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Sonar finds intact 'ghost ship' off the Hawaiian coast

A research team surveying the sea floor off the coast of O'ahu has found an intact ship sitting upright under 2,000 feet of water.

The ship's wheel and deck are remarkably intact. UH HURL

If you visit the US Navy website's list of vessels lost to WWII, you'll see that the list is very long. That's a lot of wrecks hiding under the ocean's enigmatic surface -- many of which are yet to be located.

Such a ship was recently located 20 miles (32 kilometres) off the coast of O'ahu, Hawai'i by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2,000 feet (610 metres) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean.

The USS Kailua was sunk by a submarine torpedo in February 1946, after its usefulness was deemed complete by the US Navy, so it can't really considered to be an enemy casualty of war; yet its intact state, sitting upright on the seabed, as well as the discovery of its location -- heretofore unknown -- make the find an exciting one.

"It is always a thrill when you are closing in on a large sonar target with the Pisces submersible and you don't know what big piece of history is going to come looming out of the dark," said Terry Kerby, Hawai'i Undersea Research Laboratory submersible pilot.

"One of our first views of the USS Kailua was the classic helms wheel on the fantail. The ship was surprisingly intact for a vessel that was sunk with a torpedo. The upper deck structures from the bow to the stern were well-preserved and showed no sign of torpedo damage."

USS Kailua, which was located during the NOAA's Pacific Rim survey using HURL's sonar, originally launched as a cable ship for the Commercial Pacific Cable Company, from Chester, Pennsylvania in 1923 under the name Dickenson. The ship was tasked with laying communication networks, repairing cable and carrying supplies between 1923 and 1941, serving Midway Atoll and Fanning Island.

The USS Kailua in 1943. Naval History and Heritage Command.

During this period, she was also chartered by British telco Cable & Wireless Ltd to evacuate company employees from Fanning Island during the first two years of WWII -- prior to the US's official involvement in the war, which started in December 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It was in the following months that Dickenson was renamed USS Kailua and pressed into military service. In mid-1942, the Battle of Midway took place -- an attempt by the Japanese to eliminate the US's strategic Pacific resources -- resulting in Japan's first naval defeat since 1863. The USS Kailua's job was to service cable and submarine nets in the South Pacific, returning to Pearl Harbor at the end of the war.

A dislodged engine room telegraph lays on the seabed off the starboard bow. UH HURL

Her final resting place after her explosive decommissioning had remained a mystery until now.

"Seeing the ship come into view, we were all amazed at its level of preservation - and by the fact that everything was more or less in place," said Maritime Heritage Program Dr James Delgado. "The identification of the wreck was easy, not only because of its unique form, but also because the Navy's identification number of IX-71 was still painted on the bow."

So far, the HURL submersibles have located a number of WWII wrecks. In August last year, the team found Imperial Japanese Navy mega-submarine I-400, lost since 1946 when it was intentionally sunk by the US military; and in 2002, the team found a Japanese midget submarine sunk during the opening hour of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

There are no plans to return to the USS Kailua for salvage, as it is Federal property; instead, the team is seeking to have it enrolled on the National Register of Historic Places.

"This unique American ship, vital in its role in keeping global telecommunications open in the first part of the 20th century, is also linked to historically significant Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, now part of Papahanaumokukea Marine National Monument in the National Marine Sanctuary System," Dr Delgado said.

"Wrecks such as this remind us of special places in the ocean, like the monument, that connect all of us to them as refuges, sanctuaries and museums beneath the sea."