By ERWIN MASCARIÑAS
SURIGAO City – After its discoveries in 2017 and 2018 along Surigao Strait and Ormoc Bay, RV Petrel group returned to the port of Surigao and hopes to stay longer with the goal of locating more lost World War II shipwrecks that once cruised with pride along the high seas.
“The Philippines is rich with maritime archeological history, so we’ve done a lot of projects here with the National Museum, and we plan to do more in the future. Surigao is in a great position in the Philippine archipelago and is very convenient as a major transit point,” said Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for Vulcan Inc. and RV Petrel.
Kraft said locating WWII shipwrecks is also important to the veterans and families of those who once served aboard these ships.
“To those who lived it, it is a memory that has haunted their entire lives, of friends lost and tales of survival. For the families of those who perished with the ships, it is a bitter closure to a painful past. Our journey is beyond just the essence of discovery but to give a voice to the gallant last stand of those lost in the depths of a once troubled past,” said Kraft.
Kraft who has been in the forefront of the research vessel’s operation, explained that the Philippines has been an integral part in the Petrel’s journey of discovery as the archipelago has given the team several discoveries to date.
In August 2017, right after RV Petrel’s discovery of the United States Navy heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea, the vessel sailed to Surigao City to take part in the commemoration of the 73rd year of the Battle of Surigao Strait, one of the four naval engagements that was a part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Petrel discovered a Japanese battle group in November 2017 after it surveyed Surigao Strait, giving the world a glimpse into the wrecks of the Japanese battleships Yamashiro, Fuso and the destroyers Michishio, Yamagumo and Asagumo.
These Japanese imperial naval vessels were all sunk between Oct. 24 and Oct. 25, 1944 by the American naval task group that comprised of six battleships, four heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and 28 destroyers that blocked the Surigao Strait passage, protecting the massive landing operation in Leyte and Samar.
By the end of 2017 towards early 2018, Petrel discovered the wrecks of USS Ward, USS Cooper, the Japanese destroyers Shimakaze, Wakatsuki and Naganami in Ormoc Bay, Leyte.
Operation code name King II, was the landing of allied forces under Gen. Douglas MacArthur in Leyte on Oct. 20, 1944, paving the way for the liberation of the Philippines.
Local historian Jake Miranda, an underwater search consultant for missing aircraft and ships, and Petrel’s project coordinator for the Philippines, explained the significance of the shipwrecks.
“The shipwrecks are part of those sunk during the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The main battle involved 294 surface combatants. The US and allied navies had 218 warships and gunboats while the Imperial Japanese Navy had 76 warships. These numbers do not include the thousands of troop carriers, merchant, marine, and landing crafts involved in the liberation of the Philippine islands,” said Miranda.
“Finding where these sunken ships are is like marking a site, and for families to know that we have found the last resting places of their loved ones. We also get the National Museum and other parties to officially declare these sites as war graves and accord them the needed protection from the law,” Miranda added.
According to the US Navy data, the Battle of Leyte Gulf stretched from Oct. 24 to Oct. 26, of four main separate engagements; coined as the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea, the Battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Cape Engaño and the Battle off Samar, with several smaller engagements from other surface vessels.
“This October, we will commemorate the 75th year anniversary of the Battle of Surigao Strait in Surigao City and we are hoping for dignitaries and even several World War II veterans and their families to come and visit,” said Miranda.
To this day, the Battle of Surigao Strait is considered to be the last naval engagement that was exclusively fought between battleships and warships as well as part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Named after a seabird, the Petrel is a one of a kind research ship that specializes in locating WWII shipwrecks. Bought by Microsoft co-founder philanthropist Paul Allen in 2016 for underwater research, the ship is known to be the only privately owned vessel in the world equipped to explore 19,685 ft or 6,000 meters in depth.
Allen had the ship refitted to go around the world in search of lost and undiscovered WWII wrecks. The mission is totally philanthropic and Allen’s estate pays for all the costs for the expedition.