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Navy divers will join a team of Newport News-based archaeologists in the Graveyard of the Atlantic this week for a daring attempt to save the defining feature of one of history's most famous warships.
Operating from a giant barge moored 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C., more than 120 sailors will dive around the clock on the wreck of the USS Monitor, the pioneering Civil War vessel that clashed with the CSS Virginia - also known as the Merrimack - in the first Battle of the Ironclads. They hope to overcome the site's notorious weather, treacherous currents and 240-foot depths to recover the Monitor's 120-ton armored gun turret - the revolutionary weapon that signaled the end of the sail-powered, wooden-hulled fighting vessel and the birth of the modern battleship.
"This is the icon of the icon - the thing that made the Monitor famous," says marine archaeologist John Broadwater, head of the federal Monitor National Marine Sanctuary office in Newport News.
"There's a huge amount of work to be done - and tons of material to be sifted through and moved - before we can get down to the tricky job of bringing the turret back to the surface. But it's got to be done if we're going to save it."
Designed by pioneering Swedish-American engineer John Ericsson, the hastily constructed Monitor steamed into Hampton Roads just hours after the powerful Virginia emerged from a Confederate navy yard and wreaked havoc on the wooden fleet enforcing the Union blockade.
Both warships met the next morning off Newport News Point, with thousands of spectators witnessing their thunderous four-hour duel. Although the momentous battle was inconclusive, the superiority of the armored hull, which the Virginia had demonstrated with lethal persuasiveness the day before, was no longer in doubt after the smoke had cleared. Even more impressive was the revolution in naval warfare heralded by Ericsson's ingenious gun turret.
"The Monitor's gun turret could rotate in any direction, so you no longer had to maneuver your ship in order to aim your guns," says naval historian Joe Judge of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
"That made the Monitor faster and more flexible, in addition to being well-protected by its armor - and it quickly became the prototype for the battleships that followed."
Despite its unprecedented killing power, the Monitor survived for less than a year after its famous March 9, 1862, battle.
Designed primarily as a coastal vessel, it foundered and sank while under tow off Cape Hatteras during a fierce New Year's Eve storm, tumbling over and coming to rest upside down on top of its detached turret.
Marine archaeologists found the lost wreck in 1973. But only after the deteriorating effects of salt water and the currents began to accelerate dramatically in the early 1990s did the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages the sanctuary, develop a plan to save the most historic parts of the decaying vessel.
Working in partnership with The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, the Navy and NOAA teams shored up the hull in 1998, then began recovering such technological milestones as the propeller and steam engine through a series of increasingly ambitious and well-financed expeditions.
This year's $7.1 million mission, financed largely by a grant from the Department of Defense's Legacy Resource Fund, will attempt to bring the methodical, step-by-step plan to its ultimate conclusion. Yet, even after the successful dives of recent years, no one thinks that the job of retrieving the 120-ton turret will be easy.
"We've learned a lot of lessons about diving on the Monitor," says Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, head of Mobile Diving & Salvage Unit 2, the Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base salvage unit that's led the Navy's efforts.
"But we're concerned about the weather. It's always a problem -- and if we lose more than 20 percent of our days to it, we're going to be in trouble. We're also trying to recover something that's very fragile and very heavy - and that's positioned in a far more precarious way than anything we've worked on in the past."
Trapped under the remains of the Monitor's hull and its massive 5-foot-tall armor belt, the turret is like a pearl in a giant iron shell - and freeing it from the overhanging wreck will require skill and daring.
Two groups of divers will labor in 12-hour shifts around the clock, Scholley says, with each team guided by an archaeologist who will monitor their progress through a combination of helmet-mounted, stationary and remotely operated video cameras.
Most of the divers will remain tethered to the surface, operating with a mixed-gas breathing system that enables them to work on the bottom for a maximum of 40 minutes before they must begin their ascent and the torturously slow process of decompression. Others, however, will step from pressurized living quarters and descend to the wreck in a pressurized diving bell, making it possible for them to toil in four-hour shifts before returning to their submarinelike berths on the barge.
The divers' first job will be to clear the more than 100 tons of debris from the Monitor's upside-down deck, sifting carefully for artifacts as they go. Soon after that task starts, other divers will begin disassembling and cutting away more than 40 feet of the massive 1-ton-per-foot armor belt that hangs ominously above the turret.
Once these obstructions have been cleared and set aside for later recovery, the divers will enter the top of the upside-down turret, intent on removing an estimated 75 to 100 tons of sediment. Inside, they expect to find the Monitor's two 15,750-pound Dahlgren guns, which must be secured in place along with the gun carriages and other large artifacts before the turret can be hauled to the surface.
Broadwater and Scholley worry that this part of the six-week expedition could chew up valuable time. But it must be conducted carefully to avoid losing any hidden information or artifacts, possibly including the remains of some of the 16 sailors who lost their lives when the Monitor sank.
In the event of such a tragic find, a forensic archaeologist from the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii will be on hand to oversee their removal. The sensitive job could slow the expedition down even more, as divers try to preserve any links among the remains and such identifying features as seabags, uniform buttons and dog tags.
"We have no way of knowing how many of the crew - if any - went down with the ship," Broadwater says.
"But if any of them did, the turret is the likely place to find them. That was the only way out."
Should the task of handling the remains prove too difficult to complete underwater, divers will be instructed to secure any unexplored sediment in place, leaving it to be excavated on the surface after the turret has been recovered.
The resulting lift could weigh as much as 175 tons, says Williamsburg mechanical engineer Jim Kelly, whose diving services firm - Phoenix International - designed the spiderlike apparatus that will be used to pull the turret and its contents up from the bottom.
Guided into place on top of the turret, the eight-legged, 25-ton claw will reach down and grasp the bottom of the iron wall, distributing the load over so many points that the likelihood of damaging any one section is greatly lessened. It also will avoid harm to the lightweight rifle shield thought to lie crumpled between the turret's roof and the ocean floor.
Once the entire assembly is raised and mated to an accompanying support platform, it will be lifted through the currents and put on the deck of the recovery barge. Kelly hopes to be there to see his job completed - then watch the expedition transport its historic prize back to a giant conservation tank at The Mariners' Museum.
"There are a lot of unknowns, of course, and we have to hope that we've been able to accommodate all of them in our design," he says.
"But we're all going to feel pretty nervous until that thing sets down safely on the barge."
Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at email@example.com