Aircraft carrier that survived atomic blasts lies at bottom of Pacific

Story highlights

  • USS Independence was sunk in 1951 after weapons tests
  • Carrier was close-in guinea pig to two atomic bomb tests
  • Agency: Ship looks remarkably intact 2,600 feet below surface of the Pacific Ocean

(CNN)A former U.S. Navy aircraft carrier that survived a Japanese torpedo strike and was a massive guinea pig for two atomic bomb blasts looks remarkably intact at the bottom of the Pacific, according to federal researchers who surveyed the wreck last month with an underwater drone.

The USS Independence was scuttled in January 1951 during weapons testing near California's Farallon Islands. Although its location was confirmed by a survey in 2009, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration went looking for it again in March as part of a project to map about 300 wrecks that lie in and around the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
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"After 64 years on the seafloor, Independence sits on the bottom as if ready to launch its planes," mission leader James Delgado, the maritime heritage director for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said in a statement.
    Indeed, sonar images show what looks to be an airplane on one of the elevators that took planes from the Independence's hangar deck to its flight deck. The ship sits upright with a slight list to starboard, according to NOAA.
    NOAA's survey of the 623-foot-long, 11,000-ton carrier was conducted by the Echo Ranger, an 18.5-foot-long autonomous underwater vehicle provided by the Boeing Co. The Echo Ranger traveled 30 miles from its base in Half Moon Bay, California, and hovered 150 above the carrier, which lies 2,600 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The drone used a three-dimensional sonar system provided by Coda Octopus to get images that showed how well the warship has weathered 64 years in the deep.
    "This ship fought a long, hard war in the Pacific and after the war was subjected to two atomic blasts that ripped through the ship. It is a reminder of the industrial might and skill of the 'greatest generation' that sent not only this ship, but their loved ones to war," Delgado said in the statement.
    In its 20 years in the Navy, the ship played a role in some of the most important events of World War II, earning eight battle stars in the process, and the dawn of the nuclear age.
    Independence was seriously damaged by Japanese torpedo planes during the Battle of Tarawa in late 1943. The ship returned to California for repairs and made it back across the Pacific by July 1944 to participate in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea and the sinking of one of the Japanese Imperial Navy's biggest warships, the battleship Musashi. Later, in the Battle of Cape Engano, planes from the Independence were involved in the sinking of four Japanese aircraft carriers.
    After the war, Independence became part of a fleet used to measure the effects of atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific on July 1, 1946. It sat just 560 yards from ground zero in the first test, a 23-kiloton air blast of a fission bomb similar to the one used over Nagasaki, Japan, a year earlier, according to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization. Twenty-four days later, Independence was 1,390 yards from the center of a second atomic blast -- also a 23-kiloton device but an underwater detonation.
    The ship was later brought back to California for nuclear decontamination before being sunk during the weapons training in 1951.
    NOAA said no signs of radioactive contamination were noted during the survey of the sunken carrier last month.
    The agency has no plans for further missions to the ship, according to the NOAA statement.