Sonar technology and underwater robots have helped researchers identify a lost stern from a World War II destroyer struck by a Japanese mine in the Bering Sea almost 75 years ago to this day. Though the USS Abner Read went on to live (and fight) another day, 71 US sailors lost their lives as a result. Now, we know their final resting place.
The date was August 18, 1943. The warship had been repeating a figure of eight pattern roughly 5 to 6 kilometers (3 to 4 miles) long for at least a day and a half when suddenly there was a deafening explosion. The Abner Read, named after a Civil War Navy hero, was ripped apart and sailors tossed overboard into the freezing ocean. But despite the serious damage the ship had taken, the crew were able to make sure the hull remained watertight and two Navy ships helped tow it to port. The cause of the blast is thought to have been a Japanese mine.
"This was catastrophic damage that by all rights should have sunk the entire ship," Sam Cox, curator of the Navy and director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, said in a statement.
The stern was lost but after some repair work, Abner Read was back in service. The destroyer played an important role in many battles in the Aleutian Campaign, a 15-month endeavor to reclaim the US-owned islands of Kiska and Attu from Japanese occupation. Then, in November 1944, it was hit and maimed by a Japanese bomber during a kamikaze mission. It was out of action for good this time.
For its service during the war, Abner Read earned four battle stars. (If you think ships being awarded military honors is weird – one avian resident of Edinburgh Zoo, Sir Nils Olav, was made a brigadier of the King of Norway's guard in 2016.)
The mission to reclaim the missing stern, Project Recover, was partly funded by NOAA and involved marine scientists and archaeologists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the University of Delaware. Using a combination of sonar equipment, archive data, HD imaging devices, drones, and underwater robots, the team was able to locate and identify the stern in 88 meters (290 feet) of water off the Kiska coast.
"We could clearly see the broken stern, the gun and rudder control, all consistent with the historical documents," expedition leader and oceanographer at Scripps, Eric Terrill explained.
This is just the latest in a string of recently-identified navy vessels and aircraft. Earlier this year Project Recover found two B-25 bombers, while other teams have located missing submarines, warships, and even a US Civil War shipwreck using similar technology.
"We've entered a new age of exploration," said Mark Moline, who co-founded the project. "New sensors and improved underwater robots that can bring back real-time images are driving new discoveries."