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"I think we are looking at the Japanese sub!"

By Al Kalvaitis

One of my several responsibilities at NOAA Research's National Undersea Research Program (NURP) is operations and safety director. On August 28, 2002, I was aboard the PISCES IV submersible to witness and oversee emergency safety demonstrations with her sister submersible, PISCES V. This is my eyewitness account of that day which led to the discovery of that long lost Japanese midget submarine that was used in an attempted underwater attack of Pearl Harbor, one hour before the air assault. Never did I think this would be the day I would become an eyewitness to history, and that a persistent WWII mystery would at last be resolved.

Interior of submersible showing 2 men - one speaking on microphone.
Photo by Al Kalvaitis

Moment of Discovery! Terry Kerby (left), chief pilot of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, and co-pilot Colin Wollerman as they first spot sunken Japanese midget submarine - and resolve 61-year-old puzzle. The discovery makes clear that U.S. forces fired the first shot in the war against Japan.

First some background. The PISCES IV and V are research submersibles that are managed and operated for NURP by NURP’s Hawaii and Pacific Center at the University of Hawaii. The PISCES V is actually owned and titled to NOAA, making it NOAA’s only manned submersible. These submersibles conduct research on peer-reviewed projects important to NOAA and the nation. Several training and safety related dives are conducted before each field season.

Although I have dived in numerous submersibles, this was my first experience with al kalvaitis with noaa submersiblePISCES. This dive will have been my longest (nearly 7 hours) and deepest dive (over 1,200 feet), and I eagerly anticipated the experience. My day started at 4:00 AM when I had my last coffee and breakfast. I limited my fluid intake since the submersible’s 6-foot diameter pressure sphere which serves as the personnel capsule lacks internal plumbing. Getting into the submersible through its 19" diameter hatch was not trivial. I have a 6' 7" frame, with stiff joints.

Once we were at the dive site several miles outside of Pearl Harbor, both PISCES submersibles were efficiently deployed using the A-frame on the stern of the support ship R/V Ka’imikai-O-Kanaloa (K-O-K). The launch went very smoothly and the only indication that we were floating on the water was a bobbing motion and a light blue color in the three 6" viewports.

Once systems were checked we descended to the bottom at about 85 feet per minute. At the 800-ft level, in the water column, we were in total darkness. At 30 feet above the ocean floor, the chief pilot and operations director, Terry Kerby, slowed the descent rate and we settled softly on the sandy bottom. Also aboard was the co-pilot trainee, Colin Wollerman.

When the PISCES V landed nearby, we initiated our safety and emergency drills. These consisted of communications with the underwater radio, sonar and pinger tracking, and cutting a simulated entanglement line. Since all exercises were conducted without incident, we began an identification and search for targets located during a side scan survey conducted earlier in the year.

As the submersibles were traversing together just above the seafloor, our PISCES IV submersible had an unplanned incident----we had become entangled in a coil of a mass of 1" wire rope. After a few anxious minutes (at least for me), Terry Kerby skillfully disengaged the wire loop from the manipulator. Although we were never in any danger, I wasn’t mentally prepared for this. The underwater environment can indeed be dangerous.

Now let me describe the living conditions inside our sphere. Picture yourself in a confined space with two pilots responsible for driving and navigating the submersible; you as the passenger attempt to stay out of their way. Because of the 48 degree F temperature outside it was chilly inside, and my legs were cramped and cramping. Occasionally water condensate dripped on my head. Our lunch was airline quality: cheese, crackers, one peanut butter sandwich (traditional submersible fare), and candy bars. But who’s complaining?

Over the next couple hours, we checked and identified about a dozen targets (mostly rocks and some discarded military debris such as aircraft fuel tanks) that were noted on a side scan trace. We were coordinating this tracking with the ship and the other submersible. As we were changing our carbon dioxide scrubbing chemicals a voice message was received from the PISCES V, “I think we are looking at the Japanese sub”. Within moments we were peering at a long cylindrical object shrouded in a 61-year cloak of marine growth and corrosion. What a sight!!

The Japanese submarine that we discovered was thought to be one of five that was used in an attempted underwater attack as the precursor to the Pearl Harbor air assault on the morning of December 7, 1941. These 78-foot long, 6-feet diameter midget submarines held two sailors and torpedoes. The USS Ward, a Navy destroyer, claimed to have started the sinking of one submarine with a shell shot to the submarines conning tower. This particular submarine has been the subject of searches by many groups for decades.

It was truly a surreal experience! As I peered thru my 6'’ viewport I thought it was like a 3-D IMAX© film, until I realized this is truly happening in real time. My thoughts and emotions were many and varied. As someone affected by WW II, this discovery had special meaning for me. My family and I had to flee our homeland country in Europe in 1944. I pondered: What a I am on the ocean floor, viewing evidence of the first incident of WWII in the Pacific that brought two countries into war. How fortunate I was to be a witness to this important segment of history.

Within minutes, we were able to confirm that this particular submarine was indeed the one that was reportedly sunk by the USS Ward. There were holes in the base of the conning tower and the Japanese submarine’s two torpedoes were still in their tubes. Soon thereafter communications were made with the R/V K-O-K, the PISCES support ship. The NURP Center director, Dr. John Whiltshire, was called. He notified his University of Hawaii officials, Jana Goldman, of NOAA Public Affairs, the media, and other interested individuals. Everyone flew into action.

We spent the next several hours taking digital pictures and video of the submarine from both the PISCES. Since the visibility was excellent (over 100 feet) and there was lighting from the two submersibles, the video and still images were absolutely outstanding.

I knew that this was a major news event as we returned to the harbor. All three local TV channels were showing the ship live on the evening news as we were docking. There were numerous reporters, photographers and international media. The interviews and filming finally wound down after a couple hours.

What a day! This will be one of the stories I will be sharing with my two granddaughters, Anna and Amelia. Amelia was born just the week before.

Photos courtesy of Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, University of Hawaii

Picture of Undersea research sub at wreck site.
PISCES IV by the stern of the midget submarine
picture of sub wreck
Japanese midget submarine
Picture of sub wreck.
The bow of the midget sub with the two torpedoes intact
picture of sub wreck
The conning tower of the midget sub
picture of sub wreck
Stern (back) of the midget sub
picture of sub wreck
Closer look at the stern
picture of sub wreck.
PISCES V shining light on the bow of the midget sub
picture of sub wreck
PISCES V shining light on the conning tower of the midget sub
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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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