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Battle of the Atlantic Mission

Blog: June 6, 2011

By Nathan Richards, Ph.D.
Interim Program Head
Maritime Heritage, UNC-Coastal Studies Institute
Associate Professor
Program in Maritime Studies, Department of History, East Carolina University

The process of research is one which can be planned with great detail, but never fully anticipated until the research vessel becomes a work site. Despite the countless hours our team has been engaged in the historical research, theoretical ponderings, and fine-detail planning, one brutal truth faces all expedition personnel:

Somehow, we must successfully launch and retrieve a sensitive multi-million dollar device off a rocking research vessel so that it may travel hundreds of meters (potentially a thousand feet!) to the bottom of an expansive ocean in search of shipwrecks.

Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) sits on the dock before being loaded onto the RV-8501.
Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) sits on the dock before being loaded onto the RV-8501. (NOAA)
There is no time this becomes more obvious to us than as we watch the 12 foot-long AUV (Autonomous Underwater Vehicle) bob and sway off the stern of the SRVx, as it takes its first short, but precarious steps from cradle to water. The fear and excitement is beyond words.

So too, the panic and exhilaration becomes tangible as the retrieval of the undersea vehicle yields first results--a gray mass of sonar imagery which to the trained eye explodes with information about the path taken by the vehicle and the complex bathymetry of the seabed (and the many layers of stone and sediment that compose it). But it also holds the slim promise discovering long-lost shipwrecks. While day one's results have not yet exposed the resting place of any of the ships we seek, it has proved that the process is sound, and that if there are sites to be found in our search area, we will find them.

But why do such things? Why the risk? Of course, there are the reasons that pertain to finding the remains of sunken ships so that they can finally be acknowledged as both the graves of the valiant, and memorials to those who made the greatest of sacrifices. These goals, as worthy as they may be, are achievable through archaeological methods, but do not, necessarily fit the archaeologist's desired function of "reconstructing the past." Good archaeological research invariably seeks to do many other things as well.

One of the most important functions it serves is to be an independent "test" of history-by which we specifically mean a way to reinforce, redefine, or refute our currently held beliefs about the past. War exists within a great fog of decision-making--as torpedoes-explode, and sonar pings seek elusive targets, there is the potential for the "facts" to be lost. We can see this in the way the accounts of victors and vanquished are often miles apart. With the story of the KS-520 convoy, and the Battle of the Atlantic, generally we have such an opportunity to assess the behaviors of the hunter and hunted, and to formulate new ways of seeing and understanding conflict through approaches not influenced by cultural mores of the today, or the day they were put on paper. So too, we hope by reconstructing the events of these days we may come to understand human behavior in war greater than we did before.

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