The Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL)—a facility established in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii—uses its manned submersibles and remotely operated vehicles to assist scientists in their investigation of the complex environment of the Pacific Ocean. The crews of HURL’s two manned submersibles, Pisces IV and Pisces V, have also helped maritime archaeologists and historians find the wrecks of historic ships, submarines, aircraft and other relics. Military History sought out HURL’s director of operations and chief submersible pilot Terry Kerby to discuss his agency’s role in the search for such submerged cultural heritage.
How did you get involved with HURL?
I have been captivated by submersibles and ocean exploration since I was young. My seagoing career started on a Coast Guard cutter in Alaska in 1971, and I started working with the submersible STAR II in Hawaii in 1976. It was donated to the University of Hawaii by the builder in the late 1970s and renamed Makali’i. It helped launch HURL in 1980, and the university hired me as HURL’s operations director in 1981.
Describe the submersibles Pisces IV and V.
They are 20 feet long, weigh 14 tons and have an operating depth of 6,500 feet. They carry one pilot and two observers in a 7-foot diameter command sphere. Each sub has two mechanical arms that give them the ability to carry out complex sampling and instrument manipulation.
When did HURL begin searching for sunken vessels and aircraft?
HURL started researching and looking for historic wreck sites on our own initiative in 1992, when we were trying to locate the Japanese midget submarine sunk by the destroyer USS Ward at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program, the National Park Service and the Naval History and Heritage Command don’t have the funding for submersible dives to search for possible historic wreck sites. But once a site is discovered, usually dives are funded to get archaeologists down to survey it. HURL has to conduct two or three test dives off Oahu before starting the science dive season, and in 1992 we started using those test dives to search for the midget sub sunk by Ward. It took us 10 years, but we finally found it in 2002. Out of a 50-dive season two or three test dives can be used to investigate possible wreck sites.
What is the historic significance of the Japanese midget sub?
It was attacked and sunk by Ward 71 minutes before the air attack on Pearl Harbor; it was the first shot fired in the Pacific War. Ward’s crew met the enemy at the gate, and their claim had never been confirmed. One of the most memorable and rewarding dives for me was taking 81-year-old Ward veteran Will Lehner down to the sunken midget sub in Pisces IV during a Discovery Channel documentary. It was also an important place for the Japanese film production companies, which collected sediment samples near the conning tower to be given to families of the crews. The midget sub is also an important monitoring site and a model for managing historic sites in partnership with NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program, HURL and the National Park Service.
How did you find the Japanese submarine I-400?
We started our search for the giant aircraft carrier submarines I-400, I-401and I-14 in 2005. We had historic positions from logs of the U.S. submarines that sank them off Oahu in 1946, and we thought the targets were very large and would be easy to locate. We discovered right away that none of the Japanese vessels were anywhere near where they were supposed to be.
We first discovered I-401 in 2005. The news release of that discovery brought out some of the veterans from the prize crews that brought the subs to Pearl Harbor from Japan. One of those veterans was Charles Alger, chief of the boat of I-14. When that sub was taken off of Barbers Point to be torpedoed, Charles rode along to shoot 16mm film of the event. He sent us a copy of the footage. At one point he had panned the camera, showing an image of 1946 Oahu from Kaena Point to Diamond Head, and we were able to extract a position from landmarks. That position was 7 miles from where I-14 was supposed to be, but we knew the mountain ranges on Oahu had not changed since 1946, so we dove on the site and were led right to I-14, and I-201 was nearby as well.
It was an exciting day of discovery but disconcerting, because now we had no idea where to look for I-400, the last big prize of the giant aircraft-carrying I-boats. In 2013 we had three days of funded maritime heritage dives to take NOAA archaeologists James Delgado and Hans Van Tilburg, and they surveyed Ward’s midget and another midget from the Pearl Harbor attack. Archaeologists are typically very reluctant to use their few funded dives to inspect a bottom-mapping anomaly that may turn out to be a rock formation. We had two anomalies 7 miles apart that looked promising, and Delgado and Van Tilburg were game to check them out on their third and final dive. We didn’t think either of the anomalies could be I-400, because one was too far north, and the second one was too short. We were all surprised and excited when the giant bow of the sub loomed up out of the dark as we approached the first target. The second target was the wreck of the cable ship USS Kailua, so it was a pretty good day of historic maritime heritage discoveries.
Are there other similarly important vessels to find?
There are several historic wrecks off Oahu. The submarine S-28 still has 50 American sailors aboard, and we have not yet located the wreck of I-203, the fifth and final Japanese submarine brought back to Oahu after Japan surrendered.
We’d especially like to find the Japanese submarine I-23. It was on a secret mission to support the second attack on Pearl Harbor, planned for early 1942. The sub was to take up a position 10 miles south of Pearl Harbor, report on weather and ship traffic and be available to recover downed airmen if needed. I-23 was on station by Feb. 14, 1942. The sub’s last call was two weeks later. It was never heard from again.
What is HURL’s greatest challenge?
In a word: money. NOAA stopped funding the program in 2012, so it was up to the University of Hawaii to try maintaining the nation’s only deep-diving assets based in the middle of the Pacific. The university hasn’t been able to do that, and the ability to properly maintain the submersibles and the support structure to operate them has degraded. We’ve maintained and operated them in a limited capacity around the islands, but the loss of key personnel and the funding for necessary refit work has brought them to the brink of extinction.
At $2.8 to $3 million a year for a two-submersible operation the HURL program has been one of the most cost-effective deep submersible operations in the industry. Whether taxpayers should foot the bill for the HURL program depends on the direction our nation takes toward ocean science and exploration. Do we want to lead exploration in our world’s oceans, or do we want to sit on the sidelines and let other nations pass us by? MH