Editor’s Note: Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for outlets including 19FortyFive, Popular Mechanics, The National Interest, NBC, Forbes.com, Inside Unmanned Systems and War is Boring. He holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University in conflict resolution and served with the Peace Corps in China. He tweets @sebastienroblin. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
Over the past 13 years, Tim Taylor and Christine Dennison have scoured the ocean floor using autonomous underwater robots to discover and document the wrecks of seven US submarines lost in World War II. But their most recent discovery, of which they are releasing video footage and photos in anticipation of Memorial Day, has a particularly personal resonance.
The USS Mannert L. Abele, which the explorers found 4,500 feet under the Pacific Ocean and 81 miles from the nearest landmass, was the first American ship sunk by an unusual type of rocket-powered Japanese kamikaze plane. Part of Taylor’s interest in undertaking the search stemmed from knowing that his father had cheated death when an explosive-laden Japanese kamikaze plane bounced off the bulwark of his own ship near the coast of Okinawa.
“He was on the deck and had come out to get supplies,” Taylor recounted to me. “As he opened the hatch, the kamikaze was heading right at him. His buddy on the 40-millimeter gun struck it.” Not everyone was so lucky. Taylor pointed out that “We lost over 12,000 men at Okinawa.”
Taylor and Dennison are ensuring that more families of those lost know where their loved ones’ deep-water graves reside. They are racing against time as underwater development threatens many of these wrecks. On Memorial Day, some people remember history, but Taylor and Dennison do them one better by fighting to preserve it.
Budget constraints hinder the Navy from devoting resources to undertaking these kinds of searches, according to Taylor, and his team is showing how private groups can fill the gap. While it’s understandable that the Pentagon doesn’t devote more funding to recovering historic remains given its needs for the present and future, it’s also unfortunate that such important work doesn’t have stronger public support.
For Taylor and Dennison, it’s important to preserve the history of these wrecks and respect the sanctity of those entombed within them. And as the ranks of those alive during World War II have shrunk, it’s vital to give those who remain closure while it’s still possible.
“As a society we have got to remember that these men are out there and that they did what they did. And these sunken ships are war graves,” Taylor said.
He noted that the ocean is getting “smaller” as it gets colonized by human activity such as mining, cables being laid, gas work and other industrial output so that now, ”These graves are in jeopardy. They can be dug up – in fact, in some cases commercial interests are harvesting some of these for steel.”
The Abele was northwest of Okinawa when she met her terrible fate on April 12, 1945. In October 1944, Japan had begun the large-scale use of kamikaze attacks, in which pilots crashed their planes into Allied ships so they could be sure of reaching their target even though the pilot would die in the process.
The US Navy realized the radars on their large warships for troop transports and aircraft carriers didn’t give them enough warning time to intercept the suicidal attack craft. So the Navy began setting “picket” stations of relatively smaller destroyer-type warships dozens of miles away from the main fleet to detect approaching kamikazes.
Of course, destroyers comprising the picket stations like the Abele didn’t have their own pickets. Of the 101 destroyers assigned to picket duty during the battle, 42 were hit by kamikazes and 10 sunk. An estimated 7,000 Allied service members died from kamikaze attacks in total, nearly 5,000 of them at Okinawa.
Japanese kamikazes were detected swarming towards the the Abele that afternoon, as detailed in the book “Three Minutes Off Okinawa” by the ship’s electronics officer, Roy S. Andersen, and the official Navy history. Though the Abele managed to shoot down two aircraft and damage or fend off others, at six minutes in, a Japanese fighter plunged into the destroyer’s engine room and exploded, cutting off all electrical power. Just a minute later, another, much more unusual, plane slammed into the destroyer’s hull.
The Abele had been struck by a unique rocket-propelled kamikaze plane called the MXY7 Ohka (“Cherry Blossom”), which due to its very short range had to be carried under the belly of a larger bomber until close to US ships, whereupon it was released to soar toward its target at immense speed. The detonation of this manned missile’s 1.3 tons of explosives caused the ship to seemingly break into two and begin sinking.
In a matter of minutes, 84 sailors and officers had been killed. Japanese aircraft strafed the surviving crew as they jumped into the oil-slick water, but two smaller landing craft escorting the Abele shot down two more planes and beat off the rest, managing to rescue 255 crew members.
Nearly eight decades later, modern robotics technologies allowed Taylor and Dennison to find the destroyer’s submerged hull. In the past, Taylor noted, it would have been practically inconceivable for a small, private team to have undertaken the cumbersome search process that, Taylor estimated, would have taken four to five times as long and cost significantly more money.
While a philanthropic private investment group funds the expeditions, according to Taylor, the pay for the subsequent efforts to contact families and educate the public comes from Taylor and Dennison, as well as the nonprofit Ocean Outreach.
Even with funding, the stars have to align to organize such expeditions — they need ships available within acceptable range of the search area, an available crew, the possession of necessary permits and acceptable weather conditions.
Even then – and with the fairly good historical records of the Abele’s sinking – finding its exact location was far from guaranteed. “Back then it wasn’t like today with GPS,” Taylor said of those who tried to record the place it met its demise. “A mile off under the sea takes a lot of looking! It was also in a very volcanic area, so there was a lot of activity on the sea floor. Time is our enemy. It’s still a big ocean.”
It was on their last remaining day of a more-than-month-long search, just before bad weather would force them to conclude the expedition, that they spotted the Abele’s wreck.
Taylor and Dennison worked closely with the Navy after they made the discovery. They waited for the Naval History and Heritage Command, responsible for preserving, analyzing and sharing the service’s history, to authenticate the discovery of the Abele before announcing it to the public, not wanting to give families false hope. They are releasing footage and photos of the downed ship to reach more of those families and so others can join in honoring those lost on Memorial Day.
“We’re not treasure hunters,” Taylor told me. “We’re looking to keep the story of these guys alive. World War II is a time in our history where we fought the bad side of human nature and won.”
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Taylor and Dennison’s years of work represent an ideal form of commemoration – one aimed at honoring the sacrifices of the past and preserving what otherwise risks being lost to memory, but also looking forward and thinking about how rediscovering the past can be used to help us heal and build a better future, as they hope to employ the special autonomous underwater technology they created to help others map the ocean floor for environmental and other purposes.
This is the best sort of historical inquiry: not an exercise in nostalgia for past triumphs or bitter ax-grinding over defeats, but an honest excavation of transformative events with an eye on how they impact us today and can hold lessons for the future. It’s an effort we should undertake with renewed vigor every Memorial Day.