US Navy divers remove oil from German WWII cruiser in Marshall Islands

US Navy divers have completed the removal of fuel oil from the capsized World War II German cruiser, Prinz Eugen, at Enubuj Island in Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands.

Working from aboard US naval ship Salvor, divers from Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 1 completed the undertaking on October 15, after 45 days of efforts.

An estimated 250,000 gallons of fuel oil were removed from Prinz Eugen and involved nearly two dozen divers along with support from commercial tanker Humber for transport of the removed fuel oil.

“There are no longer active leaks with 97 percent of the oil having been removed. The remaining oil is enclosed in a few internal tanks without leakage and encased by layered protection,” said Lt. Cmdr. Tim Emge, officer-in-charge of salvage operations. “Of the 173 total oil tanks, the 143 external tanks have been pumped of all appreciable amount of oil.”

The Prinz Eugen was used in combat during World War II, and in May 1945 upon the conclusion of the war, it was surrendered to the British and transferred to the US Navy for use in Operation Crossroads nuclear tests. After surviving two tests and subsequent towage to Kwajalein Atoll, the vessel began to take on water due to sea valve and rudder damage and ran aground settling in a capsized position off the coast of Enubuj Island.

As part of the 1986 Compact of Free Association between the US and the Republic of the Marshall Islands the US transferred the Prinz Eugen title to the RMI. Beginning in 2010, RMI requested the US provide technical and financial support for Prinz Eugen fuel off-load.

In December 2016 US Indio-Pacific Command worked with US Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving to evaluate the current status of the Prinz Eugen and plan for a way ahead once funding became available. Following the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which authorized expenditure of Army funds to off-load oil from the Prinz Eugen, Karen Brevard Stewart, US ambassador to the Marshall Islands, and State Department staff played a major role in getting the diplomatic work accomplished in time to meet the short deadlines set under the act. Work began in February 2018 to plan for and execute the removal of the fuel oil.

“Our team’s hard work over the last two years preparing for this project and assembling the right combination of equipment and technical expertise enabled our success in this very important mission to protect the pristine waters of Kwajalein Atoll from the risk of a catastrophic oil release,” said Stephanie Bocek, project manager at the Supervisor of Salvage and Diving.

The operation, having preceded with surveys of the wreck, consisted of four stages: anchoring and mooring operations, fuel extraction, fuel transfer and dome closures of hull access.

As follow-on oil sampling were conducted aboard Salvor, the removed fuel oil was pumped aboard Humber for transport and refinement in future use.

“Everything went very well, and I am very happy to have been part of this experience,” said Capt. Allan Rudy, master of Humber. “This was a new experience for me and the multinational crew, and we look forward to working together again in the future.”

After the application of double barrier protection on the hull of the vessel to ensure no potential leakage, the diving team conducted several community relations activities including a team-building run and beach cleanup on Enubuj Islands and a show-and-tell demonstration at the Kwajalein Atoll High School.

“The team worked tirelessly, and I am proud to have been part of this amazing experience as we were able to see history first-hand and connect with the local communities,” said Emge. “We remain motivated and look forward to exercises and operations with partner nations across the region in the near future.”

Photo: Navy divers remove fuel oil from the capsized World War II German cruiser Prinz Eugen. Photo: US Navy