by Elena Konstantinou
The world’s ocean is still a place that conceals a multitude of secrets – some of them as ancient as time itself, and some of them relatively new – just centuries or even dozens of years old. One of the more recent mysteries is the sinking of the Yamashiro, a Japanese WWII Battleship that was sent to the bottom of the Surigao Strait, in the southern Philippines, by US Forces during the last major naval battle of the Second World War. Ever since, historians have been arguing about the exact location of the Yamashiro’s final resting place, and the 60-year old argument, still continues. John Bennett, the former champion in deep scuba diving, made it his life’s purpose to resolve that mystery. People say that even his 1000-foot record-breaking dive was aimed more at attracting enough sponsors to find the elusive battleship than at record-breaking as such. Alas, John died tragically before he could live the dream of his life – to touch the Yamashiro with his own hand.
John Bennett went diving specifically because of his attraction to the mystery of sunken ships, or “wrecks”, as the divers call them. “As you swim along a wreck claimed by one of the wars”, he said once, “you feel your link to human history, you see the ship and you feel it. You become one with it for that short duration of a deep dive…”
The depth, however, was not the only thing that attracted John to the Yamashiro, although the battleship is supposed to be anywhere from a mind-boggling 350 to 500 feet. There was more to it than the sheer challenge of the depth: no one had seen the battleship since the night of its sinking, and John wanted to break through the shroud of mystery, to be the first to discover it in its watery grave.
In the fall of 1997 the remains of the once-mighty Imperial Japanese Navy set out on one of its last voyages. Their target was the Gulf of Leyte where the US forces were engaged in a major landing operation in order to secure an all-important strategic beachhead in the Philippines. The biggest Japanese force under the command of Vice Admiral Kurita was approaching Leyte from the north, spearheaded by the two super-battleships Yamato and Musashi, still considered by many the most powerful and beautiful warships ever made. Another force, somewhat less powerful, was closing in on Leyte from the south, going through the Surigao Straits. The southern force was based around two sister battleships, Yamashiro and Fuso. Both of them were about 600 feet long and 100 feet wide, with the tall superstructures that the Americans dubbed “Pagodas” amid ship, slightly toward the bow.
Kurita’s northern force of the IJN was experiencing setbacks from the very start. It was detected and identified by a US submarine when it was still quite some distance from Leyte and was attacked by US aircraft more than once. Suffering losses and slowing down, it was still steaming ahead. The southern force commanded by Rear Admiral Nishimura seemed to be much luckier at first. It reached as far as the Straits of Surigao practically undetected by the enemy. They were only attacked once, in the early morning of October 24, on the eve of their mortal combat. In the evening of the same day, the IJN warships, led by the battleship Yamashiro, entered the narrow Straits, steaming full speed ahead toward the American beachhead on Leyte. At the exit from the Straits, however, their luck seemed to have run out, for there, lying in wait for them, was deployed a huge assembly of American naval forces. Nishimura’s two old battleships, four destroyers and one heavy cruiser, suddenly faced a grouping of six battleships in the classic battle line formation across the straits, reinforced by dozens of cruisers, destroyers and PT boats. Seven Japanese major ships against 43 American ones, not to mention the 39 PT boats.
Did Nishimura know they were there? Yes he did, he had exact reconnaissance about the force waiting for him, but he still pressed on with his squadron, straight into the deadly trap.
Why did he decide to proceed on what was looking more and more like a suicide mission? We will never know for sure, but he probably decided to engage the superior American fleet mainly to distract the attention from Kurita’s force, approaching Leyte from the north. Kurita’s force, consisting of five battleships, 12 cruisers and 13 destroyers – 30 ships all in all – seemed to have a real chance to thwart the American efforts at landing.
