Aircraft Carrier Hit by Two Atomic Bombs and Scuttled Decades Ago Still ‘Amazingly Intact’

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An underwater survey of a WWII-era aircraft carrier that was hit by two atomic bombs and scuttled over 60 years ago shows that the hull of the ship is still in one piece and ‘amazingly intact’.

The wreck of the former USS Independence (CVL 22) was the subject of a new 3D survey project by NOAA, the U.S. Navy and private partners, which confirmed the ship’s location and its remarkable condition.

The ship is resting in 2,600 feet of water off California’s Farallon Islands in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

During World War II, Independence operated in the central and western Pacific and was later one of more than 90 ships assembled as a target fleet for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests in 1946. Remarkably, the ship survived two atomic blasts and eventually brought back United States. In the years the followed, the ship was moored at San Francisco’s Hunters Point Naval Shipyard where it underwent decontamination tests before being towed out to sea and scuttled on January 26, 1951.

“After 64 years on the seafloor, Independence sits on the bottom as if ready to launch its planes,” said James Delgado, chief scientist on the Independence mission and maritime heritage director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “This ship fought a long, hard war in the Pacific and after the war was subjected to two atomic blasts that ripped through the ship. It is a reminder of the industrial might and skill of the “greatest generation’ that sent not only this ship, but their loved ones to war.”

NOAA’s interest in Independence is part of a mandated and ongoing two-year mission to locate, map and study historic shipwrecks in Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and nearby waters. The carrier is one of an estimated 300 wrecks in the waters off San Francisco, and the deepest known shipwreck in the sanctuary.

The mission was conducted in March using an 18.5-foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), known as Echo Ranger, that was provided by The Boeing Company. Boeing also partnered with technology company Coda Octopus to integrate its 3D-imaging sonar system, Echoscope, into the AUV.

Independence just before it was scuttled in 1951. Photo: NOAA
Independence just before it was scuttled in 1951. Photo: NOAA

“Boeing is excited for the opportunity to partner with NOAA to utilize this state of the art technology,” said Fred Sheldon, Boeing project manager for AUVs. “The Echo Ranger is uniquely suited for this type of mission and performed perfectly allowing us to conduct a thorough survey of the USS Independence.”

Scientists and technicians on the R/V Fulmar guided the AUV as it surveyed the wreck from 150 feet above its deck. The survey determined that Independence is upright, slightly listing to starboard, with much of its flight deck intact, and with gaping holes leading to the hangar decks that once housed the carrier’s aircraft.

Delgado, who is primary author of a 1990 scientific report on the history and archaeology of the ships sunk at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, said currently there are no plans to enter the vessel or survey drums of hazardous and radioactive waste that were dumped in the sanctuary between 1946 and 1970. No trace of the drums or radiation was observed during the mission, Delgado said.