WWII Japanese battleship Hiei discovered by RV Petrel in the Solomon Islands

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WWII Japanese battleship Hiei discovered by RV Petrel in the Solomon Islands

February 25, 2019 - 18:42
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One of the first Japanese battleships sunk by US forces during World War II has been found by the exploration ship RV Petrel. It lies upside down in 900m of water, northwest of Savo Island in the Solomon Islands.

Hiei undergoing full power trials off Tukugewan following her second reconstruction, December 1939

The research organisation established by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has discovered a host of historic military shipwrecks, such as the wrecks of the USS Helena, USS Lexington and the USS Juneau.

The group’s biggest discovery, however, came in 2017, when Allen and his team found the long-lost wreck of the USS Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea.

Paul Allen died in October 2018 from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

IJN Hiei was a warship of the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War I and World War II. As the second of four Kongō-class battlecruisers, it was among the most heavily armed ships of any navy at the time. In 1942, Hiei took part in many Imperial Japanese Navy missions, like the invasion of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), the Indian Ocean raid of April 1942, as well as the Battle of Midway. Subsequently, it was redeployed to the Solomon Islands, bound for the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. This was a series of naval battles between Allied (mainly American) and Imperial Japanese forces during the Guadalcanal Campaign in the Solomon Islands on 12 to 15 November 1942.

Combat and loss

In the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Hiei inflicted much damage on Ameri­can cruisers and destroyers before its steering machinery was damaged by enemy vessels and shells from USS San Francisco. Hiei’s sister ship, Kirishima, attempted to tow Hiei to safety, but water had flooded Hiei's steering compartments, jamming the rudder to the starboard; this caused the ship to steer in circles. After suffering more torpedo and dive-bomber attacks throughout the day, the crew was ordered to abandon ship, and escorting destroyers scuttled Hiei with torpedoes. In the evening of 14 November, Hiei succumbed to the waves. 188 of the crew perished. It was the first battleship lost by Japan during World War II.

Finding the wreck

Researchers in Japan picked up Hiei’s sonar signature off the Solomon Islands in early 2018, prompting the RV Petrel to investigate the site and capture the first underwater views on location. Images posted to Facebook from the expedition show the Hiei’s 127mm guns scattered in the debris field, a crate of 25mm anti-aircraft shells resting on the capsized hull, a hole ripped in the hull during its final battle, and portholes dottingthe remains. Petrel also posted sonar images of the battleship and her debris field on the seafloor. Hiei is the fourth Japanese battleship found by Petrel's crew.

“It is highly likely that an ammunition room on the battleship’s bow side exploded for some reason,” said Kazushige Todaka, director of the Kure Maritime Museum in Hiroshima Prefecture, after viewing the footage taken by Petrel’s research team. ■

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