Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - USS Saratoga
It was 8.35 am on 25 July 1946 and the beginning of the end of the USS Saratoga came very dramatically. The explosion was centred 27 metres below the water and 300 metres or so away from the Saratoga. Less than a sixth of a second after the explosion, a pressure wave of 5,900 psi hit the hull of the ship. Eleven seconds after the bomb exploded, a wave estimated at 94 feet high crashed into the starboard bow corner of the 888 feet long aircraft carrier. So powerful was the wave, it lifted a large stockless Navy anchor 54 metres from the seabed and another 16 metres out of the sea so that it crashed down onto the ship causing damage to the flight deck. The same wave lifted the bow of the 43,500 ton vessel 42 feet into the air. Water poured over the aircraft carrier's deck, washing away five aircraft, a number of vehicles (including two tanks) and some other equipment. The wave from the explosion also caused the ship's funnel and foremast to collapse while the pressure wave made a huge 15 cm indentation in the starboard side of the hull (for almost half its length) as well as cracking the hull in the same area. The flight deck collapsed from the stern more than 60 metres towards the bow under the weight of water that had flowed across the ship.
The combined effort of these two waves and another two tsunami sized waves pushed the Saratoga 500 metres away from the origin of the explosion before the wind blew it back 300 metres. The Saratoga started to sink, water entering its 1000 airtight compartments via the large crack on its starboard side and hundreds of other smaller pressure fissures. By 3.45 pm the sea was lapping at the stern flight deck. At about 4.30 pm, eight hours after the explosion, the Saratoga sank stern first, its bow slowly disappearing from view. The Saratoga was sitting upright on the coral/sandy bottom, 54 metres below the now calm waters of the lagoon.
This was not, of course, a normal type of bomb that exploded that beautiful summer's day in the North Pacific Ocean. This was Baker, nicknamed "Helen of Bikini", the world's fifth atomic bomb (the first was on 16 July 1945 at Alamagordo in the New Mexico desert, the second was over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the third was over Nagasaki on 9 August 1945 and the fourth was at Bikini Atoll on 1 July 1946). This latest explosion was also at Bikini Atoll Lagoon. The bomb was of the same type as that dropped on Nagasaki. Its yield was later estimated as being 20.3 kilotons and it lifted 2,000,000 tons of water (as water and steam) and 2,000,000 tons of lagoon bottom into the classic mushroom column. It also dug a hole eight metres deep in the lagoon under the bomb's detonation point.
The construction of the USS Saratoga was originally started on 25 September 1920 as a Lexington class heavy cruiser in the Camden, New Jersey shipyard of the New York Shipbuilding Company. On 1 July 1922 the US Congress approved the conversion of the uncompleted hull into an aircraft carrier. On 7 April 1925 the Saratoga was launched into the Delaware River as the heaviest warship ever launched. On 16 November 1927 the Saratoga was commissioned, the fastest and largest aircraft carrier in the world.
Before World War II, the Saratoga was engaged with her sistership Lexington in developing the new role of the aircraft carrier. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, the Saratoga was in California entering San Diego Harbour after a refit at Puget Sound, Washington. Within 24 hours it was on service in the Pacific. The most famous US Navy officer of the War, Fleet Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey commanded the Saratoga for two years and was Rear Admiral on her for another two years. During the war, the Saratoga served in the Battle of Guadalcanal and attacked Rabaul, Sumatra, Iwo Jima and Java.
The Saratoga was torpedoed twice and on 21 February 1945 she was hit by five kamikazes killing 123 men, injuring 192 and tearing a huge hole in the ship's side. After repairs, the Saratoga was steaming towards Japan when the war ended. From November 1945 to January 1946 she carried 29,204 servicemen home from the Pacific theatre of war.
On 22 January 1946 the Saratoga was attached to Task Unit 1.2.2 for Operation Crossroads. On 23 May she left Pearl Harbour for the last time and arrived at Bikini Atoll on 31 May 1946. During "Able", the first atomic test at Bikini, the Saratoga was moored over 2,000 metres from the detonation point. The enormous heat and radiation from the bomb caused the wooden flight deck to catch fire. This fire was extinguished.
Capable of almost 35 knots, the Saratoga's flight deck is 888 feet long, the waterline length is 830 feet and a beam of 105 feet. The flight deck is about 75 feet above the keel.
Today, the Saratoga lies at a maximum depth of 54 metres, with the flight deck at 27 metres and the top of the bridge area about 12 metres below the surface. Fully intact, the Saratoga is the world's biggest shipwreck that could be dived using normal scuba equipment by virtually all experienced divers. It is one of at least twenty wrecks that sank in the Bikini Atoll Lagoon, at least eight of which are well worth diving.
While I have not yet been able to visit Bikini Atoll, hopefully I will one day.