'Too tough to die' shipwreck discovered in Pacific

The U.S.S. Nevada survived Pearl Harbor, Normandy, Okinawa, and two nuclear tests—but the recent discovery of its wreckage raises new questions about what ultimately brought it down.

Photograph by George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress
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The U.S.S. Nevada, shown here in a trial run in 1916, fought in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters in World War II.

Photograph by George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Even as world wars go, the U.S.S. Nevada was a resilient ship: It was the only battleship to get underway during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, surviving bombs and torpedoes before the burning vessel was beached and later repaired. It trained its guns on German positions at Normandy on D-Day, and went on to support the invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. At the end of the war, U.S.S. Nevada was selected as the central target for the first nuclear test at Bikini Atoll, where it survived a 23-kiloton aerial detonation (the bomb missed), as well as a second underwater detonation. Finally, on July 31, 1948, following a four-day naval gunfire exercise, the toughest ship of the Second World War was deliberately sunk in the Pacific by the U.S. Navy.

Now, thanks to archival research and underwater survey of more than 100 square miles of seafloor, the remains of the Nevada have been located 65 nautical miles southwest of Pearl Harbor. The announcement was made today in a press release. The discovery is the result of collaboration between the cultural resources management firm SEARCH Inc. and the marine robotics company Ocean Infinity.

The remains of the Nevada are located at a depth of more than 15,400 feet—nearly three miles—beneath the Pacific Ocean. An initial survey of wreckage indicates that the battleship came to rest upside down on a muddy plain, with a debris field that stretches some 2,000 feet from the hull. The bow and stern of the vessel are missing.

"It's really a great thing that they found it," says Richard Ramsey, who served as a boatswain's mate on the Nevada from Normandy through Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

The coronavirus-era mission began with a casual call last month between SEARCH, which has a large marine archaeology division, and Ocean Infinity, which had a vessel bristling with maritime survey equipment that just happened to be in the area where the Nevada was known to have sunk.

“It struck me, if there was one ship to find that particularly now could speak to something about human nature and particularly Americans, it would be Nevada—stubborn, resilient,” says James Delgado, SEARCH’s senior vice president and lead maritime archaeologist on the mission.

A Grand Old Ship

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An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) launches from an Ocean Infinity vessel. An AUV was used to survey 100 square miles of the Pacific Ocean to locate the U.S.S. Nevada.

It took four and a half days to sink the U.S.S. Nevada. The 575-foot-long battleship, painted bright orange from its earlier role as a nuclear test target, was towed out of Pearl Harbor to sea, where a classified explosive was detonated in its hull. Then it was pummeled with shells launched from cruisers and bombs from planes during a multi-day naval exercise. Finally, on July 31, 1948, a single torpedo dropped by an American plane allegedly did what the Germans and Japanese could not: send Nevada to the bottom of the sea.

But despite all of the witness to Nevada’s demise (“She was a grand old ship,” the commander of the Pacific Fleet told an AP reporter as the battleship went down), only relative bearings of the wreck site were reported by the navigators on the ships present. This required operators aboard the Ocean Infinity vessel Pacific Constructor to deploy an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to survey a 100-square-mile area of the seafloor that included all of the bearings provided by eyewitnesses to the Nevada’s sinking. Once the wreck was located, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) tethered to the vessel sent images back in real time to SEARCH Inc.’s Florida office, where they are currently being reviewed by archaeologists.

Based on a preliminary inspection of the footage, Delgado believes that there is evidence for a second torpedo that may have brought the U.S.S. Nevada down. “We found a whole section of the hull just blasted open, exposing the armor, but with the outer skin just peeled back and torn.” The 13.5-inch plates of nickel chromium steel battleship armor, Delgado marveled, still shone in the lights of the ROV.

"They should not have sunk that ship," says Ramsey on the day he learned the resting place of the Nevada was found, noting that it was the only battleship present both at Pearl Harbor and Normandy. "In my opinion it should be tied up next to the Missouri," he adds, referencing the battleship—now a memorial—on which the surrender of Japan was signed. Ramsey notes that Nevada was not even invited for the surrender ceremony.

"We figured that was really an insult to the ship. We could have signed the surrender on board."

Analysis of the remains of the U.S.S. Nevada is ongoing.