Nearly 73 years after the Ward, a U.S. Navy destroyer, was attacked by Japanese kamikaze planes and sank in waters off the Philippines, a team aboard the research and exploration vessel Petrel gathered anxiously, all eyes fixed on screens in front of them.
It was midmorning on Dec. 1. The team, which included pilots, researchers, historians and officials from the Philippines, watched as images were beamed back to the vessel from a remotely operated submersible vehicle circling a shipwreck at the bottom of Ormoc Bay, about 650 feet below the surface.
There was not much of a current that day, so the waters were mostly clear, and slowly, the outlines of the wreck came into view. Vague shapes gave way to sharper images of the ship’s features — its deck, its wheelhouse, its bridge, its anchor davit — which were blurry with marine growth but remarkably intact.
The researchers were looking primarily for one thing: APD 16, an alphanumeric designation that would prove the wreck was the Ward. They did not find it. But when they compared the images with historical drawings and records of where the Ward went down, the similarities were enough.
They had found the Ward, the destroyer that fired on and sank a Japanese midget submarine outside Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 — the first American shot “in anger” in World War II, naval historians say.
The discovery of the Ward was announced this week, coinciding with the 76th anniversary of the strike on Pearl Harbor. It was the first time the vessel was photographed in its resting place on the sandy floor of Ormoc Bay, off the Philippines coast.
The ship had been deployed to the region as a troop transfer vessel, part of operations in the Pacific theater of the war. But it came under Japanese kamikaze air attack there and caught fire. After its crew had abandoned ship, it was scuttled by another U.S. destroyer in the area, the O’Brien, on Dec. 7, 1944 — exactly three years to the day after it fired on the Japanese submarine at Pearl Harbor.
“These ships are war graves,” said Paul Mayer, pilot of the submersible vehicles on the Petrel, who was in the co-pilot seat and watched with the team as the first new images of the Ward in decades appeared in front of them.
“We are on the ‘look but don’t touch’ policy out of respect for the men who served and died on these ships,” he said in a telephone interview from the Philippines.
The data and images retrieved from the ship will be turned over to Filipino and U.S. naval historians and researchers. The survey was part of a broader mission by Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen to search for and document the relics of World War II. Allen, who owns the 250-foot Petrel, has embarked on similar projects, inspired by his father’s service in the war.
In November, the Petrel, which has equipment that can explore and retrieve data 20,000 feet underwater, captured footage of five Japanese battleships that were lost during the Battle of Surigao Strait in the Philippines on Oct. 25, 1944, one of the largest naval battles in history, with more than 4,000 men killed.
The team on the Petrel, accompanied by a historian and officials from the national museum of the Philippines, oriented themselves as to the Ward’s most likely location using charts from the O’Brien, the destroyer that fired on and sank the Ward as it burned.
“And that was a starting point,” Mayer said.
A robotic subaquatic vehicle that uses sound waves to detect objects and transmits its discoveries back to the surface was deployed. Then the other vehicle was sent down, replete with cameras. It found and circled the ship for about an hour.
The Ward appeared to have gone down stern first. It settled on the bottom, leaning slightly to one side. About two-thirds of it was detectable; either the stern had broken off or it had become overwhelmed by marine growth and completely disintegrated, Mayer said.
“We approached the wheelhouse, and you could see the wheel, and that is unusual to be able to see that,” Mayer said. “The bridge was still in place. Most of the wrecks we see, you are not able to see that level of detail.”
“We had a pretty good idea of where it was in a confined area, and it did not take long to find it,” Mayer said. “But you are approaching a historic shipwreck, and there is always a bit of anxiety and elation when you come to it, when the RV is closer and it comes into view. You never know what you will find, and what kind of condition it is going to be in.”