Sensuikan I-124


Johnny Chadderton used to mix with all kinds of people and he was a good source of information. We knew roughly the co-ordinates of that submarine. The Navy marked it some distance away from where it actually is, but what distance we weren't sure. So I took another man out with me one day and two sextants and we put a buoy down to give us a datum point. But the buoys used to pull under the water because the tides were so strong. Then we got a different kind of rope and different buoys. You could have thinner rope and so on, but it was strong enough. It didn't bend so much and pull the buoy underwater. We tried chain too, but chain pulled the buoy under. At last we got the buoy fixed, but we could only see it a half a mile away - or less than half a mile away. We also anchored an old vessel up that used to be a navy vessel named The Warren. We tied her up there as a living ship for people, and to mark our claim in case somebody else was going to have a go. There was a man named Harry Baxter also interested in the submarine. He was reported to be a very good diver; he had a vessel named Mutiara with a diving cage and so forth. With Baxter was a very good diver named Ray - oh, I've forgotten his other name. He was a bit on the fat side, but a very good diver - good type of a fellow. So, alright, we accepted that and we made it a triangle business. But there was nothing put down on paper.

So we then started a crisscross pattern at neap tides when there was little run - a small amount of water flowing - not so much for low tide but for less movement. Johnny and I were working one day with two vessels. We had two echo sounders; we could work two at once but we couldn't work three at once, they interfered with one another. At last, we found big shadows in that same place every time. It was a long object of some kind. And it was in a hundred and seventy one feet or hundred and seventy two feet - something like that. Baxter went down with his cage but at forty feet the cage stopped and hung there. And about quarter of an hour later, dong dong on the knocker, up came Baxter and Ray in the cage. Ray had got out but Baxter'd never been out of the cage at all it turned out later, but I didn't know that at the time. I thought they'd both got out but I did wonder why they stopped at forty feet. I asked him, did he get into the conning tower, and he said: 'No.' Another time I had a go diving with Baxter and I can't dive at all. I just put the gear on and went down a little way - about twenty or thirty feet - and I was really scared, and I didn't want any more of that. But Baxter couldn't go any further; he didn't go any further. We both came up. He was supposed to be an experienced diver and that was only the second time I'd put that kind of gear on - hooker gear. I'd put it on before with Lloyd Pearce and I intended to do a bit of it but I thought: 'No good for me.' Your head goes a bit funny. I was about sixty at the time, you see.

Well then, later, we got some other people to get into the deal. Baxter went to or was in Melbourne at the time and we allowed him to do the talking. And he sure did it very well. He got in touch with a man named Grey who was a motor accessory manufacturer or warehouse dealer. Yes, he would bring a team of experts up and they would do photographs of it and all that, and they would pay good money as he ran a film library of wartime wrecks and things. They arrived and they had a man with them with one leg - a shark had bitten off his leg in WA years ago. He and two others went down unearthed it and took photographs. When they were down a knock came on the line and somebody said - oh, they had a telephone as well; it was a knocker before with us as we couldn't afford a telephone. A man said: 'Can you send me down a net bag?' So we sent him down a net bag with a weight in it and he put something in it - heavy - and we pulled it up. Even without the barnacles being knocked off I could see that it was a klaxon - a bronze klaxon. It'd been bolted on to the side of the conning tower with three studs, about half inch diameter. There were marks on it where the wire rope that we'd moored with apparently had slithered down alongside it and shore it off. When we got it up there and cleaned the rubbish off it with a bit of a scraper, it was the foghorn - not broken - only her studs broken off, one lug a bit bent. Ah, that's good - I put that away.

Grey came up with a man named Moxon
(Nason ?), who was his partner. We were sitting in the cabin in Arandel, talking about finalising things, and I said: 'Now, who's the man whose writing the final accounts in this thing?' I had mine all drafted out - it was nine thousand dollars and seven thousand dollars - and I said: 'Who's paying?' 'Well,' he said, 'I'm paying Harry and Harry pays you.' Harry'd put himself in as the big shot and I didn't know, you see. He asked, 'Could I have a look at the foghorn?' I said: 'Oh yes' and let him have a look at the foghorn. Before I put it back, I said: 'I will take a photograph of you with that, Ian.' I just got my camera and took a photograph of him holding it, and put it in a locker that was underneath the bunks, but it had no lock on it. Didn't regard the foghorn as much. About a week later I went to show it to somebody and it wasn't there. I never saw it any more.

