Operation Rising Sun

The I-52 Recovery Project

The only known photo of the I-52. The I-52 was sunk while on her maiden Yanagi (exchange) mission.

History of the I-52

In June of 1944, a huge Japanese transport submarine, the I-52, was enroute from its home islands to German occupied France with a cargo of 290 metric tons of strategic materials. The Japanese were going to exchange this cargo, which included tin, tungsten, rubber, and two metric tons of gold, for German technology.

The Japanese submarine rendezvoused with a German support submarine (U-530) in the mid-Atlantic to take on fuel and technicians who, ironically, were going to install anti-aircraft radar on the Japanese vessel for the dangerous sail to the Bay of Biscay. Unknown to the Japanese, the allies had broken their code. Each night when the Japanese submarine surfaced to recharge its batteries, its coded messages, which included its location, were being monitored.

The escort carrier USS BOGUE, enroute to the U.S. from Europe, was given new orders to find and destroy the Japanese submarine. After arriving in the area of the meeting, flights of Avenger torpedo bombers took off around the clock from the BOGUE, looking and listening. On the night of June 24, 1944, an Avenger got a blip on its radar and dropped flares. The submarine dove, and sonabuoys, dropped from antisubmarine warfare squadron's aircraft, picked-up the 357-foot Japanese submarine and commenced an attack. The first aircraft, piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Jessie Taylor, dropped depth charges and then a Mark 24 "mine." The Mark 24 was a code name for the then top secret acoustic torpedo that was being used for the very first time in the war.

The torpedo damaged the submarine, and the spot where the submarine was last located was marked with a float light. Another Avenger, piloted by Lt. William Gordon, arrived on the scene, its sonabuoys picking up the sounds of the damaged submarine's cavitating propeller noises. Another acoustic homing torpedo was dropped; finding and critically crippling the Japanese submarine as it tried to get away.

Fifty years later, a Texas maritime researcher named Paul Tidwell, learned of the I-52 while combing through newly declassified documents, and decided to attempt to salvage the approximately $25 million in gold.

In his research, Tidwell came across references to 78-rpm records that had been made at the former Naval Sound Laboratory in New London, CT. The records, later made into tapes, were compilations of underwater sounds used to train Navy sonar operators. Excerpts of those training tapes are still requested for use by schools for use during marine studies. On one of the recordings, the narrator notes "Here are two more recordings of actual combat at sea, recorded by an airborne magnetic wire recorder connected to a sonabuoy receiver and intercom system." On the recording Lt. Gordon can be heard talking to his crew, along with the sound of a torpedo exploding and metal twisting.

Tidwell contacted the Naval Historical Center in Washington DC, to see if they could help locate any additional information on the original Gordon wire recordings. The Historical Center in turn called the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division in Newport, the successor to the Sound Laboratory. Coincidentally, that contact was made on June 24, fifty-four years to the day of the I-52's sinking.

Like a lot of military facilities, the Division has undergone change in recent years. Some "old stuff" did not survive the closure of the New London Laboratory and the consolidation of its personnel, records, etc. in Newport. Little hope was held for an insignificant 50-year old spool of wire.

However, Mary Barravecchia, head of the Division's Technical Library, took the lead to track down the recording. Originally employed in New London, Barravecchia knew who the "keepers" were, and of the nooks and crannies where a small spool of wire might hide.

To the amazement of all, two canisters, identified simply as "Gordon wire No. 1" and "Gordon wire No. 2," marked June 24, 1944 were found.

Once the wire tapes were found, the search for a functioning recorder began. The only place found to have a wire recorder still capable of playing the recordings was the National Archives in Washington. The original spools of hair-thin wire on which the last moments the Japanese submarine I-52 were recorded have been transferred to the National Archives for permanent retention.

Sub Wreck Could Reveal Japanese Peace Offer

An American Vietnam veteran could be about to answer one of the most intriguing questions arising from the second world war: was Japan preparing to seek peace with the allies more than a year before the war ended?

Paul Tidwell, a shipwreck salvager, said yesterday he believes wreckage of a Japanese submarine sunk by US warplanes in the Atlantic on June 23 1944 could contain a peace proposal from Tokyo that never made it into the hands of its intended recipient. He plans to raise the sub, the I-52, from its resting place 5,500 metres (18,000ft) below the surface between Cape Verde and Barbados, 1,000 miles from the nearest land. The vessel is thought to be carrying the remains of 112 crew, two tonnes of gold and a similar quantity of opium.

After learning about the I-52's mission while sifting through declassified military documents in Washington in 1990, Mr. Tidwell's initial interest became a passion.

"I knew I-52 was special, I knew there was gold on it," he said. "I was driven to find out everything possible about the submarine and her mission."

According to the documents, Yoshikazu Fujimura, the assistant naval attache in Switzerland, had been in secret peace negotiations with a US representative, Allen Dulles. Mr Fujimura was sent to the port of Lorient in German-occupied France to meet the I-52, and, some historians believe, to receive the peace proposal. When the sub failed to show up, he returned to Switzerland empty-handed. Mr Tidwell hopes to have ended the speculation by this time next year. "Because of the depth, paper is preserved."

The I-52 could hold 300 tonnes of freight and travel 21,000 miles without refuelling and was the most advanced submarine of its time. It was sunk after a rendezvous with a German U-boat, during which it took on board a radar detector and two operators that should have enabled it to enter Lorient undetected. But by then the allies had cracked the German Enigma code and US commanders in Washington knew exactly where the I-52 was. They mistakenly believed the vessel might be carrying information about atomic bombs, hence the order to destroy it before it reached its destination. In 1944, when the Atlantic Ocean was teeming with allied vessels, the only practical way to carry senior military officials, messages and cargo between Japan and Germany was by submarine.

The salvage operation is expected to take about 30 days, with a further two weeks needed to transport the sub to the US. Eventually Mr Tidwell wants to return the I-52 to Japan. "We want to return all the human remains to the Japanese families," he said. "We have the full support of the Japanese government."

He has led two expeditions to the site, in 1994 and 1998, but was unable to lay his hands on the sub's cargo. He did, however, return with the personal belongings of several crew, as well as containers of opium.

Mr Tidwell has been able to fund the project through a series of other projects and investors. To date approximately $6 million has been spent. Tokyo has agreed to reimburse Tidwell all the cost and an undisclosed portion of the recovered gold. The submarine and artifacts will be displayed in a museum in Kure, Japan.The submarine, after restoration, will be displayed in a museum in Kure, Japan.

With a large quantity of opium still thought to be on board, the US drug enforcement administration says it will post two agents on the salvage ship. The recovered opium will be donated to medical research to see if the extreme pressure (8,000 psi) and cold has changed the molecular structure of the opium.