Identifying ships in aerial photographs of the Crossroads Baker nuclear test

The „Baker“ explosion, part of Operation Crossroads, a nuclear weapon test by the United States military at Bikini Atoll, Micronesia, on July 25th 1946. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This photograph is probably one of the best known and most impressive when it comes to illustrating the scale and impact of a nuclear test—even if the explosion was a small one even by the standards of the 1960s. It shows the fifth-ever explosion of a nuclear bomb, about two years after the first-ever nuclear explosion in the Trinity test and one year after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Prinz Eugen (1946)

Nagato (1942)

Saratoga (1941)

Military ships were placed in the vicinity of the two explosions of the test series in order to observe the effects of a nuclear explosion at close range. Most of the ships were derelicts from the Second World War that had ended only a year earlier. Among the most notable ships were the Japanese battleship Nagato, the German cruiser Prinz Eugen and the US aircraft carrier Saratoga. After the two test explosions, all three and several more ships eventually sank and were abandoned for being too radioactive to salvage.

Prinz Eugen’s propeller at Laboe Naval Memorial. Picture: Darkone on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 2.5

One part from one of those ships, salvaged over 30 years after the nuclear tests, has been on display in northern Germany, close to where I live, since 1979. It is one of the three propellers of the Prinz Eugen. After first reading about it, I came back to the topic every now and again, mostly for being incredulous that this was a part that had actually been in the vicinity of the Crossroads nuclear explosions.

Given that it really does seem to be genuine, and neither a reproduction nor a part replaced before 1946, I went to visit the Laboe Naval Memorial. It is a curious memorial with an ambiguous character that is well reflective of the site’s history, conceived some ten years after the First World War, inaugurated by the Nazis and later rededicated to peaceful seas and the victims of all seafaring countries. In my opinion, however, the Memorial doesn’t do too convincing a job of renouncing the glorification and romanticization of murderous naval warfare and truly exhibiting an international and intercultural spirit.

Click to download PDF from the NPS

After seeing the propeller, I wanted to pick out the Prinz Eugen in photographs of the Crossroads nuclear tests. There seemed to be, however, no annotated photographs detailing the identities of more than one or two ships in the vicinity of the explosion. After some research, I came across and online edition of The Archeology of the Atomic Bomb: A Submerged Cultural Resources Assessment of the Sunken Fleet of Operation Crossroads at Bikini and Kwajalein Atoll Lagoons, published and hosted by the US National Park Service. Chapter Two: Operation Crossroads features annotated maps of the test site’s layout for both tests, and gives the names of many of the ships involved (mirrored here from a PDF edition hosted by the National Park Service). The famous view from the island towards the explosion, however, was photographed at an angle that makes it difficult to assess the relative positions of the ships and cross-reference them with the map. A perspective from above is much better suited for this, and there are high-quality photographs of the moment of the Baker explosion from different angles.

View from the East, the Prinz Eugen marked in red

View from the South, the Prinz Eugen marked in red

I referenced the map for the Baker test with aerial photographs of the explosion. I used the GIMP’s Perspective Tool to overlay photographs from two different angles with appropriately distorted versions of the map. I cross-referenced the positions of the ships in both photographs, cloud shapes, the incident angle of the sun and the lighting/shades of the ships to make what I believe is a good match between the map and both photographs. The following annotated pictures and lists give the names of those ships I have identified in the map-overlayed photographs with reasonable certainty.

The names and numbers are the same as in the above book. Beware that this is all just the result of an hour’s worth of Googling and an hour of playing with GIMP.  I could be completely wrong.

Original picture on Wikimedia Commons

Number Name
36 IX Prinz Eugen
47 DD Wllson
51 YOG-83
44 DD Trippe
29 DD Mayrant
11 ARDC-13
38 CA Salt Lake City
54 LCT-332
17 APA Briscoe
21 APA Catron
16 APA Bracken

Original picture on Wikimedia Commons

Number Name
38 CA Salt Lake City
31 BB New York
17 APA Briscoe
21 APA Catron
16 APA Bracken
34 BB Pennsylvania
40 SS Skate
23 BB Nevada
28 CVL Independence
22 APA Crittenden

P.S.: I’m very curious to know if anybody ever finds this interesting or even useful. Please do leave a comment if you have actually read and/or used this😉

4 Kommentare
  1. This research is much welcome! For example, I wondered about where the Prinz Eugen is on the Crossroads photos repeatedly over the years but never bothered to solve it with GIMP.

    It might be worthwhile to add the info about which ship is where to Wikipedia. Then again, it might be shot down as „original research“ or somesuch. Still, worth a try: If only to trigger someone else to perform a independant confirmation.

    BTW: The Prinz Eugen can be seen on google maps: https://www.google.com/maps/place/8%C2%B045%2709.8%22N+167%C2%B040%2759.2%22E/@8.752271,167.683071,849m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x0!5m1!1e4!6m1!1e1?hl=en

    She sunk in shallow water and some parts of her are still above the waterline: https://www.google.com/maps/place/Wreck+of+German+cruiser+Prinz+Eugen/@8.752319,167.683028,2a,90y,90t/data=!3m5!1e2!3m3!1s-lmfJLQrI2_k%2FU2-kMhYlW1I%2FAAAAAAAAARc%2FlHoz6253ssI!2e4!3e12!4m7!1m4!3m3!1s0x0:0x0!2zOMKwNDUnMDkuOCJOIDE2N8KwNDAnNTkuMiJF!3b1!3m1!1s0x0000000000000000:0x975113b8d5c6e330!5m1!1e4!6m1!1e1?hl=en

  2. Hello Michael, great article which sheds light on a completely new angle of the Baker test. Could we print it in the next issue of the CTBTO Spectrum magazine? Best, Thomas (thomas.muetzelburg@ctbto.org)

    • Michael Büker sagte:

      You are very much welcome to do that! Thank you for your consideration🙂

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