Later on we made enquiries with Moxon about this money, and he said: 'Oh no, Harry's been paid.' And we found out he'd been paid in New Hebrides. He was paid thirty-one thousand. And we - neither of us - got anything; we got nothing for a month's work. So much for verbal agreements with your mates. Johnny said he was going to kill Baxter, and I said: 'The bastard's not worth it. You don't bother with it. Somebody will kill him without you bothering, some day.' Shortly afterwards, he married a Philippino woman and he went to live in the Philippines. So he's in his right place now
(Baxter died there in 1995).

Baxter came here to my house one day to borrow some charts. We still had trouble over the money, but it hadn't got to serious trouble. While I was undoing a lot of stuff, the photograph fell out and Baxter grabbed it. I said: 'You'd better give that to me,' because I intended to go for this Grey over the foghorn, you know. Baxter wouldn't give it to me and I snatched it and it tore in half. And he went out and down the steps abusing me for all the bastards in the world. So I went up and saw Nerilee Withnall and I took a writ out for the whole amount of the money. While she was there I felt safe because she was honest, but she left and Lex Sylvester took over. He wanted to see me about pushing this writ but he didn't tell me that he was a bosom friend of Baxter's. He carried on, and 'Baxter was a bastard' and all that. 'Righto,' he said. 'Now,' he said, 'You give me a cheque for three thousand dollars,' he said, 'and I'll go on with this.' And I saw the light straight away, I said: 'You bastard, you will not act for me in this case. I'll withdraw it because I can see now that you would take this to court and you would lose it and you would collect my three thousand, and Baxter would pay nothing. I would have to pay Baxter's costs. And I abused him. I told him he was a thief and he should be reported to the Bar and Law Society and all sorts of things. Then I left. And he did nothing; he never even sent me an account. He knew otherwise because I would've brought the lot up. Baxter came and saw me about three days or two weeks after. He said: 'Don't put that money in the bank.' It was in cash you see. He said: 'I got it on the side.' So I banked it and I put a note in my deposit book: 'On behalf of Baxter for hire Arandel, three hundred dollars a day.'

Johnny had gone down on the submarine too - with their gear while they weren't there. They'd gone ashore but we used to live out there, you see, while we were doing this. You'd just see a dark shape in the distance, you know, very murky water there. But she's there alright and practically undamaged. After the other business had finished Johnny and I thought to salvage the submarine. Well now, in Melbourne I had a friend who was a millionaire. He would've given us assistance - after he'd been up here and had a look at it and he'd've been sure it was going to go right. He was a manufacturer of trailers and all that kind of thing. We would've gone down and interested him with it. He had said to me: 'If there's anything any good ever going up here, you give me the oil and I'll come up and have a look.' We would've needed money to raise it. It would've cost a lot of money. And we would've quite likely have had to got a fellow named Dave Bernard interested, who was in Jakarta. He salvaged a submarine in fairly difficult water for the Indonesian government. He would be one of the best in the world. He was over here about six years ago - came to see me here and we talked about it then. But he's not interested. He said: 'There's no mercury there.' There was bullshit about this submarine having mercury on board but it didn't. It was an old submarine this one, not a new one - only four of them ever built. They were old and slow. They were about twelve hundred tons. Dave knows them well. He's had top level talks with Japanese, about submarines and what's in 'em. The Japanese are only too willing to be co-operative because they want something back with this end. There's no incentive here for the Japanese. Given its history, this one was suitable as a tourist attraction, it would've been good. We could've got it into somewhere like Doctor's Gully if we'd had enough kick with the government.

