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Explorers find WWII shipwreck linked to little known Japanese occupation of US soil

A NOAA-backed expedition scouring the floor of the Bering Sea has discovered a long lost World War II shipwreck where 70 U.S. sailors were instantly “entombed” by a Japanese mine explosion.

The stern of the destroyer USS Abner Read was found lying on its side in 290 feet of water off Kiska, one of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, according to expedition scientists.

Naval historians believe the 70 sailors were asleep in their bunks when an explosion split the ship at 1:50 a.m. on Aug. 18, 1943. A 75-foot-long section vanished in the darkness, not to be seen again until it was spotted July 17 with high-frequency sonar. The identity of the wreck was confirmed with a remotely operated vehicle, NOAA officials told McClatchy

“It’s almost completely intact, like someone sawed off the stern and placed it on the ocean floor,” said expedition member Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We were the first to see it in 75 years, and there was a feeling of elation at finding it, but also humility and reverence that this is a grave.”

Navy officials say they do not intend trying to recover the bodies. However, the wreck remains government property and is protected from tampering by federal law, the Navy said in a statement.

“Consistent with the longstanding traditions and practices of seafaring nations, the U.S. Navy recognizes the sea as a fit and final resting place for those who perish at sea,” said a statement issued by the Navy History and Heritage Command.

Human remains and personal effects were not found at the site and the remote devices were unable to penetrate the interior. However, clearly recognizable elements of the destroyer were detailed by the explorers, including one of the its turrets with a 5-inch gun barrel sticking out, along with racks for depth charges, photos show.

Another thing that wasn’t found: Evidence of where the Japanese mine hit the hull. That’s possibly because that spot is face down in the sand, officials said.

The NOAA project, which was two years in the making, included scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the University of Delaware, officials said in a press release.

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NOAA says the wreck was found with the help of declassified documents about one of the most secretive parts of the war: A Japanese occupation of two Aleutian Islands in 1942. The USS Abner Read was part of a force that liberated Kiska and Attu islands in August 1943.

Paul Taylor, a spokesman for the Naval History and Heritage Command, told McClatchy that NOAA’s discovery offers a chance to publicize the “brutal” Aleutian campaign.

“For us, this is hallowed ground, as powerful and important as Arlington National Cemetery,” Taylor said of the ship’s stern. “It also represents a certain amount of closure for 70 families who may have wondered where their loved ones died. I have personally spoken to a veteran who served on the ship and he gasped when I told him NOAA found it.”

USSAbnerRead002.jpg
Pictured here is the number 5 (aft deck) 5-inch gun of the USS Abner Read imaged via the project’s remote control craft. Courtesy of Project Recover

Much about the destroyer’s story is extraordinary, he says, including the fact that the other part of the ship made it back to port after the explosion and was repaired. In all, 71 men died, including one who was pulled from the sea and taken to a hospital.

“There was a lot of sailor ingenuity at play keeping that ship afloat and that makes the story of this wreck relevant today to sailors,” Taylor said. “It’s important for sailors to know we remember that kind of sacrifice.”

In addition to locating the stern of the Abner Read, the NOAA team used new technology and tools to map the underwater battlefield around Kiska, which includes other wrecks and aircraft.

The USS Abner Read stayed in the war until November 1944, when a Japanese dive bomber sank it during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, according to Naval History and Heritage Command records.

Both the ship and its former stern off Kiska are now part of a database of 2,500 shipwrecks and 14,000 aircraft that are being guarded for preservation by the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archeology Branch, officials said.

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Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs
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