THE ISLAND of Oahu is lush with rainbows and
hibiscus. Its reefs are motley with tropical fish. But
were off to a colorless placethe bottom of
the sea, 1,200 feet (366 meters) deep, way beyond the reach of divers.
That lightless world has no decorations, needs no
camouflage. The sea bottom is gray and plain, a sort of anti-Hawaii, a place located far from holidays and honeymoons.
And we are here for more somber reasons. Bob
Ballard, undersea explorer, has lashed his deep-water
remote-operated imaging vehicles, Argus and Little
Hercules, onto a 100-foot (30-meter) working ship, American Islander.
This morning we leave Honolulus Pier #13 to begin
our search for the remains of a midget submarine and her
two brave Japanese submariners.
Aboard our ship are three veterans of the
confrontation that turned out to be the first act of war in
the Pacific: Kichiji Dewa, 80, a radioman on a Japanese
mother submarine; Will Lehner, 79, and Russell Reetz, 84,
shipmates on the U.S.S. Ward.
Ballard is equipped with data from a 1988 U.S. Park
Service sonar search of the sea bottom outside Pearl Harbor
that locates 150 targets in a box of one by one-and-a-half (1.6 by 2.4 kilometers)
miles. Its a virtual scrapyard of hardware from
World War II. The challenge is to look at as many targets
as we can, he says. Some of them have already been
identified by the Park Servicea Cessna plane, an
LSD, even a Japanese midget sub from another campaign.
At 8:15 a.m., before the mellow sun can reach the
sheltered quay, we steam out to the deep water to test the
underwater vehicles and gear. For Ballard, nearly each new
adventure means a different ship, different fittings, strange
winches and deck configurations. All must be calibrated.
The skilled engineers and mechanics must turn their rough
dance into a ballet.
The water is a fresh royal blue tipped by whitecaps,
with a steady swell that rolls the ship and makes walking a
challenge. The imaging vehicles, attached to the ship by a
steel-coated fiber-optic cable, are lowered by A-frame from
the stern, but the operation is anything but routine on the
Five miles from shore, where the Ward once patrolled
the entrance to Pearl Harbor, you can see the entire island
of Oahu, from Barbers Point in the west to Koko
Head in the east. Its shaped rather like a dish.
Between the Waianaes, the dry mountains of the
Leeward side, and the Koolaus, the wet, cloud-infested mountains of the Windward side, is a sweeping
caldera of iron-rich soil prime for sugar cane and
pineapples. The entrance to Pearl Harbor is at the bottom
of this dish.
The U.S.S. Ward was a vintage four-stack U.S. Navy
destroyer packed with sailors from St. Paul, Minnesota,
who had volunteered together for the big adventure. Will
Lehner knew nearly everybody on the ship, and remembers
the pre-war Navy as a lark.
We were just a bunch of kids, says Lehner, a tall,
rangy man from Wisconsin whose sailors wit seems
intact. And the ship would roll gently, just like its
doing now. Back and forth. It would put you to sleep.
Lehners eyes moistened behind his aviator glasses.
You have no idea what it means to me to be out here
Like thousands of his generation, Lehner grew up fast.
When the Ward sailed into Pearl Harbor two days after the
attack, the U.S.S. Arizona was still burning, and whale boats
were fishing corpses from the oil-fouled waters. Death
sure changes you in a hurry, he says.
By 3 oclock Argus is in the water, imaging the
bottom. We glide over discarded ladders, tires, what looks
like a Jeep. But Russell Reetz is skeptical. Were
too far out, the veteran keeps saying. Too far out. The
distance that the Ward kept from the coast was etched into
In the afternoon we see a U.S. Navy submarine
steaming out of Pearl Harbor, its ominous black sail tossing
a white wake as it glides by, its fins giving it the aura of a
mechanical whale. Dewa-san, the Japanese veteran, is
immediately at the rail, his shining old eyes following the
sub like a raptor. You look at it and your instincts still
take over, he says. Its my training. I still have that
feeling of the hunt. You want to shoot it down.
Later, a mechanical glitch keeps the adrenaline flowing.
When the crew begins to retrieve Argus after its first dive,
the hydraulic hose in the engine room bursts, shutting off
power to finish the lift. The two-ton Argus is left dangling
off the stern, lurching wildly back and forth as the ship
rolls. Ballard, deck engineer Mark DeRoche, and others
scramble to subdue her and lash her down.
This is when people get hurt, says Ballard, wiping
sweat off his brow. This was the worst possible moment
to lose the hydraulics. We had a monster out there.
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