The Oregon Coast Project searches for sunken subs off Oregon’s shore.
Story by Cheryl D. Wanner
On May 19, 1943, a soundman aboard Navy patrol vessel PC-815 picked up the unmistakable ping of an enemy sub inside the shipping lanes north of Cape Meares on the Oregon Coast. When a second set of pings were identified and reported to the commanding officer, Lt. L. Ron Hubbard (later the founder of the Church of Scientology), he ordered pursuit of the targets and the dropping of depth charges. Then he radioed the naval base at Astoria for reinforcements and additional ordnance.
Subchasers SC-536 and SC-537 put out to sea and were joined by Coast Guard cutter Bonham and two blimps from Airship Squadron 33, stationed in Tillamook, Oregon. On board the SC-536 was 19-year-old signalman Robert Wood and also soundman John Beck who, according to Wood, had the best ears for detecting submerged submarines. Beck confirmed Wood’s suspicion that indeed propeller screws were turning somewhere deep underwater.
Attack patterns were set up and depth charges deployed. Crewmembers later reported the sound of air tanks blowing underwater and spotted orange oil slicks on the surface. Bombardment continued, and on the morning of May 20, the blimps confirmed magnetic sound contact with the subs for better coordination of strikes from surface vessels. One sub had turned, apparently headed for shallower water, and was pursued by its attackers.
The airships dropped smoking flares to mark sub positions while the SC-536 pressed the attack. Wood, in communication with one of the blimps in the air, got word of a direct hit and subsequent sinking. Over the course of two days, the PC-815 dropped 67 charges and requested more to be brought out from CLOCKWISE: USS PC-815 running trials April 13, 1943, on the Columbia River. Robert Wood in his Chief Petty Officer uniform. The crew of the PC-536 subchaser.
Wood lost count of how many charges were deployed from the SC-536. On the morning of May 21, the PC-815’s soundman and sound technician heard air tanks blowing below the surface off their port bow. Several crewmembers reported seeing a periscope rise up through a slick of orange oil. Gunners opened fire, and the scope sank back into the water and disappeared. Additional charges were dropped by the SC-536, which radioed that the target was distancing itself from the PC-815, moving slowly as if damaged.
According to declassified reports, the engagement lasted for 68 hours, with charges being dropped for 55 of those hours. Both Ed Kroepke, executive officer of the SC-536, and Lt. Hubbard of the PC-815 submitted formal reports to naval authorities in Astoria. Kroepke was subsequently sent to Seattle with his statement, typed by Wood himself, for Admiral Frank “Jack” Fletcher.
AS IF IT DIDN’T HAPPEN
Unfortunately the incident was dismissed. Pointing to a map of the Pacific, Fletcher told Kroepke, “Here is Astoria, Hawaii, the Marianas, Marshall Islands, and here is Guadalcanal. I’ll tell you one thing, Kroepke, the war is not in Astoria—it’s in Guadalcanal.”
Ships logs and records were never investigated, and crewmembers were not questioned. Though an official anti-submarine warfare report was filed, it was classified as secret. The Navy’s position on the incident was silence—squelch the story and keep civilian fears at bay.
Crewmen wondered why they never received recognition for the sinking of a sub (possibly two) off the Oregon Coast and why everyone in authority was so dismissive. Not until they gathered for their 44th post war reunion and the subject was on the table, did Kroepki tell them what he’d been told by Admiral Fletcher.
Even so, reports persisted of a sunken vessel off the Oregon Coast. One local resident recalled hearing depth charges dropping offshore during the engagement. A beachcomber, walking a stretch of shoreline in the general area, claimed to have found a boot washed up with a human foot still inside. And amateur divers, going down to see what their shrimp gear was getting hung up on, reported seeing the conning tower of a World War II era sub lying on the ocean floor. Says Robert Wood’s son, Robin Wood, “Dad talked about the sub chase as we were growing up. He was amazed the government would let that many pieces of equipment (boats, blimps, etc.) be out there that many days for nothing.”
