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Divers retrieve 80-pound brass bell from first U.S. Navy destroyer ever sunk by enemy fire

What technology could change the way we learn about shipwrecks
What technology could change the way we learn about shipwrecks 05:06

An enormous bell once attached to a historic warship that was torpedoed during World War I has been recovered from the wreckage, about a year and a half after divers discovered the lost ship in waters off the southwestern coast of England. 

The bell was retrieved by a specialized salvage unit assigned to survey the wreck site of the USS Jacob Jones, a United States Navy destroyer that went down in the English Channel on Dec. 6, 1917, after being struck by a German submarine's torpedo. It was the first U.S. Navy destroyer sunk by enemy fire, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC).

The U.K. Ministry of Defence's Salvage and Marine Operations unit successfully conducted a survey of the historic WWI wreck of the USS Jacob Jones on Jan. 22, 2024. The operation led to the recovery of the ship's bell.  Image courtesy asset provided by U.K. Ministry of Defence, Salvage and Marine Operations (SALMO)

After the shipwreck was discovered in August 2022, the NHHC partnered with the U.K. Ministry of Defense to study the site, which a group of expert divers found about 400 feet beneath the ocean's surface some 60 miles south of Cornwall at the tip of the southern English peninsula. 

Normally, the U.S. Navy's policy stipulates that newly-discovered shipwrecks like this one are left undisturbed. But the international partnership, in this case, was commissioned out of concerns about "unauthorized and illegal salvaging of the ship's bell," said Sam Cox, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, in a statement

Made from brass and weighing 80 pounds, according to a Washington Post report, the bell "will serve as a memorial to sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of both the United States and the United Kingdom," Cox's statement continued. CBS News contacted the NHHC for more details about the bell but did not receive an immediate response.

Pulled from its initial patrol off the coast of Virginia before the U.S. joined World War I in April 1917, the USS Jacob Jones was deployed to the U.K. carrying supply convoys and is remembered for ultimately rescuing hundreds of survivors from damaged British ships that had been hit by enemy fire. Citing the Maritime Archeology Trust, the U.S. Naval Institute said the destroyer has been credited with rescuing 374 crew members and passengers from torpedoed merchant ships and passenger ships throughout its deployment in European waters.

The destroyer sank eight minutes after being hit by the German torpedo in December of that year, with two officers and 62 crew members on board, according to the NHHC. There were others on the USS Jacob Jones who survived the torpedo strike, since Commander David W. Bagley called for the ship to be abandoned and its life rafts launched as the stern began to sink, according to the agency.

"The wreck of the ship is a hallowed war grave and is the last resting place for many of the 64 men who were lost in the sinking," said Cox. The crew assigned to salvage the site of the destroyer recently used a remotely operated vehicle to place a wreath and the American flag over the wreckage in memory of the sailors who died more than a century ago.

During the recovery of the bell, the U.K. Ministry of Defence's salvage team team placed a wreath and an American flag on the wreck to honor lost sailors.  Image courtesy asset provided by U.K. Ministry of Defence, Salvage and Marine Operations (SALMO)

After its recovery, the bell was given temporarily to the private U.K. firm Wessex Archaeology, under contract with the NHHC, the agency said. It will be turned over to the U.S. during a ceremonial transfer set to take place later this year, and will subsequently be sent to the NHHC's Underwater Archaeology Branch for conservation treatment. It will eventually be displayed at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C. 

The discovery of the USS Jacob Jones in 2022 came less than two months after a U.S. Navy destroyer escort sunk during World War II was found about 23,000 feet below sea level off the Philippines, making it the deepest shipwreck ever located.

USS Jacob Jones sinking off the Scilly Islands, England, on 6 December 1917, after she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-53.  Photographed by Seaman William G. Ellis. Smithsonian Institution Photograph.
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