Okay buddies, I have just heard too many rubbish stories from some Dive Guides and Instructors about the most famous shipwreck in Bali. So I really want to give everyone a quick history lesson and hope this story is what people use during dive briefings or at least this may add a bit more intrigue how this ship ended up at the ocean floor in Tulamben, Bali.
Okay, first – the ship is called the USAT Liberty. Not the USS Liberty, NOT the USAT Liberty Glo and NOT the Liberty Ship. While she was actually called the USS Liberty in WWI. She retired as the USAT Liberty and this is her name.
The USAT Liberty was built in 1918 and was a cargo vessel to assist in the war effort for the United States and the Allies. It made three cruises from New York to France discharging both animal and general cargo at French ports. Loaded with 436 tons of U.S. Army cargo and 2,072 tons of steel rails, Liberty arrived at Newport News, Virginia, on 30 April 1919 from her final cruise. She was decommissioned there on the 7th of May and was returned to the United States Shipping Board the same day.
Germany had formally surrendered on November 11, 1918, and all nations had agreed to stop fighting while the terms of peace were negotiated. On June 28, 1919, Germany and the Allied Nations (including Britain, France, Italy, and Russia) signed the Treaty of Versailles, formally ending the war.
The USAT Liberty was essentially in retirement from active military service in between the two World Wars. However, was still active as a cargo vessel. In fact, to add to the intrigue of the USAT Liberty and its ultimate demise, On 20 October 1929, USAT Liberty collided with the French tug Dogue at Le Havre, Seine-Maritime, France. Dogue sank with the loss of two crew members.
The USAT Liberty was a 4-cylinder Humphrys and Tennant steam engine. The interesting thing to note here is the huge technological advancements experienced in between WWI and WWII. Think propeller-engine planes versus jet engines. Steamboats versus powerful and agile submarines. Advancements in sonar technology and radars. Speed, power, technology all underwent massive developments.
I mention this because the USAT Liberty was really like a donkey in a field of racehorses (above and below the water). Slow, technologically ancient and was poorly equipped to manage its adversaries in WWII.
But the United States was thin on military resources in the South Pacific and the USAT Liberty was dragged out of military retirement, refurbished for more modern warfare. At the time of the United States’ entry into World War II in December 1941, USAT Liberty was in the Pacific. In January 1942, she was en route from Australia to the Philippines with a cargo of railway parts and rubber. On 11 January, USAT Liberty was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-166 about 10 nautical miles (19 km) southwest of the Lombok Strait.
US destroyer Paul Jones and Dutch destroyer Van Ghent took the damaged ship in tow attempting to reach Celukan Bawang Harbour at Singaraja, the Dutch port and administrative centre for the Lesser Sunda Islands, on the north coast of Bali. However, she was taking too much water and so was beached on the eastern shore of Bali at Tulamben so that the cargo and fittings could be salvaged. Surprisingly, nobody died from the attack on the USAT Liberty – but greater tragedy was to come!!!
Fast forward to the 21st year of the USAT Liberty being beached on the white sand of Tulamben, 1963 the tremors associated with the eruption of Mount Agung caused the vessel to slip off the beach, and she now lies on a sand slope in 25 to 100 feet (7.6 to 30.5 m) of water, providing one of the most popular dive sites off Bali. This eruption was a monumental event in the history of Bali. Lava spurting from its peak and volcanic rock the size of a human’s head was being thrust upwards and sideways traveling over 10 kilometres. Tragically, around 1,100 people died – mostly impoverished local farmers who had no sophisticated means of transportation and certainly no comprehensive evacuation plan.
This natural disaster has turned into good news for avid divers. Where once a place with little to offer the tourist, now thousands of people per year flock to this spectacular dive site. The submerged USAT Liberty is only around 12metres from the shore and can be viewed from the surface (great for snorkelers) or down to around 34m for hard-core Freedivers and Scuba divers.
The USAT Liberty is one of the best shipwrecks for all lovers of diving and world history. Now, 59 years beneath the surface, the USAT Liberty is teeming with marine life. Vibrant hard and soft corals, Barracuda, Turtles, the ever-colourful Pygmy Sea-horses, Humphead Parrotfish and an abundance of Moray Eels and other nocturnal animals of our ocean.
The wreck will not be in-tact forever, so if this is a dive-site that is on your ‘bucket list’ then what are you waiting for? Bali has many other epic dive-sites so stay tuned for our next article. We are always here to take you on or off the beaten track!!!
Adam Lacey, Bali Scuba