Divers Recover Bell From Wreck of American Destroyer Sunk in World War I

Sixty-four American sailors died when a German torpedo hit the USS “Jacob Jones” on December 6, 1917

Black and white photo of ship
The USS Jacob Jones, an American destroyer, sank off the southwest coast of England in December 1917. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

On the afternoon of December 6, 1917, the USS Jacob Jones was sailing off the coast of Britain when German troops launched a torpedo from a submarine. The destroyer sank in just eight minutes, and 64 American sailors died in the attack.

Now, 106 years later, underwater archaeologists have surveyed the historic World War I wreck and recovered the ship’s bell.

After cleaning and restoration, the 80-pound brass bell will go on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, D.C., where it will “serve as a memorial to sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of both the United States and the United Kingdom,” says Sam J. Cox, a retired rear admiral and director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, in a statement.

After sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic for more than a century, the shipwreck was discovered in August 2022. Since then, U.S. and U.K. military leaders have been trying to document the site, with a long-term goal of preserving and protecting the wreck.

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The U.S. Navy’s policy is to leave shipwrecks undisturbed. However, after the 2022 discovery garnered extensive interest, military officials started worrying that someone would try to steal the ship’s bell.

“The bell was laying out there and had this kind of ‘take me’ stamped on it,” Cox tells the Washington Post’s Michael E. Ruane. “Just about every wreck from World War I, World War II [near Britain] has had anything valuable stripped from it.”

During the recent survey and recovery mission, staff from the U.K. Ministry of Defence’s Salvage and Marine Operations unit used a remotely operated vehicle to take photos and videos of the ship. They also placed an American flag and a wreath at the site to pay tribute to the men who died.

Old brass bell from shipwreck
The U.S. Navy usually leaves shipwrecks undisturbed, but officials worried about divers stealing the ship's bell. U.K. Ministry of Defence Salvage and Marine Operations

Once they brought the bell to the surface, they transferred it to Wessex Archaeology, a private firm hired by the history command. The bell will be sent to the command’s underwater archaeology lab sometime later this year for restoration.

The attack on the Jacob Jones occurred just eight months after the U.S. entered World War I. At the time, the ship was escorting a convoy carrying troops and supplies between France and southern Ireland. It had over 100 men aboard, including 7 officers, according to a report on the sinking by David W. Bagley, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy.

Crews aboard the Jacob Jones saw the torpedo when it was about 1,000 yards away. The torpedo struck the ship on the starboard side about three feet below the waterline. The vessel became the first U.S. destroyer ever lost to enemy fire, according to the U.S. Navy.

The torpedo came from German submarine U-53. After the attack, the submarine’s commander, Hans Rose, radioed the nearest American base and shared the location of survivors from the Jacob Jones. He asked for an hour to get his submarine out of the area.

The British sloop-of-war Camellia and the British liner Catalina responded. Throughout the night of December 6 and into the early morning hours of December 7, crew members aboard the two vessels pulled survivors out of the water.

The Jacob Jones’ officer-of-the-deck, Stanton F. Kalk, directed rescue efforts. But after helping men get out of the water and into lifeboats, he ultimately died of exposure. He was posthumously recognized for his sacrifice with the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.

According to Bagley's account, many other men performed heroically that evening, including one man who took off some of his own clothing to give it to other shivering sailors as they awaited rescue.

“The behavior of officers and men under the exceptionally hard conditions is worthy of the highest praise,” wrote Bagley.

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