The USS Independence, the WWII Carrier That Survived Nuclear Tests

The U.S. light aircraft carrier USS Independence (CVL-22) afire aft, soon after the "Able Day" atomic bomb air burst test at Bikini on 1 July 1951. Wikipedia / Public Domain

Scientists aboard the research and exploration ship, Nautilus, are preparing to probe the sunken American aircraft carrier, Independence, a ship famous for having survived a nuclear detonation during tests at Bikini Atoll.

Archaeologists and Biologists aboard the exploration vessel said they would be using a remotely-operated underwater vehicle to snap the first modern photographs of the Independence.

The Independence served in the Pacific Theatre in WII before it was used in the nuclear tests. Following the detonation at Bikini Atoll, the now highly radioactive Independence was taken to Pearl Harbour, and later to San Fransisco, for testing. In 1951 the Navy finally sunk the ship; it now rests 2,600 feet underwater near Greater Farallones national marine sanctuaries.

A deep-sea archaeologist named James Delgado is leading the expedition to photograph the Independence; he said biologists would also bring any samples of organisms they find. “It is highly unlikely that any trace of radiation remains after all these years, but whatever we bring up will be scrupulously tested.”

A UC Berkeley physician and radiation specialists will be on hand to test anything that is growing on the Independence; said Kai Vetter, a UC specialist in radiation detection. Vetter will then test the samples in more detail back in his campus laboratory.

There are two remotely operated vehicles on the Nautilus called Argus and Hercules. Both vehicles will carry high-resolution cameras for pictures, and tools for collecting samples of organisms.

The research will primarily be undertaken by the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The ship will also be surveying other wreckage in both sanctuaries, says Delgado, the head of the organisation. “The records tell us that more than 400 wrecks are scattered all over the ocean here,” he said. “We’ll be looking first at the Dorothy Wintermote. It’s an old lumber carrier that ran aground off Point Arena in 1938.”

The Nautilus will be operated by Robert Ballard, the head of the nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust. Ballard is a famed Navy veteran and engineer; he explored the German battleship, Bismarck, though his most famous discovery was that of the Titanic.

Observations from the ship will be live streamed. “When we’re cruising over the bottom, everyone on shore can see everything our ROV cameras are seeing, and scientists all over the world can help us identify every new organism we find. Everybody will be able to see what we’re seeing when we’re examining the Independence.”

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE