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No. 1044:
Sunken Treasure

Today, we look for gold, and we find history. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

There was no moon on the night of June 23, 1944. The huge 360-foot Japanese submarine, I-52, was running in the Atlantic, West of Dakar, Africa. It'd been a long haul from Japan to Singapore, across the Indian ocean, around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Now it was now headed north, toward German-occupied France.

You see, Japan had raw materials, and Germany had technical know-how. In the late days of WW-II, the Japanese loaded the I-52 with 300 tons of the tin, molybdenum, tungsten, and rubber that Germany desperately needed. They meant to buy German technology, and they included more than 2 tons of gold to sweeten the deal.

The I-52 ran under water on batteries by day. They ran on the surface, recharging batteries, by night. They didn't know the Allies had broken their codes -- that the U.S. Navy was after them.

That night in 1944, the pilot of a lone carrier-based plane found the I-52 on its radar, dropped flares, and saw the sub trying to dive to safety. He caught it squarely with his one torpedo.

So 95 sailors, 14 Mitsubishi engineers, and all that gold went down in 17,000 feet of water -- over 3 miles down. The American carrier and a lurking German submarine both noted the position.

And that appeared to be that. There the I-52 sat, far out of reach and practically out of memory, for 50 years. But 4,400 pounds of gold are not so easy to forget. Finally, ocean explorer Paul Tidwell built a leading-edge team of Russian and American oceanographers and went after the submarine with remote cameras.

It wasn't easy. The New York Times tells how, on May 5th, 1995, with the search vessel running low on fuel, Tidwell's team found the submarine miles from the Navy's estimated position. It lay almost a mile deeper than the wreck of the Titanic. Unlike the broken and badly rusted Titanic, the I-52 was in good condition.

Now, at this writing, reclamation work begins. And Tidwell, once an American soldier, wounded in action, says:

We want to disturb the wreck as little as possible. I feel a responsibility to make sure we treat it with respect. Those people were doing their jobs and died bravely.

Jesse Taylor, the Navy pilot who torpedoed the I-52, is stunned. "I had no idea this thing could be located," he says. Meanwhile, Japan has been cooperating, and the team promises to return what personal belongings it can to families of the dead.

The gold will pay for the adventure, but drama of another kind emerges from the deep. Here is the largest Japanese submarine, remarkably intact. It's a game of course, an adventure -- but this adventure has honed new technologies of exploration. This game has yielded up a disturbing glimpse -- of raw history.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Broad, W.J., Lost Japanese Sub With 2 Tons of Axis Gold Found on Floor of Atlantic. The New York Times, Science Times, Tuesday, July 18, 1995, pp. B5, B8.