The Battle of Surigao Strait was not very long, “just” about three hours, from 2 am to 5 am. Six Japanese ships were sent to the sandy bottom. Only one destroyer survived to see the light of day. American forces suffered no losses to speak of. It was a deadly battle in the dead of night. All the details of the true motives of the IJN, complete with logs, records and participants, are hidden deep under the warm, blue waters. Exactly how the Americans finally had their revenge for Pearl Harbor and how the Japanese lost their last chance at keeping control of the Philippines, is still, in many respects, a matter of conjecture and educated guesses rather than hard facts.
That was the birth of the mystery.
Remaining true to the samurai ideals, the Japanese sailors chose to die with their ships, refusing any American efforts at rescue, so out of many thousands of them, only a few people survived to tell their tales after the Battle of Surigao Strait. The few remaining survivors gave the most confusing testimony about their ship’s last minutes, which is why historians are still arguing after all these years. Was it Fuso that was hit first and lagged behind, exploding and breaking in half, never even reaching the American battle line, the last battle line in the history of naval warfare? Or was it the flagship Yamashiro?
American historians, including the Naval War College, and the most venerated expert of all, Anthony Tully, believe it was the flagship that finally faced the deadly barrage of American flying metal, while some Japanese, and even Polish experts, still insist it was the Fuso.
Inspired by Anthony Tully, John Bennett, the British diver and, at the time, the current holder of the world record for depth reached on open-circuit scuba, as cited in the Guinness Book of World Records, was well versed in those arguments and the history of the war in the Pacific. It seemed he came awfully close to resolving the mystery once and for all by identifying the battleship personally. During his last trip to the Surigao Straits, he spent several days studying the minute details of the bottom in the area of the battle with depth sounders. Just as he was ready to leave, fortune smiled at him, and an enormous 600-foot shape finally appeared on their sounder screens. It was not far from the spot where the Yamashiro was supposed to be, according to the best available sources. But at that time John did had neither the equipment, nor the time, to make the dive. The sounders showed a depth of about 600 feet, and no one had ever dived to any wreck at that depth.
Given the slightest opportunity, John planned to return, but in the spring of 2004, when a new expedition to Surigao was almost ready with everything finally lined up for it, he disappeared on a routine commercial dive to “just” 150 feet in the cold and murky waters off South Korea. Thus are the paradoxes of life – the world record holder who had successfully returned from a thousand feet, the first human ever to break the 1,000 feet barrier – did not come back from a dive that was in the category of “nothing to tell your grandchildren about”. His body was never found, just like the famous battleship he was the first to find, but was never to see with his own eyes.
John’s efforts, however, were not in vain. Unwittingly, he seemed to have started a whole movement for “Diving the Yamashiro”. In the years 2005-2006, his closest friends, his support divers, “the people who were there” as they say, when he found the lost battleship at 600 feet.
Jim Nobel and Barry Mather who turned John on to the mystery in the first place, hired an experienced technical diver, Paul Nielssen, who tried to descend and reach the bottom of Surigao using a rebreather, a diving apparatus based on cutting-edge technology, but which still claims the lives of 15 percent of its users. The attempt failed, the currents were too strong, for Surigao is notorious for them.
Last spring, in May 2006, Joe McLary, a participant in the original expedition and John Bennett’s famous, irreplaceable “Diving Doc”, summoned yet another of JB’s brothers in arms, Mr. Jongin “the Magician” Lee, famous among divers for his unsurpassed technological wizardry, and set out to re-track the original expedition and re-discover the elusive battleship – but in vain, nothing was found on what was believed to be exactly the same spot!
In the summer of 2006, an international team of three experienced technical divers made yet another attempt that they believe was finally successful – at least partially so.
BRUCE KONEFE: It was John Bennett who told me about the Yamashiro wreck. That’s how I heard about the wreck the first time in my life – from John. And he was a very nice guy. I met with him several times. JB had a real dream, a goal. After his deepest record dive, his next plan was to dive the Yamashiro. When I heard that John died in Korea, I understood that his Yamashiro project was a true challenge for the technical diver, a very difficult but very interesting project, a real adventure. So I was very interested in it myself. And apart from the dive itself, there was another significant part as well: the sinking of the ship was a kind of heroic deed, and I felt that it had to be done – we had to find the wreck.
