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Explorer Insights

What’s More Valuable?

Late December 1942 saw the evacuation of Manila, and Allied forces led by General Douglas MacArthur were in full retreat down the Bataan Peninsula. By January, just weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack that started the Pacific war, the situation in the Philippines was dire, with remaining forces preparing to make a last stand on the island fortress of Corregidor. The 13,000 American and Filipino troops and thousands of fleeing civilians were desperate for food, medical supplies, and ammunition. A particular need was anti-aircraft shells to stem the deluge of bombs falling on Allied positions. A naval and air blockade prevented supply ships from approaching, so the Navy called on the submarine force to help. USS Trout (SS-202), commanded by Mike Fenno, was loaded at Pearl Harbor with 3,500 rounds of vital munitions, and slipped into Manila Bay on 3 February under cover of darkness. Weaving a winding passage through a minefield, the boat reached the docks and quickly unloaded her cargo. Having removed most of her ballast and even torpedoes to make room for the cargo, Fenno had a problem: he needed to add weight to be able to submerge. He drew ten torpedoes from the stocks salvaged from the base at Manila, and 27,000 gallons of fuel oil, but was still over twenty tons too light. He requested twenty-five tons of sandbags but was denied, as sandbags were a precious commodity on Corregidor, used to construct defensive positions. The defenders offered an alternative, something very heavy that was quite valueless to them: twenty tons of gold and silver that had been removed from Manila banks to the island fortress for safekeeping.

Hurrying to finish before dawn, solders and sailors loaded several hundred burnished yellow bars of gold, weighing about forty pounds and valued (in 1942) at $23,000 each. Of course, to the defenders at Corregidor, they were worthless. To the six tons of gold was added heavy sacks of silver pesos, each containing a thousand coins and together weighting eighteen tons. The $10 million ballast was carefully inventoried and a receipt was presented to the captain. Fenno hastily signed it, adding a note that he had not been able to personally verify the tallies.

Hastening to sea before daybreak, Trout submerged and spent the day quietly resting on the bottom. The next evening, she rendezvoused with a patrol boat that delivered a final load of mail, securities, and other items. On the return voyage, regardless of the unique cargo on board, the submarine reverted to its war patrol mission, attacking several ships and sinking a freighter. Upon arrival back at Pearl, Fenno was hailed a hero and awarded the Army Distinguish Service Cross. But he had a problem. According to the inventory, one gold bar was missing! An inch-by-inch search of the ship uncovered the misplaced bar in the galley, where one of the cooks claimed he was using it as a paper weight.

The More Things Change …

Portland Maine author and historian Lincoln Paine’s award winning opus The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World (Knopf, 2013) starts at the beginning of man’s quest to use the world’s oceans and rivers for exploration, commerce, and warfare. From the first venturing of humans into Oceania, through the Roman Empire, world wars, the nuclear age, and everything between, Paine strives to “change the way you see the world” by focusing on the patterns of history shaped by the seas. Among the book’s 600 well-footnoted pages are many interesting vignettes of people, places, ships, and events, including a mention of Kyrenia II, the replica trading vessel fashioned after a 4th-century BC Greek merchant ship. Nauticos helped build a second replica, Kyrenia Liberty, that sailed in the 2004 Olympic Games opening ceremonies in Athens. Nauticos also discovered another ancient shipwreck along theorized trading routes discussed in Lincoln’s book.

It is often intriguing and profitable to relate historical accounts to current events, and Imperial Rome is fertile ground for such comparisons. Paine mentions that a few Romans of that era were extraordinarily wealthy. The philosopher Seneca was said to be worth 300 million sesterces (bronze coins), and Pliny the Elder upwards of 400 million; by comparison, one could buy two loaves of bread or a  jug of wine for one sesterce, or a donkey for 500. It seem that the “top 1%” is hardly a new phenomenon. Nor are trade deficits. Pliny complained of the 50 million sesterces a year flowing to Asian markets via maritime trade from wealthy Romans who enjoyed luxury items such as jewels, ivory, silks, and spices. The emperor Tiberius considered curbing this hemorrhaging of cash by imposing a tariff of sorts in the form of “sumptuary” laws that sought to limit private expenditures on certain items. In the end, nothing was done and trade continued unabated.

These and other fascinating tales of history await a reading of Lincoln Paine’s remarkable book.

Finding the San José

Explosion of San José during Wager’s Action. Oil on canvas by Samuel Scott c1772

Details behind the discovery of the world’s richest treasure galleon were just announced, revealing that a search team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) worked with the Columbian navy and Maritime Archaeology Consultants to locate the famous shipwreck off the coast of Cartagena in 2015. Using the Remus AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle), the team led by Mike Purcell located the wreck site with sidescan sonar at a depth of over 600 meters, and documented the site with high-resolution photography, revealing scattered artifacts in exquisite detail. The AUV, capable of searching as deep as 6,000 meters, is the same system that found the wreckage of Air France 447 in 2011 and was used during searches for Amelia Earhart’s Electra last spring with Nauticos. Vice President of Operations for WHOI, Rob Munier, explained that the government of Colombia has claimed the galleon as part of its submerged cultural heritage, and aims to protect and preserve the ship and all its sunken contents. The location of the wreck remains a secret. See WHOI News for more details.

