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Coast Guard History

Frequently Asked Questions

The following are commonly asked questions concerning Coast Guard ship and aircraft wrecks.

Who owns U.S. Coast Guard ship and aircraft wrecks?

The United States of America holds legal title to the wreck.  The U.S. Coast Guard is the Federal agency that retains custody for the wrecks unless specific, formal action is taken to dispose of them. The administrative act of striking an aircraft or ship from the active list does not constitute disposal.  Even aircraft and ship wrecks that are stricken from the active list remain the property of the United States until such time affirmative action is taken to dispose of these properties in accordance with law.  Coast Guard vessels sold to commercial businesses or private citizens are no longer U.S. Government property.  Vessels and aircraft sunk as artificial reefs have been transferred to other agencies; the Coast Guard does not own or manage these ships or aircraft.

What do I do if I want to dive on Coast Guard ship or aircraft wrecks?

Divers may dive on Coast Guard ship and aircraft wrecks at their own risk.  However, federal property law dictates that no portion of a government wreck may be disturbed or removed.  Unauthorized removal of any property from a U.S. Coast Guard wreck is illegal.  Sections of the U.S. Code have been successfully applied in prosecuting individuals who violate Coast Guard wreck sites.  Coast Guard wrecks may contain unexploded ordnance and other hazards and should be approached with the utmost caution.  The Coast Guard strongly encourages cooperation with other agencies and individuals interested in preserving our maritime and aviation heritage.  The diving public is encouraged to report the location of underwater ship and aircraft wreck sites to the Coast Guard Historian Office.  Documentation of these wreck locations allows the Coast Guard to evaluate and preserve important sites for the future.

What if I witness another diver removing parts from a Coast Guard wreck?

If you witness the theft of material from a Coast Guard wreck, report it to the U.S. Coast Guard and to your State Historic Preservation Officer or State Underwater Archaeologist.  Vandalism of U.S. Government property is illegal and leads to the destruction of historically valuable underwater sites.

What if I want to recover a Coast Guard-owned wreck?

Recovery of historic ship, aircraft wreck or associated components will be considered only for educational or scientific purposes.  It is unlikely the Coast Guard will recommend the disposal and sale of historic ship or aircraft wrecks.  The Coast Guard is currently working on an official policy in this regard, which will likely follow the U.S. Navy’s policy.  It has been Navy policy not to dispose of historic ship and aircraft wrecks for the following reasons:

 Under no circumstances should salvage of Coast Guard ship or aircraft wrecks be undertaken without prior and specific written approval by the Coast Guard Historian's Office!

Can I penetrate a Coast Guard ship or aircraft wreck?

No, the Sunken Military Craft Act, Pub.L. 108-375, Div. A, Title XIV, Sections 1401 to 1408, Oct. 28, 2004, 118 Stat. 2094, provides that no person may engage in or attempt to engage in any activity directed at a sunken military craft that disturbs, removes, or injures any sunken military craft except as otherwise authorized by law. Further, no person may possess, disturb, remove, or injure any sunken military craft in violation of this Act or any prohibition, rule, regulation, ordinance, or permit that applies under any other applicable law. 

Justification: Throughout history, warships and other craft in the service of the government have been accorded special protection under the concept of sovereign immunity, which exempts a warship or other governmental vessel in noncommercial service from the jurisdiction of any other state. In the modern era, this doctrine has been accepted as customary law by the courts in most jurisdictions as well as having been memorialized in articles 95 and 96 of the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention. 

Sunken military vessels often contain military or diplomatic material and naval technological modifications of a sensitive nature which may compromise national security. They also often contain the remains of naval personnel, which entitles them to the same protection as military gravesites on land. There are safety concerns, both for divers and the surrounding environment, in that careless activity could trigger off unexploded ordnance or release of fuel or other hazardous material into the ocean environment. Additionally, several articles in UNCLOS recognize the need for all States to cooperate to protect archaeological and historical objects found at sea.

The United States has been very aggressive in using this doctrine as a rationale for protecting our sunken warships and denying access to them or the pursuit of salvage claims against them since the nineteenth century.

What about wreck sites that are debris fields rather than whole aircraft or ships?

 Wreck sites that are not entire aircraft or ships, but are parts strewn in a debris field are considered archaeological sites.  Such sites still contain U.S. Government property and must be managed by the Coast Guard in accordance with the National Historic Preservation Act.  Contact the Coast Guard directly for further information.

Federal Laws and Regulations Relating to U.S. Coast Guard Submerged Ship and Aircraft Wrecks

  • Antiquities Act (16 U.S.C. 433).
  • National Historic Preservation Act of 1966(16 U.S.C. 470).
  • Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974 (16 U.S.C. 469).
  • Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (16 U.S.C. 470aa).
  • Theft of Government Property (18 U.S.C. 641).
  • Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 (43 U.S.C. 2101).
  • Documents, Historical Artifacts, and Condemned or Obsolete Combat Material: Loan, Gift, or Exchange(10 U.S.C. 2572).
  • Archaeological Resources Protection Act Final Uniform Regulations (32 CFR 229).
  • Protection of Historic Properties (36 CFR 800).
  • Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Historic Preservation Projects (36 CFR 68).
  • Abandoned Shipwreck Act Guidelines (55 FR 50116).
  • National Register of Historic Places (36 CFR 60).
  • Determinations of Eligibility for Inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places (36 CFR 63).
  • Recovery of Scientific, Prehistoric, Historic, and Archaeological Data (36 CFR 66)
  • Curation of Federally-Owned and Administered Archaeological Collections (36 CFR 79).
  • Sunken Military Craft Act (Pub.L. 108-375, 10 U.S.C. 113 Note & Stat. 2094-2098, Title XIV)

For further information, contact the Coast Guard Historian’s Office at:

WASHINGTON DC 20593-7031


Last Modified 1/12/2016