How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships

Larry Holzwarth - October 23, 2019

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
Alvin (DSV 2) with Atlantis II in the background. NOAA

13. Ballard’s expedition entered Titanic on a subsequent visit

In 1986 Ballard returned to Titanic using the research vessel Atlantis II, taking Argo with him. He was also accompanied by a deep submergence vehicle (DSV) named Alvin, which could carry people to the edge of the wreck, allowing a tethered remote vehicle named Jason Jr. to explore the interior. Jason Jr’s photographs of the interior of the wreck further piqued public interest as it sent back pictures of ghostly chandeliers, plates and crockery, and the Grand Staircase which it descended, sending back images as if it was walking down the stairs.

The public interest in the wreck, and the renewed interest in the story of Titanic, were both events which Ballard welcomed, but a rising chorus from investors and adventurers over salvaging artefacts from the site – even calls for salvaging the ship itself – caused a sense of alarm. To Ballard the ship was a grave, and he considered keeping its location secret, but the graverobbers were not to be denied. By 1987 an expedition funded by American investors had recovered over 1,800 objects from the ship and debris field. By the end of the century the number of items taken from the wreck site was in the tens of thousands.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
Alvin suffered an accident which led to its sinking, remaining on the sea floor for several months. Wikipedia

14. The remarkable DSV Alvin once was sunk itself and later recovered

When the exploration team entered the sunken Titanic in 1986, they did so in a submersible which had itself once been the victim of sinking. On October 16, 1968, Alvin was being lowered into the water by the US Navy tender USS Lulu, with three crew members aboard the DSV preparing for a dive. Steel cables lowering the submersible snapped, and the vessel sank in 5,000 feet of water, though the three men aboard were able to escape before it went down. The accident occurred about 100 miles to the South of Nantucket, and Alvin remained on the bottom throughout the winter.

In June of the following year, Alvin was located by USS Mizar. At the time nothing of the size of Alvin had been recovered from such a depth. In August the DSV Aluminaut was used in an attempt to recover Alvin, but rough seas in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille forced the recovery team to abandon the attempt. In late August a second attempt was made, and Alvin was raised to a depth of about forty feet, where it remained, tethered to USS Mizar, as it was towed to Woods Hole for repairs and to have installed a new pressure hull, manufactured of titanium, which allowed it reach yet greater depths.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
Survivors from Bismarck are pulled aboard the British cruiser Dorsetshire, before the cruiser fled the scene due to reports of U-boats. Wikimedia

15. The sinking of the German battleship Bismarck and Britain’s HMS Hood

In May, 1941, the German battleship Bismarck sailed on its only wartime mission, bound for the Atlantic shipping lanes to raid Allied convoys. In the Denmark Strait, the battleship and its consort, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen, encountered the new British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Hood, which was at the time the largest and most powerful warship of the Royal Navy. In foul weather and limited visibility, Bismarck sank Hood in a short gun duel, the latter ship going down with the loss of all but three of her crew. Prince of Wales was badly damaged and forced to break off the fight. The Royal Navy mustered all of its available forces to track down and sink the German battleship.

On May 27, damaged by aircraft launched torpedoes and unable to steer, Bismarck was trapped by two British battleships, with supporting cruisers and destroyers in the vicinity. The German shipped was battered into a flaming wreck before the Germans began to abandon ship. Torpedoes from the cruiser Dorsetshire were launched into the ship as a coup de grace. The ship sank in an inaccurately reported position, with the British announcing they had sunk the vessel. Survivors from Bismarck claimed they had scuttled the ship when it could no longer fight back. The truth could not be verified, because for decades the sunken ship could not be found.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
A gun turret from Bismarck’s secondary battery, discovered by Ballard’s expedition. WIkimedia

16. Ballard used the techniques developed for Scorpion to locate and explore Bismarck

In 1988 Ballard and his team began a search for the wreck of Bismarck, using the techniques developed in the exploration of the sunken Scorpion. The last violent moments of the German battleship were well documented by survivors from the German battleship and British naval records and observations, but the location of the wreck remained elusive. The search was inconclusive. Ballard returned to the site the following year near the end of May, and the search team found evidence of a massive avalanche down the side of a seamount, the source of which proved to be the huge battleship sliding down the side of the inactive volcanic mountain as it settled to the bottom.

The hull of the ship was upright, sitting two-thirds down the slope with its bow nearly buried in the debris of the avalanche. Ballard found the hull to be in remarkably good condition, intact other than a short section of the stern, which had broken off. The four turrets of the main battery had fallen out as the ship rolled over during sinking, and are on the bottom upside down near the hull. Ballard’s team announced the finding of the ship and released photographs of the wreckage, but refused to announce its precise location, in order to prevent the scavenging of the ship as was already happening to Titanic.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
Ballard’s expedition found the armored belt and the citadel had not been penetrated by British shells and torpedoes. Wikimedia

17. Ballard’s exploration provided physical evidence to support the scuttling of Bismarck

Since the German battleship was sunk by the Royal Navy in 1941, survivors claimed that the departing German crew had used scuttling charges to sink their ship. The Royal Navy discounted the claim, officially stating that torpedoes from HMS Dorsetshire had dealt the fatal blow. Ballard’s exploration of the wreck found the battleship’s armored citadel to be intact, with no evidence of penetration from torpedoes or shells, though the unarmored sections bore evidence of the severe damage inflicted by the British ships. There was also no evidence of compartments imploding from sea pressure as the ship sank.