San José was a 1,200 ton, 64-gun galleon, launched in 1698. In June of 1708, the vessel was sailing as flagship of a treasure fleet of more than a dozen vessels when it encountered a British squadron of warships not far from its destination of Cartagena. In the action that followed, the powder magazines of San José detonated, destroying the ship, killing all but eleven of the 600-man crew, and sending 11-million gold coins along with silver, emeralds, and other treasure to the bottom. The cargo has been valued as high as $17 billion. Many organizations have sought rights to search for the famous wreck, and a group called the Sea Search Armada conducted offshore operations in 1981, but failed to come to terms with the Columbia government  regarding the outcome of any salvage.

Congratulations to The team at WHOI and the other members of the search group. We will look forward to further details as the Colombian Government plans to build a museum and world-class conservation laboratory to preserve and publicly display the wreck’s contents, including cannons, ceramics, and other artifacts.

Has Amelia Earhart Really Been Found?

“Don’t bet on it. A recent media frenzy that linked the missing aviator to bones recovered long ago on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro missed a crucial point. She probably wasn’t anywhere near the place.”

Carl Hoffman dressed in local garb for his bus trip across the Salang Pass in northern Afghanistan. Courtesy Carl Hoffman.

Carl Hoffman, journalist and adventure traveler, summarized the status of the search for Amelia Earhart in this article in Outside Magazine. Carl should know something about the topic: he was sent by National Geographic as an independent journalist to cover the Nauticos 2002 search expedition, and has been following the story ever since.

Hoffman suggests that no claim offered to date challenges the evidence that Amelia was somewhere near Howland Island when she ran out of fuel and was lost in the deep ocean. In particular, there’s nothing about the bones in and of themselves that establish them as being Earhart’s, even making the dubious assumption that she was there in the first place.

We at Nauticos agree, and will strive to continue the search for Amelia’s Lockheed Electra on the sea floor near Howland Island.

Learn more about Carl Hoffman and check out his latest book: The Last Wild Men of Borneo.

Contact from Space

Nauticos explorers during the 2017 Eustace Earhart Discovery Expedition enjoyed a rare opportunity to have a few minutes’ radio contact with members of the International Space Station via amateur (Ham) radio. (Incidentally, the astronauts on ISS were the closest humans to the explorers on the research vessel Mermaid Vigilance when it passed overhead about 250 miles up … compared to island inhabitants over 800 miles away and Honolulu about 1,600 miles distant!) Read more about this in Meridian Passages. It is customary among Hams to follow up contacts with “QSL” cards, basically a post card that confirms one amateur radio station’s contact with another amateur radio station. Tom Vinson (call sign NY0V) recently received a QSL card from astronaut Astronaut Shane Kimbrough (KE5HOD), shown here.

The ISS crew kindly took time out of their VERY busy schedule on two occasions to talk to us, conversations lasting less than 10 minutes as the ISS in low-Earth orbit dropped below the horizon as quickly as it appeared. A custom-built antenna was hand-pointed at the Station as it flew by. During those times various members of our team spoke with Kimbrough, Peggy Whitson, and Russian Cosmonaut Sergey Ryzhikov (with our Ukrainian crew members, in Russian!) It was a special and unique priviledge to connect explorers beyond the top of the biosphere with those working at its bottom.

73 (Best regards, in Ham-speak)

Finding Amelia at National Geographic

Amelia Earhart disappeared without a trace over the Central Pacific in 1937 while attempting an around the world flight. More than eighty years have passed, but the famous flyer, businesswoman, feminist, writer, and adventurer remains a popular figure. Her disappearance is the greatest aviation mystery of the 20th Century.

Dave Jourdan addresses crowd of nearly 400 at National Geographic’s Grosvenor Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

The National Geographic Society has long been fan of Amelia, and awarded her the Society’s Special Medal in 1932. The Society has followed expeditions and supported investigations into her disappearance over the years. Last week, National Geographic invited Dave Jourdan to speak at the Grosvenor Auditorium in Washington, D.C. about the quest to find Earhart’s Lockheed Electra plane in the Pacific near Howland Island. Dave has led three Nauticos expeditions to the area over the last fifteen years seeking the aircraft, thought to be resting at depths of 18,000 feet. A crowd of nearly 400 assembled for the talk, which also included speakers who discussed alternative theories about her demise. President of the Society, Gary Knell, led off the proceedings, and Senior Program Officer Dr. Aurora Elmore moderated the event. A panel discussion and audience Q&A rounded out the evening. Several members of past Earhart search expeditions were in attendance.

