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USS San Diego - Armored Cruiser 6

LI West Chart

Shipwreck USS San Diego
USS San Diego photographed 28 January 1915, while serving as flagship of the Pacific Fleet. Her name had been changed from California on 1 September 1914. Note two-star Rear Admiral's flag flying from her mainmast top.

Type:
shipwreck, armored cruiser, U.S. Navy
Built:
1904, San Francisco USA, as U.S.S. California
Specs:
( 503 x 70 ft ) 13680 displacement tons
Sunk:
Friday July 19, 1918
explosion, probably struck a mine laid by U-156
officially 6 casualties, probably 30-40 in reality
Depth:
110 ft, starts at 65 ft

Shipwreck USS San Diego
As USS California in the "Great White Fleet" circa 1908. An act of Congress reserved state names for battleships only, so the cruiser California had to be renamed San Diego. Nowadays, state names are used on ballistic missile submarines; the last four battleships ( including New Jersey ) have been retired.

Shipwreck USS San Diego New York Times

The second California ( Armored Cruiser 6 ) was launched 28 April 1904 by Union Iron Works, San Francisco, Calif.; sponsored by Miss F. Pardee; and commissioned 1 August 1907, Captain V. L. Cottman in command.

Joining the 2d Division, Pacific Fleet, California took part in the naval review at San Francisco in May 1908 for the Secretary of the Navy. Aside from a cruise to Hawaii and Samoa in the fall of 1908, the cruiser operated along the west coast, sharpening her readiness through training exercises and drills, until December 1911, when she sailed for Honolulu, and in March 1912 continued westward for duty on the Asiatic Station. After this service representing American power and prestige in the Far East, she returned home in August 1912, and was ordered to Corinto, Nicaragua, then embroiled in internal political disturbance. Here she protected American lives and property, then resumed her operations along the west coast; she cruised off California, and kept a watchful eye on Mexico, at that time also suffering political disturbance.

California was renamed San Diego on 1 September 1914, and served as flagship for Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, intermittently until a boiler explosion put her in Mare Island Navy Yard in reduced commission through the summer of 1915. San Diego returned to duty as flagship through 12 February 1917, when she went into reserve status until the opening of World War I. Placed in full commission 7 April, the cruiser operated as flagship for Commander, Patrol Force Pacific Fleet, until 18 July, when she was ordered to the Atlantic Fleet. Reaching Hampton Roads, Va., 4 August, she joined Cruiser Division 2, and later broke the flag of Commander, Cruiser Force, Atlantic, which she flew until 19 September.

San Diego's essential mission was the escort of convoys through the first dangerous leg of their passages to Europe. Based on Tompkinsville, N.Y., and Halifax, N.S., she operated in the weather-torn, submarine-infested North Atlantic safely convoying all of her charges to the ocean escort. On 19 July 1918, bound from Portsmouth, N.H., to New York, San Diego was torpedoed by the German submarine U-156 southeast of Fire Island. The cruiser sank in 28 minutes with the loss of 6 lives, the only major warship lost by the United States in World War I.

-- from Navy historical records

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Painting by Francis Muller, 1920 depicting the ship sinking off Fire Island, New York, after being "torpedoed" by the German submarine U-156, 19 July 1918. It is generally accepted that the ship struck a floating mine, but the Navy records still say torpedoed.


Wreck Valley IIIreprinted from
Wreck Valley III
by Dan Berg

U.S.S. San Diego
( Armored Cruiser 6 )

Originally launched as the California on April 28, 1904, by Union Iron Works in San Francisco, she was commissioned on August 1, 1907. She was 503 feet, 1 inches long by 69 feet, 7 inches wide and had a isplacement of 13,680 tons. She served as part of Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. Her twin props pushed her at a top speed of 22 knots. The warship's armament consisted of 18 three-inch guns, 14 six-inch guns both mounted in side turrets, four eight-inch guns and two 18-inch torpedo tubes. On September 1, 1914, she was renamed San Diego and served as the flagship for our Pacific fleet. On July 18, 1917, she was ordered to the Atlantic to escort convoys through the dangerous first leg of their journey to Europe. The Diego held a perfect record, safely escorting all the ships she was assigned through the submarine-infested North Atlantic without mishaps.

