5 WWII Japanese warships sunk in Surigao Strait found

SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews / 8 Dec) – The sophisticated research vessel of billionaire tech mogul and philanthropist Paul G. Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft, had located five warships that belonged to the Imperial Japanese Navy on the seabed of Surigao Strait during its week-long expedition in the area.

Paul Mayer, deep sea pilot and researcher of R/V Petrel, talks about the remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to reporters at the Surigao City Port on Thursday (7 Dec 2017). The hi-tech vessel located 5 Japanese warships sunk during the Battle of Surigao Strait in World War II during a week-long expedition towards the end of November. MindaNews photo by ROEL N. CATOTO

Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations, and Paul Mayer, deep sea pilot and researcher, both told reporters press aboard Research Vessel Petrel on Thursday afternoon about their finds consisting of two dreadnought battleships –Fuso and Yamashiro – and three Asashio class destroyers, namely, Yamagumo, Asagumo and Michishio.

Kraft and Mayer told reporters that battleships Yamashiro and Fuso were found upside down. Yamashiro is mostly intact while Fuso is almost snapped.

The Asashio-class destroyers Asagumo and probable Michishio were found intact, while the probable Yamagumo was severed into two as it underwent a violent explosion before sinking.

Mayer said two wrecks suspected to be the Yamagumo and Michishio, which were 2 kilometers apart at the same latitude, were found in shallower areas of just above 100 meters deep.

The three other vessels were submerged some 200 meters deep.

One of the propellers of the Fuso, one of the Japanese battleships sunk during the Battle of Surigao Straight during World War II. Photo courtesy of Paul G. Allen

The research team stressed they could not ascertain positive identification of Yamagumo and Michishio due to their identical features and underwater cavity.

“They have never been seen for over 70 years until we found them at their underwater graveyard,” Mayer said.

“The ships are obviously in very poor condition because of what happened to them. They now provide a fantastic marine habitat,” said Kraft.

All the sunken ships were reportedly “severely degraded” and corrosions highly visible.

The week-long expedition that started on Nov. 22 includes representatives from the National Museum of the Philippines and Battle of Surigao Strait Council chairperson Johanne Jake Miranda.

Kraft said that though the ships were found on shallow waters, the sea conditions were tough because of the strong currents that would reach up to 4 knots.

The five warships were among the seven Imperial Japanese Navy warships that sank during the Battle of Surigao Strait from the night of October 24 until before sunrise of October 25, 1944.

The Battle of Surigao Strait is significant because it was the last battleship-to-battleship action in naval history. It was part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which lasted from October 23 to 26, considered the largest ever naval battle in history.

Fernando A. Almeda Jr., a local historian in Surigao City who founded the Surigao Heritage Center and author of the book Surigao Across The Years, said these Japanese warships engaged the U.S. 7th Fleet Support Force consisting of six battleships, most of which had been sunk or damaged during the Pearl Harbor attack and rebuilt.

The 250-foot R/V Petrel at sea. The hi-tech vessel, owned by Microsoft cofounder and philantropist Paul G. Allen, found 5 Japanese warships sunk during the Battle of Surigao Strait in World War II during a week-long expedition towards the end of November 2017. Photo courtesy of Paul G. Allen

The six American battleships –West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, California, Mississippi and Pennsylvania ­– “set a deadly trap on Surigao Strait along with eight cruisers, 28 destroyers and 39 motor torpedo boats at night against the Imperial Navy’s force which resulted to their [Japanese] terrible defeat. Vice Admiral Shojo Nishimura was killed during the battle when his flagship, the Yamashiro, was sunk after being hit multiple times by the U.S. battleships,” Almeda added.

Almeda said that although the Japanese forces were greatly outnumbered, they fought hard in a ship-to-ship battle against U.S. and Australian naval forces.

Miranda, who founded the Battle of Surigao Strait Museum in this city, said some 4,000 Japanese combatants perished in that battle.

He said the images they have gathered would be available for public viewing in local museums.

Miranda said among other images captured included shots of one of the 127mm guns, one of three boilers from the steam turbine propulsion, a China ware, and a Japanese sake cup, which has a unique plum blossom design.

“We never touched anything underwater because that’s our policy,” said Miranda, who was part of the exploring team.

It was Miranda wrote a letter to Paul Allen on October 4, who then gave the nod for the exploration.

Mayer said they are willing to provide their collected data to Japan’s National Institute of Defense Studies in Tokyo, and to the Kure Maritime Museum, also known as the Yamato Museum, in Hiroshima Prefecture.

“These are very interesting finds because the Battle of Surigao Strait was one of the main actions of the overall Battle of Leyte Gulf,” said Jeremy Barns, director of the National Museum of the Philippines.

He said his office granted the permit for the expedition that led to the discovery of these battleship wrecks.

“The liberation of the Philippines in 1945 could not have occurred without the Battle of Leyte in October 1944. Through these finds, we can showcase these in our museums for the greater and fuller understanding of the Battle of Surigao Strait,” Barns said.

He said the discovery of the warships’ location would provide “a greater sense of closure” for the relatives of those who died in the naval battle.

Annette Villaces, of the city government of Surigao, said the exact locations of the wrecks would not be divulged to the general public “to protect them from illicit salvage.”

She warned looters not to attempt to salvage the wrecks because the location is too deep and the current so strong, not to mention the many ordnance that remain active that may explode once touched.

Villaces said they expect the finds to boost local tourism.

The R/V Petrel is the first vessel to successfully reach the ill-fated ships with its remotely operated vehicle. Its advanced underwater equipment and capabilities make it one of the few ships capable of exploring up to 6,000 meters deep. The team collected and analyzed data using the vessel’s latest side-scan sonar technology, underwater camera equipment, and extensive suite of computers and monitors.

This cutting-edge package and capable team was assembled because of Paul Allen’s passion for uncovering and protecting historic artifacts.

“This 250-foot Petrel is manned by 35 personnel with its capabilities, the technology it has and the research we’ve done, are the culmination of years of dedication and hard work,” said Kraft.

“We’ve assembled and integrated this technology, assets and unique capability into an operating platform which is now among very few on the planet,” he added.

Allen-led expeditions have also resulted in the discovery of the USS Indianapolis (August 2017) in the Philippines, the Japanese battleship Musashi (March 2015) also in the Philippines and the Italian WWII destroyer Artigliere (June 2017).

“These projects that we undertake are done with the intent of educating and inspiring. Paul Allen does these projects because of his passion for preserving history, honoring the memory of his father, and his deep love for the ocean and archaeology,” Kraft said. (Roel N. Catoto / MindaNews)