Shipwrecks: The Atomic Wrecks of Bikini Atoll

At the close of the Second World War, the United States military had in its hands an incredibly powerful new weapon. At that time only three of the new atomic bombs had ever been detonated, and it was perhaps only natural that military leaders wanted to know just what this weapon was capable of. With the aim of determining the bomb's capabilities, and perhaps demonstrating that capability to the world, the US military conducted a series of tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946, code-named "Operation Crossroads." On July 1, 1946, an atomic bomb was airdropped over a fleet of 88 target vessels anchored in the lagoon at Bikini-the airdrop was code-named ABLE. The fleet was made up of American, Japanese and German vessels, and included aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and transports. A second detonation, code-named BAKER, was conducted on July 25 on the remaining ships with the bomb suspended 90-feet below the lagoon's surface. In all, 21 ships were sunk in the lagoon during the two tests.

Able blast: July 1, 1946 (air drop)Baker blast: July 25, 1946 (underwater detonation)

Diving Bikini Atoll in 1996

Following Operation Crossroads, a Scienfific Resurvey was conducted in 1947 to assess the condition of the wrecks, conducted by the Navy Army, Smithsoinian Institution and US Fish and Wildlife Service. According to Reference 1, more than 600 dives were made on the wrecks of Saratoga, Apogon and Pilotfish, as well as Nagato.

In 1954 "Operation Castle" was conducted at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. A total of six hydrogen fusion bombs (thermonuclear weapons, as opposed to the fission bombs set off during Operation Crossroads) were set off, five of them at Bikini, including the largest nuclear explosion ever conducted by the United States, "Bravo," estimated to be about 1000 times more powerful than the weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Castle, "Operation Redwing" lit off 17 explosions at Bikini and Enewetak in 1956, six of them at Bikini. In 1958, "Operation Hardtack 1" exploded another 35 nuclear devices at what had become known as the "Pacific Proving Grounds." Ten of the detonations occurred at Bikini. Nuclear testing at Bikini ended in 1958 after a total of 23 detonations.

In 1989 and 1990, the US National Park Service traveled to Bikini to assess and document the sunken ships there, with an eye toward their potential as a destination for recreational scuba divers. The resulting publication (Reference 1, below) is a virtual "bible" of the wrecks at Bikini. National Geographic magazine published an article in their June 1992 issue, featuring images taken by photographer Bill Curtsinger. Finally, in 1996, Bikini Atoll was opened to recreational divers. I was fortunate enough to be invited along as photographer on Sport Diver Magazine's expedtion to the island in June 1996.

All underwater images were shot on film in June 1996; copyright 2022 Bradley Sheard. Equipment used was a Canon F-1n camera in an Aquatica housing with a Canon 14mm lens and Sea & Sea strobes, and a Nikonos II camera with a 15mm Nikonos lens. Films were Kodak Ektachrome 100, Kodachrome 64 and Fuji Provia 400.

USS Arkansas

The USS Arkansas (BB-33) was a 562-foot long battleship armed with a main battery of twelve 12-inch guns arranged in six turrets. Launched in 1911, she served in both World Wars, seeing action around the globe including the Normandy D-day invasion where she covered Omaha Beach; transferred to the Pacific, she provided support for the invasions of both Iwo Jima and Okinawa. During Operation Crossroads she was anchored within 1/2 mile of ground zero for the ABLE blast, and only 500-feet from ground zero for the BAKER detonation, which sent her to the bottom. Today she lies essentially upside-down in 180-feet of water, with her port side largely intact, while the starboard side is flattened into the lagoon bottom. At the ship's bow a diver can swim underneath her decks and examine the huge 12-inch guns, which point outward to port. The Arkansas' stern is partially flattened into the sandy bottom and is a scene of disarray. At least one of her mighty propellers can still be found at the end of it's shaft, however, it is well camouflaged with a growth of wire coral and schools of baitfish. Although we only made a single dive on the great battleship, we managed to cover her entire length from "stem to stern." I found that Arkansas was one of my favorite dives of the trip.

For more details of the Arkansas' amazing career, see my article:In the Wake of Dreadnoughts...Part III

At the ship's bow a diver can swim underneath her decks and examine the huge 12-inch guns, which point outward to port.
One of the Arkansas' smaller casemate guns midshipsOne of the ship's props, overgrown with whip coralAnchor chain pours from the Arkansas' port hawsepipe
HIJMS Nagato

At 708-feet long and armed with huge 16-inch guns, the HIJMS battleship Nagato was perhaps the pride of the Japanese fleet. Nagato was the flagship of Admiral Yamamoto, and although she didn't participate in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was here that Yamamoto first heard by wireless of the successful attack. Only moderately damaged by the ABLE bomb, she was sent to the bottom by the BAKER blast. Lying upside-down on the floor of the lagoon, the ship's huge stern guns are an impressive sight beneath her immense hull. Near the Nagato's bow a diver can find enough clearance between the huge inverted hull and the sandy lagoon bottom to examine her forward 16-inch guns. The port gun still has its muzzle plug in place and is covered in a veil of wire coral. As Nagato sank and rolled over to starboard, her superstructure was crushed on the sea bottom and today is stretched out to starboard. It was here, from the Nagato's bridge, that Yamamoto commanded the great ship. At the Nagato's stern, four immense propellers rise above her inverted hull.

