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
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