Japanese World War II carriers found in Pacific depths

Christine Hauser, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 22 2019 09:15 AM

In an undated photo from Vulcan, an underwater photograph of a gun mount on the Kaga. Deep sea explorers aboard a research vessel have used sonar images to pinpoint the location of the Akagi and Kaga, two Japanese carriers that sank in the Battle of Midway in 1942. Vulcan, Inc. via The New York Times

In a photo from the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Japanese carrier Kaga following its 1934-36 modernization. Deep sea explorers aboard a research vessel have used sonar images to pinpoint the location of the Akagi and Kaga, two Japanese carriers that sank in the Battle of Midway in 1942. Naval History and Heritage Command via The New York Times

In a photo from the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Japanese carrier Akagi at sea during the summer of 1941. Deep sea explorers aboard a research vessel have used sonar images to pinpoint the location of the Akagi and Kaga, two Japanese carriers that sank in the Battle of Midway in 1942. Naval History and Heritage Command via The New York Times

In the murky depths thousands of feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, two Japanese warships that have rested undisturbed since the Battle of Midway in World War II have been discovered.

In the past few days, deep sea explorers aboard the Petrel, a 250-foot research vessel that explores historically significant shipwrecks, announced they have located the wreckage of the Japanese carriers Kaga and Akagi, 2 among the 6-carrier fleet used by Japanese aircraft to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941.

In June 1942, US dive-bombers attacked the carriers in one of the most famous battles in American naval history, about 6 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, which prompted the formal entry of the United States into the war. It was named after the Midway Atoll, a strategic ring-shaped reef some 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, and was seen as a turning point for the US in the Pacific campaign against Japan, which had naval superiority but lost four carriers in the episode.

The Petrel crew had spent weeks surveying the area, documenting more than 500 square nautical miles before picking up the wreckage in a conservation site known as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the atoll region of the Central Pacific.

Using sonar images, the Kaga came into view on Wednesday, and the Akagi was detected on Sunday in depths of 17,000 feet, according to Vulcan Inc., which owns and operates the Petrel and has served as multi-billionaire Paul G. Allen’s organization overseeing and supporting his philanthropic initiatives. The carriers were the largest Japanese carriers that Japan had at the time.

The crew has discovered more than 30 sunken warships, including, this year, the remains of the US aircraft carrier USS Wasp, which was sunk by a Japanese submarine in July 1942, and, in 2015, the Japanese warship Musashi.

“This project is significantly different from previous missions as it required a level of investigation, analysis and survey of a carrier-based engagement initially separated by over 150 nautical miles,” Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for Vulcan, said in a statement. “It was a major carrier-to-carrier battle that left its eerie evidence strewn for a total area covering thousands of square nautical miles across the ocean floor.”

Petrel owes its existence to Allen, who founded Microsoft with Bill Gates, and to Vulcan. Underwater exploration and World War II history were interests of Allen’s. He died in 2018 at 65 after a recurrence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

During the Battle of Midway, from June 3-7, the Japanese carriers were divebombed by American planes and the Kaga was torpedoed before they were scuttled by their own navies. The battle’s overall casualty toll was 2,204 Japanese soldiers and sailors, and 307 US forces, according to Naval History and Heritage Command figures.

The scene as the two carriers went to their underwater graves, as seen by a surviving US pilot who was shot down, was captured in a New York Times dispatch on June 10, 1942:

“The sister ships Kaga and Akagi are no more. Tossing in his rubber boat in the waters off Midway, our wounded Ensign Gay watched the two great Japanese carriers blasted into flame from stem to stern as their planes circled helplessly above them, unable to land on the blazing furnaces which had been their nests.”

An Associated Press reporter onboard the Petrel who is writing about the discovery said that the Akagi was resting amid a pile of debris and that the ground around it was clearly disturbed by the impact of it hitting the seafloor.

“She’s sitting upright on her keel, we can see the bow, we can see the stern clearly, you can see some of the gun emplacements on there, you can see that some of the flight deck is also torn up and missing so you can actually look right into where the flight deck would be,” Kraft told the AP.

In the battle, the United States lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown, and a destroyer, USS Hammann, while two other Japanese carriers, the Soryu and Hiryu, also sank.

“With each piece of debris and each ship we discover and identify, our intent is to honor history and those who served and paid the ultimate sacrifice for their countries,” Kraft said.

Similar to previous discoveries, there are no plans to disturb the carriers, which are considered war graves that will go untouched, a Vulcan spokeswoman confirmed.

Frank Thompson, a historian from the Naval History and Heritage Command, who is part of the team aboard the Petrel, said the discovery would give historians a “new perspective” of the pivotal battle. “Unlike land battles, war at sea leaves no traces on the surface,” he said in the statement.


2019 The New York Times Company