NOAA, UH explore sunken WWII-era PBY

19 Jun 2015 | Kristen Wong Marine Corps Base Hawaii

Beneath the waters of Kaneohe Bay lay a large structure, covered in sea life. Ryan Harismendy, a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Hawaii, described the water as “murky,” and the mound like a “giant rock.”

“As your eyes adjust and you sort of go down you realize it’s too well shaped to be a rock,” Harismendy said. “Then you start identifying (parts like) a window and this is a straight edge running down. You can tell it’s no longer nature anymore.”

Harismendy was among students, staff and volunteers with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the UH Marine Option Program came aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii June 8 through 19, 2015 to assess the current condition of a sunken aircraft approximately 30 feet underwater off the shore near Hangar 105.

The group took pictures, video and drew a site plan, which is a detailed drawing of the site’s current condition. A previous survey and site plan was completed in 1994 of this same site. However, this second group has better technology on their side.

“Back then we didn’t have the types of cameras and lenses and photo processing software as we do now so we weren’t able to get a lot of imagery from the bottom,” said Hans Van Tilburg, the unit diving supervisor and maritime heritage coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries with NOAA. “We’re doing much better with that now and pictures are powerful, and so that will make a good outreach product for the base and for our understanding of the site.”

Van Tilburg added that the drawing will help show the progression of the aircraft’s condition over the years.

The aircraft is thought to be a Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina flying boat belonging to either Patrol Squadron 14 or Patrol Squadron 12. On Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked what was then known as Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, both squadrons took losses.

Van Tilburg said the planes would have been high-priority targets for the Japanese because they could have been used to follow the enemy planes. These long-range patrol bombers were also used for search and rescue missions.

June Cleghorn, the senior cultural resources manager at the Environmental Department said the cultural resources program is required to conduct surveys and condition assessments for every historical property aboard MCB Hawaii. The fact that UH and NOAA have offered to do this assessment has enabled the base to save money they would have had to spend hiring a contractor to do the work.

“We are ecstatic that NOAA and UH wanted to work here and provide this,” Cleghorn said. “It’s a partnership.”

The students are part of the Maritime Archaeological Survey Techniques field school, supported by UH’s MOP and NOAA. Among the various requirements for the field school, students must be recreational scuba certified and earn a UH scientific diver authorization to participate.

However, not everyone in the field school is planning to be a marine archaeologist. Van Tilburg said for instance, the aircraft has become a habitat for sea life, which would interest biology students.

Before going underwater, the group spent the first two days learning how to take measurements in poor visibility situations. Van Tilburg and co-instructor Marine reserve Col. Donald Froning, had the students practice measuring picnic tables at the Cabanas.

Froning, who is a UH scientific diver and history instructor at Windward Community College, volunteered for the project. Froning first became interested in underwater archeology when he was stationed at MCB Hawaii. He has since earned a master’s degree in maritime studies and participated in six other similar projects. Froning calls this project a “special treat” because it is located at MCB Hawaii, his first duty station.

“I can see the dive site from my house, so it makes it even more personal than all the others,” Froning said.

On June 10, the group began diving on the site each morning. In the afternoons, the students would either sit for an informative lecture about the aircraft or history of the local area, or they would work on their sketches for the site plan.

“We have seen progress, we’ve seen the students improve both their skill level, knowledge level and their comfort in low visibility diving conditions,” said Jeffrey Kuwabara, the coordinator for the UH MOP. “So it’s fun to watch them develop, gain more skills and become more proficient as scientific divers.”

Kuwabara was in charge of the logistical aspects of the trip, such as taking care of the camping and scuba equipment. He also photographed the group’s activities throughout the week. He said the trip benefits the students because they will get hands-on experience in surveying an underwater site, and it will better prepare them for future careers.

“It’s a humbling experience being down there and thinking ‘this was part of the history that the world knows,’” said Rebecca Ziegler. “It’s not some random shipwreck off of an ambiguous coast. This is Oahu, this is Kaneohe Bay, the first site to get hit by the Japanese attack.”

Ziegler, a recent UH graduate and one of the students in the field school, said it was difficult for the divers to even see their own hand in front of their face. However, learning how to survey an underwater site that is challenging is an essential skill, in her opinion, and helps her prepare for future situations.

Van Tilburg also conducted a presentation at building 1359 Wednesday evening for base personnel. There, he shared details of the project and answered questions.

“I look forward to more projects of this type,” Van Tilburg said. “I think it’d be best to establish a memorandum of understanding between NOAA sanctuaries and the base here because you have more significant properties underwater, and if we can combine our talents and capacities, it’s a fantastic place to work, and I would love to come back.”

Marine Corps Base Hawaii