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Dispatch #4: November 11, 2000
“The gleaming, stainless steel craft...looks heroic, like the fictional spaceship Enterprise. ...”

By Priit J. Vesilind, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Senior Writer

SATURDAY MORNING and no sub. We’ve been searching since Election Day, and wonder which we’ll see first: the midget or the next President of the United States. But we gather once more on Pier #13, a blue-collar bastion of grease, hardware, and machinery, surrounded by the shopping malls and gleaming towers of Honolulu’s commercial district.

As the American Islander heads to sea and leaves the towers in the distance Bob Ballard spreads his charts on the navigation table. Not only have we covered most of the targets that the Park Service located in 1988, but we have also found new ones—ships, tanks, and piles of scrap. If the midget sub met its end here, only a few possible areas are left to search.

But Ballard has been on deadline before, and he knows geology. “Look,” he says, pointing to the chart, “close to the harbor entrance is an underground scarp, a sort of wall. It’s possible that the sub could have been sinking in the direction of the butte, slammed into it, and fallen into its shadow. It could be nestled in the geology.”

This prospect gives new energy to the search, and today we send out both of the expeditions imaging vehicles—Argus and Lil Hercules. They are complex and sophisticated robots developed for Ballard’s Institute for Exploration by engineer Jim Newman.

Newman is on board, his round-rim glasses usually glued to the monitors inside the control room, but he tends to visit the vehicles before a dive as if they were prized horses, nervously patting them down, soothing them. Argus is attached to and lowered by the ship’s winch by fiber-optic cable, and Lil Herc is attached to Argus with a tether. The arrangement allows Lil Herc, the size of a soap-box-derby car, to maneuver and turn nearly at will, while Argus acts as a stabilizing platform.

In the dimly lit control room, Ballard stands in the awkwardly placed stairwell like a submarine commander at the con. Through Lil Herc’s camera we watch Argus’ flight through white sea snow—actually a storm of plankton lit up by the searchlights. The gleaming, stainless steel craft suspended in the sea always looks heroic, like the fictional spaceship Enterprise of “Star Trek” plowing through interstellar space. Engage! Lil Herc looks more like a computer mouse, dragging its tether cord.

Tedium creeps into the control room between targets, and Ballard often breaks it up by launching into an old song from the 1950s. The songs always trail off after a few lines, which he says is all he can ever remember. Sometimes 15-16 people are packed into the room, half the size of a standard motel room.

Cessna 150 Lil Herc is suddenly upon a white Cessna 150 aircraft, lying upside down in the silt at 1000 feet (300 meters), looking very clean, eerily intact. It was lost in 1984 after it was rented by a woman, who bailed out and parachuted to safety before her plane plummeted. Later we find an intact torpedo, about eight feet (over two meters) long.

“Yes, it is Japanese,” confirms Katsuhiro Hara, the historian who is cruising with us each day. “It must have come from one of the midget submarines. Our aircraft didn’t fire at any submarines outside the harbor.”

Hara-san speaks broken English, but is constantly poring through history books and writing intense little clusters of characters with a red pencil. He wears a baseball cap that he holds on his head with a strap around his chin, and is good company for Dewa-san, the elderly Japanese submariner.

Japanese Torpedo The torpedo has tailfins and a double screw, where a brown sea urchin has made its home. It’s broken in the middle, probably from the fall or an explosion, and missing its nose, where there is only a square hole. The Park Service survey also reports an unidentified “periscope,” or a similarly shaped object near here. A live torpedo here, a periscope there? What if the midget fell apart after being bombarded by depth charges from the Ward?

“Did the sub implode?” says Ballard. “This is a thousand feet of water with, let’s see—30 atmospheres of pressure. That’s enough to implode it, to cause it to collapse. It could have imploded and is lying in pieces on the ocean floor.”

We know that only one of ten Japanese midget-submariners returned home from the mission, Sakamaki, and he was thoroughly ostracized by his nation for allowing himself to be captured. Branded a coward, Sakamaki moved to Brazil and became head of the Toyota company there. He never got over his shame. But that’s a whole new story.

Next: Sense of urgency >>

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

Photograph from Corbis

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