NOAA honors lost crew of USS Monitor

Recreates faces of two sailors found in ill-fated ship’s gun turret, asks public for help to identify

March 6, 2012

USS Monitor sailor.

LEFT: Clay model of the face of a USS Monitor sailor whose remains were found in the gun turret in 2002. RIGHT: Computer enhanced image showing what the unknown sailor may have looked like while aboard the USS Monitor in 1862. See images of second unknown sailor here.

Download here. (Credit: Louisiana State University)

Nearly 150 years after 16 USS Monitor sailors died when their vessel sank in a New Year’s Eve storm, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has released forensic reconstructions of the faces of two crew members.

Officials unveiled the reconstructions and dedicated a plaque in memory of the Monitor crew during a ceremony sponsored by the United States Navy Memorial Foundation at the Navy Memorial in Washington today.

The skeletal remains of both sailors were discovered inside the Monitor’s gun turret after it was raised from the ocean floor in 2002. While much has been learned about the physical characteristics of the men, their identities remain a mystery. By releasing images of the reconstructed faces, NOAA hopes the public will be able to assist in the ongoing effort to identify the sailors.

USS Monitor gun turret is raised.

The USS Monitor gun turret is raised during a 2002 recovery operation by NOAA and the U.S. Navy.

Download here. (Credit: NOAA)

“These are the faces of men who gave their lives for their country at a pivotal moment in American history,” said David Alberg, superintendent of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, which was established by Congress in 1975 to protect the Monitor wreck site. “The best case scenario is that someone will emerge, perhaps a descendent, who can give these faces a name.”

"Our job is to not only protect and preserve our Naval history, but to make it 'come alive' to our sailors and the public,” said Rear Admiral Jay A. DeLoach, USN (Ret.) head of the Naval History & Heritage Command. “The fusion of science, technology and history has breathed life into our shipmates, and we are very proud of the legacy we have inherited from the sailors of the USS Monitor."

According to a Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) report, both of the recovered skeletons were well-preserved and nearly complete. Scientists estimated one of the men to be between 17 to 24 years old and about 5 feet 7 inches tall, with relatively good oral hygiene. The other man was about one inch shorter, between 30 to 40 years old, and probably smoked a pipe. Both men were white, although the Monitor’s crew included at least one African-American.

Conservators inspect the Dahlgren guns.

Conservators inspect the Dahlgren guns inside the USS Monitor turret.

Download here. (Credit: The Mariners' Museum )

A Civil War-era Union ironclad warship that revolutionized naval warfare, the USS Monitor is best known for its battle with the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads, Va., on March 9, 1862. The engagement marked the first time iron-armored ships clashed in naval warfare and signaled the end of the era of wooden ships.

Less than a year later, while being towed to a new field of battle, the Monitor capsized and sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., carrying 16 crew members to their deaths. The skeletal remains of the two sailors were found in the turret during a recovery operation in 2002 by NOAA and the U.S. Navy. The remains were turned over to the JPAC in Hawaii, which has worked to try and identify the sailors. To date, no trace of the other 14 missing members of the crew has been found.

Officers stand on the deck of the USS Monitor.

Officers stand on the deck of the USS Monitor in this image captured on July 9, 1862, by Union photographer, James F. Gibson.

Download here. (Credit: Library of Congress )

Forensic anthropologists at Louisiana State University’s Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory volunteered their efforts and created the facial reconstructions by using a combination of scientific and archaeological research, 3-D clay facial reconstruction, computer-generated modeling, and computer-enhanced imaging techniques. No NOAA funds were spent on the reconstructions.

“We don’t know all the answers about their lives but the reconstruction is a way to bring the past to life, to create something as similar as possible to the original,” said Mary H. Manhein, director of the FACES lab. “To see the faces take shape, to go from bone to flesh is very exciting. Our hope is that someone seeing the sculptures may recognize the face as an ancestor.”

Retired NOAA archaeologist John Broadwater, who was among the first to explore the Monitor wreck site after it was discovered in 1973, said the facial reconstructions add another layer of history to the Monitor’s fascinating saga.

Bill Read.

A diver swims above the bow of the USS Monitor.

Download here. (Credit: NOAA)

“When Navy divers discovered the human remains in Monitor’s turret, they immediately began referring to them as ‘our shipmates,’” said Broadwater, author of USS Monitor: An Historic Ship Completes Its Final Voyage. “Looking into these two faces is very moving for me and, I’m certain, for everyone involved in the Monitor recovery operations.”

The sculptures will be kept as part of the Office of National Marine Sanctuary’s Monitor collection and will be used in future exhibits and education programs.

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries serves as the trustee for the National Marine Sanctuary System, and works to conserve, protect, and enhance their biodiversity, ecological integrity and cultural legacy. The system includes 13 national marine sanctuaries and one marine national monument, collectively encompassing over 150,000 square miles of area in the ocean and Great Lakes. The Maritime Heritage Program focuses on maritime heritage resources within the national marine sanctuary system, and promotes maritime heritage appreciation throughout the nation.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.