Michaela Harmon, left, Michelle Harmon and Michelle’s sister, Laura Covington, look at a golden locket that belonged to A. Vernon Jannotta, Laura and Michelle’s great-grandfather, who lost it when his U.S. Navy ship sank in 1918. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

The sunken treasure rested in a box inside another box inside an Audubon tote bag in Barry and Sharon Covington’s Potomac, Md., living room. About two dozen people milled around, most related by blood or marriage to the man whose portrait was propped up next to the fireplace: A. Vernon Jannotta.

It was his treasure inside that box and everyone wanted to see it.

On the night of July 19, 1918, Jannotta was a young Navy ensign assigned to the USS San Diego, a cruiser that escorted troop convoys to Europe during World War I.

“He never really talked about it,” said Sharon, Jannotta’s granddaughter, about how the San Diego struck a mine laid by a German submarine off Long Island. It took about 20 minutes for the ship to sink. Six men died. The rest spent six hours in the water.

“The story was that the Navy didn’t want to send a ship to pick them up because they were afraid it would be torpedoed,” Sharon said.

A golden locket that belonged to A. Vernon Jannotta, who lost it when the USS San Diego sank in 1918. The diver who found the locket in 1981 recently returned it to the family. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

The crew was rescued by a Dutch freighter, which dropped them off at a Hoboken, N.J., warehouse. As the men had lost all their possessions and had only the uniforms on their backs, Jannotta telephoned his uncle, who wired him $2,000. Jannotta lent each man $10 to buy clothes. (The last sailor paid Jannotta back in 1939, after tracking him down in New York City, wrote Joseph E. Jannotta Jr. in his 2015 biography of his uncle.)

Over the ensuing years, the wreck of the San Diego became a popular place for lobsters. And though it had settled on the seafloor upside down, it was remarkably intact, making it a popular place for recreational divers, too. Among them were two men who came to Sharon’s house Saturday, one from Delaware and the other from Virginia.

They both have dived many times on the San Diego, and in the spring of 1981 — after winter storms had churned up the silt that filled the ship’s corridors and berths — they each made discoveries there. Mike Boring of Chester, Va., found an engraved gold pocket watch that belonged to a crewman named John Henry Russell.

And the Delaware diver found the thing inside the box inside the bag.

He asked that I not use his name. Since his discovery in 1981, the laws regarding U.S. Navy wrecks have changed. Divers may no longer salvage items. He recovered the artifact before the new rule, but people still get riled up about divers going into wrecks and taking stuff out, and he’d rather not have the headaches.

But he wanted to be there Saturday.

“It’s a good opportunity for his descendants to hear about him and his exploits aboard the San Diego,” the Delaware diver said of Jannotta.

And his exploits after the San Diego. After the Great War, Jannotta became a successful businessman while serving in the Navy Reserve. When World War II broke out, he was able to talk his way back in to active service. He was 47 and his work overseeing hundreds of landing craft in the Pacific earned him promotion to rear admiral and the Navy Cross. He died in 1972.

“He was a character, a wonderful guy,” said Sharon, his granddaughter. “He had a real presence.”

The USS San Diego sits in 110 feet of water, deep enough that only weak light reaches its portholes. Mike and the Delaware diver brought lights with them, swimming through a small hatch and into the void. The practice, they said, is to go as far into the wreck as seems safe and then work your way back out.

Like a lot of divers, Mike said he was inspired to dive by watching “Sea Hunt” and “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” He’s dived on hundreds of wrecks all over the world and was part of a group of six divers that in 1985 pooled their resources to recover the bell from the Andrea Doria, the liner that sank in 1956. (They share the 150-pound bell, moving it from house to house like the Stanley Cup.)

When the Internet made it easier to search for people, divers were able to research the items they recovered. Mike used the Web to find some descendants of Russell, he of the pocket watch. In 2015, he was able to return it to the family. And he was able to find the Jannotta family.

Mike lifted the lid off a small jewelry box. Inside was a large, gold locket about two inches in diameter. Engraved on one side were the initials “AVJ.” On the other: “To my beloved son Vernon.”

Said the Delaware diver: “It is a thrill to see gold underwater.”

Said Mike: “Everything people touched had a story behind it. Back in the ’80s it would have taken a while to find the family. Finding the family becomes like finding the wreck.”

After 99 years, the locket was back home.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.