The two new U.S. battleships steamed out of Hampton Roads, Va., as part of the Great White Fleet, Teddy Roosevelt’s white-painted display of American naval power that cruised the world’s oceans from late 1907 to 1909.
Less than two decades later, after World War I, the USS Virginia and her sister ship, the USS New Jersey, lay on the bottom of the Atlantic off North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras, sunk without firing a shot.
News & Observer Reader Kevin Allen, who lives in Holly Springs, works in corporate security but is a passionate amateur historian. Allen had researched N.C. shipwrecks while working at a state historic site, the Roanoke Island Festival Park in Manteo. He learned that the Virginia and the New Jersey had been purposely bombed in 1923.
Have the wrecks ever been explored? Allen posed that question to question to CuriousNC, a joint venture between The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun that invites readers to submit questions about North Carolina for our reporters to answer. His question won when readers voted on which of five questions they wanted us to investigate.
We have the answer, but first here’s some background on two battleships whose historic importance comes from their scuttling.
Both 441-foot ships were commissioned in 1906, the Naval History and Heritage Command says, and were among 16 battleships in the historic cruise around the world the following year. In World War I, they trained sailors for the fast-growing Navy and helped ferry veterans home once it ended. The Virginia also served as a flagship and convoy escort, making only one wartime mission before the war ended, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says.
After the war, Gen. Billy Mitchell of the U.S. Army Air Service began testing weapons launched from the air. The Virginia and New Jersey, decommissioned in 1920, were anchored off Diamond Shoals as bombing targets, NOAA says.
Seven of Mitchell’s Martin NBS-1 bombers each dropped two 1,100-pound bombs on the Virginia on Sept. 5, 1923. Only one hit, but it demolished the ship, blowing away everything above the hull. Bombers repeatedly attacked the New Jersey until a direct hit caused a large explosion.
“Within one-half hour of the cataclysmic blast, the Virginia’s battered hull sank beneath the waves, and the USS New Jersey joined it shortly,” according to the NOAA’s history of the ships. “Their sinking provided far-sighted naval officers with a dramatic demonstration of air power and impressed upon them the ‘urgent need of developing naval aviation with the fleet.’ As such, the service performed by the old pre-dreadnoughts may have been their most valuable.”
The bombing of the Virginia and New Jersey showed for the first time that aircraft could sink battleships of their size, said Tane Casserley, the Newport News, Va.-based research coordinator of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. The planes’ success helped pave the way for the first U.S. aircraft carriers, he told The Observer.
A NOAA research ship did sonar surveys of both wrecks in 2016. The images produced show the ships resting upside down on the ocean’s bottom, about a mile apart, in more than 300 feet of water.
“Other than the bomb damage, they look like they’re in fantastic shape,” Casserley said.
NOAA had intended to explore the two ships further this summer but strong currents and high seas prevented researchers from launching a remotely operated underwater vehicle, he said.
That doesn’t mean people haven’t visited the wrecks. Skilled “technical” divers, trained and equipped to safely swim below the 130-foot maximum depth of recreational divers, have been to the sites, Casserley said.
Because the wrecks lie within the warm, clear Gulf Stream, which flows north off the Carolina coast, divers would enjoy excellent visibility of up to 200 feet. But they would have to fight not only unusual depths — the Virginia is 385 feet down, the New Jersey 320 feet — but strong currents to get there.
“It’s very clear, very warm, but it just happens to be very strong,” Casserley said.
The sanctuary is a one-mile protective cone around the Monitor. NOAA is in the process of developing plans to expand the sanctuary’s boundaries to cover more of the many ships sunk during and between the world wars, like the Virginia and the New Jersey, off North Carolina’s coast.
Expanding the sanctuary would legally protect the shipwrecks within it, Casserley said. Artifacts, and possibly metal to be sold to recyclers, are being swiped from vessels that are undersea graveyards for the men who died aboard them in wartime. Diving and fishing would continue to still be allowed within the sanctuary.