ISSN 2330-717X

Underwater Archaeology Looks At Atomic Relic Of Cold War


The April issue of Springer’s Journal of Maritime Archaeology (JMA) focuses on a single shipwreck as the lens through which maritime archaeology assesses the advent of the Atomic Age and the Cold War. The wreck is the World War II veteran aircraft carrier USS Independence, which was one of nearly a hundred ships used as targets in the first tests of the atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll in the summer of 1946.

In addition to three original papers and two commentaries, the issue¹ also includes the now declassified files² on USS Independence’s post-Bikini history from the National Archives, published for the first time. The files are freely available online to the general public until 15 June 2016.

The Bikini tests, in the immediate aftermath of the atomic end to World War II in Japan, signaled a new era in world history. This era was grimly summarized in a then-classified report on the Bikini tests which suggested that, with the coming of the “Bomb,” it was possible to depopulate the earth, leaving only “vestigial remnants of man’s works.” While that fate has yet to (and hopefully will never will) come, what is presented in this issue is one of the remnants of the dawn of the nuclear age.

The wreck of the USS Independence lies nearly 30 miles off the central California coast. This is where the US Navy scuttled it to take it beyond the reach of potential Soviet espionage at the end of its usefulness as a nuclear test platform in 1951. The US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries worked with the Boeing Company in 2015 to pinpoint the wreck. The goal was to learn more about it in a deep water test that merged high-resolution sonar and a free swimming underwater robotic vehicle, “Echo Ranger.”

“The Journal of Maritime Archaeology is honored to be able to present the case study of the USS Independence,” said JMA’s co-editor-in-chief, Annalies Corbin. “NOAA’s achievements in contextualizing the work ahead for maritime archaeologists around the world as it relates to post-World War II and Cold War archaeology is critical to launching meaningful conversation and developing initial plans for underwater cultural heritage management of vessels like the USS Independence.”

“Historical and, by extension, maritime archaeology of the recent past can and should include merging documentary evidence with physical remains,” said NOAA’s James Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and lead scientist for the Independence mission. For this issue in the Journal of Maritime Archaeology, Delgado co-authored the report “Initial Archaeological Survey of the ex-USS Independence (CVL-22)” and also prepared a bibliographic essay on the subject and an article summarizing the fates of the Bikini target not sunk at Bikini.

The issue was edited by Annalies Corbin, who solicited contextual essays on the significance of the project and the subject of Cold War archaeology from Todd Hansen, Chief Historian and Archaeology for Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Robert E. Neyland, the Head of the US Navy’s Underwater Archaeology Branch.


1. Journal of Maritime Archaeology, Volume 11, Issue 1, April 2016: Special section: “Maritime Archaeology of the Cold War: Ex-USS Independence as a Case Study”

2. Journal of Maritime Archaeology (2016). Post-Crossroads History of the Ex-USS Independence: Recently Declassified Documents and Images. DOI 10.1007/s11457-016-9158-3

From the Appendix: The archaeology of the Cold War can be said to involve ”excavating” through long-sealed, once classified files. In the National Archives branch in San Bruno, California, the files of the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard contain a series of documents, all now declassified, which speak to the post-Crossroads history of the USS Independence. Dating from the incipient arrival of the USS Independence at San Francisco in May 1947, the documents discuss important matters such as the retention of some of the Crossroads target vessels, such as the Independence, their use in subsequent tests, radiation levels, and the decisions to remove machinery, stow radioactive materials in the ship, firing up the ship’s boilers to burn off the contaminated fuel oil left aboard, and finally the orders to dispose of it by sinking. Intermixed are more mundane documents that speak to the removal of small equipment, the installation of a watertight door to provide access at dock side, the shifting of berths, dry docking instructions, and security precautions. Together, they provide a detailed look into the beginning of the Atomic Age. They also provide some sense of what more detailed archaeological study of the wreck might reveal. The declassified documents and images are reproduced here in their original format. They have not been cropped or altered in any way. We chose to maintain the nuances and integrity of the primary source as this is the first time some of this material has been seen outside of the archive in which it is curated. The files are freely available online at:

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