Sunday, February 17, 2002

Cmdr. Rob Fink of the U.S. Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1 recently showed the equipment divers will use when they go down to stop an oil leak from the USS Mississinewa.

Navy divers prepare
to remove oil from
sunken WWII ship

The USS Mississinewa was sunk in 1944
by a Japanese suicide sub

By Gregg K. Kakesako

U.S. Navy divers who were commended for their proficiency in recovering the bodies of the Ehime Maru victims last year are ready to tackle another challenge: siphoning 9 million gallons of bunker oil from the only naval ship sunk by a one-man Japanese suicide submarine in World War II.

Twelve divers from the Mobile Underwater Diving Salvage Unit 1 were to return this week from Micronesia, where they have spent nearly a month assessing an oil leak and the condition of the USS Mississinewa, a 553-foot auxiliary oil tanker torpedoed by the minisub on Nov. 20, 1944.

Commissioned in 1944, the 25,425-ton Mississinewa supported the ships of Adm. William Halsey's 3rd Fleet in the Central and South Pacific. It was anchored in Ulithi's 200-square-mile lagoon, about 450 miles southwest of Guam, when it was struck by the suicide torpedo sub, or "kaiten."

The 48-foot kaiten, carrying a 3,300-pound warhead, rammed the Mississinewa's bow on the starboard side, initiating the first and only documented sinking of a U.S. Navy ship by this little-known World War II weapon.

Upon being struck, the Mississinewa burst into flames and sank, killing 63 American sailors. Firefighting tugs pulled more than 200 sailors from the burning waters of the lagoon.

Cmdr. Rob Fink, head of the 140-member diving salvage unit, said a 12-member dive team and four salvage operations technicians have been in Micronesia surveying the hull of the Mississinewa.

There are two minor leaks on a 12-inch steel pipe on the deck of the tanker, which is lying inverted, hull up, in 130 feet of water, Fink said. The ship's twin four-bladed screws and rudder are angled toward the surface.

The bottom blends with the surrounding sand, making the ship difficult to see from the surface.

Eventually, Fink said, the Navy hopes to use the "hot tap" method of emptying the tanker.

Fink said the Navy almost used the "hot tap" method on the Ehime Maru because it believed that there was at least 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel still trapped in the 190-foot Japanese fisheries training vessel.

But by the time the Ehime Maru was moved from where it had sank nine miles south of Diamond Head to the recovery site one mile off Honolulu Airport, all of the diesel fuel had leaked out.

The Ehime Maru sank after being rammed accidentally by the nuclear attack submarine USS Greeneville on Feb. 9 of last year.

Fink said that in the case of the Mississinewa, divers likely will drill into the hull of the tanker and insert a hose. Water then will be pumped into its tanks, forcing the oil and other material to be sucked out by another hose. The materials sucked out would be directed into a waste tank on the surface.

Fink said he believes that because of their work on the Ehime Maru, the divers of his diving salvage unit have an advantage over other units.

"We definitely believe we have the best answers," Fink said. "We've been there and done that, and we're ready to go back."

He said in preparing to remove the diesel fuel from the Ehime Maru, 10 Pearl Harbor divers each spent four hours rehearsing the procedure in classroom situations on the surface, then underwater.

"We trained pierside, on the surface and in the water," Fink said.

Fink's unit was presented with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's meritorious unit commendation for its work in the Ehime Maru recovery operations. Sixty U.S. divers and several Japanese divers spent nearly a month searching the hull of the Ehime Maru for the bodies of the nine men and boys who were lost in the collision. Eight of the nine bodies were recovered and returned to their families.

During recovery operations for the Ehime Maru in November, U.S. Navy divers swam along the outside of the Japanese fishing training vessel, which sank after being rammed accidentally by a U.S. submarine.

In Micronesia a research team headed by Berkeley microbiologist Chip Lambert located the Mississinewa April 6, 2001, after a seven-day quest.

An oil leak in the ship was discovered last summer after a hurricane hit the island.

Lambert estimated that at the time, 300 to 350 gallons of oil were leaking from the ship each day. He and other divers placed a temporary concrete patch over the leak. On Dec. 23 another leak was reported.

The U.S. State Department has officially informed the Federated States of Micronesia, the nation in which Ulithi Atoll lies, that America will remove the remaining oil from the Mississinewa.

The Navy has promised that the oil tanker will not be lifted or moved and that its divers will not go inside its hull. This is because the 47 living survivors of the sinking are concerned about disturbing the grave site of their 50 shipmates who went down with the ship.

Lambert, who has been involved in World War II archeology since 1998, said he became interested in locating the Mississinewa after his team found the torpedo bomber that former Present George Bush was forced to ditch in Palaau in June 1944.

Using historical photos taken by Simon "Sid" Harris 57 years ago, Lambert narrowed the search field to 5 square miles.

Fink said that as in the Ehime Maru operation, the divers will be using equipment that supplies them with air from the surface.

They will be equipped with special helmets that are linked to surface communications equipment and video cameras so workers above will be able to monitor the operations.

The divers also will wear special suits to protect them from possible contamination.

Navy divers busy
on East Coast

While Pearl Harbor-based Navy divers concentrate on the recovery of oil from the sunken USS Mississinewa in Micronesia, colleagues on the East Coast will be working on recovering parts from a warship that went down during the Civil War.

The Pentagon has announced it will provide more than $6.5 million in fiscal 2003 to continue the Navy's salvage operation of the USS Monitor's 120-ton turret and associated artifacts.

The Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, based in Norfolk, Va., will serve as the on-scene commander for the effort.

In fiscal 2001, Navy dive teams recovered the ship's cast-iron propeller, propeller shaft and engine.

The goal of the fiscal 2002 expedition has been to retrieve the Monitor's turret, which detached from the vessel when it sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C. The turret came to rest under the ship.

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