Shipwreck USS San Diego

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Shipwreck USS San Diego
Shipwreck USS San DiegoPhotos courtesy National Archives

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Boiler plate recovered from the wreck by Captain Frank Persico.

Shipwreck USS San Diego

On July 8, 1918, the San Diego left Portsmouth, N.H., en route to New York. She had rounded Nantucket Light and was heading west. On July 19, 1918, she was zig-zagging as per war instructions on course to New York. Sea was smooth, the visibility six miles. At 11:23 a.m., an ear-shattering explosion tore a huge hole in her port side amidships. Captain Christy immediately sounded submarine defense quarters, which involves a general alarm and the closing of all watertight doors. Soon after, two more explosions ripped through her hull. These secondary explosions were determined later to be caused by the rupturing of one of her boilers and ignition of her magazine. The ship immediately started to list to port. Officers and crew quickly went to their stations. Guns were fired from all sides of the warship at anything that was taken for a possible periscope. Her port guns fired until they were awash. Her starboard guns fired until the list of the ship pointed them into the sky. Under the impression that a submarine was surely in the area, the men stayed at their posts until Captain Christy shouted the order "All hands abandon ship." In a last-ditch effort to save his ship, Captain H. Christy had steamed toward Fire Island Beach, but never made it. At 11:51 a.m. the Diego sank, only 28 minutes after the initial explosion. In accordance with Navy tradition, Captain Christy was the last man to leave his ship. As the vessel was turning over, he made his way from the bridge down two ladders to the boat deck over the side to the armor belt, dropped four feet to the bilge keel and finally jumped overboard from the docking keel which was then only eight feet from the water. As the Captain left his ship, men in the life boats cheered him and started to sing our National Anthem. Most survivors were picked up by nearby vessels, but at least four lifeboats full of men rowed ashore, three at Bellport and one near the Lone Hill Coast Guard Station. The San Diego was the only major warship lost by the United States in World War 1.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Sketch of the USS San Diego, The wreck has collapsed quite a bit since this sketch was done. In May of 2010 her port propeller shaft was resting at sand level, Sketch courtesy Gary Gentile and Kathy Warehouse.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Steve Bielenda with a sword handle recovered from the San Diego. Photo by Dan Berg.

Please Note: It is no longer legal to recover artifacts from this wreck. The artifacts that appear in this text were recovered prior to current law.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
The San Diego's huge propeller, Photo by Mike DeCamp.

The original casualty reports ranged from 30 to 40. Apparently, the muster roll on the San Diego was not saved. The only list of men on board was the payroll of June 30, but since the end of June, they had received and transferred over 100 men. When the Navy eventually finalized the death toll, the official count was only six.

Since her sinking, there has been much debate about whether it was a torpedo, German mine or U.S. mine that sent the cruiser to Davy Jones' Locker. Captain Christy wrote in his final log that they had been hit by a torpedo. The Navy, however, found and destroyed five or six German surface mines in the vicinity, so it is generally accepted that a mine laid by the U-156 did the job. Ironically, the U-156 was sunk on its homeward journey, possibly by a U.S. mine.

Shipwreck USS San Diego

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Brass lantern. photo by Pete Nawrocky.

On July 26, 1918, the U.S.S. Passaic arrived over the wreck. Two divers were sent down to report on the condition of the San Diego. They reported the following: "Many loose rivets lying on the bottom ... Masts and smoke stack are lying on the bottom under and on starboard side of ship ... Ship lies heading about north depth of water over starboard bilge is 36 feet ... Air is still coming out of the ship from nearly bow to stern. It seems likely that as air escapes and she loses buoyancy, she may crush her superstructure and settle deeper." From this report the Navy concluded that the vessel was not salvageable. As quoted from their letter to the Chief of Navy Operations, "In view of the reported condition and position of the San Diego, the Bureau is of the opinion that an attempt to salvage the vessel as a whole, or to recover any of the guns, would not be warranted." They did. however, have concerns about the site being a hazard to navigation and the possibility of dynamiting her to increase the available depth of water over the wreck. On October 15, the U.S.S. Resolute took another sounding on the site. It found that the wreck had settled slightly and now had 40 feet of water over her, so the wreck was not blown up.

