History of the I-52
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the amazement of all, two canisters, identified simply as "Gordon
wire No. 1" and "Gordon wire No. 2," marked June 24,
1944 were found.
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
Wreck Could Reveal Japanese Peace Offer
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?
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.