Journal of Maritime Archaeology

, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 191–206 | Cite as

Archaeological Survey of the Ex-USS Bugara (SS/AGSS331)

  • James P. Delgado
  • Frank Cantelas
  • Robert V. Schwemmer
  • Robert S. Neyland
  • Agustin OrtizJr.
  • George Galasso
  • Michael L. BrennanEmail author
Original Paper


In August 2017, a multidisciplinary team conducted the first archaeological survey of the deep water (242 m) wreck of the ex-USS Bugara (SS/AGSS331) using the remotely operated vehicles Argus and Hercules. The survey provided 8 h of direct observation with video and still camera documentation of the wreck, which previously had been identified by sonar and a brief ROV survey of portions of the hull in 2001. The 2017 assessment added considerably to an understanding of changes to Bugara after it sank while under tow in 1971. Bugara, a World War II-era submarine, served at the end of that conflict and through the Cold War. The submarine reflects a series of modifications to “modernize” it within the context of the Cold War. The examination of the wreck, along with additional archival research, offers more details not only on the probable cause of the sinking but also on subsequent site formation processes. The characterization of the wreck resulted in a reassessment of the site as more than an obsolete vessel accidentally lost when relegated to target practice. The archival record, now declassified, shows that Bugara’s loss also reflects its ultimate use, within the context of the Cold War, as a target for the Mark 48 torpedo, a newly developed “sub and ship killing” weapon designed in the late 1960s and tested through 1971 to take out Soviet deep-diving nuclear submarines and high-performance surface ships.


Submarine Shipwreck Cold War 


A shipwreck is commonly viewed as a time capsule, preserving the moment in history at which it sank, including the movement of materials over seaborne routes, the belongings and actions of the sailors, and the conditions that led to the ship’s sinking. In the case of maritime battlefields and approaches to harbors, groups of shipwrecks reflect the human actions and events that played out on a featureless and insubstantial sea surface, now represented by the remains on the seabed below. The maritime cultural landscape, therefore, is physically displaced on the z-axis while remaining spatially reflective of the surface events. These landscapes can reflect single moments in time over which a battle took place, or span millennia as continuous maritime activity writes itself across the seabed.

The aftermath of World War II saw a different type of maritime cultural landscape develop as ships from the war were disposed of offshore. These included ships scuttled because of age or battle damage in the face of postwar naval reductions in force. They included vessels scuttled following their use in atomic testing (see this volume), as well as a range of vessels disposed of in tests of conventional aircraft, ship and submarine-delivered weapons. Today they are part of a broader maritime cultural landscape that took place across the surface of the Pacific, but were uprooted from those areas of significance and redeposited in U.S. waters. Many maritime battlefields are thought of as ship graveyards, but these are more like a cemetery in the literal sense as they were chosen to be sunk as a ritual send-off given their histories and “buried,” so to speak, away from their area of life and battle.

One of these landscapes is the Pacific Northwest Ocean Surface/Subsurface Operating Area within the United States Navy’s Northwest Training Range Complex, a 126,880 sq. nmi (234,982 sq. km) area that spans the coasts and ocean to 250 nautical miles offshore, as well as selected sites on land in the Northern California, Oregon and Washington State (Department of the Navy 2007: 2–5). The training complex is used for live-fire exercises and tests to train sailors, sustain fleet readiness, and provide training for planned and proposed changes in quantity and types of ships, submarines and aircraft, and their associated systems. The latter is especially important as it enables the Navy to “support the acquisition and implementation into the Fleet of advanced military technology using the NWTRC to conduct training events for new platforms and associated weapons systems” (Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet 2008: ES-3). A variety of naval bases and facilities located in proximity to the training center are its primary users:

For purposes of Fleet training, the NWTRC includes training operations that occur at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Keyport Range Areas including Dabob, Keyport and Nanoose range sites. The NWTRC is the principal backyard range for surface, submarine, aviation, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) units located at Naval Air Station (NAS) Whidbey Island, Naval Station (NS) Everett, Naval Base Kitsap – Bremerton, Naval Base Kitsap – Bangor, and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (Department of the Navy 2007: ES-1).

