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Dispatch #2: November 9, 2000
“The search...is a matter of reconstructing history.”

By Priit J. Vesilind, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Senior Writer

LAST NIGHT the engine room floor of the American Islander was awash in hydraulic fluid from the nasty break in the hose, and the repair work delays our departure. The clouds are already in withdrawal from the foothills of the Ko’olau Mountains and the sun is steaming on Pier #13 as we pull out at 11:15.

It takes us only a half-hour to reach the seas adjacent to Pearl Harbor, whose entrance channel squeezes between Tripod Reef and Ahua Reef. Between us and the island of Oahu, traffic is constant—airliners streaming into Honolulu Airport, cruise liners docking, the swift and eerie flow of submarines. We watch a Japanese Airline 747 descending, with the great red rising sun emblazoned on its fuselage. History seems to mock us.

The search for the Japanese midget submarine is a matter of reconstructing history, but historical moments are often like auto accidents; five witnesses to the same crash tell five different stories. Truth is reached, if at all, by the physical evidence.

On that fatal morning of December 7, 1941, the U.S.S. Ward was steaming east when it spotted the sail of a small submarine following a salvage ship, the U.S.S. Antares, north toward the harbor channel The Ward fired once from her #1 gun on the main deck, and missed. She fired again with her #3 gun on the second deck, and hit the sub where the sail, or conning tower, meets the hull.

“The sub listed to starboard and then righted itself,” says Will Lehner, one of the Ward’s veterans. “I thought it was going to ram us, it was that close. Then we started depth-charging, depth-charging.”

At 6:45 that Sunday morning Lt. William Outerbridge, captain of the Ward, sent out a terse message: “We have attacked, fired upon and dropped depth charges upon submarine operating in defensive sea area.” Through indecision, dallying, and a busy telephone line, the implications of the message never registered on the American high command. The Japanese aerial task force struck at 7:50, achieving total surprise.

If the midget had been fatally struck and sunk on the spot, the search might be easier. Yet we are not dead sure if the physical evidence, this cigar-shaped suicide vessel, is even in the area. Ballard sits now in the cramped control room wearing his trademark blue cap, drawing careful lines in orange pencil across the squares between longitudes 157.58.4 and 55.3W, latitudes 21.15.7 and 17.9N, outlining our search patterns, eliminating targets.

Behind him a bank of 12 video monitors displays the illuminated floor of the sea as the Argus imaging vehicle glides over it. Late on Thursday, November 9, Argus lights up the remains of the other World-War II midget submarine, a different class from the ones that had attacked Pearl Harbor. It had been captured in another campaign, probably in Guam, studied by intelligence experts at Pearl Harbor, then junked. Only its mid-section and sail remains.

Dewa, the Japanese veteran, regards the screen with emotion, realizing he is seeing a tomb of comrades he may have known. “I am very happy,” he says through an interpreter. Dewa, a gentleman, is always “happy,” but happy seems to mean different things, and his face shows little but stoicism and reserve. “In the way of the Samurai,” he says finally, “it is our duty to die honorably for our country.”

As on most Ballard expeditions, hardware meets history and he attempts to reconcile them. “In two days we’ll have sonified the box,” says Ballard in impeccable techno-speak. “We’ll have made a sonar record of the entire area.”

And then what?

“This is like looking for the Loch Ness monster. You gotta have a monster there, otherwise you’re just going through the motions. The big question here is if the midget submarine is really down there.”

Little Herc Ballard studies the squares on the table and frowns: “I don’t like where the Park Service has been searching. They haven’t found anything in that box. The midget may have died somewhere, but it may have not died in this box. It may have been heavily damaged, and the captain may have decided to get as far away as possible.”

Hardly anyone notices that Hawaii is happening outside. The trade winds dance across the waters, Waikiki Beach sparkles in the distance. But Ballard leans back in the air-conditioned dimness and tries to get into the head of the midget submarine captain of 60 years ago—a young Japanese naval officer in his 20s who had toasted his comrades, adjusted a white hashamaki, the traditional Japanese warrior’s headband, around his head, and set out to meet his maker for the glory of Imperial Japan.

Next: Gamesmanship >>

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

Photograph from Corbis

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