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Guns of the Hiei
Guns of the Japanese battleship Hiei lie on the bottom of the Pacific. (© Navigea Ltd. / R/V Petrel via Vulcan)

A wide-ranging shipwreck survey funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is continuing after his death, and the latest discovery focuses on the Japanese battleship Hiei, which sank in the South Pacific during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942.

Japanese researchers picked up the sonar signature of the wreck off the Solomon Islands a year ago, sparking a voyage by the Research Vessel (R/V) Petrel to check out the site and get the first on-the-scene underwater views.

R/V Petrel and its crew, led by Robert Kraft, have been tracking down historic World War II shipwrecks and deep-sea creatures for years as part of scientific initiative funded by Allen, who passed away last October. Among the best-known finds are the USS Indianapolis, the USS Lexington, the USS Juneau and the USS Helena.

Camera-equipped underwater robots have documented the wrecks of naval vessels fielded by Japan, Italy and Australia as well.

The Petrel explored the battleship Hiei’s remains on the Pacific seabed on Jan. 31.

The Hiei’s significance stems in part from its status as the first Japanese battleship to be sunk by enemy forces during World War II, on Nov. 14, 1942. Five months earlier, Japan’s imperial navy lost the heavy cruiser Mikuma and four fleet carriers during the Battle of Midway, but Guadalcanal marked a new phase in the conflict.

“Hiei was crippled by a shell from the USS San Francisco on the 13th, which disabled the steering gear,” the Petrel team reported Sunday in a Facebook posting. “For the next 24 hours it was attacked by multiple sorties of torpedo, dive and B-17 bombers. Hiei sank sometime in the evening with a loss of 188 of her crew. Hiei now lies upside down in 900 plus meters [3,200 feet] of water Northwest of Savo Island.”

Photos from the expedition show the Hiei’s 127mm guns strewn in the debris field, a crate of 25mm anti-aircraft shells lying on the capsized hull, a breach that was apparently ripped in the hull during the naval battle, and an eerie view of portholes peeking out from the rust-encrusted remains.

The visual evidence provides new clues to the scenario for the Hiei’s demise. Japan’s NHK television network quoted Kazushige Todaka, director of the Yamato Museum in the Japanese coastal city of Kure, as saying that about a third of the ship’s hull appears to be missing. The imagery suggests that an onboard explosion caused the sinking, Todaka said.

“The discovery shows a tragedy of the war, and I believe it also serves to remind people that the history of the war is real, not a story,” Todaka told NHK.

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