Wreck of WWII Submarine USS Albacore Discovered off Japan

February 20, 2023 8:46 PM
USS Albacore shortly after its launch in 1942. US Navy Photo

The Navy has confirmed the discovery of the missing World War II submarine USS Albacore (SS-218) off Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island by a team of Japanese researchers.

On Thursday, Naval History and Heritage Command said its Underwater Archaeology Branch used imagery and information from Tamaki Uki, a University of Tokyo specialist in developing autonomous underwater vehicles to confirm the identity of a submarine discovered by the researchers as Albacore.

Albacore had one of the most successful combat records of all Navy submarines in World War II when it sank near the strait between Hokkaido and Honshu islands, a main shipping channel on Nov. 7, 1944.

“As the final resting place for sailors who gave their lives in defense of our nation, we sincerely thank and congratulate Dr. Ura and his team for their efforts in locating the wreck of Albacore,” retired Rear Adm. Samuel Cox, the NHHC’s director said in a Navy release. “It is through their hard work and continued collaboration that we could confirm Albacore’s identity after being lost at sea for over 70 years.”

The Gato-class submarine, built at Electric Boat and commissioned June 1, 1942, earned nine battle stars, four Presidential Unit Citations and is credited with sinking at least 10 enemy vessels, six combatants, in its service. That record included sinking IJN Taiho Japan’s newest and largest armored aircraft carrier in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June of 1944. The Navy added that the submarine may have sunk three other ships on its 11 combat patrols.

Japanese military records report an underwater explosion, probably caused by a submarine striking a mine, at the time.

Ura’s team used those records in its search with his specially designed remotely operated vehicles and sensors. Volunteers, working for NHHC, were conducting a separate search to establish the submarine’s wreckage location.

NHHC’s release described the challenges facing the two searches this way:

“Strong currents, marine growth, and poor visibility on site made it challenging to fully document the wreck or obtain comprehensive images. However, several key features of a late 1944 Gato-class submarine were identified in the video. Indications of documented modifications made to Albacore prior to her final patrol such as the presence of an SJ Radar dish and mast, a row of vent holes along the top of the superstructure, and the absence of steel plates along the upper edge of the fairwater allowed UAB to confirm.”

Ura, a fellow in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, has been recognized for his research and work in developing “valuable tools for deep-sea exploration.” This includes “a precise seabed positioning system with a resolution of a few centimeters” used in operations like those to identify the wreckage of Albacore.

Ura launched his Albacore exploration project in 2020 but stopped the work with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As he wrote in the online journal Academist, “On May 25 and 26, 2022, we scanned the research area with multibeam sonar and discovered a 50-meter-long sunken vessel on the seafloor at a depth of 237 meters, about 7 km off the coast of Esan, Hakodate. A small ROV showed us the bridge of the ship and we confirmed that it was a submarine. We were convinced that it was the U.S. Navy submarine “Albacore” based on a synthesis of various information from 78 years ago.”

This discovery narrowed the team’s search which eventually led to the confirmed identification.

Ura told Japanese broadcaster NHK, “Using a high-performance sonar that searches underwater with sound waves, we discovered what seems to be a hull of about (164 feet) in the seabed of about (820 feet). …When I submerged the underwater robot camera and took a picture, I caught a part that seems to be a bridge and a pillar that looks like a periscope.”

NHHC has jurisdiction over the wreckage and U.S. law under the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act bars intrusion.

The release added, “the wreck is the final resting place of sailors who gave their lives in defense of the nation and should be respected by all parties as a war grave.”

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense, GovExec.com, NextGov.com, DefenseOne.com, Government Executive and USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox