Commentary: Submerged archaeological sites need to be protected

By Stephanie Soder

The National Park Service has recently released a new manual for conducting underwater surveys, specifically for battlefields. “Submerged Battlefield Survey Manual” by Toni Carrell, Jennifer McKinnon and Madeline Roth explores current methodologies and techniques used for surveying submerged battlefields, as well as encouraging the use of community approaches and military battlefield analysis. Not only is it a great resource for those wishing to conduct surveys in submerged battlefields, but it’s also personal for me — I had the rare opportunity to work with McKinnon and Roth on two projects that helped provide context for the manual.

Stephanie Soder

Prior to working for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, much of my research focused on World War II battle sites in the Pacific. My personal research concentrated on indigenous experiences in internment camps on Saipan. I was also privileged to be involved in two projects on the island attempting to locate remains of missing U.S. military personnel in a maritime context. Many of the tenets outlined in the manual — accounting for the “fog of war” when analyzing historical background and eyewitness accounts, inclusion of community members and stakeholders, and the use of KOCOA (military terrain analysis) — were pivotal to the research conducted on land and in the water.

Aircraft, ships, tanks and LVTs (amphibious landing craft) are all found in the waters off the coast of Saipan. The projects that I worked on specifically focused on aircraft in the hopes that missing U.S. service personnel, of which there are approximately 73,000 from World War II alone, would be found and recovered. As discussed in the manual, the first step for both projects was to collect historical background and create a research design. An important part in this step was to obtain the proper permitting from local and federal entities, as the work required compliance with the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act of 1987 and the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004. Proper planning in archaeology is key to ensuring that the work will be carried out in accordance with the law and accepted survey practices.

Stephanie Soder helps document World War II plane wreckage near Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, as part of a search for missing U.S. military personnel. (Submitted photo.)

With the use of technology such as magnetometers and remote operated vehicles (ROV), the first project that I worked on focused on charting Tanapag Lagoon for targets that may be resources from the war. A previously discovered submerged U.S. aircraft was also surveyed on this project to recover information about the craft and its operators. The second project focused on on-site target diving and handheld metal detector surveys guided by the remote-sensing data previously collected. Between the two projects, over 100 targets were surveyed and at least one potential catastrophic crash site was revealed, which was partially excavated in 2019.

I learned valuable lessons and techniques working on those projects, many of which are outlined in the new National Park Service manual. All archaeology seeks to learn about our past and discover how and why human activity has occurred. For these projects, however, there were direct impacts to people still alive and their families. Community involvement was heavily encouraged in all the projects on Saipan, ensuring that archaeology is not an exclusive practice but an inclusive one.

The approaches outlined in the “Submerged Battlefield Survey Manual” are not limited to Pacific World War II sites, and in fact, several East Coast and Northeast region surveys are highlighted in the manual, as well. The Delaware Antiquities Act protects subaqueous sites, with the intention that submerged cultural resources will be interpreted and preserved. The National Park Service manual will serve as a great resource, so that Delaware can utilize the methods and techniques outlined to better understand and preserve our own submerged sites, whether they be maritime battlefield landscapes or not.

Stephanie Soder, an archaeologist for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, joined the staff of the division’s State Historic Preservation Office in January. She has also worked a researcher in Saipan studying the experience of the indigenous residents of that island in American internment camps during and after World War II.