NOAA Project Recover
Members of the expedition take time to examine a Japanese mini submarine that remains in the historic sub pens on Kiska Island.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition.

Almost exactly 75 years ago, on August 18, 1943, the USS Abner Read was rocked by a severe explosion.

The blast — which most historians say was likely a Japanese mine — tore the 75-foot stern section of the ship clean off. The stern plummeted to the depths of the ocean, taking the lives of 71 US sailors with it, while other US ships rushed to the rescue.

Though the rest of the USS Abner Read was miraculously saved and towed into port, the original stern was thought to be lost forever — until now.

On July 17, a team of scientists, divers, and archaeologists partially funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered the missing section of the ship in just under 300 feet of water off the coast of Kiska Island, a part of Alaska's remote Aleutian Islands chain.

Here's what the expedition to discover the long-lost wreck was like.

The Aleutian Islands campaign was one of the few major World War II battles fought on US soil. But the area's place in WWII history is often forgotten, perhaps because the islands are remote, cold, and difficult to get to. That's part of the reason the Abner Read lay undiscovered for decades.

The R/V Norseman II at sea near the Aleutians.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition.

In June 1942, Japanese forces took over and occupied a pair of remote Aleutian islands: Kiska and Attu.

A North American B-25 Mitchell Glides over an American destroyer after taking off from Unmak Island for a raid on the Japanese base at Kiska.
mage courtesy of NARA RG80G 11686

American forces quickly called in a number of battleships and destroyers, including the USS Abner Read, as well as heavy air power to repel the Japanese invasion.

USS Abner Read (DD 526) as seen in Hunters Point, California on June 13, 1943.
Released/U.S. Navy Photo

By August 1943, the USS Abner Read was part of a bombing campaign on the two Japanese-occupied islands.

The 474-feet long Japanese transport ship Nisan Maru sunk in Kiska Harbor after it was stuck by bombs dropped by the US 11th Air force on June 18, 1942. Two other Japanese ships are visible in the harbor nearby.
Image courtesy of NARA RG80G 11686

After the stern section of the Abner Read sunk on August 18, 1943, it remained lost on the bottom of the sea for almost 75 years. The ship was eventually repaired and re-entered active service.

USS Abner Read (DD 526) afire and sinking in Leyte Gulf, November 1, 1944, after being hit by a kamikaze. A second Japanese suicide plane (circled) is attempting to crash another ship; however, this one was shot down short of its target.
Released/U.S. Navy Photo

In 1944, the Abner Read was sunk off the coast of the Philippines by a Japanese dive bomber, as seen in the image above.

American forces ultimately repelled the Japanese occupiers, but suffered a heavy loss of life in the little-known battle.

US soldiers inspect Japanese midget subs left behind after the US retook Kiska Island.
Image courtesy of NARA RG80G 80363

To get to Kiska, the team of NOAA-sponsored researchers flew to Adak, a remote community in the Aleutians. Then they traveled 250 miles over rough seas to Kiska on a ship called the R/V Norseman II.

Team members launch one of the project’s four REMUS 100 autonomous underwater vehicles from R/V Norseman II for a survey of the seafloor.
mage courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition.

The expedition was part of Project Recover, a collaborative partnership between the University of Delaware, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, Bent Prop, a nonprofit, and US Navy partners to find and document the underwater resting places of American soldiers from World War II.

Team member Matt Breece lowers the project ROV over the side of Research Vessel Norseman II.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition.

Operating the technology in stormy, cold, and wet conditions proved to be a constant challenge for the team.

Project Recover team members perform maintenance on a REMUS 100 AUV.
Courtesy of Project Recover

"The 17 hours of daylight that now occur at this high latitude were both a godsend and a curse as there was ample time to work, but little time to sleep," Eric Terrill, an oceanographer and the leader of the expedition, said in a mission log.

A dive team deploys to investigate sonar targets collected by the REMUS 100 AUV. The R/V Norseman II sails in the background.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition

Source: NOAA

To narrow down the search area, the team looked at historical charts and reports, then used a fleet of Remus 100 autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to help them locate the wreckage.

Project Recover team members Bob Hess and Eric Terrill prepare to launch one of four REMUS 100 AUVs utilized during a survey.
Courtesy of NOAA Project Recover

When they found promising images from the AUVs, the team sent out divers to scan for more clues.

A REMUS 100 AUV glides away from a research boat before diving beneath the surface, where it would spend the next six hours systematically scanning the seafloor.
Courtesy of Project Recover

The team also surveyed Kiska, which is still full of WWII wreckage. They found these cannons and another sunken warship off the coast.

A view from Kiska Island overlooking a cannon, sunken ship, and the Norseman II.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition

"We hiked the hillside and saw remnants of a battlefield with barbed wire, overturned military vehicles, hillside cannons, underground bunkers, craters from bombing blasts, and unkempt trails or roads," Erik White, an engineer on the expedition wrote in a mission log.

Members of the expedition take time to examine a Japanese mini submarine that remains on Kiska Island.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition.

While beautiful, the island is a frigid, haunting monument to a battle that claimed the lives of almost 5,000 Japanese and American men.

A 120-millimeter anti-aircraft gun on Kiska Island.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition

Source: NOAA

On July 17, the research team struck gold: one of the AUVs returned images of the lost stern section of the Abner Read.

Historical image of the USS Abner Read. The red box indicates that section of the vessel that was blown off and sunk when the vessel struck a mine on August 18, 1943.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

The wreck was found 290 feet deep. To confirm that it was the Abner Read, the team deployed a remote-operated submarine to examine it closely.

Wreckage of the USS Abner Read captured by the project’s remotely operated vehicle.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition

"There was no doubt," Terrill, the expedition leader, said. "We could clearly see the broken stern, the gun and rudder control, all consistent with the historical documents."

The inside of the hull of the USS Abner Read's stern.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition.

After 75 years at the bottom of the ocean, marine life has started to make the wreck home.

A giant Pacific octopus now lives on the wreckage.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition

For now, archaeologists have no plans to bring the ship up to the surface.

Wreckage of the USS Abner Read captured by the project’s ROV.
Image courtesy of Kiska: Alaska's Underwater Battlefield expedition.

"We take our responsibility to protect these wrecks seriously," Samuel Cox, the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command said. The USS Abner Read is the "last resting place of American sailors," he added.

Team members explore the island.
NOAA Project Recover