Ballard’s findings from the physical condition of the wreck were consistent with the German claim of scuttling, an action in which explosive charges blow out the bottom of the hull, and watertight doors are opened to allow the entire hull to flood. Despite the ship being reduced to a flaming wreck by the British bombardment, its armor had successfully withstood the barrage. Had the Germans not scuttled the ship, it likely would have drifted as a burning wreck for a time impossible to estimate. Eventually the location of the wreck became known, and the Federal Republic of Germany declared it to be their property and a war grave.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
USS Yorktown in flames during the Battle of Midway before its crew restored the ship to operational status. US Navy

18. The sinking of USS Yorktown in June, 1942

In the spring of 1942 intelligence data developed by codebreakers allowed the US Navy to ambush the Imperial Japanese Navy when the latter attempted to invade Midway Atoll in the central Pacific. The Americans, in one of the most critical naval battles of history, destroyed four Japanese aircraft carriers, while suffering the loss of one, USS Yorktown. Yorktown had been heavily damaged during the Battle of Coral Sea the preceding month, and fought at Midway in a patched together condition. Aircraft from Yorktown dealt the fatal blows to the Japanese carrier Soryu. Yorktown was bombed severely, and for a time was dead in the water before damage control teams made the ship operational again.

Bombed yet again, with resulting loss of power, the ship was abandoned yet refused to sink. As it became apparent that the United States had won a major victory, a volunteer crew went back to Yorktown to try to control the fires and flooding, and prepare it to be towed into port for repairs. On June 6, Yorktown was under tow when a Japanese submarine attacked the escorting destroyer Hammann, sinking it in minutes, and two torpedoes hit Yorktown. The ship rapidly listed to port, the towline was cast off, and the carrier was again abandoned. Early on the morning of June 7 the ship finally rolled onto its side and sank, in waters well over 15,000 feet deep.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
Yorktown listing heavily before sinking in the early morning of June 7, 1942. US Navy

19. The Yorktown search was the most difficult of all for Ballard’s research team

The waters which swallowed USS Yorktown are 16,650 feet deep, a mile deeper than those in which the wreck of Titanic was found in 1985. To find the wreck, an expedition was formed by the National Geographic Society, led by Dr. Ballard and supported by the US Navy, who assigned personnel to the team. The Navy’s participation provided valuable real-world training for operators of its underwater search vehicles and submarine rescue teams. Ballard used techniques developed during the Scorpion expedition and honed in other searches during the difficult search for the sunken aircraft carrier.

During the search for Titanic and even more so for the Bismarck wreckage, the technicians and researchers discovered that as a ship strikes the bottom it does not do so gently. Instead it slams into the bottom, its velocity dependent on the depth it descended, and the violence displaces large amounts of mud and bottom debris. The mud is often displaced in a circular pattern around the wreck, with clots the size of huge boulders. Once a clot is sighted, additional clots are sought until the arc of the circle can be computed, allowing the search to then focus on the center, where the wreck is found.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
An artist’s rendering of the wreck of USS Yorktown. Pinterest

20. Yorktown was found to be almost entirely intact, and in good condition

When the wreck of the World War II aircraft carrier USS Yorktown was discovered, it was found to be almost entirely clear of marine life and rust. The ship sits upright on the sea bottom, three miles beneath the surface. The entire flight deck was traversed, its surface unobscured. Stainless steel fittings and panels retained their shine, as if waiting for inspection after 56 years. The US Navy ship supporting the operation, USNS Laney Chouest, was designed and fitted out for the support of US Navy deep submergence operations. Aboard was a veteran of the Battle of Midway, who had been one of the men who returned to the abandoned Yorktown in an attempt to save the ship in 1942.

He was able to positively identify the ship as the lost aircraft carrier, including identifying the catwalk from which he had abandoned the ship a second time after it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The successful search for the lost Yorktown, like the other searches for lost ships that preceded it, made headlines. But it was a boon for the US Navy in other ways besides publicity. The Navy’s role in the search was known, but downplayed, as it was able to exercise its personnel and equipment in a situation near the technological limits due to the depth at which rests the sunken ship in the vast reaches of the Pacific.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
26 year old John F. Kennedy (far right) and the crew of PT 109 in 1943. US Navy

21. The destruction of PT 109 in 1943

In the spring of 2002 Robert Ballard led an expedition to locate the wreck of PT 109, the motor torpedo boat commanded by Lieutenant Junior Grade John F. Kennedy in 1943. On the night of August 1, 1943, the boat, in company with others from its squadron, was operating in the Solomon Islands in an area called the Blackett Strait. In a confused action with Japanese destroyers, during which the American torpedoes exhibited failures with their detonators, PT 109 was separated from the rest of the squadron. The boat was idling to prevent it creating a wake (visible to patrolling aircraft) when a Japanese destroyer bore down on it.

