History Stories

After 75 years, wrecked remains of a U.S. Navy destroyer, cleaved in two during World War II by an underwater explosion, has been located in frigid waters off the Aleutian island of Kiska. A NOAA-funded team of scientists discovered the stern of the USS Abner Read on the seafloor, offering some closure for families who have had only a vague idea of where their loved ones perished.

On August 18, 1943, the USS Abner Read was making its way through the Bering Sea, south of Alaska, when a massive explosion ripped through the ocean. It was the middle of the night—about 1:50 a.m.—and the U.S. Navy sailors on board were asleep in their bunks. The blast, presumed to have been from a Japanese mine, was catastrophic, killing 71 men and sending the stern down into the water below. Somehow the remaining crew managed to keep the hull watertight enough for it to be towed back to port. Eventually, it was patched up and went on to fight in several battles in the Pacific Theater, before eventually meeting its demise in a kamikaze attack during the battle of Leyte Gulf.

USS Abner Read

The USS Abner Read, circa 1943. (Credit: U.S. Navy)

A research team from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the University of Delaware found the 75-foot stern in 290 feet of water on July 17, 2018. The work was part of Project Recover, a public-private partnership that combines historical research with cutting-edge technology to help find the final underwater resting places of Americans missing in action since World War II.

The latest discovery, they say, is thanks to recent advancements in undersea technology, often from the Office of Naval Research. “We’ve entered a new age of exploration,” says Mark Moline, director of the School of Marine Science and Policy at the University of Delaware and co-founder of Project Recover. “New sensors and improved underwater robots that can bring back real-time images are driving new discoveries.”

In this case, scientists used multi-beam sonar to identify what looked like a promising target, then sent a deep-diving, remotely operated vehicle to investigate further. Live video revealed the watery discovery. “There was no doubt,” expedition leader Eric Terrill, an oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said in a statement. “We could clearly see the broken stern, the gun and rudder control, all consistent with the historical documents.”

USS Abner Read

The damage on the USS Abner Read. (Credit: The National Archives)

From June 1942 to mid-August 1983, two of the Aleutian islands—Kiska and Attu—were occupied by Japanese forces, and the site of many maritime battles. For months, lives and crafts alike were lost in the struggle in this remote and windy corner of the United States. The technology has helped illuminate and map out these battles for historians; this latest discovery, experts say, will shed still more light on what happened.

But there’s another reason it’s especially significant. The find may bring closure to families who have grieved their lost sons, fathers, uncles and nephews since the 1940s.  In a statement, retired Navy Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet described the stern as a “significant discovery.” He added: “It’s important to honor these U.S. Navy Sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.”

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