Three Miles from Safety: The Story of the USS Conestoga

May 2016

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?

The USS Conestoga vanished after leaving the San Francisco Bay in March of 1921 and was never seen again. The ship was carrying 56 sailors, many of whom were making their way to the ship's final duty station in American Samoa. But Conestoga failed to appear in Pearl Harbor, its first stop. The Navy launched an exhaustive effort that included every available vessel and aircraft in the vicinity. Not until Amelia Earhart disappeared would a larger and more expansive search take place.

On a recent expedition to Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of San Francisco, to help characterize sonar targets and connect them to known shipwrecks within the sanctuary, an unexpected blip appeared on the sonar some 27 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge and 2000 miles from Pearl Harbor, Oahu.

As the team of scientists watched and waited for a remotely operated vehicle to descend to the site of the unknown wreck, they had little sense that they would be cracking open one of the coldest case files in the history of the U.S. Navy. For almost a century this missing tug baffled historians, left holes in the hearts of families, and inspired the public to wonder: What ever happened to the USS Conestoga?

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