- - Sunday, June 24, 2018

The mission in 1985 was straightforward: Scour the depths of the Atlantic Ocean to locate the resting place of the Titanic.

But even some members of the crew had no idea of the top-secret classification of their search or its true aim: to find and inspect the only two U.S. nuclear submarines lost during the Cold War.

“We were able to pull it off under the noses of everybody,” said maritime archaeologist Robert Ballard, a former Navy Reserve officer who is credited with finding the legendary ocean liner that sank in 1912.

“Titanic: The Untold Story,” a new exhibit at the National Geographic Museum, tells how the Navy directed Mr. Ballard to find two nuclear-powered attack submarines that had sunk in the 1960s: the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher.

In the 1980s, Mr. Ballard was working at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a nonprofit research outfit where he designed and created an unmanned robotic camera system capable of using sonar to scan the ocean floor. He called it the Argo.

The Navy turned down his 1982 request for funding for an Argo-led search for the Titanic. Instead, the naval service agreed to finance a reconnaissance mission for its lost submarines, after which Mr. Ballard could look for the sunken cruise ship. He was placed on temporary active naval duty and in charge of the civilian-manned, highly classified search.

“We had people aboard who were not cleared, and they literally were sitting above the Scorpion not knowing it for over a week while we were working in a room that was sealed off,” said Mr. Ballard, 75.

What happened to the Thresher was clear: All 129 on board died when it sank in 1963 during deep-diving trials. Still a mystery was the case of the Skipjack-class Scorpion. The Navy wanted to find out whether foul play was involved when the Scorpion sank in 1968 and whether the Soviets had been to the site and removed nuclear material from the sunken sub.

“What I discovered when I was mapping the Scorpion was that when it imploded, the current carried away the lighter material,” creating a long trail of debris, Mr. Ballard said. “I gambled that the same thing happened to the Titanic, and I thought, ‘Let’s not look for the Titanic. Let’s look for stuff that would have come off of it.’”

Using the Argo, the Ballard expedition discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, the same year President Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time in Geneva in the midst of the Cold War.

The following year, Mr. Ballard told the world that he and his team were building technology to go inside the Titanic and descend its grand staircase. That was a cover for another mission to determine whether the nuclear submarines had released radioactive contaminants into the ocean.

“Embedded in my team were naval personnel that many on our team didn’t know were naval personnel, but I was training them,” Mr. Ballard said.

The Cold War mission is not the only untold story in National Geographic’s latest display, which includes tales about the men and women who survived and died during the Titanic’s maiden voyage in April 1912.

There’s the “lucky” coat Marion Wright Woolcott wore when she stepped into a lifeboat. The young Englishwoman was traveling by herself on the White Star Line to be married in the United States. She was married in the coat she wore during her rescue, and she used it to make Bible covers for each of her three sons before they went off to fight in World War II. All three sons survived.

There’s a fragment from the toy pig Edith Russell clung to as the 1,178 lifeboat spaces for the 2,224 people on the sinking ship began to fill up. A sailor grabbed the pig from under Edith’s arm, said, “If you don’t want to be saved, I’ll save your baby,” and tossed the pig into one of the lifeboats. Thinking of her mother, who gave her the toy, Edith jumped down after it.

“It’s very visceral seeing these personal effects,” said Kathryn Keane, director of the National Geographic Museum. “Every time we open the book, we learn something new.”

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