USS Conestoga (AT 54)

Three Miles from Safety: The Story of the USS Conestoga

When you think of the might and power of the U.S. Navy, the first thing that comes to mind is not likely to be a tugboat. More likely, you picture a formidable aircraft carrier or a well-armed battleship, operated by hundreds and often thousands of sailors. A tug is an afterthought, if it's a thought at all. So why is the USS Conestoga -- a Navy fleet tug -- so important?

On March 23, 2016, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) and the U.S. Navy announced the discovery of the wreck of USS Conestoga within the waters of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California. The discovery by the ONMS Maritime Heritage Program solves a 95 year-old mystery. Conestoga sailed from San Francisco Bay on March 25, 1921 and vanished with 56 men. Until now, what happened, and where the wreck and its crew lay, has been described as one of the top maritime mysteries in U.S Navy history. Conestoga's final resting place in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is federally protected under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act and the Sunken Military Craft Act.

Early History

Conestoga was built for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company by the Sparrow's Point Shipyard of the Maryland Steel Company in Baltimore to tow coal barges. The tug was launched on Friday, November 12, 1903. Maryland Steel delivered Conestoga to the railroad owner on February 6, 1904. Conestoga hauled coal along the coast to keep the railroad running. According an article in the trade journal Marine Engineering in 1904, "These tugs are under steam, with but short intermissions, for months at a time. As soon as they bring one tow of barges into port another one for the return trip is assembled and the tug boat starts out to sea with only a few hours' delay for coaling and taking on provisions and stores."

photo of Conestoga as a navy fleet tug san francisco chronicle front page headline about the disappearence of the Conestoga

Conestoga Joins the Navy

With the outbreak of World War I and United States' subsequent entry into the conflict, the U.S. Navy purchased Conestoga in September 1917. The Dictionary of American Fighting Ships briefly notes Conestoga's naval career:

Assigned to the Submarine Force, Conestoga carried out towing duties along the Atlantic coast, transported supplies and guns, escorted convoys to Bermuda and the Azores, and cruised with the American Patrol Detachment in the vicinity of the Azores. At the end of the war she was attached to Naval Base No. 13, Azores, from which she towed disabled ships and escorted convoys until her arrival at New York 26 September 1919. She was then assigned to harbor tug duty in the 5th Naval District at Norfolk. Ordered to duty as station ship at Tutuila, American Samoa, Conestoga underwent alterations and fitting out at Norfolk, and cleared Hampton Roads 18 November 1920 for the Pacific. Arriving at San Diego 7 January 1921, she continued to Mare Island 17 February for voyage repairs. Conestoga put to sea from Mare Island for Samoa 25 March 1921. No further word was ever received from the ship or from her crew of 56. A lifeboat with the letter "C" on the bow was located by the steamship Senator 17 May 1921 in 18°15' N., 115°42' W. but a thorough search of the islands in the vicinity by all available naval and air forces, could locate neither men nor wreckage. Conestoga was declared lost with all her crew 30 June 1921.

Final Voyage of the USS Conestoga

Nov. 18, 1920 - Left Norfolk, VA with U.S. Navy barge #468 for the Pacific

Jan. 21, 1921 – Arrived at San Diego, CA 

Feb. 17, 1921 - Departed for Mare Island, CA

Mar. 25, 1921 - Left Mare Island for Pearl Harbor, HI

June 30, 1921 - Declared lost with all crew members

planned route that the uss conestoge was to take from norfolk, va to pearl harbor, hi

Discovering Conestoga

During a Maritime Heritage cruise in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in September 2014, a previously undocumented multibeam sonar target thought to be a shipwreck was investigated. It was found to be an unknown vessel of late 19th or early 20th century vintage whose characteristics matched none of the ships known to have been lost in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Utilizing a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) launched from the R/V Fulmar, three survey dives were conducted to characterize the target, which proved to be a 170-foot-long steel-hulled steam-powered oceangoing tug.