In 1962, salvage rights to the San Diego were sold for $14,000. The salvage company planned to blow up the wreck for scrap metal. Several groups including the American Littoral Society, Marine Angling Club and ational Party Boat Owners Association banded together and lobbied. After a lot of bad publicity, public outcry and a financial compensation, the salvage company agreed to give up the job. The wreck, now an artificial reef, supports teeming amounts of aquatic life, not to mention many charter boat operations.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Frank Persico with four lanterns recovered from the USS San Diego.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
The ammunition room, Photo by Pete Nawrocky.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Gunpowder canisters, Photo by Captain Steve Bielenda.

Another interesting side story to the Diego occurred when a Long Island diver attempted to raise the one remaining, 18-foot in diameter, 37,000-pound bronze propeller. He succeeded only in sinking his barge-mounted crane, which now rests on the bottom a short distance from the Diego's stern. This barge has herself become a good lobstering dive. Someone else made off with the valued propeller.

On June 3, 1982, the "New York Post" reported that the bomb squad had been tipped off that a local diver had recovered a two-foot-long, five-inch-diameter artillery shell from the San Diego. The diver had planned to blast it and stand it next to his fire place. The shell was confiscated, but because it was too powerful for Suffolk's detonation site it had to be transported to Fort Dix, N.J., and was detonated by the Army. Lt. Thomas, commander of the Suffolk bomb squad, said, "It's the biggest warhead I've ever seen; it could go off just from drying out."

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Shipwreck USS San Diego
China from the USS San Diego.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Barge-mounted crane which was used in an attempt to salvage one of the Diego's propellers. Photo courtesy Ed Betts.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
The propeller salvage operation succeeded or sinking of the crane barge. The barge now rests a distance from the Diego's stern. Photo courtes. Betts.

On October 8, 1987, the research vessel Wahoo, captained by Steve Bie1enda, ran a special trip to the San Diego. Aboard were some of the East Coast's top wreck divers like Hank Keatts, Captain John Lachenmeyer. Hank Garvin, Janet Bieser and myself. All participated in a dive to photograph, video and recover artifacts from a newly discovered storage room that George Quirk had located in the bow of this World War I cruiser. John Lachenmeyer entered the water and secured the anchor line to the wreck. He was soon followed by Hank and I who swam forward, then dropped down the starboard side to the location of a small corroded hole in the outer hull. We penetrated to the interior of the wreck. Hank reached a small room and took some photographs. As he backed off I proceeded to video an intact supply room, full of china dishes, bowls and silverware. This was to be the only view of the china room that day. Divers pulling artifacts from the silt-covered floor quickly reduced visibility to zero. As fresh teams of divers swam down to the wreck, lift bags popped to the surface carrying mesh bags filled with china, silverware and even lanterns. Many of the artifacts recovered on this very successful day were donated to local museums, used to decorate area dive shops or are incorporated into sli shows, television shows and magazine articles, all aimed at increasing the public's interest in diving and shipwrecks.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Shipwreck USS San Diego
The Diego's propeller was later raised by another outfit. Photos by Steve Bielenda.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
The author, Dan Berg, holds the storm door of an exterior loading hatch mounted porthole open. Photo by Steve Bielenda.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Hank Garvin with an assortment of bottles. Photo by Steve Bielenda.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Sally Wahrmann and Hank Garvin with officer's china and a silver platter. Photo by Steve Bielenda.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Bill Campbell and Dan Berg with a brass door frame. Photo by Steve Bielenda.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Steve Bielenda with a 50-caliber shell from the USS San Diego. Note: all of these shells were disarmed and emptied prior to being brought back to shore, Photo by Dan Berg.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Five-pound lobster inside the USS San Diego wreck. Photo by Dan Berg.

Today, the Diego lies upside down and relatively intact in 110 feet of water, 13.5 miles out of Fire Island In One of the nicest aspects of this wreck is that it can be enjoyed at various depths. Divers can reach her hull approximately 70 feet of water while her stern wash out reaches a maximum depth of 116 feet of water. Besides supporting a huge array of fish life, she is one of Long Island's scuba diving hot spots. Divers have recovered artifacts such as bullets, portholes, cage lamps, china and brass valves. The portholes found on the wreck are unique. They are made up of three parts, each of which is serial-numbered: the backing plate, which is bolted into her armor plating, a swingplate window and a brass storm cover. What makes these portholes desirable to sport divers is the fact that the backing plates are almost impossible to unbolt while underwater This means that while many divers have swing plates or storm covers, very few have a complete set and even fewer have a set with matching serial numbers.

