|Newport Has Connection to Documentary|
National Geographic to air "Search for sub I-52"
A salvage diver’s search for a treasure of sunken gold was responsible for turning up a piece of American naval history at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division, Newport.
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 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 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 inclusion 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.
National Geographic will air "Mysteries of the Deep -Search for Sub I-52" on Saturday, January 12th at 9 p.m.
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