Written by Mark Young
On the morning of February 17, 1944, in a surprise attack by the United States, aircraft bombed Japanese warships and merchant vessels in Truk Lagoon, a strategic plot of wartime geography in the Central Pacific. The attack continued the next day and when it was over 52 ships and their crews were on the bottom. The destruction would have been far greater had the Japanese not seen U.S. reconnaissance planes overhead days earlier, anticipated the attack, and moved much of the fleet.
In 1945 the American government relocated the residents of the Bikini Atoll to another place in the Marshall Islands, to create an isolated spot and test the damage that could be inflicted by nuclear weapons. Among the tests, they wanted to see the effects on war vessels, and anchored a mock fleet in the blast area. Among the vessels sent to the bottom were the 880-foot (267-m) aircraft carrier USS Saratoga and, in a blast of irony, the Japanese battleship Nagota, from which Admiral Yamamoto directed the attack on Pearl Harbor.
November 23, 1984. A powerful storm ripped the Mercedes I from its temporary anchor in the Atlantic and landed the 194-foot (59-m) freighter up against a sea wall, literally next door to the Kennedy family’s Palm Beach, Florida, compound. The ship’s owners slithered off, and it took months for the state of Florida to have it pulled off the beach. Because of the unusual stranding, the moneyed neighborhood and the drama around the removal, the ship became a media celebrity. Just a few months later it began service as an artificial reef off the coast of Fort Lauderdale.
Shipwrecks, like people, have stories to tell. They rest where they are because of war, weather, malfunction, accident or by plan. A major allure of shipwrecks, certainly for divers who visit, are their histories. Certainly they all have interesting how-I-wound-up-on-the-bottom stories, but they have others. Many of the military ships that we are privileged to dive served in war. Others patrolled during peacetime to protect their country and the peace of others. Some ended up tracking space launches, or became spies, or were used as movie sets.
There are also very deep personal histories ascribed to each ship. Within each sailor who served, a military ship occupies a place usually reserved for a childhood home. For many it forged the rest of their life. For far too many, the ships became their grave.
And shipwrecks are surrounded by history. The push for America to stay ahead as a war power sent the Bikini fleet down. A total of 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft, 25,000 radiation-recording devices and some 5,400 goats, rats and pigs were subjected to the initial atmospheric nuclear blasts, which eventually numbered 23 over a 12-year period. Topping the chart was the monster of its time, a hydrogen bomb that vaporized three of the islands and spread radioactive debris over 50,000 square miles (130,000 sq km). In many ways the area is still reeling. The Bikini ships and the Ghost Fleet of Truk Lagoon essentially represent a placemark along man’s advancement from being savage to someday becoming civilized.
And finally, each wreck has an aftermath. Beyond any damage of war, or wear, or the sinking itself, ships are profoundly changed by the sea. They become cloaked in living biomass. Paradoxically colorful life camouflages the muzzles of guns as old ships become new environments. That part of a shipwreck’s history — the story to come — is the subject of the article in this edition as Alex Brylske talks about the ecological issues surrounding ships in their role as artificial reefs.
Quite a few ships have recently gone to reef by plan. In July 2000, the HMCS Yukon, a destroyer that served in the Royal Canadian Navy, was sunk by the San Diego Oceans Foundation after nearly 2,000 volunteers spent more than a year gutting and cleaning it for its role as a California artificial reef and dive site. Consider that, and you basically have the story of the USS Spiegel Grove, USS Oriskany and General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, all put down by divers and interests in the state of Florida, and the MV Captain Keith Tibbetts, and most recently the USS Kittiwake in the Cayman Islands. The success of those efforts has fueled the desire to send more mothballed military and other idled ships to the bottom as recreational, financial and ecological attractors. It is something that our diving community will continue to support, for divers to continue to enjoy, as history continues to serve.