Technology & Science

Deep-sea explorers find lost Japanese ship that sank during WW II

A crew of researchers scanning the sea floor of the Pacific has found the final resting place of a Japanese warship lost during the historic World War II Battle of Midway.

Until now, only 1 of the 7 ships that went down in the June 1942 air and sea battle had been located

In this image taken from underwater video provided by Vulcan Inc., the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga is shown in the Pacific Ocean off Midway Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Vulcan Inc. via The Associated Press)

A crew of researchers scanning the sea floor of the Pacific has found the final resting place of a Japanese warship lost during the historic World War II Battle of Midway.

Deep-sea explorers scouring the world's oceans for sunken WW II ships are focusing in on debris fields deep in the Pacific in an area where one of the most decisive battles of the time took place.

Hundreds of miles off Midway Atoll, nearly halfway between the United States and Japan, a research vessel is launching underwater robots miles into the abyss to look for warships from the famed Battle of Midway.

Weeks of grid searches around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands already have led the Petrel to one sunken warship, the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga. This week, the crew is deploying equipment to investigate what could be another.

Historians consider the Battle of Midway an essential U.S. victory and a key turning point in WW II.

"We read about the battles, we know what happened. But when you see these wrecks on the bottom of the ocean and everything, you kind of get a feel for what the real price is for war," said Frank Thompson, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., who is on board the Petrel. "You see the damage these things took, and it's humbling to watch some of the video of these vessels because they're war graves."

Despite U.S. bombing, Japanese warship still mostly together

Sonar images of the Kaga show the bow of the heavy carrier hit the sea floor at high speed, scattering debris and leaving an impact crater that looks as if an explosion occurred in the ocean. The front of the vessel is buried in mud and sediment after nose-diving about 4.8 kilometres to the bottom.

The U.S. bombs that struck the Kaga caused a massive fire that left it charred, but the ship stayed mostly together. Its guns, some still intact, stick out the side.

Vulcan Inc. director of subsea operations on the Petrel, Rob Kraft, looks at images of the Kaga. (Caleb Jones/The Associated Press)

Until now, only one of the seven ships that went down in the June 1942 air and sea battle — five Japanese vessels and two American — had been located.

The expedition is an effort started by the late Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft. For years, the crew of the 76-metre Petrel has worked with the U.S. Navy and other officials around the world to find and document sunken ships. It is illegal to otherwise disturb the underwater U.S. military grave sites, and their exact co-ordinates are kept secret.

The Petrel has found 31 vessels so far. This is the first time it has looked for warships from the Battle of Midway, which took place six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour and left more than 2,000 Japanese and 300 Americans dead.

The attack from the Japanese Imperial Navy was meant to be a surprise, a strike that would give Japan a strategic advantage in the Pacific. It was thwarted when U.S. analysts decoded Japanese messages and baited their enemy into revealing its plan.

As Japanese warplanes started bombing the military installation at Midway Atoll, a tiny group of islands about 2,090 kilometres northwest of Honolulu, U.S. forces were already on their way to intercept Japan's fleet. U.S. planes sank four of Japan's aircraft carriers and a cruiser, and downed dozens of its fighter planes.

One of the American ships lost was the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier that was heavily damaged and being towed by the U.S. on the battle's final day when it was hit by torpedoes. The other, the USS Hammann, went down trying to defend the Yorktown.

Survivor recounts Battle of Midway

Retired Navy Capt. Jack Crawford, who recently turned 100, was among the Yorktown's 2,270 survivors.

Japanese dive bombers left the Yorktown badly damaged, with black smoke gushing from its stacks, but the vessel was still upright.

Then the torpedoes hit, Crawford told The Associated Press by telephone from his home in Maryland.

This 1942 file photo shows an aerial photo of a Japanese carrier manoeuvring in a complete circle in an effort to escape in the Midway Islands, Hawaii. After the battle, the U.S. army reported repeated bomb hits on the Kaga and the Akagi, while the navy, in listing results, said four enemy carriers were definitely sunk. (U.S. Army, File/The Associated Press)

"Bam! Bam! We get two torpedoes, and I know we're in trouble. As soon as the deck edge began to go under, I knew she wasn't going to last," said Crawford, whose later military career was with the naval nuclear propulsion program. He also served as deputy assistant secretary for nuclear energy in the Department of Energy.

The Yorktown sank slowly, and a destroyer was able to pick up Crawford and many others.

In May 1998, almost 56 years later, an expedition led by the National Geographic Society in conjunction with the U.S. Navy found the Yorktown five kilometres below the surface.

Crawford doesn't see much value in these missions to find lost ships, unless they can get some useful information on how the Japanese ships went down. But he wouldn't mind if someone was able to retrieve his strongbox and the brand-new sword he left in it when he and others abandoned ship 77 years ago.

He was too far away to see the Kaga go down.

A piece of the Japanese aircraft carrier was discovered in 1999, but its main wreckage was still missing until last week.

After receiving some promising sonar readings, the Petrel used underwater robots to investigate and get video. It compared the footage with historical records and confirmed this week it had found the Kaga.

Rear Adm. Brian P. Fort, commander of U.S. naval forces in Japan, extended thoughts and prayers to Japan. "The terrible price of war in the Pacific was felt by all our navies," he said.

The other three Japanese aircraft carriers — the Akagi, Soryu and Hiryu — and the Japanese cruiser Mikuma are still unaccounted for.

The Petrel crew hopes to find and survey all the wreckage from the battle, an effort that could add new details about Midway to history books.

Earlier this year, they discovered the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier that helped win the Battle of Midway but sank in the Battle of Santa Cruz near the Solomon Islands less than five months later. More than 100 crew members died.

The Petrel also discovered the USS Indianapolis, the U.S. Navy's single deadliest loss at sea.

Rob Kraft, director of subsea operations on the Petrel, says the crew's mission started with Allen's desire to honour his father's military service. Allen died last year.

"It really extends beyond that at this time," Kraft said. "We're honouring today's service members. It's about education and, you know, bringing history back to life for future generations."