Desert to Diving: Three Decades Below Sea Level

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National Park Service Archeologist, Matt Hanks, with the Submerged Resources Center, stands before the USS Arizona Memorial as the “The 11th Hour” a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) is lowered into Pearl Harbor.

By Matt Hanks: Special to this Newspaper

The head end of a wheat field, early morning basketball practices at Brawley Union High School, sermons at Western Avenue Baptist Church, and family camping trips in the Chocolate Mountains are a few places I revisit when my mind starts to wander. As a child in the Imperial Valley, I had dreams to become a myriad of things when I grew up, and it changed often; ornithologist, fireworks pyrotechnician, and professional off-road racer, to name a few. Looking back now, as so often happens, I could have never imagined the path my life would take after high school graduation.

After 18 years in Brawley, Waco, Texas became my home for four years while I studied at Baylor University. I began my first semester deep in the heart of Texas as a bright-eyed freshman majoring in forensic science. As it turns out, college chemistry is not the same as high school chemistry, and a C- was cause for celebration. Taking one summer break plus two meetings with my advisor to reassess, I decided to change my major.

I knew I enjoyed working outdoors and history enthralled me, so I picked up a double major in archaeology and anthropology. Over the next two years, I was exposed to exciting accounts of underwater excavations conducted on shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. I was captivated.

After applying to several Masters degree programs for maritime archaeology, a couple of buddies and I completed an open water SCUBA course in the spring of 2009. Achieving that initial dive certification was key to what was to come next.

With unending support from my family, I moved to Adelaide, South Australia two months after college graduation to begin an 18-month Masters of Maritime Archaeology program at Flinders University.

Australia was a beautiful and magnificent adventure. During my graduate studies, I was privileged to work on multiple sites and shipwrecks including submerged Sherman tanks, aircraft, landing vehicles, and vessels associated with the World War II Battle of Saipan in the Pacific.

Upon completing my studies overseas, I returned to the United States to take a position at the Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP) in St. Augustine, Florida. While there, I supervised maritime archaeological field schools for college students interested in underwater excavations and artifact conservation techniques.

We worked on a late-18th century shipwreck along the Atlantic coast of Florida and recovered muskets, pewter utensils, cauldrons, cannons, and more, to learn about the life of those who had been aboard the ill-fated ship. I left LAMP to work full-time with the Maritime Division of Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH); a private cultural resource management firm based in the Florida panhandle and remained there for five years. Pensacola had become home.

The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor during the 75th Anniversary of the attack by Japanese bombers. President Roosevelt called December 7, 1941, the “Day of Infamy.” Photo by Matt Hanks.

Last year was the centennial celebration of the National Park Service (NPS) and the year I was selected to join the Submerged Resources Center (SRC) based out of Lakewood, Colorado. As a small team of only nine members, we are highly specialized and mobile. This is essential to helping NPS serve the four million plus acres of submerged land overseen by the Parks. That is eight times the amount of farmland in Imperial County. To have earned a place on the SRC team that is charged with documenting, monitoring, and preserving our shared submerged natural and cultural resources within National Parks and Monuments is the highest calling to me as a maritime (or underwater) archaeologist. Now Colorado is becoming home.

The Submerged Resources team studies images from the “11th Hour” ROV sent from the downed USS Arizona.

As the most recent hire to the SRC, I did not expect the call from my boss inviting me to fill a vacancy on such a high-profile project as the USS Arizona. I jumped at the opportunity to contribute to ongoing research on one of the world’s most studied shipwrecks. It was a demanding, yet rewarding three weeks.

In what seemed like an instant, 11 wonderfully challenging and adventure-filled years had flown by and culminated in one of the most honorable and awe-inspiring projects I have ever worked on as I stood on a 13-foot fiberglass boat cruising over the waters of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In the distance, the rising sun painted the somber USS Arizona Memorial shades of orange. The Deputy Chief of the SRC and I were the first to greet the hallowed vessel that day. There were no other visitors as we stepped onto the dock and made our way into the Memorial. It was silent, save the flapping of the stars and stripes above.

I took a moment to stand still in the white marble Shrine Room before the names of the 1,177 men who lost their lives aboard the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. Among them is my maternal grandmother’s cousin, Louis A. Stockton, Seaman 2nd Class. As I gazed at his name carved in marble, I felt the full weight and significance of our mission to document, monitor, and preserve this submerged war grave.

This overpowering sense of duty was compounded every time I slipped into the oil-covered waters surrounding the wrinkled battleship. My first dive on site was an orientation, to get my bearings and observe the prominent features in the low visibility environment, but it turned out to be more than that.

As the SRC Chief and I glided through the water and peered through portholes, I realized it was akin to a formal introduction. Most of the upper deck is covered by sediment, shell, and marine growth, but during our dive I spotted a small portion where fish had exposed the wooden planks. I removed by neoprene glove and ran my hand along the smooth teak deck where the crew once worked, laughed, threw baseballs, and talked about home. It was an overwhelming sensation to finally shake hands with the USS Arizona in all its grandeur. When I discussed this feeling with colleagues who have logged more than a thousand dives and spent over 600 hours underwater on the Arizona, they grinned in understanding and told me it never fades.

