Salvaging The Past

[Note:  The post below is my prepared text for a speech given to the LSI veterans of WWII on Tuesday, May 16, 2017, in Portland, Oregon.]

Having met some of you earlier today, I feel it is necessary to begin my talk today by exploring how it is that a bookish young man like myself best known for being able to read books at a rapid clip and write about them thoughtfully and intelligently would take an interest in efforts at salvaging the past.  I was raised in rural Central Florida, just outside the small town of Plant City.  Growing up there, for several years I lived with my maternal grandparents.  As it happens, my late maternal grandfather [1] had been in the Coast Guard a couple of decades from the late 1940’s through the late 1960’s before being discharged and moving from the Coast Guard Academy in Groton where he was a drill instructor to a couple of acres of land in the country in Florida near where he had grown up himself.

Besides having a grandfather with a treasure trove of stories about daring rescues and scaring young recruits as a drill instructor, something he relished doing, growing up in the area was important for two reasons.  One, my first ever public speaking took place when I was ten years old on Veteran’s day at a VFW post just south of Plant City.  For another, my grandfather worked as a Singer sewing machine repairman in Saint Petersburg, and in that city there is a museum called the Florida International Museum.  If you have never heard of it, the museum is the kind that has historical artifacts tour for months at a time for the more cultured residents of the area.  Among the tours they had at that museum during the course of my youth was a set of artifacts on the Titanic.

When landlubbers like myself think about salvage operations, the Titanic is what we think about.  Here was a famous ship that sank over a century ago after hitting an iceberg, and a lot of famous and important people died because a ship wrongly thought unsinkable had too few lifeboats for everyone.  Not only that, but because of the wealth of the ship itself and the people on it, there were a lot of artifacts to grab from the bottom of the sea.  We see a picture here of the sort of salvage operations that capture the imagination of the general public.  We have a famous ship plus famous people and fancy artifacts.  Add this equation together and you have the reasons why this particular ship’s artifacts made the lonely journey to a museum in Central Florida and no doubt many other such museums around the United States and maybe even around the world.

I don’t know how you feel about the Titanic, whether you are sick of it or whether you enjoy it as much as the general public, but its salvage operation is pretty well known.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a lot to say about the salvaging of the Titanic that is relevant to any efforts to raise other, less famous, vessels.  For one, the salvage rights of flotsam and jetsam are undemanding.  We should not expect any of this from vessels sunk more than seventy years ago, though.  For another, the raising of ships or the salvaging of artifacts from the ships is subject to various rules.  Quoting the NOAA website [2]:  “Titanic Ventures, Inc., a United States company, with assistance from the French Institute IFREMER (co-discoverer of the wreck), salvaged approximately 1,800 artifacts in 1987 and obtained title to them, subject to certain conditions, in a salvage award from a French Administrative Tribunal. The conditions included a requirement that the artifacts not be sold individually but rather be kept together as a single collection for the public benefit.”  It is this requirement that would be of particular importance.  Anything recovered from World War II salvage sites would likely need to be kept together as a single collection for the public benefit.  Likely, the artifacts to be found from military ships are not likely to be as highly sought after for sales, although there is a large market for military memorabilia, but is likely to be of interest for the study of World War II and the correction of locations where ships were sunk as well as providing an opportunity to give honor to those souls lost at sea during our military efforts.

When it comes to notable and successful WW2 salvaging operations, most of the examples I am familiar with involve submarines.  For example, a couple of years ago I read the book Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson [3], who wrote about the free diving expedition that was able to locate a sunken U-boat in the Atlantic that sank near the end of World War II and had been mistakenly located hundreds of mile away near New York City.  The book detailed how people risked their lives and health at the edge of the capacity for free diving in order to gain treasure of the historical kind as well as the historical kind.  The mission was a success, and likely encouraged other such divers in other areas to go as far as possible to discover what sort of ship remnants and materials exist at the bottom of the sea.  This is clearly the same sort of example that some people want to emulate in their own search for sunken treasure.

One of the more notable examples of a major salvage operations concerns the efforts that were made to discover the final resting place of the USS Grunion, a submarine that sank off the coast of Alaska in 1943.  After having been lost for more than sixty years, it was found in 2008, and the details of its sinking and the search for the submarine are detailed in the book Fatal Dive [4], written by Peter F. Stevens.  I would assume that all of you here would consider it important to find lost American World War II vessels on principle.  So, how was it done?  What ingredients made this search successful?  Well, those who found the submarine in the rough waters of the Aleutians were the sons of the sub’s commander, who happened to own a large company and have some substantial net worth.  They also had the help of a salvage submarine with good visual cameras and some charts published from the Japanese admiralty that narrowed the search area to a small and reasonable area and what the writer ascribes to divine providence.  As the author put it, the people looking for the submarine believed that the ship, in some fashion, wanted to be found.  Perhaps other ships feel the same way themselves.

When we compare these two expeditions, what sort of picture do we see?  For one, we see that money is a major issue in salvaging operations.  Either people will risk their lives free diving in order to gain wealth from finding and selling treasure, or people will spend a great deal of money in order to explore the deeper ocean with submarines, which is costly.  In addition, we have a strong historical value to engaging in these salvage operations, in that both involved lost submarines and the chance to correct mistakes in the historical issue based on what was seen and what was found at the bottom of the sea.  Also, we see that they involve ships that sank during World War II, which offers at least a great deal of hope for those of us who would like to see more ships raised from the depths.

WW2 Shipwrecks

What we see here is a list of World War II shipwrecks courtesy of ARCGIS [5].  Based on information that is publicly available, a map of the world has been filled with many ships wrecked during WWII.  As you can see, a few nations, namely Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the United States have their own flags and all other nations have a generic yellow flag.  There are many areas of the world that are especially promising when it comes to searching for shipwrecks, including the Western Pacific Ocean from the Solomon Islands to China and Japan as well as the Eastern Atlantic Ocean closest to the European continent.   Suffice it to say that there is enough to raise up and salvage as there is the money to do so, and a great deal to do besides that.  And what is shown on this map is merely those wrecks that have been identified and securely located.  Who knows what else is available on the ocean floor that has yet to be found?

WW2 Shipwrecks - South and Central Pacific

Some of these locations are especially promising to search for shipwrecks.  Zooming in on the South and Central Pacific, a few locations appear particularly promising for finding American ships.  We see a large group of ships to the southeast of Guadalcanal approaching Savo Island, the area known affectionately as Ironbottom Sound.  We see a small group of ships near the island of Java in present-day Indonesia, we see a large group of ships around Okinawa, and we see clusters of ships just north of Mindanao and just to the east of Luzon near Manila.  All of these are places where large amounts of American shipwrecks remain to be salvaged if there is the will and the resources to do so, and likely a great deal more.  Included in these ships are submarines, merchant marine ships, capital ships like carriers and battleships, and the smaller logistical ships that brought American troops to the island hopping campaigns of the Pacific War.

So, having given some context, I would like to talk about some specific plans that the Naval Historical Institute is working on with Bob Ballard in order to explore sunken WWII ships…[Add info from talking points.]

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2011/05/24/obituary-jacob-franklin-snyder-koontz/

[2] http://www.gc.noaa.gov/gcil_titanic-salvage.html.  Accessed April 23, 2017.

[3] https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2015/05/19/book-review-shadow-divers/

[4] https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/04/18/book-review-fatal-dive/

[5] https://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=14b4d42b21f64a2bb69fa1d2389fabdf.  Accessed April 23, 2017.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Military History, Musings, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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