Written by Beth Crumley
Coast Guard Historian
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency Ship Nancy Foster was originally commissioned as a Navy Torpedo Test Craft in 1990 before transferring the vessel to NOAA. The 187-foot vessel was later outfitted as an oceanographic research platform and re-commissioned as NOAAS Nancy Foster in 2004 – named after the late Dr. Nancy Foster who served with distinction at the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Ocean Service.
NOAAS Nancy Foster is currently under the command of Cmdr. G. Mark Miller and supports such diverse missions as hydrographic surveys, coral reef assessments, water and sediment sampling, and fish population and habitat studies. Additionally, the platform can support small boat and diving operations, as well as Remotely Operated Vehicles and Autonomous Underwater Vehicle operations.
NOAAS Nancy Foster threw lines and pulled away from its dock in Morehead City, North Carolina, to begin its second leg of its journey on Aug. 21, 2018. The first leg of the journey concentrated on ROV operations, and the second leg focused on a two-pronged effort on archeological studies and fish habitat studies.
Aboard the ship was a scientific team of 12 divers from NOAA, East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute. Their mission was to conduct an archeological assessment of LV-71 and Merak, both sunk on Aug. 6, 1918, as well as the Coast Guard Cutters Jackson and Bedloe, both lost in the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944.
Although weather conditions did not permit diving operations, including the much-anticipated videography and still photography operations, scientists used multi-beam sonar technology to continue to map wreck sites. According to Dr. Erik Ebert, National Center for Coastal Ocean Science, multi-beam sonar has an array of transducers that simultaneously transmits pings (sound pulses) at a specified frequency to cover a large area. To generate data, computer software assigns a color range corresponding to the amount of sound reflected off a target. The distance to the target is determined by the length of time it took to receive the transmitted acoustic pulse. Use of this technology allows for high-resolution imagery, even in low visibility conditions. While a multi-beam scan was previously done of Jackson, scientists have just completed a detailed scan of Bedloe, which will be made public shortly.
While the primary purpose of this mission was an archeological one, there were scientists aboard who studied the habitat of each shipwreck, and determined what fish are utilizing the wreck by conducting fish transects.
According to Dr. Scott Mau, of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, biologists use a transect tape to measure distance and width along the wreck site. Volume, or the height of each swath studied, is based upon visibility. A team of two divers work together to count fish in the requisite area: the first diver counts the majority of the fish, while the second concentrates on counting those that are more difficult to see in the cracks and crevices.
“This is the ship’s second life,” said Ebert.
Why does this matter to the Coast Guard Historian’s Office? It matters because it is a part of our history, and part of America’s maritime history.
LV-71 protected mariners navigating the treacherous waters of Diamond Shoals off North Carolina for more than 20 years. On Aug. 6, 1918, the American steamship Merak was attacked by U-140. Hearing enemy fire, LV-71 reported by radio that an unknown vessel was being shelled near its location. That radio message was intercepted. The U-boat broke off its attack and headed for LV-71, firing its deck guns. Its 12-man crew managed to escape, rowing to shore yet their actions were a testimony to the service of Coast Guardsmen during the war. By their timely response to the imminent threat, according to a 1919 Lighthouse Service Bulletin, more than 25 vessels were warned away from danger, undoubtedly saving lives.
Twenty-six years later, on Sept. 14, 1944, Coast Guard Cutters Jackson and Bedloe were providing escort for the merchant ship George Ade when they were torpedoed off the North Carolina coast. Despite worsening hurricane conditions, both attempted to render aid and both were lost. Jackson slipped beneath the sea at 10:30 p.m., succumbing to waves as high as 100 feet. Bedloe suffered a similar fate some 90 minutes later. Of their combined crews of 79 men, 47 perished. The wreck sites of Jackson and Bedloe are gravesites, hallowed ground.
It is the job of the Coast Guard historians to keep the stories of these brave men alive – to write, and speak, of the events of Aug. 6, 1918, and Sept. 14, 1944, to remember those who survived to serve as witnesses to the events, and to honor those who perished. The work done on this expedition will give the historian’s office additional tools to tell those stories, and an opportunity to work with our colleagues at NOAA to reach a greater audience. The wreck sites are now part of that history and continue to be a living monument to the bravery of those who served aboard, and a final resting place for those who died.