NAVSEA Takes Lead in Repairing Oil Leak from Sunken Ship

Friday, February 08, 2002
Divers from Mobile Underwater Diving Salvage Unit (MUDSU) 1 based at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, will soon descend into a Pacific lagoon to stop a recent oil leak and assess the material condition of a World War II Navy oil tanker that sank in 1944. USS Mississinewa (AO 59), a 553-foot auxiliary oiler, was commissioned May 18, 1944, and supported the ships of the 3rd Fleet in the Central and South Pacific. The huge lagoon at Ulithi Atoll was an anchorage for hundreds of Pacific Fleet ships and major staging area for campaigns at Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Mississinewa was anchored in Ulithi's lagoon when it was struck by a Japanese-manned suicide torpedo, or "kaiten," on the morning of Nov. 20, 1944. The ship burst into flames and sank, killing 63 American Sailors. Fire-fighting fleet tugs pulled more than 200 Sailors from the burning waters of the lagoon. In April 2001, after several years of searching by sport divers, Mississinewa was located at a depth of 135 feet. An oil leak coming from Mississinewa was discovered in August 2001. In a mission funded by the Chief of Naval Operations Environmental Protection, Safety and Occupational Health Division (CNO N45), divers contracted through the NAVSEA's Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) stopped the leak with a temporary concrete patch and pumped an oil-and-water mixture from one ship compartment. SUPSALV salvage and environmental operations specialist Bill Walker said a survey team from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Coast Guard reported that the environmental impact from the leak was minimal.

On Dec. 23, 2001, another leak was reported. According to an article published in the Pacific Daily News, Yap State disaster coordinator Jesse Raglmar-Subolmar said the oil is drifting away from areas fished by the majority of Ulithi's approximately 700 residents. On Feb. 3, 2002, the MUDSU 1 team arrived on station to support the NAVSEA effort in order to survey the hull and attempt to seal the oil leak. The operation is expected to take one week. "Instead of doing a 'Band-Aid' fix, we're planning a more permanent solution," Walker said.

The government of the Federated States of Micronesia, the state in which Ulithi Atoll lies, has been officially informed by the State Department that the U.S. government will remove the remaining oil from Mississinewa. The oiler was nearly full at the time of the attack in 1944. SUPSALV, Director of Salvage Operations, Tom Salmon said that, depending on what is found, the divers may use epoxies to plug the leak. He added that the ship will not be lifted or moved, and divers will not go inside. This action will not be considered a disturbance of a war grave. Not disturbing the gravesite is important to the 47 living survivors of the sinking of Mississinewa, who are very concerned about the resting place of their shipmates.

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