Shipwrecks: The Atomic Wrecks of Bikini Atoll

At the close of the Second World War, the United States military had in its hands an incredibly powerful new weapon. At that time only three of the new atomic bombs had ever been detonated, and it was perhaps only natural that military leaders wanted to know just what this weapon was capable of. With the aim of determining the bomb's capabilities, and perhaps demonstrating that capability to the world, the US military conducted a series of tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands in 1946, code-named "Operation Crossroads." On July 1, 1946, an atomic bomb was airdropped over a fleet of 88 target vessels anchored in the lagoon at Bikini-the airdrop was code-named ABLE. The fleet was made up of American, Japanese and German vessels, and included aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and transports. A second detonation, code-named BAKER, was conducted on July 25 on the remaining ships with the bomb suspended 90-feet below the lagoon's surface. In all, 21 ships were sunk in the lagoon during the two tests.

Able blast: July 1, 1946 (air drop)Baker blast: July 25, 1946 (underwater detonation)

Diving Bikini Atoll in 2023

Following Operation Crossroads, a Scienfific Resurvey was conducted in 1947 to assess the condition of the wrecks, conducted by the Navy, Army, Smithsoinian Institution and US Fish and Wildlife Service. According to Reference 1, more than 600 dives were made on the wrecks of Saratoga, Apogon and Pilotfish, as well as Nagato.

In 1954 "Operation Castle" was conducted at Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. A total of six hydrogen fusion bombs (thermonuclear weapons, as opposed to the fission bombs set off during Operation Crossroads) were set off, five of them at Bikini, including the largest nuclear explosion ever conducted by the United States, "Bravo," estimated to be about 1000 times more powerful than the weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Castle, "Operation Redwing" lit off 17 explosions at Bikini and Enewetak in 1956, six of them at Bikini. In 1958, "Operation Hardtack 1" exploded another 35 nuclear devices at what had become known as the "Pacific Proving Grounds." Ten of the detonations occurred at Bikini. Nuclear testing at Bikini ended in 1958 after a total of 23 detonations.

When I visited the wrecks of Bikini in 1996, there was a land-based dive operation that had just opened that year. That operation closed in 2008, and now the only way to visit these magnificent shipwrecks is by liveaboard dive boat. Our group was able to visit the Atoll in May 2023 aboard Master Liveaboards Taka / Pacific Master. The boat is well setup for this type of deeper diving with support for both open circuit and closed circuit divers. The crew were excellent and ran a fantastic operation.

Master Liveaboards

All underwater images were shot in May 2023; copyright 2023 Bradley Sheard. Equipment used was a Sony A7RIV camera in a Nauticam housing.

USS Anderson (DD-411)

The tiny destroyer USS Anderson (DD-411) was no match for the ABLE blast at Bikini. Anchored near the detonation point, Anderson capsized after two internal explosions and reportedly sank within seven minutes of the Able blast. At 348-feet long, Anderson was a Sims class destroyer, armed with five 5-inch guns, torpedoes and depth charges as well as anti-aircraft guns. Operating in the Atlantic when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Anderson was quickly shifted to the Pacific theatre where she spent the remainder of the war. The destroyer was present at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and the Battle of Midaway in June 1942. That summer and into the fall she was active in the Solomons theatre and took part in the Battle of the Santa Cruz islands. She also saw action off Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Aleutians and Japanese waters.

Anderson lies on her port side with her equipment and superstructure laid out on the sandy lagoon bottom. (When I first visited Bikini in 1996 this wreck had not yet been found, so 2023 was the first time I saw her.) The wreck is visually spectacular.

Divers explore the wreck of USS Anderson. Lying on her port side, the wreck is in amazing condition. From left-to-right: two forward 5-inch guns, bridge and gun director. (click on the image for a larger version)
(top row, left to right) Sam Robinson next to starboard propeller; 5-inch gun minus turret housing; Bofors anti-aircraft gun. (bottom row, left to right) Front of the ship's bridge; 5-inch gun director; torpedo launcher.
USS Apogon and USS Pilotfish

Both USS Apogon (SS-308, left) and USS Pilotfish (SS-386, right) were Balao-class US fleet submarines. Apogon made eight war patrols during the war and was credited with sinking three Japanese vessels. Pilotfish made five war patrols and only torpedoed a single enemy ship, spending a good deal of her time in the Pacific performing lifeguard duty. Both submarines were anchored on the surface for the first test, and were only lightly damaged during the ABLE blast. Both vessels were anchored submerged for the BAKER blast, and neither would surface again. Today they sit largely upright on the floor of the lagoon, and are two of the most intact sunken submarines to be found anywhere.

(left-to-right) Apogon's sail stands erect on top of the submarine's hull; beneath the submarine's stern looking aft
(left-to-right) Apogon: intact knife-edge bow decorated with whip coral; Target Bearing Transmitter (TBT) still in place on the sail; schematic of TBT
(left-to-right) Pilotfish: superstructure encased in wire coral; divers ascending from the submarine's bow; more coral encrusted superstructure
USS Arkansas (BB-33)

The USS Arkansas (BB-33) was a 562-foot long battleship armed with a main battery of twelve 12-inch guns arranged in six turrets. Launched in 1911, she served in both World Wars, seeing action around the globe including the Normandy D-day invasion where she covered Omaha Beach; transferred to the Pacific, she provided support for the invasions of both Iwo Jima and Okinawa. During Operation Crossroads she was anchored within 1/2 mile of ground zero for the ABLE blast, and only 500-feet from ground zero for the BAKER detonation, which sent her to the bottom. Today she lies essentially upside-down in 170-feet of water, with her port side largely intact, while the starboard side is flattened into the lagoon bottom. At the ship's bow a diver can swim underneath her decks and examine the huge 12-inch guns, which point outward to port. The Arkansas' stern is partially flattened into the sandy bottom and is a scene of disarray. At least one of her mighty propellers can still be found at the end of it's shaft, however, it is well camouflaged with a growth of wire coral and schools of baitfish.

