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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 8, 2002

1941 minisub's owner yet to be decided

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

After years of searching, the University of Hawai'i found the Japanese "midget" submarine that became the first casualty of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.

Pisces V shines light on the Japanese navy midget sub located more than three miles off Pearl Harbor.

Hawai'i Undersea Research Lab

Now it's up to the State Department to decide what to do with the historic vessel, and there appears to be no shortage of suitors.

"The lawyers are on it now," said John Wiltshire, acting director of UH's Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory.

Although UH briefed a Japanese official Aug. 30, Wiltshire said he received "a number of e-mails from the State Department saying they will handle all negotiations" with Japan in deciding jurisdiction over the 78-foot, two-man sub.

"The (U.S.) naval position is very clear on this matter that (for) foreign combatants, the ownership rests with the flag of the combatant," Wiltshire said Friday.

But Wiltshire also said there is precedent for the sub remaining in the possession of the United States. Two-thirds of a Japanese World War II minisub were found by the research lab in 1992, and rights to the wreck were turned over by Japan to the U.S. State Department the following year, he said.

Recovered off Guadalcanal during the war, the submarine was brought to Pearl Harbor, taken apart and later dumped in the sea, Wiltshire said.

The partial sub is just a "piece of war junk" with no particular significance — unlike the recently discovered submarine, which is intact down to the two-propeller system and protective guard over two 18-foot torpedoes, Wiltshire said.

"Because this is such a significant find, I think the United States would like to find some way of maintaining control over it," Wiltshire said. "No one has actually said that in those words — that's simply my speculation. But both the (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) sanctuary service and National Park Service have expressed interest. That's no secret."

The undersea research lab's Aug. 28 discovery of the sub a little more than three miles outside Pearl Harbor confirmed that the destroyer USS Ward struck the first blow on Dec. 7, 1941, and raised anew the debate over the United States' preparedness for Japan's surprise attack.

According to Daniel Martinez, historian for the National Park Service's USS Arizona Memorial, the Ward opened fire at 6:45 a.m. — one hour and 10 minutes before the aerial attack — when the submarine was spotted in the "defensive sea area."

But it took nearly 61 years to confirm that a round from one of the Ward's guns punched holes through both sides of the sub's conning tower.

The submarine lay upright in 1,200 feet of water camouflaged in what has been described as a "military junkyard" until Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory submersibles Pisces IV and Pisces V came upon it during routine test and training dives.

Wiltshire said NOAA would like the site to become a marine sanctuary, while the park service would like to use the sub as some sort of adjunct to the Arizona.

Remains of the sub's two crew members likely are still aboard.

The U.S. Navy is expected to be consulted on what to do with the sub's still dangerous torpedoes. Wiltshire said the state of Hawai'i also could become involved because it claims archipelagic water rights beyond the recognized three-mile mark.

"The United States government believes that United States waters are anything beyond three miles," Wiltshire said. "The state of Hawai'i says that the state has more than that because it should have the channels between the islands."

"The attack on Pearl Harbor was the single most significant event in the history of Hawai'i in the 20th century, and this is the submarine that led that attack, and this is the submarine that also gave Hawai'i an hour-and-20-minute warning of that attack," Wiltshire said. "Had that warning been heeded, things would have gone quite differently, so it (the submarine) is a very significant artifact in terms of the history of the state."

According to Martinez, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Husband Kimmel probably got confirmation of the Ward's actions around 7:30 a.m., but there had been firings before outside the harbor, sometimes on whales.

Wiltshire said UH's undersea research lab likely will have an ongoing research role with the Japanese minisub regardless of who has jurisdiction over it, a determination that may take some time.

"I don't think you'll see an official statement out of the State Department for some time until all of the interests and sensitivities are fully explored," he said.

A return dive on the site is planned by UH for December. Wiltshire said the university is talking with National Geographic, Discovery Channel and NOVA about television specials.

The university has posted photos and video of the submarine on its School of Ocean & Earth Sciences & Technology Web site.

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.