WASHINGTON — The discovery of a century-old shipwreck off the San Francisco coast has resolved one of the U.S. Navy's greatest maritime mysteries. And for Violet Pammer, it resolved the question of what happened to her Uncle Harvey.
"I grew up with Uncle Harvey's picture hanging on the wall. We never knew what happened," said Pammer, a Northampton, Pennsylvania, resident and the great-niece of Harvey Reinbold, boatswain of the USS Conestoga. "It was supposed to be his last voyage."
The Conestoga, a tugboat, had a crew of 56 when it departed the Golden Gate on March 25, 1921, on its way to Pearl Harbor and eventually American Samoa.
When the Conestoga failed to arrive at Pearl Harbor as scheduled, the Navy launched what was the greatest search and rescue effort of the 20th century, surpassed only years later by the search for Amelia Earhart. There had been some thought that a garbled communication received near Hawaii might have come from the Conestoga, but nothing was found. There was little expectation that the newly refurbished Conestoga would sink so soon into her voyage. In June 1921, the Navy declared the Conestoga and her crew lost.
On Wednesday, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Navy announced they have found the Conestoga in the waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary about 30 miles off the coast.
The waters, home to great white sharks and migrating whales, also serve as the final resting place for more than 300 shipwrecks, which NOAA has been trying to map in recent years.
The identification of the Conestoga was a yearslong effort that featured a mix of research, dangerous work in shark-infested waters and a dash of good luck, researchers said.
It began in 2009 when a survey near the Farallon Islands identified a probable shipwreck. In 2014, NOAA sent a research vessel, the Fulmar, outfitted with a Remotely Operated Vehicle about the size of a large piece of luggage that plunged nearly 200 feet to obtain high-quality video and still images of the wreck.
Lt. Ernest L. Jones, a Navy commanding officer for the tugboat Conestoga, stands alongside his ship at San Diego, Calif, circa early 1921. He was among those lost when Conestoga disappeared after leaving San Diego in March 1921.
Photo Credit: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command via AP
The ROV dives revealed "a wreck of some age, festooned with marine life," said James Delgado, a NOAA investigator. Photos show the hull encrusted with colorful sea anemones, teeming with rockfish, eel and even octopus.
"The wreck is now a place of life, as well as a memorial," Delgado said.
One image provided what turned out to be a smoking gun in identifying the Conestoga — a well-preserved, 3-inch/50 caliber gun inside the ship's forward hull.
The gun was crucial because of a series of photographs taken of the Conestoga and its crew in San Diego, months before it disappeared, while the ship was undergoing repairs. One shows six sailors from the gunnery department posing with the gun, an exact match to what was found in the wreck.
Several dozen family members attended Wednesday's announcement, including Diane Gollnitz of Timonium, Maryland, the granddaughter of Conestoga commander Ernest L. Jones.
"It brings to closure this big mystery we had in our family," said Gollnitz, who never knew her grandfather. She said he "was raised on a farm in landlocked Kansas, but he read books about the sea and always wanted to join the Navy."
The wreck of the U.S. Navy tugboat USS Conestoga is seen on sonar in at a depth of 185 feet in the waters of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California. Conestoga departed San Francisco Bay on March 25, 1921, and vanished with 56 men. The discovery of the wreck solves a 95 year-old mystery.
Photo Credit: Navy photo courtesy of NOAA
Laurie Clabbers of Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania, Pammer's daughter and the great-great niece of Harvey Reinbold, had been doing genealogical research on Uncle Harvey the day that NOAA officials sent her an email advising her of the discovery.
"We always felt bad that he didn't have any descendants," Clabbers said of Reinbold, a square-jawed sailor who had just married months before and was on his last voyage with the Navy. "You see in the pictures, he was this handsome guy; he had like a movie-star presence."
Delgado and the other researchers believe the Conestoga ran into a gale in bad weather shortly after departure and began taking on water. They tried to reach safe harbor at Southeast Farallon Island, but didn't quite make it.
Dennis McGinn, an assistant Navy secretary who has sailed in those waters, said "it can get really, really rough" on that stretch of ocean. He said the sea is a fitting resting place for sailors who died as heroes.
"Think about the excitement these young men had ... 'Join the Navy and see the world.' They were headed to a tropical paradise with a great stop in Hawaii," McGinn said. "They were on a mission and they were ready to go."