CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Sometime in the past three months, a group of unknown scuba divers drifted 135 feet down into the deep blue waters here.
Their destination was the ghostly wreck of the USS Emmons, a World War II destroyer battered by kamikaze planes and scuttled by the U.S. military in 1945.
The divers slipped inside the Emmons, pried loose an engraved metal plate, and disappeared again into the blue.
The looting of the Emmons builder’s plaque – a plate showing construction and commission dates – has drawn the attention of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and riled former crew members.
NCIS was considering a criminal investigation of the alleged vandalism on Wednesday, NCIS spokesman Ed Buice said.
A law passed in 2004 asserts all such wrecks around the world remain sovereign U.S. territory, meaning looting and vandalism is a crime punishable under U.S. law.
If NCIS picks up the case, it could be the first investigation launched under the new law, according to Buice.
“I think somebody stole it for a souvenir,” said Chuck DeCesari, an Okinawa dive company owner who discovered the missing plaque. “It is valuable to a collector as a piece of history.”
DeCesari said he made the discovery recently while shooting video of the wreck for the ship’s veterans group, the USS Emmons Association, and estimates the plaque was stolen within the past three months.
Veterans who served on the Emmons were “disgusted” by news of the vandalism, DeCesari said.
“It is the only warship that I know of that you can dive [in Okinawa],” DeCesari said. “You go down to dive on the Emmons and you can see the battle, you can see where kamikazes hit.”
The Emmons was patrolling northern Okinawa with another minesweeping destroyer, the USS Rodman, in April 1945 when it locked into a vicious battle with Japanese kamikazes, according to a history compiled by the USS Emmons Association.
The destroyers and planes from nearby U.S. aircraft carriers shot down at least 50 Japanese planes during the fight. But the Emmons took direct hits from five of the suicide bombers.
The crippled Emmons drifted for a day before the Navy decided to sink it.
The destroyer was lost on the ocean floor for 56 years before it was rediscovered by U.S. divers in 2001.
Since its rediscovery, the ship has fared better than war wrecks near Guam or the Philippines that have been stripped and looted, DeCesari said.
Still, a porthole and some helmets have also disappeared over the past few years, probably taken by looters, he said.
The plaque looting required a diver to enter the ship while diving in deep water, which can be dangerous, and “had to be somebody who had a little confidence in the water,” DeCesari said.
The person who took the plaque can still turn over the artifact to any military dive shops on the island and it will be returned to the USS Emmons Association, DeCesari said.