Space & Innovation

Bell from Sunken WWII Japanese Submarine Recovered

The artifact is a reminder of how WWII might have had a different outcome. Continue reading →

During World War II, the Japanese rushed to develop a fearsome secret weapon that could have turned the tide of the war - a fleet of giant Sen-Toku class submarine aircraft carriers, capable of launching bombing raids and the disappearing beneath the water, where they would be undetectable because of their rubberized sonar-blocking hulls.

Fortunately, the war ended before the Japanese could build more than a few of the giant subs. Seven decades later, pretty much all that remains of their plan is the wreck of the I-400, the first Sen Toku sub, which was seized by the U.S. Navy after the Japanese surrender in 1945 and then scuttled the following year, to avoid having to share its technology with the Soviet Union..

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Last week, researchers from the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL), who rediscovered the long-forgotten location of the scuttled sub in 2013, used submersible craft to descend to the site of the wreck, which lies 2,300 feet below the surface near the southwest coastline of the Hawaiian island of Oahu. They returned with a prized historical artifact– the ship's bronze bell.

In a press release, underwater explorer Terry Kerby, who led the expedition, called it "an exciting day." After the bell is put though a special preservation process, which should take a year, it will be put on display at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum The archaeological find in the wake of a popular online TV series, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel "The Man in the High Castle," which depicts an alternate history in which the Japanese and their German allies defeated the Allies and now jointly dominate the United States.

That nightmare might have had a chance at becoming reality, had the Japanese succeeded in their original plan to build 18 of the giant subs. At 400 feet in length and 5,223 tons of displacement, the Sen Toku were the biggest subs of the pre-nuclear era. Each craft was designed to store so much diesel fuel that it could sail one-and-a-half times around the world without stopping. They featured an unusual double-hulled design that supported a flight deck.

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As Stars and Stripes reported when the I-400 wreck was rediscovered in 2013, the Japanese only managed to launch two of the subs by mid-1945. Japanese military leaders contemplated using the I-400 and its sister sub, the I-401, to attack the Panama Canal, and near the war's end dispatched them to launch an attack on U.S. forces massing for the expected invasion of Japan. But before that could happen, the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, and the I-400 and the I-401 both were seized by the U.S. Navy.

To avoid complying with a treaty that required the United States to share captured technology with its then-ally the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy secretly sailed the subs across the Pacific to Hawaii. After they were studied by engineers at Pearl Harbor, the Navy took the subs out to sea and scuttled both at undisclosed locations, and then claimed to the Russians that it had no knowledge of what had happened to them.

The wreck of the 401 was the first to be discovered, back in 2005.

Here's a video of the visit to the sub.

A manipulator arm of one of HURL’s submersibles places the I-400 bell into a collection basket.

After searching for two decades, a privately funded group organized by New Jersey lawyer Joe Mazraani found the intact wreck of a German submarine U-boat in deep water about 70 miles south of Nantucket Island, Mass. on July 23, 2012. The researchers spotted the 252-foot downed German submarine U-550 using a side-scan sonar ship. Between the expedition this and last year they scoured about 100 square miles of ocean floor. Finding the wreck was a very difficult task, Mazraani said. The wreck site turned out to be far offshore than expected.

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This photo of German crewmen abandoning their submarine in the Atlantic Ocean after being targets by American destroyer escorts, charged, is among the most dramatic pictures taken during World War II. The submarine was attacked using depth charges, which are anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapons that destroy or cripple a target submarine by the shock of exploding near it. The sub was also rammed and shelled by the destroyers. The image, along with a few others taken by an unknown photographer during the WWII fight in 1944, was all that remained of the downed German submarine U-550 -- until now.

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As the wounded U-550 surfaced for the last time on April 16, 1944, the crew's target, the tanker SS Pan Pennsylvania, was burning in the background. The German submarine, on its first combat patrol, had located convoy CU-21, bound for Great Britain from New York. The SS Pan Pennsylvania, the largest tanker in the world at that time, was imprudently behind the convoy. As the U-550 torpedoed, the tanker, with its highly combustible cargo of 140,000 barrels of 80-octane aviation fuel, caught fire and began sinking, killing 25 of the 81 men aboard. While the SS Pan Pennsylvania settled (to capsize later), the U-550 boat slipped underneath the damaged ship to hide. Three of the six destroyer escorts, the USS Joyce, the USS Gandy and the USS Peterson, went to rescue the tanker's surviving crew. The Joyce was preparing to leave, when sonar detected the U-550, which had just moved from hiding. "We could hear nothing so we thought the escort vessels had gone; but as soon as we started to move -- bang!" the U-550's engineering officer later told interrogators.

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The Joyce dropped 13 well-placed depth charges that bracketed the U- boat, forcing the Germans to surface. Under command of Kapitänleutnant Klaus Hänert, they gathered on the submarine's raised platform and began firing their deck guns. The Joyce, Peterson, and the USS Gandy returned their fire. The Gandy rammed the submarine's tower, while the Peterson dropped two more depth charges which exploded near the U-550 hull. Realizing their submarine was doomed, the Germans abandoned ship- not before setting off explosions to scuttle the U-boat.

As the U550 settled by the stern and began sinking quickly beneath the waves, the destroyer escorts sailed to rescue the few German survivors from their lifeboats and rafts. These were the men they were attempting to kill only a few minutes before.

The Joyce rescued 13 German sailors from the water, including the U-550's commander. The prisoners of war and the Pan Pennsylvania survivors were later delivered to authorities in Great Britain.

One of the rescued U-boatmen, machinist Heinrich Wenz, later died from wounds received during the fire-fight. Before Wenz's body was committed to the sea, a funeral service was held by Captain Robert Wilcox, the Joyce's commanding officer. "Crewmembers of Joyce and U-550 attended ceremony conducted by C.O. of Joyce, LCDR Robert Wilcox, USCG, on voluntary basis. It was well attended. Former U-550 crew members are off camera below U.S. flag-draped body," Wilcox wrote on the back of the photo he provided to the US Coast Guard.

The U-550's last plunge was captured by this picture taken aboard a destroyer escort. As the U-boat vanished beneath the waves, most of the crew went to the bottom with their submarine. According a gruesome account in the Eastern Sea Frontier's War Diary, some of the German crewmen were trapped in their forward watertight compartments during the sinking. They desperately tried to get out the sunken submarine using their escape lungs, but perished in the attempt. The war diary recorded that a body clothed in a German-type life jacket was recovered floating off the coast. A German escape lung was found near the corpse, while the autopsy showed that the man died only five days before his body was discovered. The body was found 19 days after the U-550 sinking. Two other bodies, belonging to a sailor named Wilhelm Flade, aged about 17, and to an unidentified German crewman, were subsequently found. The findings fueled speculations that some Germans actually made it to shore.

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