As a result of the Navy’s activities, “obsolete” naval vessels have been intentionally sunk in live-fire exercises. These Navy ship sinking exercises, known collectively as SINKEX, have resulted in naval shipwreck graveyards off the coasts of Hawai’i, Southern California, Washington, the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. Atlantic seaboard, and Puerto Rico. Among the vessels sunk off the Washington coast are the ex-USS Pensacola (CA24), sunk on November 10, 1948 after being used as a target ship for Operation Crossroads, the 1946 atomic tests at Bikini Atoll, and USS Bugara (SS/AGSS331), which was reported as having been lost under tow on June 1, 1971 (Fig. 1). The wreck of Bugara rests not only within the training range but also within the boundaries of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There are close to 200 historic shipwrecks that have been documented as having been lost, or last seen in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, including a number of naval vessels and aircraft.
Fig. 1

Historic photo of USS Bugara under way in 1966. National Archives

As part of NOAA’s responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the agency has conducted archaeological surveys and assessments within the National Marine Sanctuary System and at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Those efforts have focused on near-shore and beached sites, although the presence of Bugara was known and the wreck included in the list of cultural resources within the sanctuary. However, the site had not been definitively surveyed or archaeologically examined. The wreck had been located during a 2001 fiber-optic cable laying survey when a brief, 45-min non-archaeological dive with a small ROV verified it was Bugara. Subsequently, the NOAA ship Okeanos Explorer conducted a multibeam survey of the site in 2009 and mapped the wreck on the seabed in 242 m of water.

As part of an ongoing partnership with NOAA’s Office of Exploration (OER) and the Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), deep-sea areas of the West Coast sanctuaries have been mapped with significant natural and cultural targets assessed with remotely operated vehicles since 2016. In cooperation with Olympic Coast NMS, the senior authors selected Bugara as a target for assessment during OET’s August 2017 mission to Quinault Canyon and the Olympic Coast.

On August 25, 2017, E/V Nautilus conducted a single, 8-h ROV dive on Bugara using the remotely operated vehicles Argus and Hercules The telepresence-enabled exploration of the submarine wreck was led from NOAA’s Exploration Command Center in Silver Spring, Maryland (Fig. 2), linked by satellite to the command van on board Nautilus. Among the participants at the Silver Spring ECC was 94-year old Cmdr. Edward Ettner, USN (Ret.), who commanded Bugara between March 1957 and December 1958 (Fig. 3). Also participating in the dive were four Bugara veterans who joined remotely online at the Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport, Washington: Retired Master Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Hal Garland (1967–1970) Retired Lieutenant Peter Smith, (1969 through its decommissioning in October 1970), Retired Torpedoman’s Mate Tom Greer (1966–1970), and Retired Chief Electronics Technician Dick Holmboe (1967–1969) (Fig. 4). They were joined by other submarine veterans, and participating scientists and archaeologists as well as the public in a strong demonstration of telepresence-enabled ocean exploration and archaeology characterized as follows:
Fig. 2

Viewers watching the live broadcast of the ROV dive on USS Bugara at NOAA’s Exploration Command Center in Silver Spring, MD

Fig. 3

Team members viewing the live feed along with Cmdr. Edward Ettner, USN (Ret.) in Silver Spring, MD

Fig. 4

USS Bugara veterans at the Naval Undersea Museum at Keyport, Washington: Retired Master Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Hal Garland (1967–1970) Retired Lieutenant Peter Smith, (1969 through its decommissioning in October 1970), Retired Torpedoman’s Mate Tom Greer (1966–1970), and Retired Chief Electronics Technician Dick Holmboe (1967–1969)

  • Total Nautilus Live pageviews: 19,821; unique users: 4473

  • Facebook impressions: 165,828

  • Twitter impressions: 65,534 (Brennan et al. 2018)

The dive resulted in the comprehensive survey and archaeological characterization of the wreck. Among the goals achieved were determining ongoing processes of change to the wreck after nearly five decades on the bottom, including important questions of biological colonization.

Historical Context of USS Bugara

The keel of the Balao-class submarine Bugara (SS-331) was laid down on October 21, 1943, at the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut. The submarine was launched on July 2, 1944, and commissioned on November 15, 1944 (Fig. 5). Bugara departed for the Pacific Ocean on December 25 (Figs. 6, 7). In February 1945, Bugara commenced war patrols in the Java, Flores and South China Seas, and the Gulf of Siam. While in the Gulf of Siam, Bugara disrupted the junk trade on the Bangkok–Singapore route. It went on to destroy 12 junks, a Terengganu junk, 24 schooners, and 16 coasters, one naval auxiliary and three sea trucks with its deck gun, totaling 5284 t. Its sailors boarded all the vessels, with the exception of two, transporting the native crews to safety along with their personal belongings. Bugara later encountered Malay pirates attacking a Japanese schooner manned by a Chinese crew that was en route to Singapore after rescuing the Chinese crew. As the submarine was approaching the scene, the pirates fled. The Chinese crew was grateful to be rescued, having had two of their crewmen already killed by the pirates. The pirates were hunted down and destroyed, along with the Japanese schooner. When the war ended during its third patrol, Bugara was ordered to Fremantle, Australia, where the crew got a short period of leave (Fig. 8). USS Bugara (SS-331) received three battle stars for its service in World War II.
Fig. 5