During the twelve years of his life in Thailand, Bruce was an instructor, teaching divers at all possible levels, but in addition to that, he researched 19 different wrecks from 400 to 700 years old and explored flooded caves in the south of the country, some of them up to 600 feet deep. On occasion, he closely cooperated with another prominent technical diver, Cedric Verdier. So when the two decided to go looking for the Yamashiro, they did not have any differences in opinion: it simply HAD to be done!
CERIC VERDIER: I decided to dive on the Yamashiro because it’s a kind of dream for a technical diver. It’s a dream because it’s a deep dive, a deep wreck. Completely virgin. Nobody has ever done any dive, any exploration on the Yamashiro, and it’s also a very challenging dive because it’s a remote location. There’s nothing around. So it was a perfect challenge, a perfect goal for me.
The expedition took almost 9 months of preparation, considering the remote nature of the site, the absence of the necessary infrastructure, and less than favorable conditions for the dive. To put it mildly: ripping currents, low visibility that one faces there more often than not, as well as the depth, depth at the very edge of human capability. When they finally arrived, the weather was bad, the sea was stormy and the currents were flowing strong, which confirmed their worst fears. The only thing that was good was that they already had the exact co-ordinates of the battleship, so they found it without a problem, using modern GPS technology. After that, alas, Bruce, Cedric and Pym, the third member of the dive team, spent the whole day trying to anchor to the wreck and deploy a shot line – basically, a nylon rope with a buoy facilitating the descent to the exact location. Without this nylon “path” it is all too easy to get lost and disappear forever in the vastness of the ocean. The wreck was finally anchored – but only on the second day, mostly due to the currents. In the process, our adventurers had lost two anchors and about 1500 feet of rope!
On the day before the big dive, everybody seemed to understand exactly HOW risky it all was and did their best to bring their emotions under control.
CEDRIC: I have absolutely no feeling during a dive like that. I think about all my equipment, everything I have to check before, the mental checklist, and I go through everything and I do a kind of dive visualization, and I think about everything that could happen and how to react. I have no feeling. I just prepare my dive…but it’s always a little bit scary when you have to go on a deep dive. I mean there are so many things that could go wrong…
BRUCE: This time everything went wrong. The whole day was screwed up. And we were terribly nervous so to say, I was freaking out: what if something goes wrong with the electronics, computer or rebreather. I literally tried to block these negative thoughts, but we were all stressed due to the strong currents..
Cedric was the first to reach the buoy that served as the gateway to the long road leading down, down, down. He descended to 10 feet and waited for the others. Within ten minutes, however, first Pym, and then Bruce, joined him there only to tell him that they decided NOT to proceed to the bottom – it was too risky, too much even for them.
They were returning to the boat one by one, each one had his own reason to abort the dive. Something was going wrong all the time. First the video housing was flooded, then the underwater still camera. Then Cedric’s expensive light – he was the only one who proceeded to dive – just failed, leaving him in total darkness. They were getting the impression that the ocean itself rose against their venture…. A few weeks later they actually received an explanation for all that bad luck, although of a rather mystical nature.
Pym was too exhausted by the current to even think about this inordinately complex dive. Bruce was having doubts about his equipment, so all he could do is sign to Cedric that he would meet him at a shallower depth with extra decompression tanks, just in case. Cedric, however, decided that he had already gone too far to even think about aborting the dive.
CEDRIC: We decided to jump into the water, but as soon as we jumped into the water, we immediately discovered that there was a very strong current. So it was very exhausting to swim to the shot line to be able to go down on the wreck…. I decided to go down, and I had to fight a very strong current pulling myself on the rope to be able to go there. You have to understand, it’s very exhausting. It’s very exhausting to swim and pull yourself, especially at depth. I pull, I pull. Pull again. I stop, catching my breath. And it took me 14 minutes to go down to a depth that normally need maybe 8 or 9 minutes at the most.
