San Pablo Shipwreck – Pensacola, Florida - Atlas Obscura

San Pablo Shipwreck

Though nicknamed the “Russian Freighter,” this ship was actually sunk off the coast of Pensacola by the U.S. government in a top-secret operation. 


In 1944, a 315-foot ship exploded nine miles off the Pensacola shore, startling residents who watched the metal debris disappear beneath the waves. Rumors spread that the ship was related to Soviet espionage, earning the wreck a new nickname: the “Russian Freighter.” Yet, the truth is even stranger. The unlucky cargo ship was actually a crash-test dummy for a top-secret military explosive.

The San Pablo was built in Ireland in 1915. It was a refrigerated cargo ship that transported bananas and other tropical fruit around the Caribbean. With the onset of World War II, the San Pablo and other cargo ships faced the threat of attack from German U-boats that aimed to disrupt international trade.

In 1942, the ship was hit and sunk near Costa Rica, killing all 24 men aboard. It was relocated for repairs, but the damage was too great. One story says that the ship was destroyed as it blocked navigation channels. However, recently declassified government documents tell another story.

The United States military had been experimenting with remote-controlled speedboats filled with explosives to sink larger ships. The speedboat could be disguised as a civilian fishing boat with fake exhaust smoke and engine sounds to deceive axis harbor defenses. There, it could ram into axis-controlled boats while detonating explosives. The San Pablo was refloated and brought to Pensacola so the military could test its new weapon. A speedboat carrying 3,000 pounds of explosives crashed into the cargo ship, which immediately exploded and sunk. 

The San Pablo now lies peacefully on the sea floor, allowing the elements to smooth its twisted metal body. At 80 feet underwater, scuba divers are able to visit the wreck to explore the exposed boilers and swim among the fish who have reclaimed the ship as their home.

Know Before You Go

This wreck is only accessible by scuba diving.

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