By Petty Officer 1st Class Eric Lockwood, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
The following post is about the conservation of artifacts that were removed, without authorization from the U.S. Navy, from the wreck of USS Salute. In partnership with the government of Brunei, U.S. Navy and Royal Brunei Navy divers this week completed a dive on the ship’s wreck in which they honored the service of those lost when the ship sank, and conducted a basic assessment of the wreck’s condition. As part of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) 2016, these diving operations are an example of how the U.S. Navy actively works in the region to enhance collaboration with local authorities in order to promote the preservation of such sunken military craft, which are a testament to the sacrifice of the Sailors who served in them.
The story is timely as recent media reports suggest the wrecks of several World War II warships in the region, including the American Submarine USS Perch, have been the targets of unauthorized disturbance. The U.S. Navy is very concerned by these reports and is examining the associated survey data. As the final resting place of Sailors who went down with them, a large percentage of U.S. Navy sunken military craft serve as war graves and hold great historical value. Additionally they may also safeguard state secrets and carry environmental or public safety hazards such as oil and ordnance. The recent media reports are a somber reminder of the fragility of these historical and cultural resources, and of the need to further engage with regional partners to ensure the sanctity and history of sunken military craft are respected.
Navy divers from Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 1 are teamed with Royal Brunei navy personnel Nov. 16-18 for diving operations on former USS Salute (AM 294), a World War II-era minesweeper sunk by a Japanese mine during preparations for amphibious landings in the Battle of Borneo.
Recently, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) was contacted by the U.S. Embassy in Brunei when officials there discovered artifacts from the Salute wreck had been removed. Because the wreck is a popular dive site, it is likely the artifacts were removed by a group of divers. Why do we care when artifacts are removed? As managers of the U.S. Navy’s sunken military craft, NHHC is responsible for the management, research, preservation, and interpretation of the U.S. Navy’s sunken military craft.
History of USS Salute
Commissioned during World War II, in 1943, Salute’s first mission was to escort convoys between Pearl Harbor, the Marshall Islands, and other places in the Western Pacific. Afterwards, she joined Mine Division 34 and started clearing mines, primarily around the Philippines. In the last months of the war, the U.S. needed to invade and secure Brunei Bay. Prior to that, though, the Bay needed to be swept of mines. In the course of her duties, Salute struck a mine on June 8, 1945. She buckled amidships, and both bow and stern began to sink. Flooding was uncontrollable, and she sunk to the bottom of the sea.
What artifacts were removed and where are they now?
The four artifacts are a gas mask, a glass inkwell, and two pieces of china: a larger plate and a smaller plate. However, the four pieces are not all in the greatest of condition—the mask especially—and because of the aquatic environment they spent the last seventy one years in, they will all require specialized conservation treatment. Conservation is a main component of any underwater archaeology program since artifacts recovered from submerged archaeological sites require special preservation care.
Here’s where NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) comes in. Our UAB team’s laboratory has projects running year-round that aim to protect artifacts from the dangers of the deteriorating effects of increased oxygen, temperature, light, and other environmental conditions.
Each project involves several stages including initial scientific assessment and documentation, conservation treatment, and final scientific analysis and documentation. Determining the proper treatment plan for each individual artifact is crucial. Long term damage to an artifact may arise if the wrong conservation method is employed.
Currently, UAB is assessing the condition of the artifacts. Laboratory manager and senior conservator Kate Morrand’s goal is to stabilize the material and learn what we can about the pieces, 6.
UAB will be assessing how much residual salt will need to be extracted, if there are any kinds of biological agents on the artifacts, like mold or fungus, etc. It’s a delicate and time consuming process. Morrand estimates it could take up to a year, or more, to stabilize the inkwell and china, and longer for the gasmask.