Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Lost and found: Chatterton, Kohler dive for clues to USS Lagarto sinking


April 25, 2007

THAILAND -- When the USS Lagarto was launched on May 28, 1944, the submarine slid into the fresh water of the Manitowoc River to the sounds of a band and cheering from hundreds of residents of this small town in America's heartland.

When the Lagarto died less than a year later in the salt water of the Gulf of Thailand, it slipped beneath the waves and plunged to the bottom, trying to evade an enemy attack.

What the crew likely heard last were the clicking noises of depth charges followed by loud, percussive blasts.

Today, the Lagarto sits upright in 236 feet of water, looking as if a giant hand punched in the hull on the port side.

For six decades, no one knew what happened to the Lagarto and its crew of 86. Two years ago, a British diver discovered a submarine off Thailand, in an area where fishermen complained that their nets were snagging. Navy divers last year confirmed the wreck was the Lagarto.

For the crew's families, the discovery meant they finally knew where their loved ones' grave was located. What they didn't know was how the Lagarto plunged to its death or whether their loved ones died quickly.

To answer those questions, two well-known shipwreck divers journeyed to Thailand last month in an expedition sponsored by the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc to film the wreck and research the sinking.

Film from the expedition will be included in a documentary planned for 2008 chronicling the Lagarto's sinking and the submarine industry in Manitowoc. Some footage is to be shown at a USS Lagarto remembrance ceremony and gathering May 4 and 5 at the museum.

John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, who appeared in the popular History Channel series "Deep Sea Detectives," spent four days diving at the Lagarto last month. Chatterton is returning for more dives in a few weeks.

Chatterton and Kohler spent an hour on the bottom each time they visited the sunken sub. As they slowly descended through the water, the ship came into view, its periscope sticking up, covered in fishing nets and lying on a hard coral bottom. Since the sub was not sitting in sand or mud, they could see clearly.

"It looked like the submarine was sailing through a cloud. It was a touching moment," Kohler said in a phone interview from his New Jersey home.

All the hatches were closed, which meant there was no time for crew members to escape.

The rudder was turned hard to port, and the dive planes were set for a hard dive at the time the Lagarto was fatally wounded. The outer door to torpedo tube No. 4 was half-open. No torpedo was in the tube, indicating that the Lagarto had recently fired.

"The Lagarto went down swinging," Chatterton said.

Testing a theory

For the submarine to dive deep to escape its pursuer, all outer torpedo tube doors must be closed to make the ship watertight.

"If the depth charge detonates near them at the time the (outside) hatch is trying to close, it could blow the inside hatch off its hinges," Kohler said. That would have sent water gushing through the open torpedo tube and into the forward torpedo room.

When Chatterton returns to the sub next month, he's bringing a video camera affixed to an ROV, or remotely operated vehicle, to send into the 24-foot-long No. 4 torpedo tube to determine whether the inner door is open.

Because the wreck is a war grave, Chatterton and Kohler did not try to enter it, and the ROV will not be sent beyond the torpedo tube.

The divers saw a hole about 18 feet high and 8 to 9 feet wide on the port side, near the petty officers' quarters and forward torpedo room. The outer skin had been blown away and the inner hull dented in about 3 feet. The ballast and fuel tanks were damaged.

"But at the same time, the hull really held together. Obviously, it was a very well-built submarine," Chatterton said.

Frightening attack

A depth-charge attack on a submarine could be an excruciating and frightening experience.

Charlie Stewart survived one that lasted eight hours on Mother's Day 1945 on the USS Cobia, a submarine displayed at the museum in Manitowoc. Stewart, 81, volunteers as a guide on the Cobia in the summer.

After attacking two Japanese ships, the Cobia became trapped in only 120 feet of water in the Gulf of Siam, now the Gulf of Thailand, as the Japanese fired off barrel after barrel, he said.

With most of the lights, fans and life support systems off to quiet the sub, Stewart sat silently on a bunk in the aft torpedo room, where a dozen other sailors had sought refuge. As the temperature soared to 125 degrees, the men took off their uniforms and wrung the sweat out of their underwear.

"You'd hear a click, and that warned us that very soon after you'd hear a really big boom. We would hold our head in our knees," he said. "We never knew for sure whether the next boom was going to be the end of us."

Losing a husband

The Lagarto - named after the Spanish and Portuguese word for lizard - was last heard from on May 3, 1945.

A radio transmission from the Japanese minelayer Hatsutaka said it had sunk a U.S. sub in the area where the Lagarto had been on patrol, Kohler said. Military records show that another Manitowoc-built submarine, the USS Hawkbill, tracked down and sank the Hatsutaka. A life ring picked up by the Hawkbill crew from the Hatsutaka is now in the Maritime Museum's collection.

Among the 86 men on board the Lagarto was Harold A. Todd Jr., 25, a Wauwatosa native and lieutenant junior grade who became a father five weeks before the sub was lost. Rae Kinn, who is now 85 and lives in Oconomowoc, was his wife.

Kinn was living with her sister, whose husband also was fighting in the war. When the doorbell rang, Kinn looked out to see a man on a bicycle. In World War II, families were notified not by uniformed officers, but by Western Union telegram.

"I knew somebody was about to get bad news," she said. "It was for me. It took me a long time to open it."

Kinn and her husband lived in Manitowoc while the Lagarto went through its sea trials and the crew trained. She recalls watching as the captain's wife christened the sub with a bottle of champagne before the ship splashed sideways into the water.

The Navy told the Lagarto families only that the ship was missing. More than a year later, the sub and its crew were presumed dead. Kinn held out hope that the dashing young man she called Hal had somehow survived.

Eventually, she and her son moved on with their lives. Still, she always wondered what happened to her first love. When the Lagarto was finally found, "it was a nice kind of emotion," she said.

"That sounds strange," she said, "but it was nice to know where they ended up."

Last year, Kinn attended a Lagarto remembrance ceremony in Manitowoc and saw video shot by divers of the ship she remembered in all its gleaming glory six decades earlier.

"It was sitting upright like it just went down," she said. "There were seaweeds floating around it. It was a beautiful grave site. Much better than a hole in the ground."



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