The Holy Loch was used as a ballistic missile refit site by the US Navy from 1961 to 1992. So, when bones were discovered during a clearing of the seabed in 2000, it was assumed they belonged to one of the thirteen men that went missing during this time. This is the story of Larry Claude Battles, an 18-year old sailor from Alabama who fell overboard from the USS Hunley. More than 35 years after his death, DNA analyses have confirmed his identity.  

The Holy Loch

A view of Holy Loch, from Sandbank, near Dunoon in Argyll Scotland
A view of Holy Loch, from Sandbank, near Dunoon in Argyll Scotland

The Holy Loch is a sea inlet in Argyll and Bute, in western Scotland. Its name is believed to have originated in the 6thcentury when an Irish Catholic saint, Saint Munn, landed there and founded a monastic community.

By the 15thcentury, the area was a significant local center of Christianity. The powerful Highland Scottish Clan Campbell made it their spiritual home. The Kilmun Parish Church and Argyll Mausoleum are now on the site of the ancient Saint Munn’s church.

Kilmun Church and Holy Loch, Scotland
Kilmun Church and Holy Loch, Scotland (By Stevouk, from Wikimedia Commons)

The Holy Loch also was the site of the famous Robertson boat-building yard. It was a submarine base for the Royal Navy during World War II, and a fleet ballistic missile refit site for the United States Navy from 1961 to 1992.

Discovery of human remains in the Holy Loch

In February 2000, four human bones were discovered during an extensive clearing of the debris from the seabed of the Holy Loch. A week later, a fifth bone was recovered in a slightly different area. However, it was assumed that all five bones belonged to the same person.

Initial examinations determined the bones belonged to an adult male aged between 15 and 23 years, with a height of 168-174 cm. Police records indicate that 13 men had gone missing in the Holy Loch from 1965 to 1989. The age and height estimates ruled out ten of the 13 men.

Genetic analyses of the remains

Genetic analyses were used to confirm the identity of the remains and to determine whether all five bones belonged to the same individual. Blood samples were obtained from relatives of the three missing men and autosomal STR (short tandem repeat) profiles were generated from these samples.

Autosomal STRs are useful for analyzing degraded samples, because only small regions of DNA need to be analyzed. Researchers were able to generate a good STR profile from the fifth bone that was recovered separately. This may have been because it has been in a different microenvironment of the Holy Loch.

STR profile from the fifth bone matched that of one of the reference samples, suggesting the bone belonged to her missing son, Larry Claude Battles. Larry went missing from the USS Hunley while the ship was birthed at the the US naval base on the Holy Loch.

USS Hunley servicing at Holy Loch, Scotland (UK), 1981
USS Hunley servicing at Holy Loch, Scotland (UK), 1981

Mitochondrial DNA to confirm the bones belonged to one person

But the researchers were still unsure if all five bones belonged to the same person. For this they targeted the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA).

mtDNA regions
Regions of mtDNA amenable to DNA analysis

MtDNA is more useful for degraded remains because it’s much more abundant than nuclear DNA. Three regions of the mtDNA can be sequenced: the two hypervariable regions, HVR1 and HVR2, and the coding region.

The HVR1 profiles generated from all five bones were identical. They also matched to the mtDNA profile of the maternal reference that was tentatively identified in the autosomal STR analysis.

Together these DNA analyses identified that the remains belonged to Larry Claude Battles, a sailor who reportedly fell aboard the USS Hunley in the late 1960s when the US Navy occupied the Holy Loch. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can find out if you may have descended from the same maternal lineage as this US sailor.

Goodwin W et al. (2003) The identification of a US serviceman recovered from the Holy Loch, Scotland.Sci. Justice. Jan-Mar;43(1):45-7.