Losing their Hearts in San Francisco:  The San Francisco Maru of Truk Lagoon


“Come back.  Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”  ~Euripides, Greek classical tragedian playwright

Built in Japan in 1919 by the Kawasaki Dockyard, The SS (Steam Ship) San Francisco Maru was a medium-sized freighter of the time specifically designed for the Japanese Yamashista Kisen Line.   She was a 385ft, 27ft beam, 5,800+ ton passenger-cargo ship that served as part of Japan’s wider commercial fleet involved in world-wide trade.  The word “Maru,” meaning “circle” in Japanese, has been used to designate a Japanese merchant vessel since the 16th century.  Although the exact reasoning of this particular ship-naming convention is lost to time, the idea of a safe circular journey for ships and their crews is probably not far from the mark.  As to the city-name?  The Japanese at the time often named ships to reflect their primary destinations.

The San Francisco Maru

The San Francisco Maru

During World War II the Japanese were in desperate need to meet the logistical needs of their new Pacific empire, suddenly stretched far, wide, and thin.  Many commercial vessels were thus taken into service of the Emperor, a fate no different for the San Francisco.  Following her requisition by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the ship was detailed to transport military cargoes between the Japanese homeland and far-flung Pacific destinations.  Like most of the other Japanese merchants during WWII, the San Francisco was armed, in this case with a single 75mm/3” deck gun forward to both defend against surface submarine attack, and to provide an opportunity to attack and capture other unsuspecting merchants she happened to meet along the way.

Although damaged by aerial bombing in 1943 while delivering supplies in New Guinea, the San Francisco suffered her fatal blows after arriving at Truk Lagoon (current day Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia) in February 1944.  Packed with war materials, including cargo holds full of bombs, mines and torpedoes, she arrived just days before a massive American attack on this Japanese stronghold.  During Operation “Hailstone” (ラック島空襲 Torakku-tō Kūshū, lit. “the airstrike on Truk Island”) between 17-18 February 1944, waves upon waves of US Navy carrier-based planes were launched against shipping found at Truk, as well as the significant military presence Japan had built up there since the end of World War I.  After the first day’s attacks, the San Francisco was observed and reported by US forces as being on fire with smoke belching amidships.  The next day, she was reportedly hit by at least six 500-lb bombs, and was left burning furiously and sinking stern first.  At least five crew members were killed.  Operation Hailstone is often referred to as the “Japanese Pearl Harbor” due to the massive damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet.

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

It’s position lost to the fog of war made even more obscure by the passage of time, the wreck was “discovered” in 1969 by Cousteau (no doubt with the help of locals who all but knew her location), but was not dived again until 1973 when the ship’s bell was recovered and her identity confirmed.

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

The San Francisco lies very deep, and rests on an even keel with the superstructure beginning at ~140fsw, weather deck at ~165fsw, and the sea bottom around 210fsw.  Upon descent, her wreck remains invisible, and only passing about 50’fsw do her twin masts first come into view, themselves reaching up only to 105’fsw.  Heading from the forward mast to the bow, you cross over the open access to cargo hold 1 and finally reach the vessel’s most impressive and picturesque deck gun at ~150fsw.  Most deck guns of the wrecks in Truk are covered with an immense amount of growth, but due to the depths of the San Francisco, this is not that case of her wreck.

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

After touring the gun – a must on this shipwreck in Truk – one should immediately descend down into hold 1 forward, where you will find a cargo space packed with hemispherical landmines, at one time destined to help defend the beaches and shallow waters of Truk Lagoon against potential Allied invasion.  Watch the depth here though; the hold descends down to almost 200fsw!  Exiting up and aft out of hold , immediately proceed aft and around the forward mast to hold 2, where divers will find a plethora of scattered aerial bombs, complete with tail fins and the remains of their original wooden packing crates, along with the remains of Japanese trucks in the hold’s ‘tween decks.  Still deeper, drums of fuel can be seen.

