PHOTO COMPOSITE BY BURL BURLINGAME, STAR-BULLETIN / PHOTOS COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII UNDERSEA RESEARCH LABORATORY (HURL)
White Regadrella sponges growing on the hull of the "midget" submarine near Pearl Harbor are a barometer of the warship's untouched condition -- it takes several decades for sponges to reach this size.
When University of Hawaii submarine pilot Terry Kerby shone a light into the interior of a sunken Japanese midget sub through a shell hole in the conning tower, he got the shock of his life:
After more than 60 years on the bottom
of the sea, this Imperial Navy submarine
is in surprisingly good condition
By Burl Burlingame
"There was a human face staring back at me!" he recalled. "I nearly dropped the controls. But then it vanished, and no matter what angle I shone the lights to replicate it, it never came back. A sea ghost? Or maybe a trick of the light."
On Aug. 28, the University's Hawaii Undersea Research Lab (HURL) submersible found the Japanese sub, sunk by an American vessel in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Tomorrow, the HURL team dives again on the subject for a Discovery Channel documentary.
A recent analysis by HURL's Kerby of the first encounter off the airport reef runway shows that the midget submarine is in excellent condition, virtually untouched since the moment it struck bottom in 1941.
MIDGET SUBMARINE DRAWING BY BURL BURLINGAME / BBURLINGAME@STARBULLETIN.COM
"The current is strong down there, and it constantly scours the surface, preventing an excessive buildup of marine growth, allowing it to be buried in sand," said Kerby. "The fore part of the hull and a long stretch of the after section actually have the sand scooped out underneath, probably by hydrodynamic action of the current moving around the round hull. You can see fish just whipped around it if they get too close."
The submarine is resting on the bottom, pointing due east. The rear dive planes are in an up position, which likely caused the craft to porpoise through the water as it sank, preventing it from slamming nose-first into the sand. The fragile, thin metal torpedo netguards on the bow are completely undamaged, said Kerby, which supports this hypothesis.
COURTESY OF HURL
A sonar image shows the midget submarine lying on the bottom. Note the large rock formation next to the tail at left.
The hole in the conning tower sail made by the USS Ward's 4-inch gun is on the starboard side, but there is no exit hole on the port side, nor is there any deformation of the hull that would have been caused by a shell explosion. It's likely that the shell did not have time to fuse itself before striking the submarine, and so became a projectile rather than an explosive, punching a hole in the hull.
The single shell hole is approximately where the periscope shears enter the sub's pressure hull.
It is possible that the shell shattered on the periscope and that small holes from subsequent shrapnel damage in the hull are not visible through the thin layer of marine growth, noted Kerby.
It is also possible that the shell was diverted by the sturdy periscope mounting and passed out through the bottom of the submarine, an area now hidden by the sandy berm it is balanced upon.
The view into the submarine's interior through the shell hole shows debris on the inside. The periscope appears directed to the port quarter, so it is likely the submarine skipper was looking away from Ward when the destroyer opened fire.
Delicate Regadrella sponges growing on the hull, including underneath in the area suspended above the sand, appear to be at least 40 to 50 years old.
This indicates that the condition of the hull and the sand around it have not changed appreciably since the moment it sank, said Kerby.
PHOTO COMPOSITE BY BURL BURLINGAME, STAR-BULLETIN / PHOTOS COURTESY OF HURL
The bow of the midget sub extends over the sand, which has been scoured away by strong currents. The figure-8 net cutters on the bow are untouched, indicating the submarine touched down lightly.
"It also shows that the hull is strong and solid after all these years. It would be a simple proposition to raise her using slings," said Kerby. "We wouldn't even have to dig underneath to slide the slings into place; the current's done that for us."
Only a few yards away from the sub's tail is a large rock formation.
"If it had struck that, it might have been badly damaged," said Kerby. "And very close by is the remains of a 180-foot patrol boat. If that had landed on top of the midget submarine, we never would have found her."
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