The wreck was indeed a "mystery" and its discovery was announced with other wrecks as part of the 2014 survey. The wreck was identified as USS Conestoga after reviewing historical accounts of tugs that departed the Golden Gate and were never seen again and a detailed analysis of the "mystery" tug's features. A subsequent mission to the wreck in October 2015 provided additional information on the site with selective ROV penetration of the hull and careful examination of diagnostic features which included a 3-inch/50 caliber gun.

Download the archaeological report

 

James Delgado, Director of Maritime Heritage for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, explains the importance of the discovery of the USS Conestoga.

Crew

Ship's Company

Commanding Officer

Officers

Chief Petty Officers

Gunnery Department

Deck Division

Engineers Division

Photos Credit: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

  • Wilfred M. Aasgard, Seaman Second Class
  • Lee Joseph Alleman, Seaman
  • Joseph Harold Allen, Seaman
  • Charles Joseph Balint, Seaman
  • Alias Steven Benard, Seaman
  • Sylvester Craig Blalock, Machinist Mate
  • Joseph Bodie, Seaman
  • Marvin Henry Bower, Fireman First Class
  • Arthur Brignac, Seaman Second Class
  • Nelson Eugene Burkhart, Quartermaster Third Class
  • Henry Grady Butler, Fireman Second Class
  • Russell R. Crabtree, Third Class Fireman
  • Joe Earle Davis, Engineman Second Class
  • Charles Depiante, Electrician Third Class
  • William Jesse Dill, Engineman First Class
  • William Joseph Donovan, Shipfitter Second Class
  • James Flynn, Water Tender
  • William Rudolph France, Fireman First Class
  • Edward Bernard Anthony Goodin, Second Machinist Mate
  • Roy Evart Hoffses, Boatswain
  • Hans Jensen, Fireman Second Class
  • William Walter Johnson, Fireman First Class
  • Ernest Larkin Jones, Lieutenant
  • George Franklin Kaler, Chief Machinist's Mate
  • Edwin Peter Kortis, Seaman
  • Joseph Matthew Krueger, Yeoman First Class
  • Eryle Bond Laverick, Fireman Third Class
  • Theodore Marius Liisberg, Machinist's Mate Second Class
  • Louis Arthur Liscomb, Machinist
  • William Thomas Manchester, Quartermaster Third Class
  • Louis Anthony Marchione, Fireman Third Class
  • Clarence Leroy McIlwain, Seaman
  • Martin Phillip McKeigh, Quartermaster First Class
  • Perry Lee McNett, Machinists' Mate First Class
  • Willie Oblige Murray, Ships's Cook Third Class
  • Wallace Pearl, Mess Attendant Third Class
  • Wendell Plummer, Seaman Second Class
  • John Wesley Powell, Chief Carpenter's Mate
  • Tony Powers, Fireman First Class
  • Thomas Cleary Quinn, Pharmacist's Mate First Class
  • John Leo Reilly, Electrician
  • Harvey Herbert Reinbold, Boatswain
  • Bernhardt W. Schoenfeld, Seaman Second Class
  • Joseph Lawrence Shetzline, Fireman Second Class
  • Fred Shook, Seaman Second Class
  • Harry Benjamin Shue, Ship's Cook Third Class
  • Wilbur Standley, Ship's Cook Third Class
  • Bledsoe Sherman Toms, Fireman First Class
  • Arber Bryan Towery, Ship's Cook Fourth Class
  • William Raymond Wallace, Gunner's Mate First Class
  • Charles Ingerson Westover, Chief Water Tender
  • Hugh William White, Coxwain
  • Benson Charles Williams, Gunner's Mate Third Class
  • Edward Wilson, Mess Attendant First Class
  • James Monroe Wooten, Jr., Hospital Apprentice First Class
  • Elias Melvin Zimmerman, Chief Boatswain's Mate

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