December 2016 marked the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack that led to the United States’ direct involvement in World War II. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who was the strategic mastermind behind the surprise attack, understood American resiliency and said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

This past December 7, visitors, dignitaries, military officers from every branch, celebrities, and even a few Pearl Harbor survivors made the pilgrimage to Honolulu to pay respect and remember what transpired so many years ago, and I was privileged to be there.

That day, an emotional and heartfelt commemoration before thousands of guests led the events and the sun fell below the horizon after two USS Arizona survivors, John D. Anderson and Clarendon R. Hetrick, were laid to rest with their shipmates inside the hull. This honor is extended only to survivors of the USS Arizona who may choose to have their cremated remains interred with their brothers. Forty-one survivors have chosen to be buried at sea to date and only four survivors are still with us as of the time of print.

The USS Arizona Memorial was designed by Honolulu architect Alfred Preis and dedicated in May 1962. The unique and iconic white structure is only accessible by boat and straddles the sunken vessel without touching it. The Memorial was originally managed solely by the United States Navy, but with the addition of the onshore USS Arizona Memorial Visitor Center in 1980, the NPS joined the Navy as co-stewards. As there is a significant underwater component of the Memorial and the battleship itself, the SRC began initial research and archaeological documentation in the early-1980s. The SRC has played a major role in the monitoring and preservation of the site ever since and maintains a growing dataset reaching back almost 40 years.

The USS Arizona is a Pennsylvania-class battleship that was commissioned in October 1916 and now rests in approximately 40 feet of water on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The remaining hull structure measures 608-feet long and 97-feet wide. The sheer weight of the vessel, saltwater, and harsh marine environment take a toll on the steel battleship. To monitor any vertical and/or horizontal movement or shifting of the vessel, SRC established eight “superpoints” on the deck. Using an underwater tripod and a highly accurate global-positioning system (GPS), we are able to record new positional data every three years and track even the slightest changes. The system is so precise in fact that we have to account for the tectonic movement of the entire Hawaiian island chain.

Last December, we also collected a series of underwater samples from the exterior of the vessel including Bunker C fuel oil, water, and sediments. The samples were then transported to a laboratory at Harvard University for analysis. In addition to information being processed by Harvard, an YSI sonde (an instrument probe that automatically transmits information about the surrounding underwater environment) was employed to measure water temperatures, pH, dissolved oxygen, salinity, and other data. When used together, this data allows the SRC and partnering organizations to better calculate present, and estimate future, corrosion rates, which affect the stability and lifespan of the remaining hull structure.

Divers can never enter the USS Arizona out of respect for those who lost their lives there and for the nearly 1,000 men still entombed within. To better study and monitor the interior of the battleship, SRC uses surface controlled, remotely operated vehicles (ROV). However, prior to any interior operations, the SRC and NPS approached survivors of the attack to discuss the approach. The survivors granted unanimous approval to enter via ROV and saw the work as an opportunity to share what happened there with the public, that we might never forget.

Our custom built ROV came to be known as “The 11th Hour” due to many late night modifications and adjustments to meet deadlines. The vehicle, which is piloted by a team on the surface, is equipped with front and rear cameras, mounts for the YSI sonde and sampling tubes, as well as a fishing reel-like apparatus that allows it to dispense and recover tether on demand to avoid snags. In August 2016, the 11th Hour gave SRC and researchers the first glimpse of the Arizona’s 3rd deck since salvage efforts immediately following the attack.

The onboard cameras are critical for navigation, condition assessments, and inventorying. Crisp images of rotary phones, an officer’s uniform pressed and hanging in a closet, sinks, mirrors, furniture, and more were noted as the ROV moved from cabin to cabin. Despite the chaos and devastation wreaked during the bombing and subsequent sinking of the USS Arizona, many objects remain as they were, providing a snapshot of what life was like for the men onboard.

Matt Hanks ready to escort the ROV down to the submerged USS Arizona.

The SRC’s work on the USS Arizona is a leading example of our responsibilities as a team because it is a physical reminder to all of what took place on that, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt so aptly stated, “date which will live in infamy” 75 years ago. December 7, 1941 changed World War II, our nation, and the lives of not only the men and women present during the attack, but around the world.

We must always ask: How do we keep this site intact to be visited by future generations? How can we best preserve, protect, and interpret the USS Arizona and share its story, without doing any harm? To contribute to the important work being conducted on the Arizona is an immeasurable honor and the culmination of years of hard work, training, and studying.

The lowest point in North America is 279 feet below mean sea level in Badwater Basin, which lies within Death Valley National Park (USGS, 2017). Badwater Basin bests the Salton Sea by a mere 49 feet, making the Sea the second lowest point in North America (USGS, 2017). Neighboring the Salton Sea, my hometown of Brawley rests at an elevation of -112 feet below sea level (USGS, 2017). If the Pacific Ocean were to make its way overland and breach the Laguna Mountains, the water’s surface would tower more than 10 stories above Johnny’s Burritos. After growing up so far down, this may be why I feel most at home beneath the waves.

References

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). 2017. Geographic Names Information System (GNIS).

https://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=138:1:5429556047036. Accessed 12 January 2017.

 

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