Ownership and
control of midget
sub uncertain

The Navy and several other federal
agencies may have an interest

Anatomy of a secret sub

By B.J. Reyes
Associated Press

Last week's discovery of a Japanese midget submarine sunk more than an hour before the 1941 aerial attack on Pearl Harbor answered the decades-old question of what happened to the vessel.

Now what?

As the submarine -- the first casualty from Dec. 7, 1941 -- lies in an undisclosed location on the floor of the Pacific, discussions have begun on what to do with the artifact, its two live torpedoes and the bodies of two Japanese crewmen believed entombed within.

"The thing has been on the bottom of the ocean for 61 years. If it stays on the bottom for another few years, I don't think that will create any ill feelings," said John Wiltshire, associate director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, which found the sub Wednesday. "What ultimately becomes of it certainly is multifaceted."

The sub was discovered a few miles outside the mouth of Pearl Harbor in about 1,200 feet of water. The exact location is being kept secret to prevent intrusion on the site.

Discovery of the vessel with a shell hole in its tower provides physical evidence to back U.S. military assertions that the United States fired first against Japan in World War II and inflicted the first casualties. Sailors on the destroyer USS Ward told of the encounter, but for 61 years there was no proof.

Possibilities on what to do next include raising it and recovering the bodies, or leaving it where it lies as a National Marine Sanctuary.

First, the question of ownership must be determined.

"Normally, things like this which are military gravesites belong to the nation that had the ship in the first place, in which case it would be Japan," Wiltshire said.

"Because this is such an exceptional situation and an artifact of such historic significance, the State Department would like to discuss that in some detail with the Foreign Ministry in Japan," he said. Federal authorities were notified as soon as the craft was spotted.

Other parties with an interest in the submarine include the National Park Service, which operates the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor; the University of Hawaii, whose team discovered the sub; and federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which could oversee the site if it becomes a sanctuary.

"Our biggest concern is that it's protected," said Doug Lentz, superintendent of the Arizona Memorial. "It's an artifact that we just want to see protected."

The Navy also would have an interest in the vessel because of the two live torpedoes still aboard, said Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the Arizona Memorial.

"We know the torpedoes are still aboard and they are in their tubes," he said. "They were alive in 1941 and they're alive in 2002."

As far as the bodies of the two crewmen, "It's impossible to guess what kind of condition they're in," Wiltshire said.

Raising the submarine technically is possible, Wiltshire said, based on the success of salvage operations of two much larger vessels -- the Japanese fishing boat Ehime Maru and the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk.

The Ehime Maru sank in 2,000 feet of water about nine miles south of Oahu after being rammed by the nuclear submarine USS Greeneville. Last fall, the Navy completed an unprecedented $60 million recovery effort that included moving the 190-foot, 830-ton vessel to shallower water before ultimately sinking it in 6,000 feet of water.

The 500-foot, 18,000-ton Kursk, one of Russia's largest and most advanced submarines, sank in the Barents Sea in August 2000 after an internal malfunction led to two explosions, the second of which had the power of a mild earthquake.

An international salvage operation raised the bulk of the Kursk last fall and recovered 115 bodies.

The Japanese midget sub, at about 78 feet long and 48 tons, is smaller than both of the others.

"Certainly, the minisub could be recovered," Wiltshire said. But such efforts "tend to cost in the tens of millions of dollars."

Martinez agreed, adding that any talk of recovery is premature while the stewardship of the sub has yet to be established.

"That is a huge effort. That is an expensive effort. And also, it's an effort of partnership," he said. "You can't glibly say that it should be raised or it shouldn't be raised.

"There's a lot of ingredients into that."

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