Historic photo of the launch of USS Bugara on July 2, 1944 at Electric Boat Co., Groton, CT. National Archives

Fig. 6

Historic photo of USS Bugara sailing past the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. National Archives

Fig. 7

Historic photo of USS Bugara under way. National Archives

Fig. 8

Historic photo of USS Bugara crew on deck. National Archives

Following the war, Bugara spent time in Subic Bay in the Philippines. In January 1946, it departed for San Diego, California, via Pearl Harbor. On May 28, Bugara sank the ex-Japanese submarine I-14 as part of a SINKEX exercise, a harbinger of its own eventual fate. Over the next few years, Bugara was involved in training exercises off Hawai’i, Midway Atoll, Guam, Australia, Okinawa, China, Japan, Samoa, and California as the geopolitical landscape shifted in the postwar period. In 1950, Bugara departed for the Far East to support United Nations Forces in the Korean Campaign. The stay was cut short while in Yokosuka, Japan, when a frigate rammed the submarine, requiring Bugara to return to Pearl Harbor for repairs. Bugara eventually returned to the Far East in January 1951.

Based on operational lessons learned during World War II, and on analysis of postwar captured German and Japanese submarines, the postwar U.S. Navy commenced the Greater Underwater Propulsion Power Program to streamline the wartime submarine fleet for better underwater performance and maneuverability, add snorkels to allow submarines to run underwater using their Diesel engines rather than batteries, and to improve habitability and fire control. Known by the acronym GUPPY, the program began in 1946 and continued through the early 1950s. At the end of the program, 31 submarines were relegated to the Fleet Snorkel Program for budgetary reasons. They received a minimal amount of modifications (Friedman 1994: 25, 40–43; Polmar and Moore 2004: 11–17). Bugara was selected to be one of the Fleet Snorkel boats, and was modified at Pearl Harbor in June 1951.

The conversion installed a distinctive streamline sail, and the deck guns were removed (Fig. 9). The submarine also received air conditioning and had its electrical systems upgraded. In 1953, Bugara was seriously damaged during a training mission when struck by the destroyer USS Whitehurst (DE-634) near Pearl Harbor. The sail and periscopes were damaged, and required several weeks for repairs. For the next 10 years Bugara continued training throughout the Pacific including Vietnam War service in the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Japan. Bugara was the first American submarine to patrol the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution passed by the U.S. Congress. In June 1969, no longer a combat submarine, Bugara was reclassified by the Navy as a training sub (AGSS331), but 3 months later the Navy reclassified it back to a combat submarine (SS-331). That same year the submarine made its 7000th dive. On October 1, 1970, USS Bugara was decommissioned at the naval base at Mare Island, California.
Fig. 9

Outboard profile blueprint of USS Bugara for conversion during the GUPPY program. National Archives

On June 1, 1971, the U.S. Navy tug Cree (ATF-45) had the ex-USS Bugara under tow en route from the Naval Ammunition Depot at Bremerton, Washington, to a disposal site approximately 100 miles off of Cape Flattery. Press accounts noted that the submarine was “being towed to Bangor Naval Ammunition Depot,” but its classified mission was to participate as a target to test a newly developed, classified experimental torpedo, the Mk 48 ADCAP (advanced capability), which had been designed to sink nuclear submarines and fast-moving surface ships. Another aspect of testing the Mk 48 was to hone its use in sinking quiet-running diesel electric submarines in shallow water (Polmar and Moore 2004: 294). However, Bugara began to take on water off Cape Flattery, near the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and started to settle by the stern. With Cree at risk of being pulled under, the tug’s crew cut the steel hawser to the submarine. Bugara foundered shortly after. That same month the U.S. Navy located Bugara, stating there would be no attempt to raise it.

Results and Observations

Bugara lies upright, resting on its keel, in 242 m on an uneven, compact seabed. There is little burial of the hull. It has been colonized, although not extensively, by plumose anemones and a variety of rockfish as well as algae (Fig. 10). Bugara’s pressure hull is intact, with all hatches closed, and there is no obvious source of the leak that sank the submarine. The steel superstructure that covers the pressure hull is more or less intact, although corroded, and the teak decking that covered it has for the most part been consumed by marine wood-borers, leaving vestigial remnants in a few locations (Fig. 11).
Fig. 10

ROV image of USS Bugara wreck site showing the conning tower area colonized by plumose anemones and a variety of rockfish.

