ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — The sinking of the submarine has been the subject of some controversy. When a U.S. Navy crew reported the incident, their superiors denied it had happened.
Robert Wood served as a signalman on SC-536. Wood's story was originally published in an article written by Lori Tobias in the Oregonian on Sept. 20, 2012. The SC designation stands for subchaser. SC-536 was built by Peterson Boat Works, Sturgeon Bay, Wisc. It was commissioned on April 23, 1942, as PC 536 and later reclassified as a subchaser, or SC-536.
The ship was docked at Astoria, Ore. The submarine search was a combined effort with Airship Squadron 33, which was stationed at Tillamook, Ore. The airships or blimps patrolled shipping lanes, escorted surface vessels, searched for missing aircraft, personnel, Japanese submarines and mines. They also experimented with new radar and magnetic detection methods under development then.
The subchasers patrolled the Pacific Coast to protect the U.S. from foreign attack during World War II, although. Many of the SC-class ships were used in Southeast Asian waters.
On May 19, 1943 the Astoria-based subchaser crew got a call from USS PC-815. The ship had made contact with at least one enemy submarine. USS PC-815 was a newly commissioned ship, built in Portland, which was under the command of L. Ron Hubbard — the same L. Ron Hubbard who later founded the Church of Scientology.
According to the article, the captain and crew of SC-536 left port in search of the enemy submarine, guided by two navy blimps from the airship squadron. SC-536 crew did not return to port until May 22, 1943.
The 2012 Oregonian article states that the subchaser dropped a total of 12 depth charges, at depths of 200 and 300 feet, under the direction of PC-815. Wood reported that the signalman on the blimp made the report: "....you have found the sub and you have made a direct hit. You have sunk the ship."
Wood said the crew of SC-536 believed they may have sunk a second smaller sub. The crew saw an oil slick and blood on the water, usually evidence of a hit. Later that same week, locals reported finding material from the wreck that washed ashore.
Wood told the Oregonian that he typed up the report for the executive officer Ed Kroepke to carry to Seattle. When he received the report, Admiral Franck Jack Fletcher, who was commander of the Northwestern Sea Frontier, denied their claim.
Wood and Wallis agree that the denial resulted from a need to reassure the people in the northwest that the U.S. coastal region was safe. However, 71 years later the government still denies the incident.
When Tobias asked Wood in 2012 what he wanted from the vessel search that Wallis and the dive team made, the then 93-year-old man said he wanted confirmation of the event he would get from finding the ship, not for any personal recognition or award. He wanted the families of the war dead to have closure. "We are all human," he said.
The locals have little doubt that the incident occurred. It has become part of local legend. Wallis says that in 1966 a fishing vessel got snagged on something. They sent divers down. When the divers returned, they told their neighbors that the submarine was in one piece.
Wallis has researched records at the National Archives in Maryland and in College Station, Texas.
"While we know there is some room for error and several fishing vessels litter areas of the oceans floor, the documentation and the eyewitness accounts are compelling," she said.
A team has been assembled and been working together for years. The members include: Micah Rees, diver and project coordinator; Louis Powell, certified technician, deep water diver, and Thomas Miller, safety diver and environmental scientist. Each member is certified for deep-water dives, or what she calls "hard hat," or helmet divers. They are all veterans or family members of veterans.
Wallis describes the waters in the area as treacherous, subject to cross currents. She said she started searching in archives in 2008, filmed every day and captured everything that has been done to date.
In 2010, the team located what they believed to be the enemy submarine. "In 2013, two companies agreed to help on behalf of the veterans, HyPack, the software company that creates applications for underwater technology, and See Floor Systems, Inc. The companies worked together with us and captured side scan sonar images and measurements of the structure that we located and mapped during the summer of 2010," Wallis said. The companies confirmed the divers had found a structure and gave approximate dimension.
In August, the team will return to see if they can get to the structure and confirm that it is, in fact, the missing submarine. "There's a lot of work to be done here. Divers hope to capture video on the next dive to confirm the identity of the structure," she said.
Wallis believes the submarine should be a national monument. "It is a war grave. If we find it, we won't touch it," she said. "There never has been any intention of removing any artifacts from the wreck nor do the divers have any plans to disturb it in any way. The goal is to tell a story and solve a mystery for the veterans who were there."
Wallis and the team are not the only group looking for the submarine. When he was still alive, L. Ron Hubbard searched for it, and the scientologists continue to look for it.
Wallis admitted that the Oregon Coast Project team need funds. "The divers are volunteers; they pay their own way. We need donations. It would be nice if we could pay for meals and lodging."
She says much of the project work budget come out of her own pocket. "Donations are welcome to help promote this year's work." For those who want to make contribution, she asks them to "go to fund me link on the Oregon Coast Project Facebook page."
According to NavShip archives: SC 536 served many years after the war ended. She was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard on Feb. 12. 1946, renamed Air Cormorant (WAVR 415). She was designated an "Air Class" cutter to be used for air-sea rescue duties and was one of 70 subchasers transferred.
In 1951 the vessel was sold to Murray Suthergreen of Seattle, Wash., she was renamed Moonlight Maid. Eventually it was bought by Pat and Kelley Warga. Each year from March to September they took her to Valdez, Alaska, where she was used in the fishing industry as a packer boat. On Sept. 20, 2012 the Moonlight Maid sank 30 miles south of Resurrection Bay, Alaska.
The Airship Naval Association reported a sadder fate for the Airship 33 Squadron. The blimp went down six months after the chase. On Nov. 20, 1943, the K-71 class airship was unable to reach her home base or auxiliary bases due to heavy weather and lack of fuel. The airship made a forced landing on the beach two miles north of Long Beach, Wash. The starboard propeller hit the sand, and the ship was ripped apart.
Meanwhile Wood, now 96, waits for the 71-year-old mystery to be solved to put the submarine crew to rest.