We knew the Darwin manager of Gollin Kyuku before he went back to Japan. I've forgotten his name - he was not the manager that was here when the Cyclone came on, he was the one before. Thien and I were on visiting terms with them; they would come to our place and have dinner with us, and we would go there, we'd go out to dinner sometimes. So when we wanted a representative in Japan over the submarine, I dug his address up and asked them if they would intercede for us. A young man in Japan became a lawyer. He came out of Monash with very high honours; he went to Japan and got entangled with a girl there. He spoke Japanese like we speak a bit of water-rat Malay, but her family didn't like that and so he undertook to learn Japanese properly. Later he visited Thien and me and he told us that it took him six years before he spoke Japanese to their satisfaction. Now he's set up in Japan as an English-speaking, Japanese-speaking - like he would be a QC here. He'd be on the pig's back there at that, because there's so many mistakes made in translation that cause legal problems afterwards. We had John McCormack here - I've got all his letters in there. Yeah, all those letters are still there about the submarine - both ways - ours going out and theirs coming in. And we got John into it on five per cent of the total share - not of our share so that wasn't too bad. And he enjoyed it. He seemed to like it, you know. And we - no payment. During this time there was a lot in the papers, the government were going to lease it out to somebody, and that Baxter was making a lot of noise and telling a lot of lies. After a lot of dealing we gave up the salvage plan, it became too difficult because of the captain's daughter in Japan.

(Tom Lewis’ 1997 book ‘Sensuikan I-124’ provides a comprehensive history of this Japanese Navy submarine, its sinking and the controversy surrounding the attempted salvage.)

The following article by Tom Lewis was distributed by the Sapper Association QLD Inc. No indication of copyright was noted so I have taken the liberty of including it here.

Darwin’s Submarine - The Imperial Japanese Navy’s I-124
 
By Dr Tom Lewis 
 
Outside Darwin’s harbour, an enormous Japanese submarine still lies with her 80-man crew on board. Today, the 20th January, is the anniversary of her sinking in 1942. 
 
She is part of the secret history of the assaults on northern Australia. The aircraft carriers of the famous February 1942 strike were not the first major attack on the Australian landmass. They were the second strike – the first attempt to close down the northern port was made a month earlier with a submarine squadron.
 
In January 1942 four giant vessels of the Sixth Submarine Squadron’s Imperial Japanese Navy were deployed to northern Australian waters. Darwin was a harbour of considerable strategic importance. Sweeping south after the assault on Pearl Harbour, and carrying all before them, the Japanese knew the deployment of any Allied warships or aircraft from the northern port would be a dangerous attack on their right flank as they drove east to secure New Guinea. 
 
Built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries, the four submarines of the Sixth Submarine Squadron were armed with twelve torpedoes in four 21-inch bow tubes and a foredeck 5.5-inch gun. They carried 42 mines, launched through torpedo doors in the stern. Under the leadership of Commander Endo, they made their way south, and deployed quietly around Bathurst and Melville Island.
 
On the morning of 20 January one of the submarines attacked the US Navy fleet oiler USS Trinity with three torpedoes. The tanker was escorted by two destroyers. As the torpedoes were seen the USS Alden turned and launched depth charges. The response was unsuccessful, and the destroyer lost the contact and broke off the attack. But the alarm was given in Darwin.
 
Later the Australian corvette Deloraine was searching near the scene with sonar. The Bathurst-class vessel, commanded by Lieutenant-Commander Desmond Menlove, was a newly launched ship, and her first action was nearly her last. Deloraine was ambushed by the I-124. Frank Marsh, a stoker on the vessel, remembered seeing: "...the trail of the torpedo which missed our stern so closely that the wake thrown up by the propellers actually caused the torpedo to come out of the raised sea surface.”
 
The torpedo streaked towards the corvette. Deloraine turned right inside the torpedo’s course. It missed the ship’s stern by metres. Then she charged straight down the weapon’s track. An attack commenced with patterns of depth charges exploding astern of the warship as she wheeled and swooped as directed by her sonar. Then a Deloraine bridge lookout reported the submarine was breaking the surface, and abruptly the conning tower was seen ahead. 
 
Deloraine powered towards her enemy, and this time the depth charge explosion caught the submarine as it dived. Soon sonar confirmed it as motionless on the seabed. The boat's captain, Lieutenant Commander Koichi Kishigami, his division commander Endo, and 78 others were dead or trapped on board.
 
