Exploring sacred site on the ocean floor

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Korea

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the USS Arizona are well documented.

But many people are unaware of the hundreds of sunken ships sleeping undiscovered deep in the quiet, dark graveyard that is the bottom of Pacific Ocean. 

According to the U.S. Naval Chronicle, 866 Japanese warships and 319 U.S. warships were sunk in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. Although the general location of a majority of these ships is known, most have yet to be found because of the depth of the waters and the ever-changing currents on the ocean floor.

But that hasn’t stopped people from looking.

In the Sibuyan Sea off the Philippines, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and his team recently discovered the Japanese battleship Musashi, one of the heaviest and most powerful naval vessels built by the Japanese.  The battleship was sunk on Oct. 24, 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, killing 1,023 crew members. Allen’s team had spent eight years searching for vessel when they uncovered it in March.

Among Japanese battleships and aircraft carriers sunk, only five have been discovered:  Musashi, and battleships Yamato in south western Kyushuu, Nagato near the Bikini Atoll, Mutsu off mainland Japan and Kirishima off the Solomon Islands.

While most sunken warships from any country have long been considered “lost,” modern technology and historical interest has drawn more attention to them in recent years, especially from explorers with deep pockets. Ships that have been discovered under the sea also are a favorite spot for divers.

Remembering those lost

For naval personnel, regardless of nationality, sunken ships have a deeper, more solemn meaning.

“Navy tradition throughout the ages and regions respect sunken ships as grave markers in the sea, and wish them to be left quietly as they are,” said the manager of Japanese Naval Association and a former rear admiral of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, who declined to give his name. “Over the generations, family members of the deceased, crew members who survived, along with the Japan Naval Association and other groups, observe the day a ship was sunk with a commemoration services for the souls of the deceased crews.”

In mainland Japan, former Imperial navy facilities in Yokosuka (Kanagawa Prefecture), Kure (Hiroshima Prefecture), Sasebo (Nagasaki Prefecture) and Maiduru (Kyoto Prefecture) have memorial monuments of each sunken ship that was built or homeported in the facility and conduct a commemorative service on the day of its sinking, according to the Japan Naval Association spokesman. “Furthermore, when our Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels pass around the reported area where a ship was sunk, we hold a spirit-consoling service for those crew members who remain entombed at the bottom of the sea.”

On April 26, family members of those lost in the sinking of the Musashi, conducted a memorial service over the area where Allen’s crew discovered it in March. In years past, they held services over the general area where the ship was believed to be.

The 2,740 crew members of Musashi’s sister ship, the battleship Yamato, were remembered during an April 4 ceremony in Kure City where the ship was built. U.S. Navy planes sunk the Yamato the off Kagoshima Prefecture as it sailed toward Okinawa, where an 82-day-long battle lasted from early April until mid-June 1945.

Underwater discoveries

Micronesia is known as one of the heaviest sea-battle sites in the Pacific.

According to Lee Webber, president of the Micronesian Divers Association & Managed Development Associates, there are somewhere between 18 and 25 sunken vessels and planes off the shores of Guam that are known to exist.

“Quite frankly, there are likely many more that have yet to be discovered,” he said.
Divers on Guam have worked with numerous organizations over the years to map outreefs and historical areas for academic and military reasons, according Webber.

“Having been diving in Guam and Micronesian waters for more than 40 years, I have had the opportunity to dive on numerous vessels that were sunk during World War II. Not only on Guam, but in Chuuk and Palau as well,” Webber said. “There is always something eerie about diving on sunken vessels on which you know that people lost their lives. There is a quiet respect that comes over me when I dive these valuable pieces of history.”

In Guam’s Apra Harbor, there are three Japanese ships on the ocean floor:  Takai Maru, a 8359-ton passenger-cargo; Kitsugawa Maru, a 1,915-ton transport; and Nichiyu Maru, a 6,871-ton freighter.

“While the condition of the vessels is quite good considering their age and the fact that they have been submerged for more than 60 years, they are beginning to deteriorate from a combination of rust, years in the sea and storms in the region,” Webber said.

Tokai Maru is a popular diving target because she leans against the German Cargo ship SMS Cormoran II, which was scuttled during World War I. In 1988, a mooring buoy was installed over the Tokai Maru and the Cormoran II for scuba divers to use.

“The Tokai Maru was sunk by the U.S. submarine SS Swordfish,” Webber said. “The Swordfish fired three torpedoes from outside the harbor and one of them hit the Tokai and she sunk directly on top of SMS Cormoran II.

“This particular dive on two naturally sunken vessels from two separate world wars is a signature dive on Guam,” Webber said. “It is also the only location in the world that I am aware of in which you can make one dive and literally touch two separate sunken vessels from two separate world wars.”

But Webber cautioned that diving around Tokai Maru, which is part of the National Register of Historic Places on Guam, can be dangerous and only experienced divers should attempt to penetrate them.

“All sunken vessels are pieces of history to be preserved and protected,” Webber said. “Divers must also consider that many of these vessels are actually gravesites for mariners and as such, must be respected.”

Exploring USS Emmons

Off the shores of Okinawa, the destroyer USS Emmons is a popular diving spot. The Emmons was attacked and critically damaged by waves of kamikaze pilots off the northern coast of Okinawa in April 1945. Fifty crew members were killed and another 65 wounded. The U.S. Navy decided to scuttle the ship after the attack to keep it out of enemy hands.