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust

Fig. 11

ROV image showing the degraded decking of the submarine.

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust

One of the objectives of the dive was to assess the level of removal or stripping of components in advance of Bugara serving as a target. The assessment of the wreck, while only external, suggests selective stripping. The radar masts and periscopes atop the sail have been removed, leaving only the blanked apertures. However, the “JP” hydrophone, a wartime model used to listen for surface vessels, remains in place on the forward deck (Fig. 12), as does the capstan, the dive planes, and the propellers. The mine guards for the propellers, however, have been removed (Fig. 13). This left clean bolt holes showing they were deliberately unbolted and removed rather than breaking off from the sinking or subsequently detached.
Fig. 12

ROV image of the “JP” hydrophone on the forward deck.

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust

Fig. 13

ROV image showing one of the propellers covered in anemones.

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust

The sail was found to be substantially damaged, with much of the fiberglass and light steel frame that formed it detached, exposing the inner structure of the conning tower (which formed an integral part of the pressure hull), as well as the periscope shears, and the snorkel with its exhaust (Fig. 14). The base of the sail, where it joined the superstructure at the deck level, remained in place, and a section of fiberglass survived on the starboard side of the sail. Fragments of the sail were observed on the seabed off the starboard side of the wreck. The pressure hull showed no visible damage, but the 22-in. diameter main engine air induction and ventilation branch lines on the starboard side are crushed, probably by implosion from trapped air as Bugara sank.
Fig. 14

ROV image of the USS Bugara’s damaged sail exposing the inner structure of the conning tower, snorkel and shears.

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust

Despite the biological colonization, one interesting observation was the survival of a rectangular patch of black hull paint and a painted white, double inverted “V” symbol on the starboard quarter of the submarine at the level of the submarine’s surfaced waterline (Fig. 15). These symbols are apparently flood lines (similar to load lines) that were painted on the hull after October 1970 when Bugara was decommissioned and placed on inactive status. The “Vs” were a visual external indication of stability and would warn of flooding and if the submarine was in danger of sinking (Thompson 2017). No other areas of the hull exhibited either paint or the symbols.
Fig. 15

ROV image showing the flood lines painted on the hull of the submarine on the starboard quarter.

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust

The survey revealed the final modifications to Bugara for its ultimate mission as an intended target for a Mk 48 torpedo to be fired at it by its still in service sister submarine USS Trigger (SS564). The dive revealed a small metal ladder welded to the starboard side of the submarine close to the sail for access to the deck of the hulk when not at dock, suggesting it was placed for access and egress by crews handling the tow lines (Fig. 16). As well, the dive revealed the steel cable used to tow Bugara and cut free in June 1971, attached to the submarine’s own anchor chain, which is draped over the bow to form the “bridle” for towing the unmanned hulk (Fig. 17).
Fig. 16

ROV image of the metal ladder welded to the starboard side of Bugara.

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust

Fig. 17

ROV image of the bow and steel towing cable.

Image courtesy of Ocean Exploration Trust


While an older, World War II-era submarine operating in a nuclear submarine era, Bugara nonetheless was one of a number of wartime-built submarines that continued to operate through the late 1960s and early 1970s as training craft or in foreign service after sale or transfer from the United States to allies. That might argue for a thorough stripping, or, conversely, as an obsolete type of submarine near the end of its service life, the vessel might not have been stripped at all. It appears that little stripping was done, confirming that there was little use for the components. When Bugara sank, most of its contemporaries were soon to be scrapped or had been sold or transferred to the Navies of Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Peru and Chile (Alden 1979: 260–270). There was little need on the part of the U.S. Navy for spare parts, as the assessment of Bugara would seem to indicate.

One rumored reason for the loss of Bugara was that a hatch had perhaps been left open. Examination of the wreck showed that the hatches were all sealed. As to how Bugara sank, an explanation for the sinking was offered, solely thanks to the telepresence-enabled public exploration of the site, by Jerome C. Hanrahan, a retired Navy engineer from Naval Undersea Warfare Center at Keyport, Washington, who observed the dive through telepresence. He noted that the submarine sank, while in transit to its rendezvous to USS Trigger, taking on water from the stern with no visible breaches observed in the 2017 survey. Hanrahan assessed a variety of other possible access points for seawater, dismissing entry through the double-door torpedo tubes. In Hanrahan’s opinion, the likely culprit were the propeller shafts, left in place and not removed and blanked. Uncoupled from the engines to reduce drag, the propellers would have spun freely as the tow proceeded. He believes that the propeller shaft packing seals, “having dried out from non-use over the year or so prior to the sub being moved, would allow water” to leak and flood Bugara (Hanrahan 2017: 2).