For more details of the Arkansas' amazing career, see my article:

In the Wake of Dreadnoughts...Part III

(left to right) Sam Robinson swims out from beneath the Arkansas' inverted knife-edge bow; Sam examines one of the ship's small caliber guns hanging beneath the gunwale; Mike Powell swimming out of the dreadnought's gun deck midships
(left to right) Exposed casemate gun; propeller at the ship's flattened stern; forward 12-inch guns
HIJMS Nagato

At 708-feet long and armed with huge 16-inch guns, the HIJMS battleship Nagato was perhaps the pride of the Japanese fleet. Nagato was the flagship of Admiral Yamamoto, and although she didn't participate in the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it was here that Yamamoto first heard by wireless of the successful attack. Only moderately damaged by the ABLE bomb, she was sent to the bottom by the BAKER blast. Lying upside-down on the floor of the lagoon, the ship's huge stern guns are an impressive sight beneath her immense hull. Near the Nagato's bow a diver can find enough clearance between the huge inverted hull and the sandy lagoon bottom to examine her forward 16-inch guns. The bow guns still have their muzzle plugs in place. As Nagato sank and rolled over to starboard, her superstructure was crushed on the sea bottom and today is stretched out to port. It was here, from the Nagato's bridge, that Yamamoto commanded the great ship. At the Nagato's stern, four immense propellers rise above her inverted hull.

Nagato's forward 16-inch guns are nothing short of massive. One of the first things that strikes you about them is how long they are; so long that a panorama stitch is the only way to capture their length (top, with Sam Robinson). The forward ends are marked by the muzzle plugs, still in place (lower left, with Sam Robninson); Mike Powell and Dave Etchison attempt to light up the full length of the guns (lower right).
Three views of Nagato's superstructure stretched out across the sand.
The Nagato's stern guns are a mimic of their bow counterparts (top). The stern turret (lower left, with Sam Robinson), and the business end (lower right, with Sam Robinson).
The Nagato's inverted stern makes a fine display of her massive propellers (with Sam Robinson)
USS Saratoga

At 888-feet long, the USS Saratoga (CV-3) is surely the largest ship sunk at Bikini. Originally laid down as a cruiser, she was converted to an aircraft carrier before completion due to the post-war naval arms agreements concluded after World War I. The Saratoga took part in many of the major battles in the Pacific, including Guadalcanal, the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, Tarawa and Rabaul. In February 1945 the carrier was struck by no fewer than five kamikazis. Sunk nearly eight-hours after the Baker blast, the Saratoga sits upright on the bottom of the lagoon and is the most impressive wreck at Bikini. The bow towers high above the lagoon bottom; anchor chains used to hang down from her hawsepipes just below the flight deck as recently as 1996, but have now fallen to the bottom. Down at her keel an impressive growth of wire coral reaches up toward the sunlight overhead. The Saratoga had two 5-inch gun turrets mounted on her main deck at the time of the tests (two had been removed), one forward and one aft of the superstructure. The guns prove an impressive sight on her flight deck.

Being an aircraft carrier, in some ways Saratoga's flight deck might be considered a rather boring dive--nearly a thousand feet of flat deck. That flight deck is broken midships by the aircraft elevator and the two island structures on the starboard side, however: the bridge and the stack structure. The stack has mostly collapsed, but a good portion of the bridge remains standing. (panning left to right, above) edge of the aircraft elevator, bridge structure, quad-bofors antiaircraft gun emplacement on the forward end of the stack structure.
(left to right) wire coral decorates the side of the bridge structure; inside the battle bridge; a colorfully overgrown staircase on the starboard side of the hull beneath the aft 5-inch gun turret
(left to right) profile of Saratoga's massive bow; wire coral surrounding the carrier's forward hawsepipe; Saratoga towers over the tail of an aircraft lying on the lagoon bottom just beneath the ship's stem
For me the essence of the Saratoga was her aircraft, and her aircraft wrecks are so fascinating I built them a webpage all their own:
2023 Bikini Aircraft Wrecks Page
By war's end the Saratoga was bristling with anti-aircraft guns, added in a series of nearly continuous modifications to the ship during the war. Most were arranged in gun tubs along the edges of the flight deck, and while some of these were removed for the Bikini bomb tests, a variety still remain. (top row, left to right) A 5-inch twin turret forward of the bridge structure; a single 5"/38 gun just forward of the twin turret, which can be seen in the background; Sam Robinson examines a quad-Bofor mount at the forward end of the stack structure. (bottom row, left to right) the business end of a quad-Bofor emplacement; the aft twin 5-inch turret; a 20mm Oerlikon gun that has fallen from the stern and landed upright on the bottom beneath the aircraft carrier's stern.
1/350 scale model of USS Saratoga as she appeared in the late stages of the war. Built by the author from the Trumpeter kit, heavily modified to her late war configuration. In the foreground are 1/72 scale models of the aircraft on board at the time of the Baker blast; at left, SB2C-4E Helldiver, at right, TBM-3E Avenger. The backdrop behind the model shows underwater photos of the wreck and aircraft from both 1996 and 2023.


1. "The Archeology of the Atomic Bomb: A Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment of the Sunken Fleet of Operation Crossroads at Bikini and Kwajelein Atoll Lagoons." U.S. National Park Service, Submerged Cultural Resources Unit, 1991.

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