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Technology

The Golden Boat

By Shanti MenonJanuary 1, 1996 6:00 AM

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Paul Tidwell describes himself as a curious person. But then, who wouldn’t be curious about the exact location of two tons of gold? Toward the end of World War II, Japan delivered raw materials to a desperate Germany in exchange for equipment such as gun sights and technical training. The Japanese used submarines as freighters to elude Allied patrols, but the Allies cracked Axis codes and tracked several of the subs. On the night of June 23, 1944, an American bomber intercepted and torpedoed a 357-foot-long sub called I-52, which sank with 105 men in the mid- Atlantic. A few years ago, Tidwell, who has been researching and salvaging ships for about 15 years, was examining declassified World War II radio intercepts in the National Archives. One day, he recalls, I turned a page and there it was--a note typed in by an intelligence officer saying that I-52 had two tons of gold on it. And it shocked me. I couldn’t believe it. I immediately turned the page and started looking around to see if anyone had noticed me discovering this.

Last May, with the help of a marine exploration company called Meridian Sciences, Tidwell discovered something better: the sub itself. Meridian president Dave Jordan estimated I-52’s location by analyzing the logs of ships that saw the sub go down and using computer programs to estimate the ships’ navigational errors. Tidwell and his crew then spent weeks on a hired Russian research ship steaming back and forth in the Atlantic at less than two knots, towing sonar instruments a few hundred feet above the seafloor. On May 2, after searching 100 square miles of seafloor, and with their fuel running low, the team finally spotted the sub in 17,000 feet of water, 1,200 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands.

The hull of the sub appears to be intact, and there’s very little rusting. Tidwell hopes to study the wreck more closely this winter and then return again by next summer to have a go at salvaging the sub’s precious cargo, which would be worth $25 million today. There’s something more important than the gold, he says, and that’s the story of the brave men who died on that sub. But for my sake I hope the gold is there. I’ve gone out on a limb for this.

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