It sounded as if they were grieving for the dead entombed in the ocean’s depths. The whale song, loud yet gently rolling in amplitude, was mesmerizing as I hung on the line decompressing from my first dive on the WWII war relic the USS Emmons. We had spotted the whales prior to entry, and they were close. They stayed close. It was as if they were also diving on the war grave, but unlike their terrestrial mammal-cousins, they could lend a uniquely solemn eulogy in fitting tribute to what turned out as a very emotional morning.
USS Emmons (DD-457/DMS-22) was a Gleaves-class destroyer of the United States Navy, named for the 19th century American Rear Admiral George F. Emmons. Emmons was authorized in the Navy Expansion Act of 1938, launched in the fall of 1941, built by Bath Iron Works, sponsored by Mrs. Francis Emmons Peacock, granddaughter of Admiral Emmons, and finally commissioned in December 1941, just as American was entering World War Two. Costing just under $5 million when her construction contract was let, she was later reconfigured and reclassified as a Destroyer Mine-Sweeper (DMS-22) in the fall of 1944 prior to her demise.
In February 2001, Emmons’ wreck was discovered at a depth approaching 150’ just north of Okinawa’s Motobu peninsula, one of the few American ships lost off Okinawan waters shallow enough for access by experienced divers. She rests on her starboard side, pretty much still in the condition of the day of her ruin. As such, live and unexploded ordnance can be found, and caution is in order visiting. Diving at this depth is at the extreme of every recreational scuba diving limit, and should only be accomplished by divers with some technical background or guidance from others that know the site and the hazards such diving entails. Having a technical background from diving the deep wrecks off South Florida at 200’ plus, I was more than comfortable diving at this sacred site.
Emmons embodied the best in pre-WWII destroyer construction. As experiences of the war dictated, changes were made to adapt Emmons to changing conditions. Equipped with two geared turbines and four boilers, she was capable of generating 50,000 shaft-horsepower, pushing her through the water at more than 37.5 knots (43+ mph). At a length of 348’2″, beam 36’1″; and maximum draft of 15’8″, she was conceived to be crewed by a complement of just a handful of officers and about 250 enlisted. In her personnel she was typical of America at war. At commissioning half of her officers and nearly all of her enlisted crew were career personnel from the regular navy, but by the end of the war all but one of her officers and 80 percent of the crew were reservists, volunteers for the duration.
I was stationed on Okinawa (see Shipwrecked on the Island of Misfit Toys) when the wreck of the Emmons was “discovered.” At the time, there was quite a circus-like atmosphere surrounding the ship. Divers were getting “bent” (decompression sickness) in their overenthusiasm. People were stealing artifacts from the wreck, becoming nothing less than grave robbers. I lacked the proper equipment, training and experience at the time to conduct the decompression diving that allows a proper stay at 130’. So I left Okinawa in the summer of 2001 without experiencing this now historic wreck.
Almost from the beginning, Emmons was earmarked for service in the Atlantic as were most of her class of warship. 2,200 tons when fully loaded, her armament originally was optimized for anti-surface and submarine patrols and consisted of five 5 inch, 38 caliber (5”/38) Dual-Purpose (DP) guns for surface and airborne engagements, nine 21″ torpedoes to use against ships, six 50 caliber machine guns for general overall defense, and two depth charge tracks on the stern for antisubmarine warfare. However, experiences of the Americans and British early in the War of the Pacific necessitated changes while under construction, primarily in bolstering her anti-aircraft and anti-submarine capabilities. Her armament was finalized to include four 5″/38 guns, five 21″ torpedoes, two twin 40mm anti-aircraft mounts, four 20mm anti-aircraft cannons, two depth charge racks, and one depth charge thrower amidships.
I was stationed in Miami from 2001-2004, and at the time met David Ryder, the man who led me over to the darker side of technical diving. David, and Irishman who grew up in commercial diving in the North Sea, was fairly indestructible in the water, and through his somewhat unorthodox mentorship and unrelenting pressure, I found myself purchasing the thousands of dollars of tanks, harnesses, regulators, computers, and wetsuits I would need to spend over an hour in the water at depths down to 200’ plus. David and I conducted a number of very deep dives between 2001 and 2004, experience that would provide me the skills and knowhow which would come un so handy this day on the Emmons.
After supporting the Normandy invasion in the summer of 1944, the war in Europe was all but over, and Emmons shifted to face a new role in a new theater. She and many of her class were converted to high-speed Destroyer-Minesweepers and became party of Mine Sweeper Squadron 20, destination for the Western Pacific where they would help clear the way for the many invasions of Japanese islands that seem all but necessary at the time. In late 1944, DD457 had become DMS27, and during this conversion, LCDR Eugene Foss, USNR, became Commanding Officer of Emmons. By this time, the number of 20mm mounts had increased to seven, and her depth-charge system had been updated and improved. However, she lost one of her 5″/38 guns (mount No. 4 aft) during this update.
I found myself back on Okinawa in 2004 having volunteered to return to my old job. And this time I brought back all my deep-diving technical dive gear and knowhow, ready to explore the underwater war relics that the South Pacific provided for exploration. However, I also found myself on a no-notice, 8-month deployment to Iraq. No diving for this guy…. I returned to Okinawa to find my marriage in ruins (see Paradise Lost), and in all honesty, lost any love or drive for underwater exploration of this sort through my departure in late 2005. I again missed my opportunity to explore the Emmons.
After a month’s intensive training Emmons and her squadron were temporarily broken up to escort the flood of ships concentrating in the Western Pacific for the upcoming spring 1945 Invasion of Okinawa. Emmons served as screen for convoys from Hawaii to Eniwetok and Ulithi, and from Ulithi to Okinawa where she joined the rest of her squadron. She put to sea 19 March 1945 for the dangerous, vital task of clearing Okinawa‘s waters to allow assault ships to close on the beaches for the landings scheduled to begin April 1st of 1945. Sweeping operations for the Okinawa offensive began around the Kerama Islands on March 24th. Experiencing a new ferocity of warfare at Okinawa, mine sweeping operations became the easiest and quite possibly safest task of the Destroyer-Mine-Sweeps, which as a class retained the screening, patrol, and radar-picket duties still expected of destroyers.
Quite unexpectedly, I found myself again stationed on Okinawa starting in 2013. However, this time I came to Okinawa as a retired, dependent spouse, who quickly got a job teaching scuba diving. And after almost losing my personal access to the waters of the world (see Offshore Okinawa, A Scuba Diver’s Paradise to Lose), I decided not to let any more opportunities slip idly by. This time I had the gear, the experience, the time, and finally, the opportunity.
On 6 April 1945, Emmons and sister-ship Rodman joined to provide protection for Sweep Unit 11 then engaged in clearance operations between Ie Shima (island) and the northwest tip of Okinawa. On that day, Imperial Japan, in desperation over their impossible military position on Okinawa and facing an impending invasion of the Homeland, launched the largest suicide attacks (by aircraft) of the entire war against ships off Okinawa, amounting to some 355 suicide missions across 6 and 7 April. The Emmons and Rodman absorbed a good portion of that destructive folly.
I had planned two decompression dives for the day, both to 130’ for 14 minutes bottom time (17 minutes elapsed total time). I was diving a steel 100 cubic foot single cylinder, and carried a 40 cubic foot stag bottom full of 36% Enriched Air NITROX to accelerate my off-gassing on the way back to the surface. Since my dive buddy had banged out of the dive, and no one else had planned my particular dives, I ended up diving relatively solo, which although never a great or recommended way to dive, I found entirely refreshing. Experiencing this heroic ship and her lost crewmen in my own silent contemplation was…powerfully moving.
During one of the first of the massive kamikaze attacks, these two ships became floating targets, the focal point of Japan’s hopelessness. Although numerous raids were detected throughout the morning, the Japanese didn’t seek out these particular pickets until the middle of the afternoon. Perhaps because someone finally realized that these destroyers were actually serving as radar sentinels offering the rest of the fleet early warning, targeting priorities were shifted. Around 3:15 PM on April 6th the first of many attacks closed in on the Rodman and struck her directly on her forecastle, setting her ablaze. Emmons provided anti-aircraft covering fire as she closed at high speed to render assistance. Circling the Rodman like the good guys would in an old Western Cowboy and Indian matinée, Emmons provided the majority of protection against the now growing number of attackers in the area. Friendly fighters on Combat Air Patrol (CAP) from nearby aircraft carriers also arrived and began to engage the kamikaze. While the majority of the attackers were splashed, it wasn’t enough to change the fate of the Emmons that afternoon. As Emmons continued to circle the stricken Rodman, both sweeps were overwhelmed by suicide-murder-bent Japanese pilots and their explosive-ladened planes.
The dive boat was moored at the line attached amidships on the Emmons. As I decided in the chilly winter waters in a light current, the waters turned dark, the visibility reduced by a good deal of suspension in the vicinity. At one point I could no longer make out the surface and yet could see the wreck. But then she was there, emerging from the depths, lurking there like I imagine only a ghostly apparition would. Or could.
Japanese aircraft, including Tonys, Vals, and Zekes, continued to swarm and harass the American fleet. While Marine Corsairs and Navy Hellcats did their finest to screen the fleet, and Emmons herself shot down six of the enemy in short order that afternoon, she nonetheless took her first hit. Sheer numbers and fanatical frenzy finally ruled the day. At 1732 (5:32 PM), after over two hours of continuous intense combat, the first of five Japanese pilots crashed purposely into Emmons’ fantail. The “Divine Winds,” in a well-coordinated attack, impacted the ship in rapid succession within a two-minute timespan, hitting her fantail, pilot house, No. 3 five-inch mount on her waterline, and finally in the vicinity of her combat information center. She was quickly left crippled and ablaze. Four more attackers crashed in nearby in the waters surrounding the Emmons, all having missed their intended target but whose explosive concussions nonetheless caused additional damage.
On my first dive I proceeded towards the ship’s stern. Staying mostly above the side of her hull, I moved slowly, taking in her majesty as I focused on breathing and moving as effortlessly as possible. I realized I had failed to really study the ship; I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, and only later when I researched the Emmons for this article did I realize that the majority of her fantail had been utterly destroyed. There were, however, a 20mm cannon, still loaded with an attached magazine, and a twin 40mm antiaircraft mount, both which appeared like there were still in action, pointing skyward, searching for the now and forever missing targets. I rounded her screws, and headed back to my ascent point along the Emmons’ weatherdeck.
On the second hit aboard Emmons Captain Foss was blown off the bridge. Since the Executive Officer was missing, LT John Griffin, USNR, the gunnery officer, assumed command and countermanded the unofficial order to abandon ship which had been circulated from an unknown source. He assessed the serious damage. The aft hull was a mangled mess and the ship’s rudder had been almost completely blown off. That combined with one of two shafts and screws being inoperable, the ship was severely limited in its mobility, one of its primary defenses against air attack. The bridge was completely destroyed and fires raged all the way forward to Mount No. 1. Firefighting was nearly impossible as exploding 20 mm rounds and ready ammunition boxes started more fires as others were extinguished, and much of the fire-fighting equipment was either missing or damaged beyond service. A ten degree starboard list was visible evidence of serious flooding, as was the fact that the stern was settling into the sea.
After more than an hour break on the surface, my second dive was much like the first in plan, but a wholly different experience. This time I proceeded from amidships to the bow, where I discovered the two 5”/38 gun mounts still in place and trained as if firing at attacking aircraft. These weapons, almost dwarfing the ship’s narrow structure, are the hallmark of a destroyer, still to this day. And seeing them there made the historical nature and horrific demise of this vessel hit home.
After taking such a tremendous beating, the ship’s whaleboat began to pick up wounded in the water and deliver them to the nearby minesweepers. The more seriously wounded were kept aboard and taken care of as well as possible; those less injured were placed on rafts over the side to wait for later rescue. The surviving elements of Emmons’ damage control parties fought heroically to put out the fires and control flooding, and for a time it appeared that the ship might be saved. As the wounded were being transferred to ships alongside, a large explosion occurred in the handling room of Mount 2 forward. With ammunition exploding wholesale, Emmons found damage control a desperate, losing struggle, necessitating an official order to abandon ship. Casualties were heavy. Among nineteen officers, eight were killed or missing-in-action and five were wounded. Of the 254 members of the crew, almost ¼ each were killed and wounded, amounting to 52 KIA or missing in action and 65 wounded.
After our dives, the humpbacks surfaced and stayed close to our dive boat. Getting ready to dive deep and perhaps have their own private moments around the Emmons, mom and calf bid us adieu with waves of their tails.
The crippled Emmons herself, however, refused to give up. The burning hulk drifted all night toward Ie Shima, still held by the enemy. Early next morning, Saturday, April 7, 1945, the Navy considered the possibility of salvaging her, but ultimately ordered that she be sunk to keep her from falling into enemy hands or becoming a hazard to navigation. Emmons’ sister ship, the USS Ellyson (DD-454/DMS-19), then proceeded to shell the Emmons with 5” gunfire, and finally succeeded in doing what the Japanese could not: send Emmons to her watery grave. A sad ending for a noble ship manned, loved, and fought by a noble crew for three years, four months and two days–5 December 1941 through 7 April 1945. But all the news wasn’t so repulsive; Emmons’ heroic defense of Rodman allowed the latter to survive, and ultimately be repaired and returned to service.
The U.S. Navy still maintains custody of the wreck. More importantly, the USS Emmons remains a United States Naval vessel and as such is protected by the United States Government. More importantly, however, because of the large number of American and Japanese men still entombed aboard this ship, Emmons is and must be treated as a war grave. It is unlawful for anyone to enter the ship by any means, as is removing any materials from the ship or the debris field. It should go without saying, but if you intend to visit, please show the utmost respect for the ship and the fallen warriors all which remain on eternal patrol.
For me personally, the song of the humpbacks will forever be associated with my first visit to the USS Emmons. I only hope that our fallen comrades enjoyed their lyrical tribute as much as I did, now and forever.