The discovery of Titanic’s wreckage in 1985 was a major media event. As the world looked upon a ship that had not been seen in over 70 years, it was generally assumed it was the result of a purely scientific effort. In reality, the search for Titanic was a coverup for one of the most ambitious military operations of the twentieth century.
The expedition that located Titanic was led by Robert Ballard. Ballard was a former officer in the U.S. Navy and a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In 1985, he was approached by the Navy with a proposal to examine the sites of two sunken nuclear submarines.
The USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion were lost in 1960 and 1968, respectively. While the location of the wreckage was known, the condition of the reactors and the two nuclear-tipped Mark 45 anti-submarine torpedoes (ASTOR) aboard the Scorpion was less than certain.
“We knew where the subs were,” Ballard said. “What they wanted me to do was go back and not have the Russians follow me because we were interested in the nuclear weapons that were on the Scorpion and also what the nuclear reactors (were) doing to the environment.”
Ballard and his Navy sponsors concocted a cover story that the purpose of his mission was to find the final resting spot of Titanic. The Navy lent Ballard a submersible for the purpose of exploration and promised that he could use it to actually look for Titanic if he first completed his mission to the two submarines.
Ballard said that not only did the cover story fool the Soviets but the press, also, was “totally oblivious to what I was doing.”
It took most of the allotted time for the team to fully explore the Scorpion and Thresher, concluding that they did not pose an imminent threat to their environments. With only 12 days left before running out of funding and losing the use of the submersible, Ballard’s team focused its attention on finding Titanic.
When the wreckage was located at a depth of 12,000 feet, the discovery set off major press attention, but few suspected the real purpose behind the expedition. A New York Times story just a few days after the discovery pursued rumors about the real purpose, but government officials strongly denied any involvement. It wasn’t until more than 20 years later that the operation was officially declassified and the details were made available to the public.
Read more fun facts about the Titanic.
Read more fun facts about the Navy.