After spending most of the day looking at targets south of Pt Loma and finding a sailboat, an anchor, and some other miscellaneous debris, Tyler and I decided to go dive the PC-815. The visibility was amazing on some of our shallower target dives and Tyler figured that it would also be good on the PC-815.
We were not disappointed!
The crazy (and short) history of the PC-815
The PC-815 site is basically a debris field and would not normally be a wreck high on anybody’s list to dive. However, the history behind the ship is, well, interesting and how it got to the state it is now in is part of that story.
The PC-815 was a submarine chaser built during World War II. The first commander was none other than L. Ron Hubbard. Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard — the author and founder of the Church of Scientology.
“Battle of Cape Lookout” – 19 May 1943
Six months after being completed in a Portland shipyard, Hubbard was the skipper of the PC-815.
A month after he took command of the ship, he was patrolling around Cape Lookout in Oregon. They picked up a noise of something big on the sonar — and then another one. The hunt was on! Remember, at this time, there was a lot of speculation about Japanese submarines being stationed off the west coast. After all, the PC-815 was a sub-chaser!
They started dropping depth-charges all over the Pacific Ocean in attempts to destroy whatever was there. They went through the entire armament of about 36 depth charges. Then they called in for reinforcements.
Reinforcements arrived in the form of four other ships and a blimp. One of the other ships supposedly hit something and oil slicks were reported along with blood in the water.
After two days of chasing sonar blips and trying to find the supposed Japanese subs, the naval commanders ordered Hubbard to back down and the theory is that they were whales that he was chasing and the sonar returns were likely due to a known underwater magnetic deposit.
He claimed to “have definitely sunk, beyond doubt” one submarine and damaged another.
He later told Scientologists that he “dropped the Japanese sub I-76 … down into the mouth of the Columbia River, dead duck.” The mouth of the Columbia River is some 75 miles away from Cape Lookout and the I-76 was documented as being destroyed off Buka Island in 1944…
Bombing Mexico – June 28, 1943
After the fiasco in Oregon, the PC-815 was moved to her new home port in San Diego and arrived in early June 1943. On June 28th, she was out conducting anti-submarine exercises near San Diego and Hubbard got a little too enthusiastic and decided to have an impromptu gunnery exercise with the 3″ gun — after the official exercise had ended. They fired four shells from the 3″ guns in the direction of an island. They then went an anchored at a nearby island for the night and fished for dinner. They also decided to conduct some exercises with small arms.
The problem was that the PC-815 had anchored in the territorial waters just off South Coronados island. Oops.
Hubbard obviously received quite the heat when he returned to base. They had a formal inquiry and report based on the incident and he got off lightly with only a letter of admonition. Rear Admiral Braisted gave Hubbard a “stinging” Fitness Report and noted that he would “prefer not to have him” under his command and rated him “below average.”
Hubbard was relieved of his command effective July 7, 1943. His command of the PC-815 lasted 80 days.
The Collision – Sept 2, 1945
After Hubbard was no longer in charge, the ship stayed in San Diego as a shore patrol vessel but wasn’t very active.
On September 11, 1945 she was escorting the USS Apogon sub and collided with the destroyer USS Laffey which struck her just aft of the bridge on the port side in dense fog. The PC-815 caught fire and quickly sank in five minutes and one sailor was missing and presumed dead.
She had a very short, but interesting 2-3 year career before the sinking in 1945.
Demolitions- September 27 and 28, 1945
After the sinking, the Navy realized that the PC-815 was both a navigational hazard AND that she had a lot of unexploded ammunition on-board. The reported ammunition consisted of 42 depth charges with some on the charge racks on the fantail, 75 mousetraps in the forward magazine, 325 rounds of 3″ 50 cal, hand grenades, 2000 rounds of 40mm, etc. Basically, it was an underwater tinderbox.
The Navy concluded that it was too dangerous to salvage the depth charges (400 pounds each) and other ammunition due to the “severe working conditions for a diver” and that it was impractical and they ordered a demolition.
On September 27th, they attempted the first demolition and placed charges on the depth charge launching rack and magazine and the forward magazine. They primarily focussed on the depth charges at the stern and some of the forward charges didn’t detonate.
They commenced another attempt on September 28th with a “water proof 55 pound demolition charge” which resulted in “two distinct shock waves and the result gysier (sic) was estimated to have a breadth of some 100 yards and a height of about 250 feet.”
Well, that should have solved that…
The Explosion that rocked San Diego – August 6, 1983
The PC-815 laid dormant for almost 40 years. During that time, the wreck structure deteriorated and broke apart, thereby exposing even more explosives.
During a training operation by a Navy minesweeper at the mouth of the San Diego Bay on July 28th, they found the PC-815 and discovered the now exposed unexploded ordnance — even after the two detonations back in 1945.
Divers wired the old munitions they found with C-4 plastic explosive. The old ammunition included 800 pounds of 3″ shells, aerial bombs and quite a few anti-submarine charges called hedgehogs. They had invited along local journalists to witness the explosion but they were not expecting much.
What they got the equivalent of a magnitude 2.8 earthquake according to Cal Tech in Pasadena and a “30-foot geyser of water and sand.”
And now we have the wreck of the PC-815 which, given the magnitude of the explosion, is more of a debris field but still has a lot to explore.
Ray Artnz sent me a couple side scan images that clearly indicate the “divet” that was created by all the different explosions that happened:
We had unbelievable visibility on the day of the dive. Tyler mentioned that he had never seen it that good and Steve Lawson mentioned in an email that it “is usually 5-10, but I’ve had 40+’ on occasion.”
Given the fire during the sinking and the three different detonations, as you can imagine, the site is mainly a debris field with mainly engine parts and other metal pieces. Both Steve and Tyler mentioned that given the size and strength of the detonations, pretty much anything with an air pocket inside was flattened. See the photo below of the pipe that Tyler is picking up:
Below are a few photos of the debris and you can clearly see the amazing visibility we had. Some photos are just natural light with a few of them lit with video lights.
Emails with Steve Lawson
Emails with Tyler Stalter
Emails with Ray Arntz
v1 – Initial version
v2 – Minor spelling corrections
v3 – Add sidescan images