According to Akinori Anno, president of Okinawa Diving Safety Council, the Emmons, as well as an engine and other parts of a Kamikaze plane, were sunk in 135-150 feet deep waters.

Five years ago a plaque on the Emmons was taken by scuba-diving thieves, triggering the Naval Criminal Investigative Service to investigate.

“At the request of the NCIS, we sent out e-mails to all registered diving shops asking for the divers who took the plaque to bring it back,” Anno said.

The plaque was delivered to the council nearly a year later.

“I was really astonished when I received the heavy package,” Anno said.

The recovered plaque was immediately turned over to the NCIS. Two copies of the plaque were made. One was given to the USS Emmons Association, while the other was returned to the Emmons wreck site. The original plaque was sent to the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.

But the thievery didn’t stop there.

Another diver took a gauge from the Kamikaze plane that rested near the Emmons. The diver presented it to the  Chiran Peace Museum in Kagoshima Prefecture. Once the gauge was displayed in the museum,  other divers criticized the act and appealed for it to be returned to its original place. The museum complied.

Although Anno and other trained divers consider the spot a great diving target, he said they know it is a sacred site.

“We conduct a memorial service for the Emmons and the Kamikaze fighter each year on April 6, the anniversary of the sinking,” Anno said. “When weather allows, we dive to the sunken location and offer a bouquet of flowers to the ship and the airplane, and then pray for their souls.”


United States Navy losses in World War II

Battleships: 3
Arizona: Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941
Oklahoma: Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941
Utah: Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941

Aircraft carriers: 5
Hornet (CV-8): Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, 26 October 1942
Lexington (CV-2): Battle of the Coral Sea, 8 May 1942
Princeton (CVL-23): Battle of Leyte Gulf, 24 October 1944
Wasp (CV-7): September 1942, Torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-19
Yorktown (CV-5): Battle of Midway 7, June 1942

Escort aircraft carriers: 6
Bismarck Sea: Battle of Iwo Jima, 21 February 1945
Block Island: 29 May 1944
Gambier Bay: Battle off Samar, 25 October 1944
Liscome Bay: November 1943
Ommaney Bay: 4 January 1945
St. Lo: Battle off Samar, 25 October 1944

Heavy cruisers: 4
Astoria: Battle of Savo Island, 9 August 1942
Chicago:  Battle of Rennell Island, 30 January 1943
Houston: Battle of Sunda Strait 1, March 1942
Indianapolis: July 1945
Northampton: Battle of Tassafaronga, 30 November 1942
Quincy Off: Battle of Savo Island, 9 August 1942
Vincennes: Battle of Savo Island, 9 August 1942

Light cruisers: 3
Atlanta: Battle of Guadalcanal, 13 November 1942
Helena: Battle of Kula Gulf, 6 July 1943
Juneau: Battle of Guadalcanal, 13 November 1942

Destroyers and destroyer escort vessels: 89

Submarines: 52

Others: 547

– Source: Wikipedia

Japanese Naval Vessels Sunk during World War II

Battleships: 9
Hiei: 13 November 1942
Kirishima: 15 November 1942
Mutsu: 8 June 1943
Musashi: 24 October 1944
Fuso: 25 October 1944
Yamashiro: 25 October 1944
Kongo: 21 November 1944
Yamato: 7 April 1945
Hyuga: 24 July 1945

Aircraft carriers and escort aircraft carriers: 16
Akagi: 4 June 1942
Kaga: 4 June 1942
Hiryu: 4 June 1942
Soryu: 4 June 1942
Ryujo: 24 August 1942
Shokaku: 19 June 1944
Taiho: 19 June 1944
Hitaka: 20 June 1944
Otaka: 18 August 1944
Unyo: 16 September 1944
Jinyo: 17 November 1944
Zuikaku: 25 October 1944
Chitose: 25 October 1944
Shinano: 29 November 1944
Kaiyo: 24 July 1945
Amagi: 24 July 1945

Heavy cruisers: 18
Mikuma: 6 June 1942
Kako: 10 August 1942
Furutaka: 11 October 1942
Maya: 23 October 1944
Atago: 23 October 1944
Suzuya: 25 October 1944
Chikuma: 25 October 1944
Chokai: 25 October 1944
Mogami: 25 October 1944
Nachi: 5 November 1944
Kumano: 25 November 1944
Haguro: 16 May 1945
Ashigara: 8 June 1945
Kasuga: 18 July 1945
Tone: 24 July 1945
Aoba: 28 July 1945
Iwate: 28 July 1945
Izumo: 28 July 1945

Light cruisers: 21
Shoho: 7 may 1942
Yura: 25 October 1942
Tenryu: 18 December 1942
Jintsu: 13 July 1943
Kuma: 11 January 1944
Katori: 17 February 1944
Agano: 16 February 1944
Naka: 17 February 1944
Tatsuta: 13 March 1944
Yubara: 27 April 1944
Oi: 19 July 1944
Nagara: 7 August 1944
Chiyoda: 25 October 1944
Zuiho: 25 October 1944
Tama: 25 October 1944
Kinu: 26 October 1944
Noshiro: 26 October 1944
Abukuma: 26 October 1944
Kiso: 13 November 1944
Yahagi: 7 April 1945
Isuzu: 7 April 1945

Others: 517

– Source: Japanese Naval and Merchant Shipping Losses during World War Two by All Causes
(The Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee)

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