Sixty years after it was scuttled off the coast of San Francisco, the bomb-scarred, radioactive hulk of the World War II-era aircraft carrier USS Independence (CVL-22) has been located on the seafloor near the Farallon Islands.
NOAA, working with private industry partners and the U.S. Navy, has confirmed the location and condition of the USS Independence, the lead ship of its class of light aircraft carriers that were critical during the American naval offensive in the Pacific during World War II.
Resting in 2,600 feet of water off California’s Farallon Islands, the carrier is “amazingly intact,” said NOAA scientists, with its hull and flight deck clearly visible, and what appears to be a plane in the carrier’s hangar bay.
Independence (CVL 22) operated in the central and western Pacific from November 1943 through August 1945 and later was one of more than 90 vessels assembled as a target fleet for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests in 1946. Damaged by shock waves, heat and radiation, Independence survived the Bikini Atoll tests and, like dozens of other Operation Crossroads ships, returned to the United States.
While moored at San Francisco’s Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, Independence was the primary focus of the Navy’s studies on decontamination until age and the possibility of its sinking led the Navy to tow the blast-damaged carrier to sea for scuttling on Jan. 26, 1951.
This is a remarkable and fascinating discovery, because it’s no exaggeration so say that the nuclear history of San Francisco and the USS Independence have long been intimately connected — and remain so to this day.
San Francisco is still grappling with the complex and messy task of cleaning up radioactive contamination at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, in no small part because of the massive (and massively unsuccessful) effort undertaken there to try and decontaminate USS Independence after the Operation Crossroads detonations.
Independence was originally laid down as a cruiser, but during construction it was converted into a light aircraft carrier as an emergency wartime measure. Light carriers had short flight decks, and they were mostly used to transport aircraft between ports, but Independence saw combat too, sustaining torpedo damage at Tarawa in 1943. In January 1944, the ship came to Hunter’s Point for repairs.
Here’s how Independence looked when it was moored near Hunter’s Point in 1944:
After the war, Independence was sent to Bikini, where it became a target for the Operation Crossroads nuclear detonation experiments:
A fleet of 95 target vessels was assembled in Bikini Lagoon. At the center of the target cluster, the density was 20 ships per square mile (7.7 per km²), three to five times greater than military doctrine would allow. The stated goal was not to duplicate a realistic anchorage, but to measure damage as a function of distance from the blast center, at as many different distances as possible. The arrangement also reflected the outcome of the Army/Navy disagreement about how many ships should be allowed to sink.
The target fleet included four obsolete U.S. battleships, two aircraft carriers, two cruisers, eleven destroyers, eight submarines, numerous auxiliary and amphibious vessels, and three surrendered German and Japanese ships. The ships carried sample amounts of fuel and ammunition, plus scientific instruments to measure air pressure, ship movement, and radiation.
Although heavily damaged by the force of the the 1946 atomic tests, Independence survived the blasts at Bikini. Here’s how the ship looked while still smoldering in the immediate aftermath:
A closeup look at the blast damage to her stern (notice the two sailors on board the ship at the far right):
After Operation Crossroads, Independence and several other surviving ships were towed to San Francisco. These were the very early years of nuclear weaponry, so the goal was to investigate techniques that could be used to decontaminate navy ships after a possible nuclear conflict.
Here’s how Independence looked when it was tied up at Hunter’s Point, beneath the massive crane that remains a prominent local landmark today:
Much of the effort focused on the use of sandblasting techniques to decontaminate the major components of exposed ships.
By and large, this effort was deemed a failure. However, the Navy generated significant amounts of contaminated sand along the way, and much of this sand was collected and stored on metal barrels. In turn, many of those barrels were loaded onto the hulk of the Independence, which effectively turned the battered ship into a floating nuclear waste repository.
Writing for SF Weekly in 2001, Lisa Davis compiled a definitive history of the nuclear decontamination efforts at Hunters Point:
At some point, [National Radiological Defense Laboratory] scientists determined that there was no hope of ever cleaning up the Independence, and began to use the mighty ship as a floating laboratory. The theory behind this plan was elegantly simple: Because the ship was already contaminated and scheduled for disposal, it was the perfect place for high-level radiation experiments and storage. “Large quantities of fresh fission products were introduced on board and drained into empty tanks for stowage,” one memo from the time says. Correspondence between shipyard personnel also shows that samples (including sea life and plants) from Operation Crossroads were moved on board the Independence. Finally, in January 1951, the mighty Independence — apparently full of nuclear waste — was towed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and sunk at sea, apparently near the Farallon Islands.
Here are some of the last photos of the Independence ever taken (until now). In January 1951, loaded with its radioactive cargo, Independence was towed out to a point near the Farallons for use as a gunnery target:
The ship took a few direct hits:
And then, it keeled over and sank:
This map identifies where the wreck of the Independence was just found:
And here’s a sonar detail of the wreck:
PHOTOS: Historical photos of USS Independence via Navsource.org. Hat tip to Jeremy Crandell