Finally Cedric could detect an enormous dark shape on the bottom. The visibility down there was better than expected for a change. The size of the shape, in Cedric’s view, was that of a battleship, the Yamashiro or Fuso – they were sisters, very hard to tell apart. At this depth, all that a diver has is a very short few minutes, so Cedric set about exploring immediately.
CERDRIC: When I was on the wreck, of course I was quite excited to be there. I mean, waiting 8 months planning the big expedition and finally being there, I mean, yeah, it’s exciting. So I was swimming around. I saw a lot of superstructures, some guns, and unfortunately the clock was ticking and I thought, yeah, I have to go up. I saw a few openings, some places where I could penetrate into the wreck, but unfortunately I had to reasonable and starting my ascent. Looking at my dive computer, I saw I had already six hours decompression to do. That’s quite a long time, especially in rough, in rough conditions, so, it was time to ascent, and so I start. Unfortunately I start. Too short.
The maximum depth reached by Cedric was 587 feet. In addition to losing his powerful light, Cedric also felt a leak in his drysuit, so he was starting to get really cold and miserable. When he finally made it back to the boat, he says he had only two desires left: to sit down and to drink some water to quench his thirst.
CEDRIC: It’s difficult to be 100% sure about the wreck, but chances are it’s definitely the Yamashiro…But in order to prove it… we have to find some kind of a “tablet” with a “Yamashiro sign” And until we find this evidence to prove it, this is will be still the mystery!
BRUCE: Before we started to plan this dive, I talked to the locals in the villages. Some of them could still recall seeing the huge battleship sinking They remembered how Americans bombarded the big ship with the Japanese flag. That made me think it should be the Yamashiro, the flagman battleship. I will be very surprised if the wreck we found was not the Yamashiro.
Almost a month later Cedric received a letter from a Japanese war veteran who, it turns out, was monitoring closely every online report of this difficult expedition. It was that letter that provided the mystical reason for practically everything being so botched up.
CEDRIC: A few weeks after the dive, I received a letter from a member from the veteran association from the Yamashiro. And this man, Japanese man, was friendly and very happy about the dive we had done, so he congratulated us. But at the same time, he told us he read the diary I wrote about the expedition and he saw all the problems we had. And he had a very good explanation for the problems we had and he told me if you want to go there again remember that 1100 people, 1100 Japanese sailors died with this wreck. And their spirits are still there. So before coming into their world, before entering their wreck, the first thing is you have to communicate with their spirit, and the next time you go there and next time you go on an expedition, before anything else, just throw some flowers and drop some Japanese sake on top of the wreck, and you will be more than welcome.
The divers of the team do not have a definite opinion about whether there will be a “next time” on the site for them. If they decide to return to Surigao, they would like to find the other battleship, Fuso, the one that lagged behind, was torn in half by a powerful explosion, but whose halves remained strangely afloat for hours after that… Or perhaps a destroyer? At least one of them should be pretty close to the Yamashiro. Historians say six WWII Japanese wrecks are sleeping undisturbed so far at the bottom of Surigao… with all of the victims of that bloody battle in the darkness of a hot night more than 60 years ago.
Of course, Cedric’s certainty notwithstanding, the only ship found so far may still turn out to be something other than the Yamashiro, what with the co-ordinates that Cedric’s team used being slightly DIFFERENT from those that John Bennett planned to use… The two sites are miles apart!
In short, the mystery of the Yamashiro may hardly be deemed resolved.
There are still many doubts and still not much in the way of proof. Just the impressions of a single individual who did see an enormous shipwreck at an enormous depth. The situation will continue until finally someone produces detailed video footage or the divers’ salvage -something that will provide conclusive evidence, which only means that there will be new expeditions to the Straits of Surigao, with many of the participants willing to risk their lives to confirm or disprove the words of Cedric Verdier, who believes that he finally did what no one before him could do – to actually touch the Yamashiro with his own hand, and become one with its history for a very brief moment.