This presentation is part of Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: WWII to the Cold War, Fredericksburg, Texas, June 4-6, 2019.
by Blair Atcheson and Richard Hulver
The 2017 discovery of USS Indianapolis (CA-35), one of the Navy’s most storied ships and sought-after wrecksites, propelled the vessel back into the public eye and highlighted a string of deep-water World War II shipwreck investigations. After the media hype subsided, the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), as managers of the U.S. Navy’s sunken military craft, needed to determine the next steps for Indianapolis, which would inform how we approach similar site discoveries.
NHHC is responsible for the management, research, preservation, and interpretation of the U.S. Navy’s sunken and terrestrial military craft. A collection that includes over 3,000 shipwrecks and 14,000 aircraft wrecks dispersed world-wide and which date from the American Revolution to the nuclear age. These wrecksites are often the final resting places of Sailors and Marines who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of the nation, carry significant historical importance, and may contain environmental or public safety hazards such as oil or unexploded ordnance. Accordingly, the Navy’s general policy towards these wrecksites are to leave them undisturbed, thereby encouraging in situ preservation and documentation.
Three miles below the surface, Indianapolis is the Navy’s deepest confirmed shipwreck and the incredible state of preservation provides a unique opportunity for research and scientific analysis. The study of Indianapolis also underscores new challenges for submerged cultural resource managers as depth becomes less of a protecting factor and with an increasing interest in deep-water wrecksite tourism. This paper will discuss the NHHC research that helped lead to the discovery of Indianapolis by Paul Allen’s research team, the historical and archaeological analysis of the wrecksite, evolving approaches to deep-water wreck documentation methodology, and current management strategies to preserve and protect the site.
While the discovery of a wrecksite is often considered the “final chapter” in the life of a ship, for NHHC, it is the next chapter in a continuing story. As the Navy’s institutional memory, NHHC is responsible to present the most accurate history possible and to preserve the cultural resources that remain. The study of Indianapolis, a ship that is most often remembered for her worst 10 minutes, ensures that this decorated World War II ship and crew are remembered and honored for their service.
Blair Atcheson is the Program Manager for the Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Underwater Archaeology Branch located in Washington DC. Born and raised in Dallas, Blair earned a BA in History from Texas A&M University. Able to combine her interest in military history and shipwrecks, Blair has been at NHHC since 2012. In her current role, Blair administers the permitting program for research directed at U.S. Navy sunken and terrestrial military craft, conducts archaeological research, and specializes in World War II historical research and the development and implementation of historic preservation policy for Navy’s submerged cultural resources.
Richard Hulver earned his PhD from West Virginia University with specialties in U.S. Foreign Relations and Public History. He has written about United States military commemorative sites from World War I and World War II on foreign soils. Currently, he works in the Histories and Archives Division of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Previous federal service included providing historical support to aid the mission at the United States Southern Command, World War I commemorative work for the American Battle Monuments Commission, and contributions to the U.S. Army Chief-of-Staff’s 2003-2011 Iraq War Study Group based at the National Defense University.