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Dispatch #3: November 10, 2000
“An opportunity for gamesmanship”


By Priit J. Vesilind, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Senior Writer

American Islander THE AMERICAN ISLANDER is a little family. The ship’s captain is Mario Luis, a longhaired and mild mannered Portuguese with a taste for strong cigars. The crew chief is Rob Kraft, an intense young man with a goatee and close-cropped sandy hair who barks needed orders. The mate is “Boy” Makua, whose muscular arms and legs are covered with the triangle-shaped patterns of Hawaiian warriors. “They’re family decorations,” he says. “My father has them, too.” The engineer is a broad-shouldered German named Rainer Pabst, a man of such dark, sweaty vitality that he looks like he’s working hard even when standing still. The cook is Joby Todd, a diminutive Japanese-Hawaiian with a crooked grin who puts up a lot of hearty lunches. Today it’s hamburgers grilled on charcoal on the deck.

As the sun filters through the heavy glass of the ports, Ballard’s brain trust pores over maps and charts. Dwight Coleman, Ballard’s scientific assistant at the Institute for Exploration, and Cathy Offinger, Director of Operations, have widened the search area. Using pencil and ruler, they have extended new squares off onto remote corners of the table. It’s like playing battleship on graph paper. Where’s the sub hiding?

Members of the team, sea veterans all, see an opportunity for gamesmanship, a sort of office pool. “Let’s sell squares,” says one, “Five bucks a square, and if we find the sub in your box you take all.”

There’s no shortage of gamblers or experts on board. Rear Admiral Jay Cohen, Chief of the Office of Naval Research, an agency that has backed Ballard expeditions for years, is visiting for several days. “Put my five bucks on the square that’s farthest north in your search area,” he says flatly.

Farthest north? Does the Admiral think that the sub nearly made the channel entrance? “Look,” he says, “several witnesses have told us that they saw through the hole in the midget sub’s sail.” He asks for a sketchpad and pencil and outlines the configuration of the midget’s sail. It consists of an outer armor plate separated from an interior core that is pressurized. Between the core and the armor is empty space, so if witnesses could see through the hole it meant that the core wasn’t damaged.

“My guess is that the captain regained depth control, knew the torpedo nets were open, then headed straight for the harbor, which was his mission. If that’s the case you’ll never find him.”

Ballard agrees. “I’m the midget commander and I’m heading up into the harbor entrance,” he muses. “And I’m obviously not aware of someone behind me, or I would have been submerged. I’m sneaking in, and all of a sudden there’s a shot fired. Either I’m hit fatally and starting to dive, or I’m diving because I suddenly realize I’ve been detected. In either case I’m moving north. I don’t want to be to be known in history as the guy who gave away the invasion plans.”

Attack Map The crew of the Ward had little time to analyze the situation on that Sunday morning. Most of them were excited about seeing a little action. And there was work to do. Minutes after the attack on the submarine, the Ward spotted a local fishing sampan that was steaming toward the harbor entrance where shipping was restricted and permission required. She chased down the sampan and fired a warning shot across her bow. The sampan captain lurched out on deck waving a white flag. Outerbridge, signaled for the Coast Guard to pick up escort of the sampan, and headed back to her patrol area.

In minutes the skies to the north were erupting with smoke and flame, and the boys from St. Paul knew they were in a war. Erasing any doubt were two Japanese dive bombers that wheeled past the Ward and dropped bombs toward her stern.

“They missed,” Will Lehner remembered, “but the pilots were so close that I could see their scarves, ones like the old barn-stormers used to wear. The concussion of the bombs lifted the aft of the Ward into the air, out of the water so the propellers were cavitating. That’s how far out she came.”

About a week after the sinking the sailors sighted two floating bodies in their patrol area; they were Japanese, dressed in what looked like long underwear. One had no head.

Next: Gleaming craft >>




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

Photograph from Corbis

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