Researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries discovered an intact “ghost ship” in 2,000 feet of water nearly 20 miles off the coast of Oʻahu. Sitting upright, its solitary mast still standing and the ship’s wheel still in place, the hulk of the former cable ship Dickenson, later the USS Kailua, was found on the seabed last year on a maritime heritage submersible mission. On the mission were the Hawaiʻi Undersea Research Laboratory’s (HURL) Terry Kerby, and James Delgado and Hans Van Tilburg of the maritime heritage program in NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
Launched in Chester, Pennsylvania, in early 1923 for the Commercial Pacific Cable Co., Dickenson was a vital part of a global network of submarine cable that carried telecommunications around the world. Dickenson arrived in Hawaiʻi and started work in July of that year. Repairing cable and carrying supplies, Dickenson served the remote stations at Midway and Fanning Island from 1923 until 1941.
Dickenson was also famously chartered by Cable and Wireless Ltd., the British telecommunications company also operating in the Pacific, to evacuate company employees from Fanning Island. With Britain at war with Germany and its Axis partners, it was feared the station would be a target. Dickenson arrived at Pearl Harbor with the Fanning evacuees on the morning of December 7, 1941, sailing into a port at war. Some of the evacuees on Dickenson noticed a submarine following their ship, only to see it disappear as U.S. forces attacked the sub and drove it off.
Dickenson, later chartered by the U.S. Navy, entered service as USS Kailua (IX-71) to service cable and submarine nets in the South Pacific until it returned to Pearl Harbor at the end of the war. No longer needed by the Navy or the Commercial Cable Co., the former USS Kailua was sunk as a target by submarine torpedo fire on February 7, 1946. The exact location was not recorded, and the final resting place of the ship had remained a mystery.
Mystery location uncovered
“It is always a thrill when you are closing in on a large sonar target with the Pisces submersible and you don’t know what big piece of history is going to come looming out of the dark,” said Kerby, HURL submersible pilot. “One of our first views of the USS Kailua was the classic helms wheel on the fantail. The ship was surprisingly intact for a vessel that was sunk with a torpedo. The upper deck structures from the bow to the stern were well-preserved and showed no sign of torpedo damage.”
“From her interisland service to her role in Pacific communications and then World War II, Dickenson today is like a museum exhibit resting in the darkness, reminding us of these specific elements of Pacific history,” said Van Tilburg.