By Dr. Alexis Catsambis and Blair Atcheson, Naval History and Heritage Command, Underwater Archaeology Branch
In May of 2000, the Navy established an archaeological research permitting program that promoted research into its historic ship and aircraft wrecks. Fifteen years later, the program was expanded to include all sunken and terrestrial military craft under the jurisdiction of the Navy. Now, twenty years on, the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) has issued nearly sixty permits fostering research and responsible recovery of thousands of artifacts from dozens of sites, the vast majority of which are now housed in museums across the country. But how does it all work?
In 2004, Congress passed the Sunken Military Craft Act, putting in place measures to protect ships and aircraft wrecks that, in addition to being historically important, may serve as the final resting places of sailors who paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of the nation, or contain environmental or public safety hazards such as oil or unexploded ordnance. Though non-intrusive diving is not restricted, there are penalties for disturbing Navy ship and aircraft wrecks without authorization, as the government largely retains ownership over them, wherever or whenever they may have sunk or crashed.
The NHHC’s permitting program allows for individuals to research the Navy’s ship and aircraft wrecks, or undertake recoveries – as long as the work is done for the right purposes, the parties are qualified, the methods are scientifically sound, and any recovered artifacts or craft are professionally conserved to ensure their long-term preservation. Ultimately, the objective of this program supports the mission of the NHHC to learn more about our past, honor it, and share it with the public, while also enabling greater public access to the Navy’s ship and aircraft wrecks. Our most recently issued permits pertain to the assessment of an early World War II aircraft considered for potential recovery, the examination of a jet-era engine from an unidentified aircraft, and the investigation of a World War II-era submarine. They exemplify the pursuit of knowledge that underlies the permitting program and includes the usage of the latest technologies such as underwater laser scanners and robotic vehicles.
The same objectives – to learn, preserve, and share the Navy’s story – have inspired the Navy’s own research efforts into its ship and aircraft wrecks over the years, as well as those resulting from partnerships, leading to new research on the War of 1812-era Chesapeake Bay Flotilla and the 1811 naval schooner Revenge sites, the investigation of World War I-era Armored Cruiser USS San Diego, the discovery or rediscovery of iconic World War II-era shipwrecks such as USS Indianapolis and USS Houston, and a focus on the foundational years of naval aviation off the Patuxent River and in Lake Michigan, among many others.
If you are interested in conducting research on a Navy ship or aircraft, please review the relevant sections of our website that provide greater detail about the process and what to expect. In addition to the regular permit program, there is also a special use permit program, tailored to projects that only result in a minor disturbance of a site, such as sampling. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us for guidance at NHHCunderwaterarchaeology@navy.mil.