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Perhaps the highlight of visiting the San Francisco, however, are the three iconic Japanese tanks still found resting on the ship’s main deck.  These tanks, built by Mitsubishi, are Japanese Light Type 95 HA-Go tanks covered in with ½” armor.  They appear toyishly small in appearance, but would have been manned by a crew of three and could make up to 30mph on a six-cylinder, air-cooled 120hp diesel engine.  Weighing ~7.5 tons, the tanks were armed with three weapons:  a 37mm main battery turreted gun, and two 7.7mm machine guns, one forward (non-coaxial) and one rear-facing.  The tank was only mildly effective against infantry and was never designed for armored battles, and with an extremely cramped interior, only the lightest armor, and a hand-operated turret, the tank suffered enormously in battle as more modern battlefield weapons came into play.  Two tanks are found on the starboard side of the ship, with one to port.  This is perhaps the most photogenic part of the wreck, and if your bottom time is already limited (as it is on this wreck), make sure to reserve at least a few minutes for these infamous tanks.

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From here, our planned dive run time required us to start our long ascent to the surface, where we completed our accelerated decompression profiles as we went.  It’s hard to leave the wreck, especially seeing the cratered remains of the superstructure (severely damaged from bombing), and knowing that the rear cargo holds contain a mixture of trucks, crates of ammunition, more mines, some depth charges, and scattered torpedoes….  How this wreck failed to detonate under such intense bombing is hard to imagine.  Equally as befuddling is the lack of other visible damage from the other reported bomb hits of the 2nd day’s attacks.

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But exploring the 2nd half of this ship, where those five unfortunate souls who lost their hearts in San Francisco can be remembered as a shadowy dream, will have to wait for my return to Truk Lagoon.  Until then, stayed tuned for more “Traces of War” from this year’s adventures exploring this iconic battle site.

Traces of War: Wreck of the USS Emmons


 

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, whale tail WM

USS Emmons, DD-457

USS Emmons, DD-457

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.

5 Inch 38 Caliber Mount forward on the bow

5 Inch 38 Caliber Mount forward on the bow

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.

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The Emmons in her original configuration prior to 1945

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.

USS Emmons providing support at Normandy, 1944

USS Emmons providing support at Normandy, 1944

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.

Me and David celebrate another deep dive together, ~2002

Me and David celebrate another deep dive together, ~2002

David in Tech Gear

David in Tech Gear

Me ready for a sunset deco dive, ~2003

Me ready for a sunset deco dive, ~2003

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.

USS Emmons at Normandy, 1944

USS Emmons at Normandy, 1944

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.

A sister-ship showing the 1945 Destroyer-Minesweeper configuration

A sister-ship showing the 1945 Destroyer-Minesweeper configuration

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.

Technical deep-diving gear on the North of Nago's charter

Technical deep-diving gear on the North of Nago’s charter

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.

Sister-ship USS Rodman

Sister-ship USS Rodman

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.

Fellow divers with fair winds and following seas

Fellow divers with fair winds and following seas

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, deep diving WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, gun barrels WMI 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.

Kamikaze attacks were surprising, vicious, and very hard to defeat.

Kamikaze attacks were surprising, vicious, and very hard to defeat.

Damage to the USS Rodman

Damage to the USS Rodman

Kamikaze about to strike the USS Missouri

Kamikaze about to strike the USS Missouri

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.

USS Emmons lays on her starboard side at ~150 feet

USS Emmons lies on her starboard side at ~150 feet

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.

High School Girls wave away a Kamikaze

High School Girls wave away a Kamikaze

Kawasaki "Tony"

Kawasaki “Tony”

A Japanese "Val"

A Japanese “Val”

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.

One of the Emmons' two screws

One of the Emmons’ two screws

20mm cannon, still loaded and ready

20mm cannon, still loaded and ready

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, 20mm mount 2 WMOn 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.

A twin 40mm antiaircraft mount

A twin 40mm antiaircraft mount

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, illuminating the wreck WMOkinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, 5 inch 38 gun mountOn 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.

One of Emmons' three 5-inch mounts

One of Emmons’ three 5-inch mounts

A 5"/38 Dual Purpose Gun on the Emmons

A 5″/38 Dual Purpose Gun on the Emmons

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, sights for a 40mm mount WMAfter 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.

Casualties aboard the USS Emmons

Casualties aboard the USS Emmons

A memorial plaque to one of those lost

A memorial plaque to one of those lost

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, open escape scuttle WMAfter 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.

Humpbacks sharing the day with us

Humpbacks sharing the day with us

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.

USS Ellyson DMS-19

USS Ellyson DMS-19

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, 5 inch 38 gun mountOkinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, deck gear WMThe 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.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, USS Emmons, gunsight WM

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.

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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.

http://www.ussemmons.org/