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Jan. 2003, Vol 28 No. 1
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Terry Kerby, left, and John Wiltshire use Pisces IV

A routine research dive solves a 61-year-old question about the first Pearl Harbor casualty of World War II

Midget Sub Mystery

by Rita Beamish

When they set off for their training dive on a sunny August morning in 2002, researchers aboard two University of Hawai'i submersibles little dreamed that they would be celebrities by day’s end. It was the end of their training week with the deep-sea submersibles—two of only nine such vessels worldwide. Crew members already were looking ahead to a busy dive season that would include scientific missions around Kaho'olawe and the remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

As they headed out from Pearl Harbor, the six scientists also knew that, because they would spend the rest of the dive season in other waters, this was their last chance to ply their perennial quest—the search for a Japanese midget submarine that went down under a U.S. destroyer’s fire on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. It wasn’t their job to find it—their work is marine, fisheries and undersea geological research—but they had made the midget sub their cause as well. They kept an eye out for it whenever they trained in the vast undersea debris field that contains sunken World War II detritus and scuttled military equipment near Pearl Harbor.

"We try to provide some other useful purpose while we’re down there doing our tests and training," said submersible pilot Terry Kerby of the Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL), a joint project of Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. "When we go on our science dives, the second mission is to find the midget."

Verifying historical account of sinking

Kerby made sure his team members knew the midget’s history: Crew members of the USS Ward had always maintained they shot and sank the top-secret sub as it headed into Pearl Harbor an hour before Japan’s bombers unleashed their ferocious Dec. 7 assault. Without the submarine, the outcome of the encounter remained in doubt, as did the question of whether U.S. forces had actually fired the first shot in the Pacific phase of World War II.

The 15-foot UH submersibles were armed with HURL’s new side-scan sonar maps showing bottom images, including a promising shape about the size of the elusive 78-foot midget. Maybe this one would solve the historical puzzle. "It could have been a rock or a ledge. There’s so much junk out there. It could have been anything," Kerby said. "But we thought maybe this is it." Acting Director John Wiltshire was doubtful. HURL crews had unsuccessfully searched the same area days earlier. "I thought this day would not be it," he said. Added biologist Chris Kelley, "We were all around the target on the previous dive and it just didn’t seem possible that we missed it. However, Terry insisted that we never saw anything to rule it out, and we should give it one more try."

"We’ve got it!"

The two submersibles, Pisces IV and Pisces V, conducted a two-vessel rescue exercise they had planned for three years. Then they turned to sonar tests and target identification. About three to four miles out, from 1,200 feet came the radio call from Pisces V: "We got it!" Data manager Rachel Shackelford had seen the midget on the sonar screen. She alerted Kelley and pilot Chuck Holloway. "My first glimpse was of the bow, specifically the torpedo guard, which is unmistakable. My heart started beating a mile a minute," Kelley said. "I yelled out, ‘That’s it!’ and grabbed the mike to inform Terry" in Pisces IV. It was, he said, "an absolutely thrilling experience."

Lit by the submersible spotlights, the midget sat serenely on the sandy bottom, sporting a four-inch hole just where the crew of the Ward said it would be. The jubilation was palpable. "On the radio we were being all professional," Kerby said, "but we were so excited we could hardly stand it." Then, sobered by the realization that two Japanese crewmen were entombed inside, the researchers documented their find with video and photography. Word of the find spread like lightning that day. Wiltshire received media calls from as far away as Ireland and Colombia. Japan and the U.S. State Department began discussions on what if anything should be done with the sub and its two unexploded torpedoes. Discovery Channel funded a return dive.

To the researchers, it was fitting that UH, after years of searching, should make the discovery despite past high-profile efforts by others. There was satisfaction in affirming the legacy of the Ward and its surviving crew. "At the end of the day, they were the ones who went out and met the enemy," said Kerby. "These guys feel vindicated. I’m really glad we did it for them."

See video and photographic images

Rita Beamish is a Honolulu freelance writer.