Today, we look for gold, and we find history. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
There was no moon on the
night of June 23, 1944. The huge 360-foot Japanese
submarine, I-52, was running in the Atlantic, West
of Dakar, Africa. It'd been a long haul from Japan
to Singapore, across the Indian ocean, around
Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Now it was now headed
north, toward German-occupied France.
You see, Japan had raw materials, and Germany had
technical know-how. In the late days of WW-II, the
Japanese loaded the I-52 with 300 tons of the tin,
molybdenum, tungsten, and rubber that Germany
desperately needed. They meant to buy German
technology, and they included more than 2 tons of
gold to sweeten the deal.
The I-52 ran under water on batteries by day. They
ran on the surface, recharging batteries, by night.
They didn't know the Allies had broken their codes
-- that the U.S. Navy was after them.
That night in 1944, the pilot of a lone
carrier-based plane found the I-52 on its radar,
dropped flares, and saw the sub trying to dive to
safety. He caught it squarely with his one torpedo.
So 95 sailors, 14 Mitsubishi engineers, and all
that gold went down in 17,000 feet of water -- over
3 miles down. The American carrier and a lurking
German submarine both noted the position.
And that appeared to be that. There the I-52 sat,
far out of reach and practically out of memory, for
50 years. But 4,400 pounds of gold are not so easy
to forget. Finally, ocean explorer Paul Tidwell
built a leading-edge team of Russian and American
oceanographers and went after the submarine with
It wasn't easy. The New York Times
tells how, on May 5th, 1995, with the search vessel
running low on fuel, Tidwell's team found the
submarine miles from the Navy's estimated position.
It lay almost a mile deeper than the wreck of the
Titanic. Unlike the broken and badly
rusted Titanic, the I-52 was in good
Now, at this writing, reclamation work begins. And
Tidwell, once an American soldier, wounded in
We want to disturb the wreck as little as
possible. I feel a responsibility to make sure we
treat it with respect. Those people were doing
their jobs and died bravely.
Jesse Taylor, the Navy pilot who torpedoed the
I-52, is stunned. "I had no idea this thing could
be located," he says. Meanwhile, Japan has been
cooperating, and the team promises to return what
personal belongings it can to families of the dead.
The gold will pay for the adventure, but drama of
another kind emerges from the deep. Here is the
largest Japanese submarine, remarkably intact. It's
a game of course, an adventure -- but this
adventure has honed new technologies of
exploration. This game has yielded up a disturbing
glimpse -- of raw history.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds