PADI Master Instructor Honors Lives Lost on USS Emmons in Okinawa


PADI blog posted by

Photo: Kevin King

Written by PADI Course Director, Kenneth Redifer 

Although “hero” is a strong characterization, especially given the ubiquitous military presence that’s found here on the island of Okinawa, Japan where I am currently residing, there is a PADI dive professional here that is worthy of recognition.

Kevin King, PADI Master Instructor, has been singlehandedly instrumental in the successful implementation of the distinctive specialty USS Emmons Diver. Kevin authored the supporting documents for this specialty, had them approved in late 2015, and started offering this specialty in January of 2016. In the first twelve months it was available, Kevin has certified no less than 44 divers, who, almost to the person, rave about its content and his delivery.

You may not be aware, but Okinawa boasts one of the only US Navy combatants sunk in war, but which remains within recreational scuba diving limits. On the night of April 6/7, 1945, the Emmons was struck by no less than five Japanese kamikazes in less than two minutes. Her fate sealed, the ship was intentionally sunk in the early morning hours, but only after 60 crew-members were either killed or missing.

Photo: Kevin King

Her wreck was lost to the fog of war and dulling effects of time, only to be “rediscovered” by American divers in 2001, when Kevin was stationed on Okinawa as a Naval Flight Officer on active duty with the US Navy.

Kevin returned to Japan again for another tour of duty from 2004-2006, and again visited the wreck of Emmons. But it wasn’t until he retired and returned to Okinawa in 2013 that the idea for this specialty started to take root: a need existed for a comprehensive historic overview of not just the death of a ship and its crew, but of their rich and passionate lives. AND, to boot, divers needed more knowledge, skills and abilities to better and more safely handle the various contingencies that are often encountered on this deep wreck in open blue-water Ocean.

Photo: Kevin King

Although the Emmons has remained a popular dive destination since 2001, almost no one who dove her really knew what transpired to bring here to the depths of the East China Sea in 1945. Kevin felt it exceedingly important for those that visit this war grave to know, respect and honor not just those who fell here, but those who survived and carried wounds for the rest of their lives. This is especially true in Okinawa since the vast majority of divers visiting her wreck are or were active duty service members from every branch. Kevin, being a 20-year US Navy combat veteran and a college military history minor provides a rich, detailed examination of not just the ship and her crew, but of the context of the time. The result is an engaging, interactive, and powerful 2-hour historical presentation that peaks and holds peoples’ interest. Kevin provides a detailed student guide with a summary of his PowerPoint-based talk.

Photo: Kevin King

But that wasn’t enough for Kevin. He also realized that many divers had been and continue to be injured diving the Emmons, and more focused knowledge development and training with better efficacy was needed to prepare divers for conditions that are often encountered there. First and foremost, it is a very deep wreck; the ship rests on her starboard side in anywhere from 140-150 fsw (30 meters) to the bottom. Low visibility and very strong, unpredictable currents are often found, and conditions can change radically even during a single dive.

Photo: Kevin King

Given these basic dive parameters, Kevin’s specialty requires DEEP and EANx as prerequisites. He then integrated knowledge and skills from the PADI Self Reliant, PADI Tec and Delayed Surface Marker Buoy diver specialties. The Specialty is concluded by issuing each diver a ship’s coin, which can be brought down to her wreck on two guided dives. Kevin then provides a personalized certification card which he designed and had custom printed, and certifies divers same-day using ePIC online.

Photo: Kevin King

Photo: Kevin King

But that still wasn’t enough for Kevin. Being a US Navy veteran, Kevin feels a special bond to the entire crew of the Emmons, those alive and dead. He decided to return 50% of his proceeds of each certified diver back to the USS Emmons Association in support of their annual scholarship fund, a competitive program that delivers money to descendants of USS Emmons crew-members. In the first year of this distinctive specialty, Kevin was able to directly gift $2,200 to the association.

While Kevin’s Distinctive Specialty is one of the more popular on Okinawa, what matters most is the impact it is having back home. An excerpt from a letter from Mr. Tom Hoffman, Director, USS Emmons Association, highlights this impact:

“I am infinitely grateful to the men and women who use their diving expertise to honor the sacrifices made in the Emmons’ defense of freedom. To know that Emmons’ resting place is in the hands of such caring people is pleasing and fulfilling. Though I cannot visit the wreck myself, my certainty that the divers care deeply for our connection to the Emmons is the next best thing. It is truly spectacular that those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are being honored in the utmost manner.”

Photo: Kevin King

V-J Day, Victory over Japan


“Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink.” ~An exchange between TSgt Donald Larson and His Girl Dolores

Young Don and Dolores during WWII

Young Don and Dolores during WWII

Jody, in reorganizing what we affectionately refer to as our “crap room,” just yesterday found a packet of letters from her Grandfather to his future bride Dolores during his service as part of the Army Air Forces in WWII. Jody and her Mother, Bonnie, thought these letters missing. Searches on both ends occurred without success. In these particular letters we were able to hear of the end of the war through Jody’s Grandfather’s eyewitness words. And oddly enough, these words turned up this particular week.

The Ending of the War, almost an Afterthought!

The Ending of the War, almost an Afterthought!

A strange coincidence? Yes. This week marks the passing of an indelible date to people on both sides of the Pacific: the anniversary of the surrender of Imperial Japan. On August 15th, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito formally announced his government’s surrender, and in the process, effectively ended World War II.

Donald Larson is standing all the way to the right. He was already an old man being already in his 30s.

B-17 Flying Fortress crew of 10.  Donald Larson is standing all the way to the right. He was already an old man being already in his 30s.

Fighting through Flak

Fighting through Flak

At the time, Jody’s Grandfather, TSgt Donald Edgar Larson, was stationed in Wisconsin, having previously survived 35 bombing missions as a B-17 Flying Fortress mechanic and aerial gunner. From the summer of 1944 through early winter of 1945, Don fought the war in Europe as part of the Eight Air Force in the skies over Germany and France. In a somewhat less glamorous yet infinitely safer role, at the time of the Japanese surrender, he found himself driving trucks at the Army Air Force’s Truax Field, just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. His love, Dolores, was in Iowa.

Manning a Fortress Waist Gun

Manning a Fortress Waist Gun

Truax Field was activated as an Army Air Forces airfield in June 1942, and served as the headquarters for the Army Air Forces Eastern Technical Training Center, tasked with training B-17 mechanics and radio operators, and in later times, radar operators for the “new” B-29 Superfortress. Today, it is an Air National Guard Base, co-located with Dane County Regional Airport, home of the Wisconsin ANG 115th Fighter Wing, equipped with the F-16 Fighting Falcon. In another odd connection and “what are the odds” turn of events (see Long Odds and Unlikely Connections for more), this past spring I ended up befriending and training in scuba a number of reservists from this very base and unit while they were deployed to Kadena Air Base here on Okinawa, Japan.

Donald as an Army Air Force E4

Donald as an Army Air Force E4

At noon on August 6th, 1945, Gyokuon-hōsō (玉音放送 “Jewel Voice Broadcast”) was heard in a radio broadcast in which Japanese Emperor Hirohito read out the “Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War” (大東亜戦争終結ノ詔書 Daitōa-sensō-shūketsu-no-shōsho). It was translated into English and simulcast throughout the Pacific and in America. In what was probably the first time that an Emperor of Japan had spoken to the common people, he announced that the Japanese Government had accepted the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Japanese military. The bloody Battle of Okinawa, the twin devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held territories all conspired to bring the War in the Pacific to a quick and somewhat unexpected end.

No Zip Codes!

No Zip Codes!

TSgt Larson got the news on August 14th, as most of America did due to the time-traveling dimension of the international dateline and the many time zones separating the West from the Far East. In a letter dated August 15th, 1945, he writes:

“Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink. I suppose you celebrated last night or today, right? Boy, Darling its to (sic) good to be true to think this was is finaly (sic) over at last. That’s going to be one happy day when I get of this thing which I think will be soon. You should have heard some of the guys around here they almost went wild you can imagine what a noise there was.”

