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The Only Major U.S. Warship Lost During WWI Sank in NY Waters—Now We Know Why

December 11, 2018 in History

By Eric Niiler

In July 1918, the 15,000-ton armored cruiser USS San Diego sank off Long Island, New York, losing six sailors from a crew of 1,200 after a mysterious explosion struck the vessel.

The ship was returning home after escorting U.S. troop and cargo ships across the perilous North Atlantic passage to Europe, defending convoys against marauding German U-boats and transforming the course of the conflict by delivering 10,000 doughboys a day to the Allied Powers.

Now it had been felled just eight miles from New York Harbor.

San Diego remains the only major U.S. warship sunk in World War I. Until now, the cause of the explosion was a mystery. Some experts thought that a German saboteur had smuggled a bomb on board. Others were convinced that a torpedo fired by a German U-boat was to blame, even though lookouts never saw the tell-tale bubble trail left on the water’s surface.

But now military historians and scientists have finally confirmed an initial Navy court of inquiry finding that a German-laid underwater mine sank the warship.

Deconstructing History: U-Boats (TV-PG; 1:59)

A team of U.S. military and oceanographic experts presented the results of a two-year investigation on December 11, 2018 at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C., bringing to a close a century of debate.

“We believe the U-156 [U-boat] sunk the USS San Diego and used a mine to do so,” said Alexis Catsambis, a maritime archaeologist at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.

The scientific data gleaned from the investigation backs up reports at the time that a U-boat had been patrolling the area. In fact, the U-156 had been spotted by other ships and was one of Germany’s most successful, sinking a total of 44 Allied ships in only 13 months of sea patrols.

After a refueling stop in Portsmouth, N.H., the 1,180 crewmembers of the San Diego were a few hours away from a night on the town. Some had already changed into their spiffy white liberty uniforms as the ship approached the entrance to New York Harbor. As the armored cruiser passed eight miles south of Fire Island, a powerful explosion hit just below the midpoint of the ship.

Captain Harley Hannibal Cristy gave the order to abandon ship after only 15 minutes and it only took less than a half hour for the 500-foot ship to capsize on its side …read more


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