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Dispatch #1: November 8, 2000
“We steam out to the deep water to test the underwater vehicles and gear.”

By Priit J. Vesilind, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Senior Writer

THE ISLAND of Oahu is lush with rainbows and hibiscus. Its reefs are motley with tropical fish. But we’re off to a colorless place—the 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.

Bob Ballard 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 Honolulu’s 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. It’s 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 Service—a 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 heaving deck.

Five miles from shore, where the Ward once patrolled the entrance to Pearl Harbor, you can see the entire island of Oahu, from Barber’s Point in the west to Koko Head in the east. It’s shaped rather like a dish. Between the Wai’anaes, the dry mountains of the Leeward side, and the Ko’olaus, 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 sailor’s wit seems intact. “And the ship would roll gently, just like it’s doing now. Back and forth. It would put you to sleep.” Lehner’s eyes moistened behind his aviator glasses. “You have no idea what it means to me to be out here today.”

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.

Argus By 3 o’clock Argus is in the water, imaging the bottom. We glide over discarded ladders, tires, what looks like a Jeep. But Russell Reetz is skeptical. “We’re too far out,” the veteran keeps saying. “Too far out.” The distance that the Ward kept from the coast was etched into his head.

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. “It’s 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.”

Next: Reconstructing history >>

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U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, Hawaii

Photograph from Corbis

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