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Dispatch #5: November 14, 2000
“A sense of urgency stiffens the air. ...”

By Priit J. Vesilind, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Senior Writer

TUESDAY MORNING is another one of those glossy Hawaiian productions, featuring rainbows and palm trees for local props, and starring Bob Ballard and a boffo supporting cast. Historian Stephen Ambrose, another National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, has arrived to gather material for a book about the war between Japan and the United States. But it’s getting a bit crowded in the galley, where most of the team is constructing peanut-butter-and-jelly muffins as we head seaward.

Deepworker A sense of urgency stiffens the air; only three search days are left. But for the final push we have new tools. Argus and Lil Herc—the imaging vehicles—have been packed away. Engineers and welders have re-fit the deck of the American Islander for two one-man submersibles owned by American Deepwater Engineering: Deepworker #8 and Deepworker #9.

These submersibles, the size of Volkswagen Beetles, look like space-age lounge chairs with mechanical claws. The pilot sits nearly upright in a compartment that’s not much roomier than his skin. His feet manipulate levels that control movement, leaving his hands to work radio and videotaping. His head is enclosed in a viewing bubble similar to the cockpit of an old fighter plane. The Deepworkers can reach 2000 feet (600 meters), and are capable of staying submerged for 16 hours. Ironically, they offer less instant communication than Ballard’s remote-operated vehicles; they don’t send back a constant stream of video, but are linked only by radio to the ship.

Kip Evans First to descend is Kip Evans, a clear-eyed young photographer and marine biologist from California. His mission is to find the Japanese torpedo we had sighted earlier, and use it as a starting point to explore along the scarp that fronts the channel entrance to Pearl Harbor.

Deepwater #8 and #9 are parked in two white vans on the stern of the ship, and are drawn by winch to the stern along metal tracks. At 9:30 a.m. we launch #9. The powerful hydraulic A-frame crane hooks it, plucks it up, extends it over the water, and drops it in. For a moment the vehicle floats, a bizarre moment when only the calm face of Kip Evans appears in the water like an apparition. And then it is gone in a nest of bubbles.

Ballard and key team members now crowd into the closet-sized control room in the ship’s belly, with standing room only. On the radar screen the Deepworker is a buglike red blip wandering among blue concentric circles. Into the roar of the ship’s diesel engines and the electronic hum comes a hollow sound like water dripping: “Blop! tip-tip! Blop! tip-tip!” “Blop” is the sound of the mother ship’s acoustic modem signal, crew chief Rob Kraft explains. “Tip-tip” is the answer from the roving submersible. It is the hen clucking to her chicks, in case they wander past the barnyard fence.

And then Evans’ disembodied voice comes in, wrapped in static: “I see sand and some outcroppings. Target about 50 feet [15 meters].” He’s closing in on the torpedo, about 500 feet (152 meters) from the beginning of the harbor channel. And he’s finding more debris, and taping.

Deepworker #9 and Evans are back on deck up by 1:30 with the video, which Ballard quickly plops into a player. Technicians and veterans crowd around the screen as if they were watching the final match of the World Cup. Evans has thoroughly examined the torpedo. Hara-san, the Japanese historian, flips through a Japanese manual of arms, nodding. “Yes, Japanese, Japanese.”

Ballard now acknowledges that he’s looking for sub parts, not the whole thing. Will the next two Deepwater divers spot a conning tower and pieces of hull in the silt?

Toward mid-day Mitch Seil, piloting Deepdiver #8, sees pieces of cylindrical metal debris. One piece has a hole in it. Spirits soar. Next he reports a rack of what look like batteries. Good! The midget subs ran on batteries, not fuel oil. Ballard’s face takes on color, a song forms on his lips. Has he done it again?

But the tape is disappointing when Mitch brings it up. The round objects are too small to be from the sub, the “batteries” are simply ammunition clips. Enthusiasm drains from the room. No cigar, no smoking gun.

Later Kip Evans feels compelled to explain something deeper that he felt on his descent: “Flying down there at 750 feet [228 meters] and slowly coming up on those debris areas, I started to form an image of what those midget pilots must have felt. I go out as a pilot, and it’s a lonely place, but I always expect to come back home. They were going into something that was far more dangerous than what I do, into the unknown. They realized, We’re not coming back. I can’t even fathom how terrible that must be.”

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

Photograph from Corbis

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