Although it could be argued that she was never lost, a team from the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) discovered the final resting place of the U.S.S. Independence (CVL-22). The veteran World War II light carrier was intentionally sunk in 1951 by the Navy approximately 40 miles from San Francisco. “After 64 years on the seafloor, Independence sits on the bottom as if ready to launch its planes,” said James Delgado, maritime heritage director for ONMS to Western Digs. The ship still contains its final cargo: barrels of radioactive waste.
Independence was converted from a cruiser to light carrier while being built and became the lead ship of the highly successful Independence-class during World War II. From her commissioning in January 1943 through the end of the war, Independence was in the heart of the War in the Pacific. During her service, she earned eight battle stars. She fought at Tarawa, Okinawa, the Battle for Leyte Gulf and other major battles, but what she became best known for happened after the war ended.
During Operation Crossroads, the American atomic bomb tests in July of 1946, Independence was half a mile away from ground zero for the first test. The blast didn’t sink the ship and she was subjected to another atomic bomb explosion. Severely damaged and radioactive, the carrier did not sink and was eventually towed to Hawaii and then to San Francisco. In 1951, Independence was scuttled by the Navy near the Farallon Islands. Since that time, it has been claimed that her cargo of radioactive waste was contaminating the fishing area and wildlife refuge around the islands.
However, the April discovery and further exploration of the ship by the “Echo Ranger,” an autonomous underwater vehicle, has confirmed that although the ship was severely damaged during the atomic tests, she is amazingly intact and the sealed atomic waste has not ruptured and polluted the area. “They wanted to know if we could ensure the safety of their equipment and to see if you’d pick up contamination if you went down there,” said the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Dr. Kai Vetter, in a statement. “The short answer, is that neither the submersible nor the team was ever in danger of contamination.”
Independence had an amazing career in her short three-year life span. Conceived and created at a time when our aircraft carrier assets in the Pacific were at their nadir, she helped hold the line against the Japanese as the Essex-class carriers entered service. Overshadowed by the bigger fleet carriers, the 9 ships of the Independence-class carriers served alongside them and were instrumental in winning the War in the Pacific.
Although Princeton (CVL-23) was lost during the war, all of the other ships in this class have been broken up or scuttled. The final member, U.S.S. Cabot (CVL-28), was returned from Spain in 1989 but preservation efforts were unsuccessful and she was scrapped between 2000 and 2002.
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