Stern of US destroyer found near Alaska as researchers map little-known campaign of WWII
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 15, 2018
WASHINGTON – Seventy-five years ago this week, 19-year-old Seaman 2nd Class Daryl Weathers was aboard the USS Abner Read in the bay off the Aleutian Islands, patrolling for Japanese submarines when an explosion – likely an enemy mine – ripped apart the destroyer.
Weathers, now 94, told the story from his home near Los Angeles and remembered it happening in the early morning hours, about 2 a.m., while he was operating a radar. He recalled it took a few minutes before the back half of the boat, where men were inside sleeping, detached and sank.
That day — Aug. 18, 1943 — 71 sailors died, 70 of whom were lost at sea. Some sailors were trapped in their sleeping compartments and others fell victim to the ice-cold water, where it was impossible to survive longer than a few minutes, Weathers said.
“We recovered a few men and lost a lot,” he said Wednesday. “I was up on the bridge standing radar watch. Otherwise, my bunk was right down there, 10 feet from where the ship broke off, so I probably wouldn’t have survived that explosion.”
Now, 75 years later, the location of their underwater grave is finally known. A group of researchers seeking to document the little-known World War II campaign that took place in the Alaskan region found a 75-foot section of the USS Abner Read on July 17. It was 290 feet deep near the island of Kiska.
Researchers are hoping the discovery brings some awareness about the Aleutian Islands campaign to the American public. For families of the sailors who died, they want the finding to offer some solace.
Weathers, presumed to be the last person alive who was aboard the destroyer when it was hit, was surprised anyone would go looking for it.
“There’s nothing up there but cold and fog and storm and wind,” he said. “It’s completely the end of the world.”
Piecing together history
From June 1942 to mid-August 1943, as many as 7,200 Japanese forces occupied Kiska and Attu, part of a chain of volcanic islands that extend west from the Alaska Peninsula. The Japanese aimed to prevent the United States from using the islands as a base to attack Japan from the north, according to the Naval Heritage and History Command.
“It was not the best place to fight a war,” said Robert Cressman, a historian at the Naval Heritage and History Command. “The weather was extremely fickle. There were problems with storms that would pop up out of nowhere. There were very pressing conditions out there.”
During one bloody battle, U.S. forces retook the island of Attu.
“The Japanese didn’t have any place to go, and we outnumbered them,” said Weathers, who participated in the battle. “It was a very disastrous thing.”
The crew of the USS Abner Read got to the other island, Kiska, and found it deserted, Weathers said. The Japanese forces who occupied the island had evacuated by the end of July 1943.
In August, the Abner Read was patrolling near Kiska, checking for submarines, when it was torn apart by the explosion.
In addition to the destroyer’s stern, the Navy said many ships, aircraft and submarines from the United States and Japan were lost during the 15-month campaign.
In order to document the battlefield, researchers traveled to the hard-to-reach islands for two weeks last month to scour the sea floor for wreckage.
The researchers were part of Project Recover, a collaboration between the University of Delaware and the Scripps institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funded the research.
“The main purpose is to educate people about this campaign of the war that not many people know,” said Andrew Pietruszka, an underwater archaeologist with Scripps. “It’s such a remote battlefield. The reality is, almost nobody can get out there. We can help bring that home using technology. To do that, you have to start with going out and surveying and cataloging it.”
The group hasn’t released information about everything that researchers discovered on the trip, and it will likely take six months to a year to comb through data and have a better understanding of their findings, Pietruszka said.
However, researchers immediately knew the significance of finding the missing part of Abner Read.
When they found it, researchers gathered on the deck of their research vessel, positioned above the spot where the stern lay. Two of them held an American flag, while two others lowered a wreath into the water.
They shared the stern’s exact coordinates with the Navy and the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which is responsible for recovering remains of missing servicemembers.
There are no plans to remove the stern. The Navy often considers such sites as war graves, viewed as fitting resting places for sailors who died at sea. The government protects underwater war graves from activities that could disturb or damage them.
“In a case like this, knowing this is probably the final resolution, I think it can still bring some solace to the families of the ones who were lost on the ship, at least knowing it has been found and is going to be protected by the U.S. government now,” Pietruszka said.
From a historical perspective, Cressman described the finding as “incredible.”
“Any time you can find either a whole ship or part of a ship involved in military operations in World War II is exciting. For the most part, those ships don’t exist anywhere,” he said. “It’s a piece of history, and it also represents the men who fought in that particular theater.”
Surviving a second attack
Weathers’ story with the USS Abner Read didn’t end in the Aleutian Islands campaign.
After it was torn apart, the portion of the ship that remained afloat was towed to one of the islands, patched up and sent to the Pugent Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., where it was reconstructed with a new stern.
Weathers went with the destroyer to New Guinea, and later the Philippines, where on Nov. 1, 1944, a Japanese kamikaze crashed into it. The impact set fire to the Abner Read and eventually sank it.
Weathers was part of a 40mm anti-aircraft gun crew during the attack. He was knocked unconscious during the fight, but quickly awoke and escaped with the help of his shipmates.
Other destroyers came to their aid, and all but 22 crewmembers survived, according to the Navy.
Weathers, who was burned during the attack, received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
It was just a few days ago when Weathers was informed about the discovery of the Abner Read’s stern in Alaska. The finding has suddenly thrust his story – and the ship’s – into the limelight, he said.
“I have been very fortunate. I’ve been able to maintain a good mental attitude. I don’t dwell on it, and it doesn’t make me feel bad,” Weathers said. “I was just trying to stay alive for the next emergency. I had a guardian angel looking after me, and it’s kept me alive for a long time.”