How the Navy surveys ships lost in combat 100 years ago

The Navy announced plans in September 2017 to survey the wreck of the World War I U.S. Navy cruiser, on which six American Sailors lost their lives when she was sunk as a result of enemy action off the coast of New York on July 19, 1918.

The survey’s objective was to assess the condition of the wreck site and determine if the ship, the only major warship lost by the United States in WWI, was sunk as a result of a German submarine-launched torpedo or mine. Ultimately, data gathered helps inform the management of the sunken military craft, which lies only a few miles south of Long Island.

The announcement comes just weeks after the 99th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, and the survey is timed to allow researchers to conduct a thorough examination of the site and prepare, then release, their findings around the date of the 100th anniversary. The U.S. is currently commemorating the 100th anniversary of its entry into World War I.

Midshipman Nolan Brandon, a student at the U.S. Naval Academy, assisted with the survey. He recounts his experiences below, in the first of our three-part series on the survey:

Nolan Brandon USS San Diego Surveying Old Ships

U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) Midshipman 1st Class Nolan Brandon monitors the cables leading to a remotely operated vehicle as it dives on the wreck of the World War I-era armored cruiser USS San Diego (ACR 6), Sept. 12. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Lockwood/Released)

“You’re holding onto a $500,000 sonar head. Don’t drop it.” These were the words of encouragement I received from Tim Pilegard, a graduate student at the University of Delaware. At that moment, Tim and I were struggling to bolt the sonar onto the side of the R/V.

After several failed attempts, we finally got the bolts secured, and my risk of being heavily indebted to the University was momentarily over. As I looked over at a very large number of pelican cases containing more expensive equipment still resting on the dock, I realized it was going to be a long night, but there’s no place I’d rather be.

My name is Nolan Brandon, a Midshipman in my final year at the United States Naval Academy. I’m working with team members from Naval History and Heritage Command, Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, the Office of Naval Intelligence, and the University of Delaware, to survey the wreck of the USS San Diego, help preserve the ship’s heritage, and hopefully, to lay to rest the debate over its sinking. The story of this ship and its men is not well known. I had never heard of USS San Diego until I was invited on this mission. But now that I have learned of what happened on that day 100 years ago, I hope more Americans can hear the story, too, and be awed by the courage and skill of United States sailors.

History of the Ship

San Diego was a 504-foot long armored cruiser commissioned into service on August 1st, 1907. San Diego, and the other ships of the Pennsylvania class, was a new breed of ships that were more heavily armed and armored than cruisers, yet still faster than the great battleships. San Diego served in a multitude of roles from testing the channel of the then brand-new Pearl Harbor to escorting convoys of merchant vessels against German U-boat attacks during World War I.

Also Read: This castaway airman helped map the entire world

It was during her time of service that San Diego met her sudden end. On the 18th of July, 1918, the ship was steaming towards her home port in New York through waters in close proximity to Fire Island, known to be hunting grounds for U-boats. San Diego’s commanding officer, Capt. H. H. Christy, was well aware of this threat and took every precaution to safeguard his ship, including stationing additional lookouts, zigzagging along his path, and closing additional watertight hatches. Unfortunately, these measures were not able to protect the ship from the explosion that rocked its port side below the waterline at 11:05 a.m. No one knows for certain whether this explosion was caused by a torpedo, a mine, or a spy onboard (that’s part of the reason why we’re here), but it was enough to cripple the San Diego. As the ship began listing to port, the captain kept his head and initiated evasive maneuvers while scanning for a suspected attacking U-boat. Despite the increasing list as San Diego took on water, Christy was reluctant to abandon ship in case a nearby U-boat could surface and take over San Diego. But as time passed, it became clear that the ship would soon capsize, and so, the call to abandon ship was sounded. Of the 1,183 men on the ship at the time of its sinking (including a few midshipmen), all but six safely escaped peril under the captain’s skillful command, and four of those six died in or as an immediate result of the initial explosion. As per tradition, Capt. Christy was the last to leave the ship. His actions, along with those of his men, reflect the competence, courage, and professionalism expected of United States sailors.

USS San Diego Surveying Old Ships

Photographed 28 January 1915, while serving as flagship of the Pacific Fleet. Her name had been changed from California on 1 September 1914. Note two-star Rear Admiral’s flag flying from her mainmast top. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The Prep

I’m excited and honored to be part of this mission. In addition to the $500,000 side scan sonar head, our equipment includes a fully autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) equipped with side-scan and bathymetric sensors, a remotely operated vehicle with a video camera, a drop camera, a quadrocopter, and a vast multitude of all the cables, tools, computers, monitors, and spares necessary to support our operation. After many hours of wrench-turning and troubleshooting preparations on Sunday, the team ate dinner and returned to the hotel, ready to hit the water and start the surveying work Monday.

Monday

We got an early start Monday morning in order to get a full day of surveying in with the AUV. After the team’s briefing with the senior Coast Guardsman at the base, the survey boat’s captain, Kevin skillfully steered the Daiber through the shoals of the inlet and out to the wreckage of the San Diego. As we made preparations to launch the AUV, I felt a little out of place surrounded by such capable individuals such as Dr. Art Trembanis, an oceanographer from the University of Delaware with a PhD in Marine Science and one of our team’s leaders, or Dr. Alexis Catsambis, an archaeologist with NHHC with a PhD in Nautical Archaeology and our team’s other leader. However, I did my best to prove my worth as a deckhand and to suck up as much knowledge and experience as possible.

Read Midshipman Nolan’s full account of the three-day survey here.