Freelance Dive Instructor and Dive Guide in Bali, Indonesia

The History of the U.S.A.T. Liberty

The History of the U.S.A.T. Liberty

Not all divers who return from Bali with fond memories of unforgettable dives on the beautiful shipwreck of the U.S.A.T. Liberty know what they have actually seen here. Even more so, as there is a lot of unsubstantiated or inaccurate information around about this vessel.

It already starts with the name: we find her often referred to as ‘USS Liberty’ which is just plain wrong, even if some sources say that she was originally launched under this name, but later re-named. More likely, this is a mix-up with the U.S. (NSA) reconaissance vessel which enjoyed  worldwide attention when it came under attack by Israeli naval and air force units during the ‘Six- Day War’ on 8 June 1967. At this time ‘our’ Liberty was already where she still is today  – at the bottom of the sea, near Tulamben, Bali. Sometimes she is even described as a ‘Liberty-class’ vessel – wrong again.

But there is still one more possibility, which can not be ruled out yet. Some sources claim her real name to be ‘U.S.A.T. Liberty Glo’. This is an ongoing dispute, more about the shipyard where she was built than about her purpose or construction details (those seem to have been not so much different for both vessels). As the outcome of this discussion will also have hardly any consequences for her more recent history, I suggest that for the time being and until more accurate information becomes available, we keep referring to her by her most well-known name: U.S.A.T. Liberty.   

Originally designed to be an army transport vessel (U.S.A.T. stands for United States Army Transport) she was launched too late to actively take part in any military action during WW I. This would apply to her namesake, the ‘U.S.A.T. Liberty Glo’ too, but the latter – though she was never involved in a naval battle – still suffered war wounds as she ran into a left-over sea mine somewhere in the North Sea.

But both survived and were recruited again as soon as the U.S. joined the allied front against the ‘Third Reich’ and entered WW II.

 ‘Our Liberty’ (whichever of those two she might really be) met her semi-final destiny during the Japanese ‚Operation H‘, the invasion of Celebes – now Sulawesi.  On 11 January 1942 the Liberty was en route from Australia to the Philippines, at position 08°54’S, 115°8’E south of the Lombok Straits when she attracted the attention of a certain Captain Yoshitomi Zenji, Commander in Charge of the Japanese submarine I-66 (only later renamed I-166). Mr. Zenji saw his chance for fame and gave the order to open fire. The Japanese torpedo tore into Liberty‘s hull, leaving a sizeable hole. But Zeni was not meant to enjoy his imagined victory, seeing his rather defenseless target go down. He had to run for his and his crew’s life, as two allied destroyers, the  U.S.S. Paul Jones and the Dutch destroyer HNLMS Van Ghent were approaching the site and managed to take the limping Liberty in tow. Their intention was to tow her to safety into the port of Singaraja, at this time one of the last allied strongholds in Bali, to salvage at least her cargo if not the whole vessel.

Note: I-66, renamed I-166 met her destiny shortly after on her way from Penang (Malaysia) through the Malakka Straits heading for Singapore. She was sent to ‘Davy Jone’s Locker’ together with 89 crew by British Sub HMS Telemachus.
Copyright Norbert BINDER, PADI MSDT-950174, Renon, Denpasar, April 2013
But the Liberty, heavily loaded with strategic material like rubber and railway parts did not make it to Singaraja, she took too much water and her rescuers had to abandon her near Tulamben, but deliberately let her run ashore, to be able to salvage the cargo and some installations of value.
Copyright Norbert BINDER, PADI MSDT-950174, Renon, Denpasar, April 2013
The heavily damaged vessel was now left to rest on the beach for two decades, slowly breaking up. It should take another 40 years until dive tourism started growing in this rather remote area of Bali. But in the meantime the Liberty was already perfectly adapted to become a global legend  of dive tourism – the local people took care of this, as they took everything they could put to some use, and thus perfectly prepared the Liberty to become a ‘diveable’ shipwreck. Porthole lids, doors, glass panes, etc. were removed and do not pose any threats to careless divers today.
Copyright Norbert BINDER, PADI MSDT-950174, Renon, Denpasar, April 2013
Enter the year 1963 ! When the wreck was eventually pushed back to its final resting place in the ocean, the Balinese people were only involved according to their own explanation of what happened.

They were busy celebrating ‚Eka Desa Rudra’, one of their most important religious ceremonies, the ‘Cleansing of the Universe’, only celebrated every 100 years or so.
Copyright Norbert BINDER, PADI MSDT-950174, Renon, Denpasar, April 2013
But this time a politically motivated dispute had erupted between different factions of the highest Balinese priests. It seems they could not agree on the proper month for the celebrations with their culmination to be at full moon. The skeptics amongst them found their worst fears confirmed in a most dramatic way, when between February and May Mount Agung erupted.

On 18 February the three-thousand-something meters stratovulcano heralded its awakening with a big bang and a column of rising smoke, followed by several major eruptions between 17 March and 16 May. During this time Gunung Agung (Indonesian for ‘the High Mountain’) got rid of most of his summit and tossed lava, boulders and ashes as high as 8 to 10 km into the sky. According to different sources the eruptions caused somewhere between 1500 and 3000 casualties as many villages were burnt to the ground within seconds by the hot pyroclastic flow, rushing down the slopes of Gunung Agung with a top speed around 400 km/h and literally swept away by mud avalanches (lahars) while being bombed from above with stones, an estimated total of 50 million cubic meters raining down on them like an apocalyptic hailstorm and the up to 40 meters high lava flow burying what was left of them.

The only place spared from destruction was Bali’s most sacred place, the so-called ‘mother temple’ of Pura Besakih, situated in around 950 meters above sea level, right on the slope of Mount Agung.

Since then, Mount Agung stands 200m less tall, though its ‚official‘ height is still 3142m, and the U.S.A.T. Liberty found its final grave in the ocean, pushed back by earthquakes and lava streams which even reached Tulamben.

Like many things here in Bali, some details about the origin and the true name of ‘our’ shipwreck as well as about the 1963 eruption of Gunung Agung and even today’s exact altitude of the summit remain a mystery. Maybe we should remember an old principle of Balinese Hinduism  (Agama Hindu Dharma Bali): Sekala dan Niskala –the Seen and the Unseen …

This said, I leave you with those facts which are known to me as of today and will update them as soon as I get any new or more accurate information.

I would finally like to express my greatest respect for the Balinese religion and culture and ask for lenience in case I have presented any facts in a wrong or inaccurate way.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om !


Copyright Norbert BINDER, PADI MSDT-950174, Renon, Denpasar, April 2013

Copyright Norbert BINDER, PADI MSDT-950174, Renon, Denpasar, April 2013

‚Bali Sekala & Niskala, Essays on Religion, Ritual, and Art’
Fred B. Eiseman Jr., Periplus Editions (HK) Ltd., ISBN 13:978-0-945971-03-0

Copyright Norbert BINDER, PADI MSDT-950174, Renon, Denpasar, April 2013