Okinawa: Bombs found on sunken U.S. warship

Courtesy of Hironobu Kan
The sunken USS Emmons sits on the seabed about 40 meters below the surface. Some of the unexploded bombs were found in the area indicated by the dotted line.

Unexploded depth charges found in a U.S. warship that was sunk off the coast of central Okinawa Island in the latter days of World War II have left local authorities in a quandary.

The USS Emmons, a minesweeper 100 meters in length, lies at a depth of about 40 meters in waters off Kouri Island. It was attacked by Japanese kamikaze suicide planes on April 6, 1945. Left unable to navigate, it was scuttled the following morning to keep it out of enemy hands.

Removing unexploded munitions from a warship presents great difficulties from a technical aspect. Detonating the depth charges in their present state also presents a problem, as it would likely destroy the ship, which historians and others insist should be preserved as a naval war ruin.

The Research Center for Coastal Seafloor at Kyushu University discovered the explosives and reported the find to the Japan Coast Guard station in Naha in January 2017. The Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Sub Area Activity Okinawa division based in Uruma determined that the explosives were depth charges used to attack submarines, and confirmed that six were found inside the hull and two others on the seabed.

The MSDF fears that if it attempts to remove the charges from the vessel, any impact could cause them to explode.

The USS Emmons has become a spot popular with scuba divers, and an Okinawa Prefecture official said the prefecture wants to ensure the safety of the area as soon as possible.

Courtesy of Chuck DeCesari
Divers display an American flag during a ceremony in April 2018 to mourn lost crew members of the USS Emmons.

In Japan, unexploded bombs are usually handled by the local government in collaboration with the Self-Defense Forces. But in the case of the USS Emmons, international custom requires coordination with the U.S. side.

The government of Nakijin village, which has jurisdiction over the waters where the ship sank, has been insisting that the central government take responsibility for resolving the issue as a diplomatic matter, and is urging that the Okinawa prefectural government press Tokyo on its behalf.

The prefectural government has been dealing with the relevant domestic agencies, but there has been no progress in coordinating with the U.S. side yet.

“The Emmons is an important cultural asset that conveys the tragedy of war,” said Kyushu University Prof. Hironobu Kan, the director of the Research Center for Coastal Seafloor which continues to study the wreckage. “The problem should be dealt with under the premise of preserving it.”

With little progress being made, Kan expressed his intention to take interim action and warn divers by creating a detailed 3D map showing the location of the unexploded bombs.

Jun Kimura, an associate professor of maritime archaeology at Tokai University, pointed out that the U.S. has the means to help resolve the matter.

“The U.S. Navy has a unit to study and preserve historic archaeological properties such as sunken warships, and coordination with the U.S. side may advance the solution of the problem,” Kimura said.

Priority on preservation

Every year in April on the anniversary of the attack on the USS Emmons, Chuck DeCesari goes on a dive with fellow scuba divers to mourn those who perished in the sunk vessel, which he insists should be preserved.

“It would be a tragedy if it’s destroyed,” said the 58-year-old American veteran living in Ogimi, Okinawa Prefecture.

A former U.S. Marine, DeCesari saw action in the Iraq War and the Gulf War. During the memorial dive, he places an American flag and flowers on a plaque attached to the hull that is engraved with the names of the 60 crew members who lost their lives.

The ceremony is recorded on video and shared with survivors and family members in the United States. The divers once spread a Japanese flag on the engine of a destroyed Japanese kamikaze plane on the seabed near the ship.

DeCesari said that while they were enemies, he regards soldiers on both sides of the war as heroes, as they all fought for their country and for their families.

“Don’t destory this important place for the bereaved families of both countries,” DeCesari said.