A New Idea About Amelia Earhart

Amelia wearing nurse’s aid uniform, Toronto, 1918

As many of you know, Amelia would have been 120 years old this week, had she flown off course, crashed on a reef, was captured and jailed as a spy, escaped to New Jersey via the Witness Protection Program, faked her death, moved to Florida, and discovered the Fountain of Youth. We can’t prove that none of that happened … yet!

Meanwhile, here is a very interesting take on the matter by none other than Garrison Keillor: A New Idea. In the July 25th Washington Post, he says:

“I need to know about Amelia. She was a sweetheart, a Kansas tomboy who was not out to make a statement so much as she simply loved to fly and feel the wind in her hair. In newsreels, she grins as she climbs out of cockpits, a dashing feminist in the Age of Dowagers. She wore pants. She was lithe and limber. She enjoyed her fame. She flew solo across the Atlantic, solo from Hawaii to California, she was the forerunner of the spirited feminists we’ve known and loved, who bore no grudge against men but prevailed thanks to wit and smarts and perseverance and a terrific smile.”

Please read the rest here. Meanwhile, we’ll keep trying!

Amelia in the News

Excerpt of artwork by Geraldine Aikman.
WCHS 6 News Anchors Lee Goldberg and Amanda Hill

Between bone sniffing pooches, bogus photos, and countless media posts, the 80th anniversary of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance has spawned a lot of news. Echoes of the over-hyped Jaluit photo had hardly begun to subside before the image was soundly debunked. Meanwhile, Nauticos has been working steadily to scan the seafloor near Howland Island where Amelia was headed, seeking her lost Lockheed Electra in the deep ocean. Our last expedition, concluded in April, failed to find any trace of the plane, but eliminated another large area of the seafloor. Though we don’t make a big deal about what we haven’t found, local media has taken note of our efforts, including a very nice article in the local Southern Maine Tourist News, and an interview on Portland’s WCSH Channel 6. We appreciate the support of our friends and neighbors, and look forward to continuing the search.

The Tourist News issue, entitled Secrets of the Sea also included a great article about the coastal environment, threats and survival, featuring wonderful artwork by local artist Geraldine Aikman.

Click image for Nauticos article









The Jaluit Photo

There is a lot of Earhart news in the air between a dog-sniffing expedition and the photo that has surfaced suggesting that Amelia & Fred were captured and sent to Saipan. The former is comical. All we can say about the photo is it’s hard to fit with any real data, which clearly shows Amelia’s Electra to have been in the vicinity of Howland Island, the pilot sending increasingly desperate messages as she searched for her landing spot, running out of fuel. To have them actually at Jaluit atoll, over 1,000 miles to the northwest, one would have to assume that the Coast Guard and other elements of the government were in cahoots to fake the reports and radio transcripts. And it had to extend to all levels, as we interviewed the last surviving member of the crew, a cook, who said he heard the words coming from the radio room! Of course, that’s what the conspiracy theorists presume.


Others will soon jump to the task of trying to determine the provenance of the photo and second guess the interpretation. A site in the UK has already posted debunking the photo:

The article points out that the photo was taken in the 1940’s, long after Amelia and Fred were supposedly captured and taken eventually to Saipan, where (as the story goes) they died in prison in 1939. Note that the “captives” do not look like they are being guarded and are not wearing the same clothes as Fred and Amelia when they took off from Lae. I have been to Saipan and visited the jail there and talked to a historian who interviewed one of the jailers of the era. He said no Caucasian women were there during that time.


Of course, we’ll be among the first to congratulate anyone who comes up with real evidence. Meanwhile, we’ll continue the search for Amelia’s Electra in the deep waters off Howland Island, where we believe she went down.

Heroes of Midway

Roy Stanley Benson, Lt. Cdr., Executive Officer and Navigator

Roy Benson was born December 7, 1906, in Concord, New Hampshire, exactly thirty-five years before the infamous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Class of 1929.

Lt. Cdr. Roy S. Benson, commanding USS Trigger (SS-237), receives a second Navy Cross from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. USN photo courtesy of Rick Connole.

Benson served as navigator on the submarine USS Nautilus (SS-168), which played a key role in the Battle of Midway. During the engagement, Benson manned the conning tower as the Attack Coordinator. Known affectionately to his crew as “Pigboat Benny,” Benson went on to command the submarine USS Trigger (SS-237) and won two Navy Crosses for valor, operating in enemy controlled waters in the Sea of Japan. Serving under him as a junior officer was Edward Beach, who went on to a storied career and eventually became the best-selling author of the classic submarine tale, Run Silent, Run Deep (1955).

After the war, Benson married the former Vida Connole, widow of Commander David R. Connole who was the last commanding officer of Trigger, lost off Japan in March 1945, just months before the war’s end. Benson went on to a distinguished naval career, rising to Pacific Submarine Fleet Commander (COMSUBPAC), and later serving as Assistant Vice Chief of Naval Operations. He retired as a rear admiral in 1969. Roy Benson departed on eternal patrol from Washington, D.C., February 7, 1995, at the age of eighty-eight.