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Navy recovers fuel from sunken ship once used for atomic bomb practice

USS Prinz Eugen (IX-300), a former German heavy cruiser, passing through the Gatun locks, Panama Canal, on 15 March 1946. (U.S. Department of Defense/National Archives/Released)

Navy divers finished recovering an estimated 250,000 gallons of oil Monday from a captured warship that survived World War II and two atomic bomb tests before sinking 72 years ago.

The oil extraction from the Prinz Eugen, one of the few WWII German cruisers to be surrendered to the Allies intact, began Sept. 1 off Enubuj Island, a part of Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands.

Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 1, with support from the USNS Salvor and the commercial tanker Humber, recovered 97 percent of the oil aboard Prinz Eugen, a Navy statement said.

The oil was removed due to fears first discussed in a 1974 U.S. government report that a typhoon could strike the area and cause a major environmental disaster.

It was unclear from the statement whether any significant amount of oil has leaked since the ship sank; however, there are no longer any active leaks, said Lt. Cmdr. Tim Emge, who headed the salvage operation for the Navy.

The waters in the region are known for their vibrant coral reefs and aquatic life. Two years of preparation “enabled our success in this very important mission to protect the pristine waters of Kwajalein Atoll from the risk of a catastrophic oil release,” said Stephanie Bocek, project manager at the Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving command.

The salvage team placed nine anchors to hold the two support ships over the wreck. Divers then drilled holes on top of each oil tank in a process called “hot tapping.”

“Hot tapping allows us to safely tie into the many tanks without leakage by creating a secure opening to place the valve, hot tap machine and pipe for pumping from the highest point on the tank,” Emge said.

The Prinz Eugen began service just prior to WWII and sailed along with the battleship Bismarck in May 1941 during the Battle of the Denmark Strait. The two ships combined to sink the battlecruiser HMS Hood, the pride of the British navy, and damaged the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales in a defeat that sent shockwaves through the world at the time.

Days later, British warships and bombers cornered and destroyed the Bismarck. But Prinz Eugen had been diverted elsewhere and continued service in the Baltic. After the German surrender in 1945, the British took control and then turned the ship over to the U.S. Navy, after which it became the USS Prinz Eugen.

It sailed with dozens of other ships to Bikini Atoll in 1946, where the U.S. conducted two atomic bomb tests in July 1946. Prinz Eugen anchored about 1,000 yards from the center of the explosion in at least once of the tests.

The ship survived relatively intact but began leaking. Prinz Eugen was deemed too radioactive to repair. Months later it sank in shallow water after being towed to Kwajalein, which is now the home to a U.S. Army garrison and a ballistic missile test site.

The rusting wreck, which has since been taken over by marine life, sits upside down with its two propellers and rudder sticking out of the water. In the past several years, the atoll — located 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii — has become a popular wreck diving site.

The U.S. transferred ownership of the cruiser to the Marshall Islands government in 1986. In 2010, the Marshall Islands requested the U.S. provide technical support and funding for the fuel removal. The Army funded the oil removal after congressional authorization during fiscal year 2018.


This story has been corrected to reflect the German ship “Bismarck” which was not affiliated with the U.S. Navy. This story was originally published by Stars & Stripes.


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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