The date was known to the allies of the time as “Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day),” and remains so for the United Kingdom. However, official commemorations in the United States honoring the ending of World War II occur on September 2nd, when the formal signing of the surrender document on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay actually transpired.

TSgt Larson WWII, army air forces honorable discharge

Honorable Discharge

In Japan, August 15 usually is known as the “Memorial Day for the End of the War” (終戦記念日 Shūsen-kinenbi). The official name for the day, however, is the “Day for Mourning of War Dead and Praying for Peace” (戦没者を追悼し平和を祈念する日 Senbotsusha o tsuitōshi heiwa o kinensuru hi), nomenclature fairly recently adopted by the Japanese government in 1982.

Postage was only 3 cents, but look at military pay of the time!

Postage was only 3 cents, but look at military pay of the time!

The end of the war, a momentous occasion by any standard, is oddly almost an afterthought in Don’s letters to his girlfriend. Perhaps he knew that his combat days were over in that war, having survived the Luftwaffe and the 8th Army Air Force.  Equally as interesting, the envelopes used to send his letters were addressed merely to just “Miss Dolores Arens, Le Mars, Iowa,” while the postage was free (but 3 cents for the general public). The postmarks are all from Madison, WI, and dated 1945. Such a simpler time on most fronts. Except for that horrible, global war….

4-Engine Bombers of Every Boy's Dreams

4-Engine Bombers of Every Boy’s Dreams

What I find quite humorous and enlightening, though, is a letter concerning the “new stationery” which Don was trying out in a letter sent July 26th, 1945, somewhat timidly, on his sweetheart: “Here is some of that new stationery I was telling you about. I still don’t know if I should send it or not but here goes,” Don hints. His later comments below (in bold), which also are found in the letter which is quoted in part above, confirm that boys will be boys, through time and even at the crossroads of history when a world war happens to be ending:

August 15, 1945

My Dearest Dolores,

Hello my Darling how are you any way (sic)? I had begin (sic) to wonder if you was still living or not as it had been so long since I had heard from you from the 1st until the 15th that’s a long time between letters.

I planned on waiting until I got an answer but same as usual I didn’t. I should wait as long as you did before I write but some thing (sic) won’t let me.

Darling I just got your letter yesterday saying that you got the watch O.K. it went to Chanute and they was how about sending it on to me.

Oh! Yes how’s the sun burn you mentioned in that letter? Hope its O.K.

Yes, Darling I am still driving trucks not such a bad job at that but I can think of other things I’d rather be doing.

Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink. I suppose you celebrated last night or today, right? Boy, Darling its to (sic) good to be true to think this was is finaly (sic) over at last. That’s going to be one happy day when I get of this thing which I think will be soon. You should have heard some of the guys around here they almost went wild you can imagine what a noise there was.

Darling, you know I would come and see you if I could but you can imagine how things are here in the army. Its to (sic) late in the game to screw up the works now.

So you liked that stationery did you? That was some four engine bomber wasn’t it? I couldn’t say if it was a B-29 or what it was, Ha! It was a new model of some kind.

I got Romies (sic) address too I’ll write to him not saying that it will do any good, but if he isn’t getting your letters it seems as tho (sic), you would get them back.

Well My Darling think I have wrote (sic) enough for this time and guess I’ll wait until I get an answer before I write again. Should I?

Good night My Darling see you in my Dreams.

All My Love, Don

TSgt Larson WWII, young Don and Dolores

Thankfully, Don and Dolores’ relationship survived both that world war and some rather risqué stationery (for the time). The emergence of this correspondence during this week of historical significance provides a beautifully clocked look back through time, and into the roots of our families. And one that offers an overlay of everyday humanity that sometimes we forget always permeates even the most auspicious of occasions.

As an E7 at Separation in September 1945

As an E7 at Separation in September 1945