With less than ten seconds to react, bring the boat underway, and evade, the boat was doomed. The destroyer rammed the wooden vessel, slicing it in half, and setting it afire. After remaining with the drifting forward section for a time, Kennedy led the survivors on a swim to Plum Island, 3.5 miles away, with Kennedy towing one badly injured man despite being injured himself. Kennedy’s actions in the aftermath of the sinking of his boat made him a war hero. The boat itself, or rather what remained of it, drifted out of sight as the men swam away, and was not seen again by any of them.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
PT 109 was carried to the Solomon Islands aboard a Liberty ship in 1942. US Navy

22. Ballard’s expedition found the wreckage of PT 109 in 2002

The search for the remains of PT 109 presented difficulties and challenges far different from those of Titanic, Yorktown, and Bismarck. The search area was much smaller than those in the open sea. The depth of the waters to be searched was also much shallower. But the amount of wreckage and debris in the area was large, due to the many sea and air battles which had raged in the area during the war. There was also the problem of not knowing where the vessel had sunk, since it was last known to be adrift, without power, subject to the whims of nature. It was also in two pieces, with the stern section having sunk an unknown distance from the bow, and also in an uncertain location.

Data provided by the Navy allowed Ballard to focus his search in an area of roughly five by seven miles. The shifting sea floor obscured many targets while others found and examined were revealed to be other wreckage from the war. On May 22, 2002, the expedition discovered a torpedo tube and a torpedo, photos of which were sent to the US Navy for examination. After confirming that the tube and a cranking mechanism used to angle it outboard for firing were from a World War II PT boat the Navy examined its historical records and learned that no other such boats had been lost in the area. The Navy confirmed that the remains were the wreckage of PT 109’s forward section, and the site was treated as a war grave. The remains of the stern section have yet to be found.

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships
US Navy submersible technology and operator’s skills are enhanced by co-operation with deep sea exploration and research. US Navy

23. US Navy operations in conjunction with undersea searches benefits both

The classified participation of the US Navy covered by the search for Titanic brought benefits to the science of undersea exploration and to the Navy’s understanding of how two of its submarines were lost. Items were recovered from the site of USS Thresher which confirmed much of what the Navy already suspected regarding the tragedy which cost 129 men their lives. Whether anything was recovered from the wreck of Scorpion remains classified, but the data obtained in the case of both sunken submarines ensured that they are having no adverse effect on the environment, their nuclear reactors and weapons remaining safe.

Both search techniques and capabilities were improved, for both the Navy and the ocean research community. The techniques developed have been used, and will continue to be used and improved, in the search for aircraft lost at sea, both commercial and military. They have helped the Navy locate lost weapons, map the sea bottom, and locate undersea cables and hazards. The deep submergence photography which sends back ghostly images of long-lost ships has other military applications used by the Navy to enhance its capabilities. The search for Titanic was not the first seemingly civilian operation which was actually a secret military exercise, nor will it be the last, as long as there is discernible mutual benefit.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“USS Thresher (SSN 593)” Article, Naval History and Heritage Command. Online

“Why They Called the Scorpion ‘Scrapiron'”. Mark A. Bradley, Proceedings, US Naval Institute. July, 1998

“Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage”. Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew. 2000

“Robert Ballard, American Oceanographer”. Entry, Encyclopedia Brittanica. Online

“Navy Indicates Cause of 1968 Sub Sinking”. UPI, The New York Times. December 17, 1984

“Titanic Was Found During Secret Cold War Navy Mission”. John Roach, National Geographic. November 21, 2017

“Titanic discovery was part of a secret US military mission”. Eric Levenson, CNN. December 14, 2018. Online

“How the US Navy used the Titanic search as a Cold War coverup”. Staff, Irish Central. December 14, 2018. Online

“The Discovery of the Titanic”. Robert D. Ballard. 1987

“Two Fallen Nuclear Submarines and their Top-Secret Link to the Titanic”. Erik Ofgang, Connecticut Magazine. April 17, 2019

“The discovery of the Titanic Wreck was a front for a secret US military mission”. Natasha Frost. December 18, 2018

“Exploring the Titanic”. Robert D. Ballard. 1988

“A review of significant salvage operations conducted by US Navy salvage forces and other salvage activities during 1969”. Naval Ships System Command. Archived. Online

“An eyewitness account of the sinking of the Bismarck – Archive”. The Guardian. May 31, 2016

“The Discovery of the Bismarck”. Robert D. Ballard. 1990

“Nazi Crew, Not British Fire, Sank The Bismarck, Explorer Believes”. Annie Tin, Chicago Tribune. June 23, 1989

“Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway”. Jonathan Parshall, Anthony Tully. 2005

“Lost ship is lost no more; National Geographic expedition finds Yorktown”. Randolph E. Schmid, Associated Press. June 8, 1998

“Remembering PT 109”. Owen Edwards, Smithsonian Magazine. November 2010

“Collision with History: The Search for John F. Kennedy’s PT 109”. Robert D. Ballard. 2002

“Why We Must Explore the Sea”. Robert D. Ballard, Smithsonian Magazine. October, 2014