before it sank. But almost 600 of them died over the next four to five days from exposure, dehydration, drowning and shark attacks. Nineteen crew members are alive today, the Navy command said in a news release. The Indianapolis had just completed a top secret mission to deliver components of the atomic bomb “Little Boy” to the island of Tinian. The bomb was later dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. In a statement on its website, the command call the shipwreck a “significant discovery,” considering the depth of the water. “While our search for the rest of the wreckage will continue, I hope everyone connected to this historic ship will feel some measure of closure at this discovery so long in coming,” Allen said in a statement. His research vessel, Petrel, has state-of-the-art subsea equipment that can descend to depths like those at which the ship was found. The cruiser’s captain, Charles Butler McVay III, was among those who survived, but he was eventually court-martialed and convicted of losing control of the vessel. About 350 Navy ships were lost in combat during the war, but he was the only captain to be court-martialed. Years later, under pressure from survivors to clear his name, McVay was posthumously exonerated by Congress and President Bill Clinton.

I had the distinct privilege of meeting one of the survivors of the USS Indianapolis about 16 years ago.  He gave a presentation to the Army unit I was assigned to at the time.   To read the rest of this article, and see some photos, click on the text above.    🙂

Secret atomic role of WWII-era aircraft carrier revealed

A team of underwater archaeologists has pieced together information from declassified government documents and a shipwrecked World War II-era naval vessel to understand the secret role played by one of the most historic U.S. aircraft carriers: the USS Independence. The Independence (CVL 22) was one of 90 vessels assigned to Operation Crossroads — the atomic bomb tests conducted at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands — but it was deliberately sunk, or scuttled, in 1951 and little was known about its career after the atomic bomb tests. After discovering the location of the Independence shipwreck last year, researchers were able to compare sonar images of the wreck with declassified documents to uncover the carrier’s use as a radiological laboratory and nuclear waste receptacle from 1946 to 1950. “Now we not only know what shape she’s in and where she lies, but also exactly what happened to the Independence,” said lead researcher James Delgado, a maritime archaeologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Independence was among the first vessels that were converted to light aircraft carriers following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. It operated in the central and western Pacific from November 1943 through August 1945, said Delgado. Following the war, the Independence was assigned to Operation Crossroads, where it was placed among a fleet of vessels within about 1,700 feet of the “ground zero” blast from the atomic bomb tests to examine the effects of shock waves, heat and radiation. While 21 ships sank outright during the Bikini Atoll tests, the Independence survived, heavily damaged, and was returned to the United States. Using the declassified documents, Delgado’s team found that the ship was then used for decontamination studies. A memorandum to the Chief of Naval Operations from the Bureau of Ships and the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery notes that, “the intensity of the radioactive contamination acquired at Bikini has decreased during the intervening three years, so that many parts of the ship are now below the tolerance level established for peace-time industrial operations.” Yet, the government decided to establish the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory on the ship and hauled more contaminated materials aboard for study, Delgado told Live Science. The laboratory provided the first training and teaching platform for the how to deal with the waste from the aftermath of an atomic explosion, Delgado said. Radiation levels were constantly monitored, and in 1949, four boilers, condenser units and steam turbines were removed from deep inside the ship’s hull to clear more room for depositing radioactive waste, he added. Additionally, the documents reveal that sinking the Independence served multiple functions for the U.S. Navy. The aircraft carrier was too old and too vulnerable to potential espionage to be used any further, explained Delgado. And when the decision was made to sink the ship, waste from other Operation Crossroads vessels and the University of California Radiation Laboratory was also removed to the Independence “for ultimate sinking with that vessel because of lack of adequate storage facilities,” according to one of the memorandums. The Navy used two precisely placed torpedo warheads close to the ship’s keel area, away from where the waste was stored, to sink the ship in January 1951. A memorandum from the Radiological Safety Officer to the Commander of the Task Group noted that all radiological safety precautions had been followed as per orders, and that “all surfaces that had been exposed to possible contamination were scrubbed clean.” “Independence, by the time it was sunk, was at about a level that you would get with an average X-ray,” Delgado said. Anything that might potentially be an issue was enclosed in steel and concrete drums deep inside the ship, he explained, and seeing that the wreck was still intact underwater was reassuring, although the researchers would like to continue monitoring the Independence because of its radiation legacy. “This remains one of the most compelling frontiers in science, given not only the size of the oceans but what rests within them,” Delgado said. Details of the expedition and declassified documents were published online April 21 in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology.

Fascinating!!    🙂

Civil war-era wreck tentatively identified as blockade runner Agnes E. Fry

Experts have tentatively identified a shipwreck discovered off Oak Island, N.C. in February as the Civil War blockade runner Agnes E. Fry. Three blockade runners – the Agnes E.Fry, Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw – are known to have been lost in the area. Citing its location, size, and the missing pieces of the vessel, archaeologists with the N.C. Office of State Archaeology now suspect that the ship is the Agnes E. Fry, the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources announced Monday. Deputy State Archaeologist Billy Ray Morris explained that the vessel remains are 225 feet in length, similar to the Agnes. E. Fry, which was 236 feet long. Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw are both considerably shorter and also a much earlier design than the Agnes E. Fry, he added. “The boiler type, as well as the hull design of the wreck are both indicative of a more modern vessel than either McCaw or Spunkie,” said Morris. “The difference in the lengths has to do with the damage to the bow and stern.” Detailed analysis of a sonar image generated on Feb. 27 shows a 225-foot vessel structure with both engines and the paddlewheel shaft missing. “This fits precisely with salvage records and the March 22 underwater site inspection,” notes the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Every piece of evidence we have examined to date, from sonar images to primary documentation, points directly to this shipwreck being Agnes E. Fry,” said Institute for International Maritime Research (IIMR) Director Gordon Watts, in the statement. “We look forward to working with the Charlotte team to confirm our suspicions.” Initial side scan sonar images of the vessel were generated during remote sensing operations aboard the IIMR survey vessel, Atlantic Surveyor, on Feb. 27. The Charlotte Fire Department is also supporting archaeologists’ efforts, and will deploy a sophisticated 3D sonar device to help confirm the ship’s identity. Capt. J.D. Thomas of the Charlotte Fire Department Special Operations/EMS Command and a team of five search and rescue divers will assist the state’s maritime archaeologists next week. Brian Abbott, president of Nautilus Marine Group International and the 3D sonar equipment’s owner, will accompany the dive team to operate equipment.

Cool!!  🙂