Even so, his father’s story faded to legend and was all but forgotten—until more than 60 years later when it was passed on to high school teacher Kathleen Wallis of Alamogordo, New Mexico.
THE SEARCH BEGINS
Wallis first heard of the lost subs from a writer who’d heard it from the curator of the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum in Tillamook. Wallis was moved by the tenacity of these WWII vets who’d stood by their claim for so many years. At the time, seven still survived. Today there is only one—Robert Wood, age 96, of Union City, Tennessee.
Wallis believed this was an important story, one that needed to be told and proven. She began by researching the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and in Washington D.C. She made trips to the Oregon Coast and got in touch with Wood and other surviving vets of the sub chase of 1943, set about raising funds, and eventually put together Oregon Coast Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to searching for the lost subs and verifying the veterans’ stories. The first dive, made in 2008, was based on research and Loran-C (radio navigation) coordinates recorded in the original report. Divers searched the area without success.
In 2009, a bathymetric image, taken by another organization for the purpose of mapping the Oregon Coast, provided additional information. But the marks (as in X marks the spot) were off, and again, divers found nothing.
In 2010 Micah Reese, a photographer and a dispatcher with Precision Cast Parts Corp. in Portland, Oregon, was invited onto the project. A diver since the early 1990s and an instructor since ’98, Reese now acts as project manager and is in charge of lining up other divers and managing the dive team. His lineup consists of Louis Powell of Monterey, California; Brian Strack from Nampa, Idaho, and Tommy Miller of Vancouver, Washington. All three are good technical divers, which is required on deep-water dives in these conditions.
Waters in the area are dark, cold, and overrun with turbulent currents. Divers descend on a drop line connected to an anchor on the seabed. They use trimix (a blend of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium) in their tanks as the higher helium content allows them to work with clear heads in deep water.
In 2010, the team towed an infrared camera over the site, and a structure appeared on the monitor. Coral growth in an otherwise sandy location, and the presence of sea life on site indicated an object unnatural to the area.
The 2012 search was made with submarine expert Joe Hoyt from NOAA’s National Maritime Heritage program on board. Hoyt worked with the divers in hopes of capturing video or digital images needed to positively identify the wreck. Unfortunately, extreme weather, surface turbulence, and underwater currents kept them from achieving their objective.
In 2013, the team went out with an echo sounder and side scan sonar along with experienced operators for both. The result was a fascinating image, based on corrected marks, of an object apparently listing on its starboard side with the bow partially buried in sand.
“We do have a subject here that’s undoubtedly something,” says Reese. “It matches the dimensions we’re looking for, and it’s in about the right location. It was located via a depth sounder transducer after searching the area where we should most likely be looking. It gave us a 95 percent certainty that this is what we’re looking for.”
In 2014, divers again went down, but couldn’t find anything due to high currents blowing them around and dragging the anchor off the mark. “If you’re not right on top of it in zero visibility,” says Reese, “you won’t find it.”
Says Kathleen Wallis, “We have a structure of significant size some distance offshore. We’ve not verified what it is, but the research we’ve collected over eight years is very compelling. The biggest problem,” she adds, “is funding.”
Wallis and her team members paid for most of the project and volunteer their time and resources. The charter boat used for the search and its captain are reserved in advance and paid for each year by the project team.
So, if the Oregon Coast Project does locate an object of historical significance, what then? “If we have a war wreck,” says Wallis, “we have no intention of taking artifacts or sending someone inside or salvaging it. Our only goal is to tell the story for the vets who were there and who have tried for 70 years to get someone to listen to them.”
“It’s the excitement of being involved with something like this that’s historical and unknown,” says Reese. “It’s for the purpose of history, for knowing what happened. We’re not out to salvage the wreck. After meeting Robert Wood in 2011 and listening to him for three to four hours, I realized this guy is serious, and his story is right on.”
According to 1943 reports, both subs were sunk. If one is located, what of the other? “If we confirm this wreck,” says Reese, “we will be looking for the next.” For Robert Wood, it will be the culmination of a 72-year wait. ■
Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Oregon Coast magazine.