Nagato's huge propeller dwarfs a diverOne of Nagato's foward 16-inch guns with the plug still in place
Nagato's bridge is accessible alongside the inverted hullAft 16-inch guns can be seen beneath the ship's inverted hull
USS Lamson

The tiny destroyer USS Lamson (DD-367) was no match for the ABLE blast at Bikini, which heavily damaged her superstructure and sent her to the bottom within hours of the detonation. At 341-feet long, she was built for speed and thus only lightly armed with 5-inch guns, torpedoes and a battery of anti-aircraft guns. Lamson spent the entire war in the Pacific theatre. On December 6, 1944, the ship was severely damaged by a kamikazi attack; after extensive repairs she returned to duty in time to serve off the island of Iwo Jima. The Lamson sits upright on the lagoon bottom at Bikini, with the 5-inch gun turret and numerous anti-aircraft guns plainly visible.

(left-to-right) A five-inch gun turret on Lamson's deck; anti-aircraft gun overgrown with coral; wreckage on the destroyer's deck
USS Apogon

The USS Apogon (SS-308) was a Balao-class US fleet submarine. She made eight war patrols during the conflict and was credited with sinking three Japanese vessels. Anchored on the surface for the first test, the Apogon was only lightly damaged during the ABLE blast. She was anchored submerged at a depth of approximately 100 feet for BAKER, and would not resurface. Today she sits upright on the floor of the lagoon in 180-feet of water.

(left-to-right) Apogon's sail stands erect on top of the submarine's hull; deck gun in place; intact knife-edge bow decorated with whip coral
(left-to-right) Target Bearing Transmitter (TMB) still in place on the sail; schematic of TBM; TBM close-up
USS Saratoga

At 888-feet long, the USS Saratoga (CV-3) is surely the largest ship sunk at Bikini. Originally laid down as a cruiser, she was converted to an aircraft carrier before completion due to the post-war naval arms agreements concluded after World War I. The Saratoga took part in many of the major battles in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal, the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, Tarawa and Rabaul. In February 1945 the carrier was struck by no fewer than five kamikazis. Sunk nearly eight-hours after the Baker blast, the Saratoga sits upright on the bottom of the lagoon and is the most impressive wreck at Bikini. The bow towers high above the lagoon bottom, with anchor chains hanging down from her hawsepipes just below the flight deck. Down at her keel an impressive growth of wire coral reaches up toward the sunlight overhead.

The Saratoga had two 5-inch gun turrets mounted on her main deck at the time of the tests (two had been removed), one forward and one aft of the superstructure. The guns prove an impressive sight on her flight deck. Sitting upright on the lagoon bottom, Saratoga's hanger deck is complete with a number of aircraft, including three Curtiss SBF-4E Helldiver aircraft and one Grumman TBM-3E Avenger torpedo bomber.

(left-to-right) Saratoga's massive bow towers over the lagoon bottom, anchor chains hanging down while fields of whip coral reach for the surface; the remains of the carrier's superstructure rise high above the flight deck; a five-inch gun turret forward of the superstructure
For me the essence of the Saratoga was her aircraft, and a remarkably preserved Curtiss SBF-4E "Helldiver" still sat in the Saratoga's hanger deck, wings folded in 1996 (top); an SBC2-3 "Helldiver" in the hanger deck of the USS Intrepid museum in New York, which I used for practice photography before going to Bikini (left, 1996); an SBC2-5 "Helldiver" on display in the Smithsonian Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center (right, 2022)
Farther back in the Saratoga's hanger sits a second Helldiver (above, left) and a pile of aerial torpedoes spilling from their rack (above, right). A Grumman TBM-3E "Avenger" torpedo bomber (left, of special interest to me since I spent a large part of my engineering career working for Grumman); an Avenger on static display at an airshow (right, note Grumman's unique wing fold design).
By war's end the Saratoga was bristling with anti-aircraft guns, added in a series of nearly continuous modifications to the ship during the war. Most were arranged in gun tubs along the edges of the flight deck, and while some of these were removed for the Bikini bomb tests, some still remain. A single 5"/38 gun near the stern (left); 20mm single AA gun (middle); quad 40mm Bofors AA gun mount (right)
USS Gilliam

The USS Gilliam (APA-57) was an attack transport launched in 1944. While she may have joined the war late, she took part in multiple battles, including the Phillipines and Okinawa. She also took part in Operation "Magic Carpet" returning sailors and soldiers to the United States after the end of hostilities. Gilliam was the closest ship to the Able blast, and reportedly sank in less than two minutes. She sits upright on the lagoon bottom and is heavily damaged.

(left-to-right) Overgrown anchor on Gilliam's bow; the anchor sits in a basket of whip coral; munitions and a deck gun still in place on her deck
Article in September/October 1996 issue of Sport Diver magazine
Story by Pierce Hoover / Photos by Bradley Sheard
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1. "The Archeology of the Atomic Bomb: A Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment of the Sunken Fleet of Operation Crossroads at Bikini and Kwajelein Atoll Lagoons." U.S. National Park Service, Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, 1991.

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