US Navy ship missing for 95 years found near San Francisco

The USS Conestoga in San Diego, California, in early 1921, shortly before it disappeared.
The USS Conestoga in San Diego, California, in early 1921, shortly before it disappeared. PHOTO: REUTERS
The crew of the USS Conestoga in early 1921.
The crew of the USS Conestoga in early 1921. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A US Navy ship that went missing 95 years ago with 56 aboard has been found off San Francisco, ending one of the biggest mysteries in US naval history, authorities said on Wednesday (March 23).

The USS Conestoga tug boat, which disappeared on March 25, 1921 after departing San Francisco on its way to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, was the last US Navy ship to be lost in peacetime, the Navy and National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said in a joint statement.

"After nearly a century of ambiguity and a profound sense of loss, the Conestoga's disappearance no longer is a mystery," said Mr Manson Brown, assistant secretary of commerce for environmental observation and prediction and deputy NOAA administrator.

The wreckage was initially detected in 2009 at a depth of 58m by a NOAA survey team working near the Farallon Islands, about 48km west of San Francisco.

The Conestoga wreckage, located 4.8km off Southeast Farallon Island in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, was positively identified in October 2015.

Experts believe the ship sank as its crew tried to reach a protected cove amid stormy weather.

The wreck is on the seabed and largely intact, although the wooden deck and other features have collapsed due to corrosion and age, the news release said. The hull is draped with anemones and various species of marine life are present at the site.

Video collected by remote controlled vehicles used to explore the wreckage revealed details consistent with the Conestoga, including the four-bladed propeller, steam engine and boilers, porthole locations, large towing winch with twisted wire on the drum and a 50-calibre gun mounted on the main deck.

No human remains were found but the wreckage is protected by a law prohibiting unauthorised disturbance of sunken military vessels and planes.

The Conestoga left San Francisco and headed to Pearl Harbor with a final destination of Tutuila in American Samoa.

Weather records showed that winds in the area about that time increased from 37 to 64kmh, and the seas were rough with high waves.

When the ship did not arrive as scheduled at Pearl Harbor some 3,860km away, the Navy launched a massive sea and air search operation, but focused its efforts around Hawaii.

Two months later, a ship found a lifeboat with the letter "C" on its bow off the Mexican coast, and the search was moved to that area.

The search for the missing ship was covered by American media for months, much like the present-day search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 which went missing two years ago while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Originally built to tow coal barges for the railroad, the Navy bought Conestoga in 1917 during World War I. It operated on the US Atlantic coast and off the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean before being assigned to Norfolk, Virginia in 1919.

The Navy had declared the Conestoga and its crew lost on June 30, 1921.