I-52 - Japan's Golden Submarine

(See the I-52 Website)

I-52, the Japanese Submarine, was one of three Type C 3 submarines that were built over 1943/1944.

This class designed as cargo carriers were huge boats, 356.5 feet long, with a beam of 30.5 feet, a tonnage of 2,564 tons, and carrying a crew of 94.  The cruising range was an incredible 21,000 nautical miles, at a speed of 12 knots.

It was in March of 1944 when I-52 left her base at Kure, bound for Lorient in occupied France, she was loaded with 2 tons of gold, and raw materials urgently needed in Nazi Germany, also on board were 14 experts from Japanese industrial companies such as Mitsubishi.  In return, the Japanese were seeking German technology, including radar.

I-52 called in at Singapore to load rubber, and 3 tons of quinine , and then shaped her course across the Indian ocean for the Cape of Good Hope.

The Allies signal intelligence and code breaking expertise allowed them to intercept and read all of I-52's reports to both Tokyo and Berlin.  Her cargo and reported progress were known, and an American task force including the small escort carrier USS Bogue, (converted from a merchant ship hull, and carrying 14 aircraft) were positioned to intercept this Japanese submarine blockade runner.

On June 23, 1944, the German U-Boat U-530, met with I-52 in mid Atlantic about 870 nautical miles from the Cape Verde Islands, and transferred two German radio ratings, Petty Officers Schulze and Behrendt, plus radar detection equipment, to be installed, and working prior to I-52 reaching dangerous European waters.  Just over two hours later these submarines parted company, and the Japanese boat cruised on the surface, at 15 knots, on a dark moonless night, no doubt feeling to be quite safe in this part of the Atlantic Ocean.

But I-52, was carrying an entirely false hope, at that time she was being tracked by air borne radar carried by an Avenger bomber which had earlier been launched from the Bogue. It was piloted by Lieutenant Commander Jesse. D. Taylor, he quickly dropped two flares which lit up I-52, then two depth charges which missed close to the submarine's starboard side. The submarine crash dived, and the Avenger dropped a purple coded Sono buoy to track I-52.

Sono buoys are dropped in the ocean by aircraft, usually in a pattern of five buoys, they are colour coded: Purple, Orange, Blue, Red and Yellow, (POBRY).  Each buoy floats, and transmits any under water sounds it picks up from a submarine in the near vicinity.  The searching aircraft is able to monitor each buoy in turn to listen for sounds emitted by its target.

During my specialist Torpedo Anti-Submarine course in UK over 1947 and part of 1948, I spent time at Londonderry in Northern Ireland, flying in Liberator Bombers, dropping patterns of Sonobuoys over suspected submarine positions and then monitoring the results.  It was quite exciting to hear the noise level emanating from the submarine's propellors, when one had scored a bullseye with the sonobuoys, and then could calculate the course and speed of the target boat. 

Taylor now launched an accoustic torpedo, designed to home onto I-52's propellor noise, it quickly found its target, a loud explosion followed, then quietness descended on the scene, as the Japanese submarine with all its crew and passengers sank to the ocean floor.

The exact location of the sunken I-52 has remained a mystery for over 50 years.

In 1991, a Texan, Paul Tidwell, a former US army infantryman who had served two tours in Vietnam, and had won a Purple Heart, commenced to scour recently declassified documents in the National Archives, looking for details of I-52, and its likely resting place, some 3.2 miles down on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, at a depth of 1 mile further down than that at which Titanic had been found.

A private investor was unearthed, and he put one million dollars into Tidwell's All Holdings Company, and a Seattle based company, Sound Ocean Systems was approached about locating the Japanese submarine wreck using a side scan sonar towed above the ocean floor. At this stage, the search area was still a formidible 100 square miles of ocean, and the sea bed was uneven.

I believe that should one even think about the ocean bottom, you tend to regard it as smooth and generally flat, as it was, when as a child, you paddled in the warm shallows on your visits to the seaside.  Of course this fantasy is erroneous, some of the ocean bed is made up of rough ridges, and even an Everest type mountain exists under the surface of the world's oceans.

Sound Ocean Systems in turn contracted Meridan Sciences to undertake a computer assisted recalculation of all the US Navy's Task Force movements on that night of the attack on I-52 back on June 23, 1944.

Early in 1995, the Russian research vessel Yuzhmorgeologiya was in Long Beach, California, available with her crew of 50 for charter.  In April of that year, she was chartered by Sound Ocean Systems and sailed for the I-52 site in the Atlantic.  On arrival, she commenced a day/night scan of the search area, but the Allies position of their attack on I-52, did not agree with the one plotted from the position given by the German U-Boat Captain, there was a difference of several miles.

Several days passed scanning the ocean floor, all of them totally abortive, Tidwell and the Russian crew were very frustrated at the lack of results.  Meridian Sciences, called in by radio, they had reappraised all available data, and now suggested a revised position for the whereabouts of I-52.

This new site was scanned over a few more days, still an empty screen, then to everyones delight, a distinct image appeared, the secret hiding place of the sunken Japanese submarine I-52 was no more, she had been found!  Both the Allied and German positions for I-52 had been out, but Meridian's replotting of all data had produced a new position that proved to be less than a half mile from her actual location.

Larry Barbernell, another Texan gold seeker claimed that Tidwell took research that was his exclusively, and stated he would seek a restraining order to stop any salvage attempts, and the Japanese Government also raised objections, indicating that they considered the wreck site was a grave. Tidwell did not appear to overly concerned on either count.

It now took three years to raise enough money to mount another expedition, and, in 1998, once more Tidwell returned to the I-52 site, and on November 21 descended with two Russian pilots in a steel hulled submersible MIR 2, a sister vessel MIR 1, also descended on the wreck site to lay transponders so that artifacts could be plotted on a grid.

A metal box from the sea bed was brought to the surface, it was hoped it would contain some of the sunken gold, but when opened in a secure place on board the research ship, disappointment once more, no gold, but opium., and it was dumped overboard. During another dive on I-52, Tidwell took down a Japanese Naval Ensign and fixed it to the wrecked submarine.  In 1999, he visited Japan and met with some of the relatives of those killed when I-52 sank.

The lure of gold from I-52, has left behind a trail of unpaid bills, and investors who have lost their money.

The extreme pressure existing at 3 miles plus, down below the surface of the Atlantic has safeguarded this Japanese gold, it remains unreachable, and may never be recovered.


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.

Spools of magnetic recording wire marked Gordon Wire #1 and #2
Spools of magnetic recording wire marked Gordon Wire #1 and #2

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. 2003 at 9 p.m.

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