A few years back, Steve Bielenda and I were diving on the Diego. I swam inside a gun turret where I caugh five-pound lobster. When I turned around, I found a brass cage lamp and when I exited the wreck, there sit half buried in the sand below me was an intact porthole. That was definitely one of my more productive dives. My next porthole from this wreck was not as easy and required approximately 15 working dives to recover. For the underwater photographer, this wreck provides structures, hallways and compartments which all make for beautiful photos.

Shipwreck USS San Diego
The author with a porthole swing plate. Photo by Steve Bielenda

Shipwreck USS San Diego


Wreck Valley III

Dan BergDan Berg has authored over a dozen books, hosted the Dive Wreck Valley cable TV series and currently runs the Wreck Valley charter dive boat. My friends and I have been diving for artifacts and treasure for over 30 years.

Wreck Valley IIIThe most comprehensive, accurate, illustrated collection of information, photographs, sketches and stories ever written about the shipwrecks that lie off Long Island, New York and New Jersey.

The original Wreck Valley book was published back in 1986. At the time it was not only the first but the only book for area divers that detailed local shipwreck history and dive conditions. Capt. Dan's 2nd edition was printed in 1990 and became the most popular of his shipwreck publications. Wreck Valley III is a completely new update, expanded and enhanced edition of the Wreck Valley books.

Wreck Valley IIIWreck Valley's 3rd edition covers the history, legend, present condition, aquatic life, and pertinent dive information on over 140 shipwrecks. This text includes over 550 illustrations, comprised of over 400 color photographs, 111 black and white historical photographs, 35 sketches, 20 side scan sonar images and nine 3D underwater shipwreck illustrations. Capt. Dan completely changed the book's format and design to accommodate all of the research and images collected in 30 years of local shipwreck diving. The collection of historical photographs alone would take years of archive research to locate and would cost a small fortune if purchased separately. Many of these rare images have never before been published.

Wreck Valley IIIWreck Valley III

Wreck Valley IIIWreck Valley III

Wreck Valley III includes a GPS list of accurate artificial reef and shipwreck locations. Divers, fisherman, marine historians, armchair sailors or anyone with a general interest in history, diving or the sea will surely find this book informative, fascinating, and the perfect addition to their library. Softcover, 8x10", 188 pages, printed in full color.

Get your signed copy direct from the author:
$39.95 + $4.95 S&H (USA)


Also available as instant download ebook - $16.95

AquaExplorers

Armor plating makes most warships top-heavy compared to other vessels, and as a result they flip over when they sink, just as the San Diego has. The old hull is more or less intact, but rusting through in many places, allowing access to new parts of the interior all the time.

Shipwreck USS San Diego

Shipwreck USS San Diego

The ship is still full of live ammunition, and every so often some idiot will bring a piece of it up, resulting in a very interesting day for the local bomb squad. Explosives generally become more unstable with age, and being immersed in the water does little to change that. Souvenir shells from the San Diego could go off from a tap, or even just from drying out!

Since the Navy claims ownership of the San Diego, and because of its status as a war grave, it is strictly illegal to "salvage" any artifacts from the wreck anyway. In addition, the San Diego has recently been declared it a "National Historic Site."

Shipwreck USS San Diego
Propeller from the San Diego, salvaged before the Navy changed their minds.

U-156
U-boat U-156, lost September 1918, probably sunk by a mine

USS San Diego
USS San Diego CL-53 of World War II
anti-aircraft light cruiser 1941-1946
541 ft, 6,000 tons

USS San Diego
USS San Diego AFS-6
combat stores ship 1968-1997
581 ft, 17,000 tons full load

USS San Diego
USS San Diego LPD-22
amphibious assault ship
684 ft, 24,000 tons full load

USS San Diego
With hovercraft in the well deck



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Disclaimer:

I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.

Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
unless otherwise noted

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