While sinking by the stern, the submarine was probably towed with the internal compartment hatches left open, allowing Bugara to completely flood, but not before the weight of the flooded stern forced the bow out of the water. The flood ports on the bottom of the bow ballast tanks, raised out of the water, would had vented enough trapped air in the bow to allow the weight of the submarine to pull it down, and Bugara sank on an even keel, coming to rest as we saw it in 2017.

That being said, the submarine may have left the surface without completely flooding. The damaged sail may indicate this. While the damage to the sail may be the result of its higher position on the wreck, exposed to currents. No evidence of trawl impact was observed anywhere on the wreck, which otherwise might account for the damage. What may have happened is that the implosion of the main air lines vented the trapped air through the 36-inch diameter ventilation stack and nearby valves in the after end of the sail, weakening or damaging the surrounding fiberglass sail superstructure when Bugara sank.

The dive to Bugara highlighted this “modern” wreck as an artifact of the Cold War and part of the maritime cultural landscape of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Bugara, as one element in that landscape, speaks to the long-standing and ongoing use of these waters as a training and testing ground for America’s submarine fleet, as well as part of the strategic sea frontier for naval forces that include the submarine fleet at Naval Base Kitsap. Physically, Bugara reflects the Navy’s decades of modifications in the Cold War period to its World War II-era fleet boats both in its structure and in its operational career. It also reflects more than its seeming obsolescence in 1971. In this final stage of a decades-long career, the disposal of the submarine was as a target for a classified, new naval torpedo that would enter the fleet a year later, in 1972. Within that context of an evolving Navy, the role of Bugara as a now obsolete submarine about to serve one last important purpose in testing a new, Cold War weapon places this wreck in context as more than an old submarine lost under tow.

As noted in the article on USS Independence (CVL22) in this volume, sites like Bugara show that the archaeology of the Cold War, as demonstrated overall by Hanson (2016a) and suggested for maritime archaeology by some of us in 2016, is of importance (Hanson 2016b; Delgado et al. 2016; Neyland 2016). The sinking of Bugara in deep water, an action that wold have effectively hid the material evidence of the explosive force (and hence efficiency) of the Navy’s still classified Mk 42 ADCAP torpedo from prying eyes, would fit within the same archaeological signature as the disposition of Independence. The accidental loss of Bugara notwithstanding, its intended deliberate disposition is a reflection of Cold War attitudes, actions and their material signature. To that end, just as much as Independence is part of a unique, dispersed fleet of vessels used in the world’s first atomic tests, it is also part of a larger fleet of former naval vessels within a vast, multi-ocean maritime cultural landscape that reflects not only naval discard, but also the evolution of naval weapons testing. As we noted with Independence, that landscape, much like the multi-layered and diverse cultural landscape of the atomic test fleet, is comprised of sites like USS Bugara that are archaeological signatures of the Cold War.

It also was the home for many crews through its decades-long career where individual naval careers were shaped and experienced. The telepresence-enabled archaeological documentation of Bugara provided the science team with unique, personal and informed perspectives on the submarine. Among those was Mr. Hanrahan’s observations on the probable causes of the sinking. One aspect of archaeological telepresence, especially with wrecks of World War II or more recent vintage, is the opportunity for the involvement of crew members. The importance of that participation is more than having informed “tour guides” help interpret what the ROV reveals. Throughout the dive, their perspectives and memories in a certain way brought the wreck “to life.” The Bugara crew connected the science team to the submarine as more than a site, but as an object and a place utilized and inhabited by humans. That powerfully reminds us that archaeology is a means by which we understand that which makes us human.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • James P. Delgado
    • 1
  • Frank Cantelas
    • 2
  • Robert V. Schwemmer
    • 3
  • Robert S. Neyland
    • 4
  • Agustin OrtizJr.
    • 4
  • George Galasso
    • 3
  • Michael L. Brennan
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.SEARCH Inc.JacksonvilleUSA
  2. 2.NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and ResearchSilver SpringUSA
  3. 3.NOAA Office of National Marine SanctuariesSilver SpringUSA
  4. 4.Naval History and Heritage CommandWashington, DCUSA

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