The U.S. Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Navy have plans beginning in late 2003 to collaborate to find three sunken government wrecks in the North Atlantic.  Each of these submerged hulks has a unique history and mysteries that could be resolved by these undersea explorations.

The Revenue Cutter and US Navy Ship BEAR.  The BEAR, which met its demise more than 40 years ago about 250 miles east of Boston while being towed, has a special place in both Coast Guard and Navy history.  For nearly fifty years the U.S. Revenue Cutter and Naval vessel BEAR tore through chunks of ice while on patrol in the Arctic, sandwiched between two centuries, while bearing witness to key events in America’s maritime military heritage.

In the summer of 1884, the Navy used the BEAR in its desperate attempt to reach survivors of the Greely Arctic Expedition on Ellesmere Island.  The Bear delivered Siberian reindeer to native Alaskans, served as a floating territorial courtroom, and between 1886 and 1895, was the domain of Coast Guard legend, Captain Michael “Hell Roarin’ Mike” Healy, the service’s first African-American officer.  Captain Healy was the sole government representative for thousands of miles.

RCS BEAR also played a key role during the 1897 Overland Relief expedition to Point Barrow, Alaska, when 300 sailors, who had been trapped on ships trapped by ice, were rescued.

Coast Guard Cutter ESCANABAUSCGC ESCANABA (WPG-77) was commissioned on November 23, 1932 in Grand Haven, Michigan.  Measuring 165 feet, she was powered by a 1,500 horsepower steam turbine.  The cutter was stationed in Grand Haven from 1932 until 1940.  ESCANABA‘s primary missions were ice breaking and search and rescue on the Great Lakes.

In 1941, ESCANABA was assigned to the Greenland patrol, performing escort duty and search and rescue operations and distinguished herself many times.  On June 15, 1942 the ship rescued 20 people from the SS Cherokee, and on February 3, 1943 rescued 132 people from the SS Dorchester, famous for its own story of the “Four Chaplains,” who gave up their lifejackets and lives and continued to encourage others even as the ship sank.  In June 1942, ESCANABA was credited with the sinking of two German submarines in a single day.

On June 13, 1943 while escorting a convoy to St. John’s, Newfoundland, ESCANABA exploded and sank within three minutes.  Only two members of the ship’s company survived the explosion; 101 crewmembers were lost at sea. The cause of the explosion is a mystery; although the most probable explanation is that an enemy torpedo or mine caused the sinking.4 The Coast Guard is hopeful that the discovery of ESCANABA will provide insights in to the exact cause of the sudden sinking.

Coast Guard Lightship Nantucket (WLV 117).  Coast Guard records indicate that their lightships were involved in more than 237 collisions at sea, principally because past navigational methods called for other ships’ captains to steer on the anchored lightships’ continuous radio and sonar navigational signals.5 Anchored with giant pickup truck size mushroom anchors, lightships were “sitting ducks” to the many ships on trans-Atlantic voyages that took radio bearings on the lightship and steered directly to it — often at high speed, fog or no fog.

Nantucket was sideswiped in January 1934, shearing off the lifeboat and davits, and radio antennas. In April, 1934 the inbound RMS Olympic, the White Star Line’s sister ship to Titanic, passed so close, the lightship’s crewmembers came out to take photographs of the passing British liner.

These incidents prompted the U.S. Lighthouse Service to issue a warning in early May: “It is exceedingly dangerous navigation to proceed on a radio beacon directly for a lightship, counting on hearing fog signals in time to change course and pass safely. The vagaries of sound signals are well-known, and such signals may not be heard in time to avoid a collision, serious alike to the approaching vessel and to the lightship; the loss of the latter would dangerously affect all other navigation in the area.”

Around 4 a.m., May 15 the ocean liner SS Paris passed within 100 feet of the Nantucket. Seven hours later the 133-foot, 630-ton lightship was rammed broadside by the 882-foot, 66,000-ton Olympic, on another inbound trip. The lightship went swiftly to the bottom. Four crewmembers went down with the lightship and three others subsequently died of their injuries on board the liner. White Star was found to be solely responsible and paid for a replacement vessel.

In January 1998, a commercial diver, Eric Takakjian, found the lightship after three years of relentless searching, research and investigation.  In July 1998, Takakjian and his crew dove on the wreck and positively identified the lightship by its distinctive circular chock in the bow.  This group of divers staged three more diving expeditions through the summer of 2001.

Marine lore generally held that the hull was cut in two by the impact of the Olympic, but Takakjian determined otherwise. The intact hull rests on its port side in roughly 196 to 200 feet of water, and the deckhouse and aft mast have collapsed and now lie in a very rough semicircle of debris around the site. 6

Each of these three wrecks remains government property and the subject of intense service folklore and discussion.  The multi-service underwater archaeological explorations are planned for the summer and fall of 2003 and will further bind together participating partner agencies and shed light on unanswered historical questions.

The Coast Guard, Navy and NOAA have developed and are executing plans to baseline map and monitor important waterways and subsequently maintain their multi-agency interoperability and communications capabilities through cooperative historic explorations. While the key project is a security sweep of inner harbors and channels, along the way sunken treasure in the form of barnacle-clad iron and steel will be sought after and prized as much as gold was in the early days of the BEAR. Through this clever collaboration, federal entities are making America’s waterways safer and honoring past heroes and the proud ships they once sailed in.

Captain Webster recently retired from the Coast Guard and is the former CG Incident Commander for the 1999 JFK Jr. and Egypt Air 990 operations.

Research and Methodologies.  Prior to setting sail on any deep sea search operation, hundreds of hours of background research is done in order to narrow down the scope of the effort.

The Navy and Coast Guard first tested their underwater search capabilities in June 2002 when an inaugural test led to the successful location and survey of the wreck of the USS Akron (ZRS-4), a Navy airship that sank off New Jersey in 1933 with 73 of 76 aviators perishing.  Among the victims was Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Rear Admiral William A. Moffett.

During the survey mission, the US Navy’ smallest nuclear submarine, the NR-1, the same vessel that found the space shuttle Challenger’s faulty O-ring, discovered the Akron wreck site.  The sub created a detailed sonar picture and gathered data necessary to develop an analysis of naval aviation strategy in the inter-war period from 1919-1939.

Using a technique called “patterning,” the sonar picture in figure 1 covers an area roughly the size of a football field.  This, along with survivor testimony, suggests the orientation or direction of the wreck at the time of the disaster.  It also suggests that this section of the airship may have broken off from the main hull and hit the ocean floor violently, perhaps with enough force to have snapped the 785- foot duralumin hull in half.

The incredible force of the impact likely explains the incredible loss of life for those who may have been in the aft section as well as opening the door for a hypothesis that suggests the few survivors may have swum from a hull breach near the forward section.

Although additional dives and research are necessary to be more conclusive, this joint service team has tentatively determined the causes of the worst air disaster in military aviation history.   2

Like the AKRON project, three government wrecks off the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have been identified as targets of interest.  Each wreck has many questions that may soon be answered.