On March 21, 1921 the Navy tugboat USS Conestoga set out from Mare Island in Vallejo with a crew of 56 on its way to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The ship was never heard from again.
Now 95 years later, one of the Navy’s most lingering maritime mysteries appears to be solved: NOAA researchers announced on Wednesday that submerged wreckage sitting just outside San Francisco near the Farallone Islands is indeed the final resting place of the Canestoga.
The remains were located about a dozen miles outside the Golden Gate Bridge — 3000 miles from Hawaii where the ship was believed to have sunk and where the Navy initially launched a massive air and sea search covering 300,000 miles. It was the largest sea and air search in the 20th century, until the search for Amelia Earhart in 1937.
Corte Madera’s Peter Franklin Hess could hardly believe it. “I used to commute to the City and I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge every work day, and I snuck a look out towards the Farallones. Imagine my surprise when I was informed by NOAA that is the final resting place of my cousin George Kaler.”
George Franklin Kaler was a chief machinist from Toledo, Ohio.
Hess says though he never met his cousin, his Aunt Annie – Kaler’s mother – would never let the family forget the 32-year-old outdoorsman.
“In her eyes, George could do no wrong,” Hess said, explaining the family held onto the belief Kaler was stranded on a desert island near American Samoa “wearing a grass skirt and married to some Polynesian girl.”
Hess says his Aunt even bought a crypt for Kaler so he could be laid to rest next to her and his father when he finally came home to Ohio. But he never did.
The discovery of the USS Conestoga came as a big relief for the family.
“This is one story where we had to rewrite history. We had to correct this for the crew and the families,” NOAA investigator Robert Schwemmer said.
The basis for that initial search was the discovery of a battered lifeboat with the letter “C” that was recovered near Manzanillo, Mexico. But the extensive search turned up no signs of the ship or its crew. The disappearance still ranks as one of the top 10 unsolved shipwreck mysteries.
The re-discovery of the Canestoga was set in motion in 2009 when a multi-sonar image of the sea floor near the Farallone Islands revealed the shape of an undocumented ship.
In 2014 NOAA researchers James Delgado and Schwemmer, whose archaeological detective work has turned up hundreds of sunken vessels in the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, visited the area during a 2014 expedition to locate sunken vessels.
Using an unmanned underwater rover outfitted with cameras, the pair were able to scan the wreckage. The features of the wreck matched old photos of the tug; the triple expansion engine, the steam steering engine, and the most notable feature — a mounted 50 caliber gun with its spotting telescopes still attached.
“One evening, I saw a glimpse of what looked like a gun mount. I wasn’t sure if I was seeing that correctly, and I went frame by frame in reverse. There it was,” Schwemmer said.
The researchers believe the position of the ship indicates it possibly foundered, potentially in a heavy storm recorded that day. Schwemmer says several shipwrecks have been found in this area – most likely due captains having to navigate strong currents, uncharted reefs and blindly in fog.
Yet exactly what happened to the Canestoga or her crew remains a mystery, still tightly kept by the sea.
“But it’s protected and it’s a vibrant reef,” Schwemmer said, explaining the remains of the ship within the marine sanctuary means it cannot be disturbed. And beneath the white plume anemone, ling cod and rockfish now swim where officers once served their country.
So in the face of death there is life now.”