Preserving the memory of the Monitor sailors

Human InterestArts and CultureArchaeologyUSS MonitorUSS Monitor CenterMariners' Museum

Long before the start of the expedition that recovered the USS Monitor gun turret from the bottom of the Atlantic in 2002, Navy divers and NOAA archaeologists working to save the historic Civil War ship knew they might run into the remains of lost sailors.

More than a dozen crewmen were believed to have gone down with the doomed ironclad in a Cape Hatteras, N.C., storm, and the only escape from below decks was through a hatch in the top of turret.

Not until the first glints of human bone appeared some 235 feet below the surface, however, did the grim reality of the sailors' sacrifice transform the historic naval artifact into an iron coffin. That's when the challenge of recovering the milestone turret from the unpredictable currents and seas of the Graveyard of the Atlantic took on the added weight of a rescue mission.

Beginning with the divers and archaeologists — then continuing with the conservators at the USS Monitor Center — that undertaking has grown to include not only the retrieval of the skeletal remains but also the care of the personal effects discovered in the meticulous follow-up excavations of the concretion-filled cylinder.

The work continues today in the preservation of artifacts that range from overcoats, shoes, boots and spoons to a penknife, a comb and a gold ring that may be a wedding band.

"It's going to be extremely emotional," says Monitor Center Curator Anna Gibson Holloway, describing the feelings of many of the ship's guardians as they prepare to attend the interment of two sailors' remains at Arlington National Cemetery today.

"We've worked so intently and so long with the turret and these artifacts that we feel very close to these guys. We feel like we know them. They're like members of our family."

Among the first to embrace the lost crewmen were the Navy divers, who toiled heroically to recover the remains as an approaching tropical storm and a closing funding window threatened to end the expedition before the turret could be recovered.

Working in shifts around the clock, they mapped, photographed and then carefully extracted an increasingly large collection of skeletal fragments from the doomed sailor, who had been trapped under the ship's 15,000-pound starboard gun when the turret flipped upside down during the sinking.

The tedious process was as demanding and solemn as it was untimely. But all hands — including Navy Supervisor of Diving Capt. Chris Murray, who stooped over the remains for hours — knew it had to be done.

"These guys are like our shipmates," said Petty Officer First Class Ken Riendeau after the remains and the turret had been hauled up from the depths at the last moment.

"We should be happy to have the honor of bringing them home."

Archaeologist Eric Emery, who supervised the recovery from a battery of TV monitors on the surface, took a keen interest, too.

Peering into the screens for hours at a time, he directed every step of the process for nearly two days, struggling to communicate with the squawking, helium-altered voices of the divers as they labored inside the cramped turret.

Three years earlier, Emery had drowned and then been revived after his helicopter crashed into a South American lake during a mission for what was then the Army Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii.

So his passion for rescuing the remains of lost American aviators, soldiers and sailors reflected much more than sympathy for his fellow countrymen.

"I've been in a sinking object after a violent event, and let me tell you, it's total panic — total confusion. The animal instinct to survive takes over completely," he later explained.

"It would have been terrifying for the men inside this turret when the Monitor went under — and very freaky at the end."

Emery returned after the discovery of a second set of remains, doggedly taking part in an exhausting week-long operation alongside Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Superintendent John D. Broadwater after the turret arrived at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News

Among the most sobering and evocative objects they chiseled out with the remains was a gold band found wrapped around the unlucky seaman's ring finger.

Since those finds more than a decade ago, the forensic anthropologists at what is now the Joint POW/MIA Central Laboratory have determined the approximate age and height of the sailors as well as their race.

Yet even after the reconstruction of their faces and DNA tests of potential relatives, their names remain lost.

Much more information can be gleaned from the personal effects unearthed over the years during the systematic removal of tons of concreted silt and sand from the turret's interior.

Among more than 500 artifacts found inside, a tantalizing if relatively small collection belonged the sailors themselves and tell chilling stories of the ship's last moments.

Scuttling up a hatch from below deck, one sailor left his overcoat behind as he prepared to abandon the stricken vessel. Another tossed off a boot.

Huddled inside the cramped, windowless turret, they waited in turns to take the ladder to the roof, where some watched the pounding seas in horror while mustering the courage to jump.

Still more poignant are the objects found alongside the remains of those who didn't make it.

One was wearing two different, unmatched shoes, possibly reflecting his confusion in the dark and his desperation to escape.

"We've found a lot of stories hidden in the sediment we've removed — and it took weeks and weeks of screening every bucketful to make nothing was missed," conservator and Monitor Center Director David Krop says.

"But we want to make sure the stories of these sailors live on even if their identities don't."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Human InterestArts and CultureArchaeologyUSS MonitorUSS Monitor CenterMariners' Museum
  • Pictures: USS Monitor artifacts
    Pictures: USS Monitor artifacts

    David Krop, Director of the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners' Museum, talks about a collection of artifacts which includes personal effects of sailors lost on the USS Monitor.

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