Kendall Raine with 5-inch Gun
Kendall Raine inspects one of the 5-inch deck guns of a newly discovered Fletcher Class Destroyer off the coast of San Clemente Island, California. The unidentified ship was likely sunk as a target off the Navy-owned island during a live fire exercise. Photo by John Walker.

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World War II Era Destroyer
Found Off San Clemente Island

The UB88 Team has located and dived what is believed
to be an intact Fletcher Class Destroyer in deep water
off the coast of San Clemente Island.

Dive Report
by Kendall Raine

On Saturday, December 12, 2009 Captain Ray Arntz, Captain Kyaa Heller, John Walker and I traveled to San Clemente Island aboard Sundiver II to dive a large unknown target.

We knew about the existence of the object from the efforts of Dean Morrow who has corresponded with Gary Fabian over the years about various bathymetric matters. Our own bathymetric analysis suggested it was a vessel over 350 feet in length with over 30 feet of relief. In other words, a warship on its side. We also knew the Navy was fond of using old warships for target practice and research indicated at least several Destroyers (DD) and Destroyer Escorts (DE) sunk in the ‘60’s and '70's off San Clemente.

Weather conditions were snotty as we left Peter's Landing at 5:00 am. A 5 foot west swell with 3 feet of wind wave out of the south and 15-20 kt winds and rain guaranteed an interesting trip. At least we’d probably have the island to ourselves.

When we reached Clemente, we ran into a small cove protected from the west swell in order to finish gearing up and rigging the boat before poking out into the full force of wind and swell. Our plan was to live boat and recover the heavy gear using a winch and A frame of John and Ray's design. This would spare us the excitement of trying to reboard with heavy gear in a heavy sea. Conditions in the protected cove told us the sea state on site would be pretty wild. We then headed directly into the west swell and things got a little sporty.

Despite the lumpy sea Ray located the wreck immediately and we wasted no time gearing up and getting into the water. We did our checks at a more sedate 20 feet and headed down the line. Viz improved during the descent. Visibility improved as we descended through 200 feet. Around 50 feet above the wreck I could make out a very large but indistinct shape below. 20 feet above the port side appeared as a featureless mass. The hull looked massive and reminded me of descending onto the hull of the Andrea Doria. It took a minute to make out the bottom from the top of the hull. Current was blowing about half a knot from stern to bow. We turned up current and started kicking up to the main deck. As we dropped over into the superstructure the current eased a bit and we were able to relax and take in the sheer size of the wreck. As planned, Ray’s spot put us amidships and the first object I identified was a life boat davit extending from the port side. Next, twin stacks came into view, collapsed in the sand below us. Heading aft, I came upon a rack of five torpedo tubes. The rack of five suggested we were on a DD and not a DE. I signaled John to film the tubes and headed aft. John's video lights cast a huge white glow over the scene. The tubes exploded in various shades of pink and green from the soft corals growing on them. Numerous hatch openings in the deck allowed me to peer below. Our mission today was external survey, but staying outside was hard to do when looking at the wonders inside.

Destroyer Smoke Stack
A single smoke stack laying in the sand.

Torpedo Tubes
A quintuple set of torpedo tubes.

Torpedo Tube Comparison
A side by side comparison with the torpedo tubes of USS CASSIN YOUNG (DD-793).

I came across a 5 inch gun and turret further aft. This was facing towards the bow with the barrel ablaze with vibrant pink Corynactis. I rolled under the turret and swam up into an open hatch enough to examine the weapon inside. As I descended again John had leapfrogged me and his lights illuminated another turret facing aft.

Back to back 5 inch guns pretty well eliminated the ship as a DE. It’s ironic the most colorful features of the whole wreck were the destructive ones-main armament and the torpedo tubes-almost something out of the movie Yellow Submarine.

We swam past the aft gun and saw a large circular steel patch on the deck. This looked like a patch over the third main aft armament (Turret 55) barbette. I looked up and saw John 20 feet ahead of me shooting a large propeller. The props were covered with large brown basket sponges which tend to live on deeper wrecks. These sponges increased in size and number heading aft, which suggested their preference for unobstructed access to current.

One of the destroyer's large propellers.

At 15 minutes we turned and rode the current forward. I used the time to pause and examine various open hatches. Destroyers aren't known for crew comfort and the tight confines of the ship were obvious from peering into these hatches. Penetration would be tricky given the tight quarters and the fact the wreck was on its side.

5-inch Gun Turret
Kendall peers inside a 5-inch gun turret.

5-inch Gun Barrel
The business end of one of the destroyer's 5-inch guns.

5-inch Gun Barrel and Turret
Another view of a 5-inch gun barrel and turret. Kendall Raine is in background.

At 20 minutes we called it a day and started the long deco. I wondered what surface conditions would be like after our two hour dive. Sea conditions were marginal when we jumped in. If things had gone to hell in the meantime it would take all Ray's skill plus a little luck to get us back on board.

As often happens on deco hangs I had time to think about the beauty of the wreck and what a vibrant eco system it has become. This wreck is untouched and covered with fish including large ling cod and wolf eels, basket sponges, tunicates in purple and orange. It struck me how pretty this wreck was compared with the USS Wilkes Barre off Key West, which now bears the refuse and damage of almost 40 years of fishing and hammer wielding wreck divers. I thought about what a great example this would be for California Ships to Reefs. If we’re right about the ship’s identity, it’s only been down a few decades and yet has become a home to thousands of fish and other marine life. What if California could get out of its own way and do this with the rotting mothball fleet in Suisun Bay?

As we did our gas switches at 70 feet a sea lion performed Split S's and Cuban Eights for our amusement. Settling into the 20 foot stop, I looked up as a Pacific dolphin circled us 10 feet away before heading up for air. I hadn’t seen a dolphin underwater since Cocos Island in 1993. I took this as a good omen for the last phase of the dive-getting aboard Sundiver II without scratch and dent. There was almost no swell effect at 20 ft so I was hopeful things had held up topside.

Finally at the surface, John and I were relieved to find no change in sea state. Ray and Kyaa deftly maneuvered alongside and we passed up deco bottles and video. We then wriggled out of our harnesses and they were winched aboard. This allowed us to time the swell and body surf through the transom door of Sundiver II.

Despite running downhill at a crisp 23 kts back to Peter’s, we had to wait until we were tied up before we could really appreciate the high quality of John’s video. We felt very privileged to dive this pristine warship in its untouched state. It is the largest intact warship in California in diveable depths of which we’re aware and a true E ticket ride.

Future dives will be directed at filming the forward section of the wreck and on confirming identification.

Video by John Walker