Long-Lost U.S. Navy Fleet Tug Rediscovered in Survey

Conestoga
File image courtesy U.S. Navy

By MarEx 2016-03-23 20:29:38

The U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have announced the discovery of the lost fleet tug USS Conestoga, which vanished without a trace in 1921. 

NOAA said that she has been found in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, off San Francisco. A survey found a probable shipwreck around the Farallon Islands in 2009, and further study by the administration and the Naval History and Heritage Command, including an ROV survey, confirmed that the wreck was indeed the Conestoga.

"After nearly a century of ambiguity and a profound sense of loss, the Conestoga's disappearance no longer is a mystery," said Manson Brown, deputy NOAA administrator. "We hope that this discovery brings the families of its lost crew some measure of closure and we look forward to working with the Navy to protect this historic shipwreck and honor the crew who paid the ultimate price for their service to the country." 

At the time of her disappearance, she was bound for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, en route to American Samoa. When she missed her arrival date, the Navy mounted an air and sea search around the Hawaiian Islands, but found nothing. Nearly two months later, a merchant vessel found a battered lifeboat with the letter "C" on its bow off the Mexican coast, leading to another unsuccessful search. The Navy declared the Conestoga lost in June 1921, four months after she left San Francisco. 

She was the last U.S. Navy vessel lost without a trace in peacetime.

Historical logs indicate that around the time of her departure, the wind in the Golden Gate area was in the range of 35 knots, with rough seas. A radio transmission from Conestoga relayed later by another ship said the tug was "battling a storm and that the barge she was towing had been torn adrift by heavy seas." Naval historians believe that at the time of her loss she was heading for shelter in a cove on the Farallon Islands, a "desperate act" given the difficulty of the approach. 

The Conestoga rests in 190 feet of water, three nm off Southeast Farallon Island; she is a protected wreck site under the Sunken Military Craft Act, which prohibits unauthorized disturbance of sunken military vessels owned by the U.S. government.

The Gulf of Farallones is the resting place of over 300 vessels, “a graveyard of ships," said James Delgado, NOAA's maritime heritage director; NOAA has been exploring and documenting these wrecks as part of a mandated, ongoing mission to survey the marine sanctuary.