Later the boom defence vessel HMAS Kookaburra was deployed to the site, and Australian divers attempted to find I-124. They were unsuccessful, and engaged the help of divers from the American submarine repair ship USS Holland. 
 
The divers found the submarine, several nautical miles south of Bathurst Island, with hatch gaskets blown out, suggesting the stern sections were flooded. Some reports claim that divers from the American ship Blackhawk descended and heard the Japanese crew, still inside, tapping on the hull. The Allies were interested in recovery: taking the submarine's codebooks would be a great intelligence coup. Secretly the Navy began to make arrangements for recovery, moving personnel and equipment to Darwin in preparation. But three weeks later Darwin was struck a shattering blow by the same carrier task force that had devastated Pearl Harbor. It was now too dangerous to attempt recovery. 
 
However, the submarine was not to quietly lie in her grave. Controversy was the I-124 companion for the next 50 years. Strange stories and theories surround the wreck. One sought to connect the I-124 with a supposed Japanese submarine working with the German armed raider Kormoran which sank HMAS Sydney in November 1941. Michael Montgomery, in Who Sank The Sydney? suggested a submarine was refueling or re-arming Kormoran when the Sydney was sighted, dived to escape detection, and torpedoed the Australian cruiser, winning the battle for the raider. Other stories say that a seaplane was sighted in the vicinity of the battle: many Japanese boats did carry folding planes in hangars on the foredeck. Suggestions have been made that a second submarine wreck – which some claim lies nearby – could be that alleged helper of the Kormoran; other stories have the I-124 itself involved as the Japanese submarine. Other fanciful theories suggest inside the wrecked boat the captain's safe contained an answer.
 
More than one source suggests codebooks were indeed recovered from the I-124, helping to win the Pacific war. Ed Drea in MacArthur’s Ultra wrote:
 
Shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific War, US Navy divers had salvaged the Japanese Navy’s Water Transport “S” codebooks from a submarine that had been sunk off Darwin Australia in January 1942. With these documents in hand, navy cryptanalysts were able to read Japanese naval shipping messages…
 
In the 1950s the daughter of the sub’s commander, Atsuko Kishigami, began a campaign to have the submarine raised and its entombed bodies returned to Japan. The Japanese Fujita Salvage Company, then in Darwin salvaging the wrecks of ships still lying in the harbour, made a brief investigation into the proposal, before it was decided the costs were prohibitive.
 
In 1972 local salvage operators Sid Hawks, Harry Baxter, George Tyers and John Chadderton began preliminary salvage work on the submarine with three vessels. But ownership disputes arose between Baxter and the remaining three, including shots fired, and after a split the potential salvors were denied rights by the Federal Government and warned off the site. 
 
In 1976 Harry Baxter tried new recovery attempts, claiming his salvage attempts had penetrated the hull. By this time he had probably removed items from the exterior. He was warned off again and in a fit of pique went out with explosives to destroy the submarine. In November 1984 Navy divers from HMAS Curlew carried out descents to the boat to verify its condition: they reported the conning tower had been damaged, but the casing appeared undamaged and sealed. 
 
In 1989 the research vessel Flamingo Bay, captained by David Tomlinson, sent down a Remote Operated Vehicle: an unmanned mini-submarine equipped with a TV camera. The ROV sent back pictures of the I-124's conning tower, still upright but with a list to one side. With personnel from NT and WA museums involved, the Flamingo Bay operation hoped to dive the submarine for research purposes, but the project was eventually cancelled due to political considerations.
 
Stories about I-124 continued to re-appear. Claims that a valuable cargo of mercury was present on board appeared in the media. Baxter continued to make claims about the submarine, saying he had “been arrested by ASIO.” His stories appeared in the popular magazine Australasian Post, stating that he had been visited by a Japanese ambassador from Washington, who was worried about the “ship’s safe.” Baxter died a little while later, taking any secrets to the grave.
 
In February 2017 the 80 men entombed in the submarine were commemorated in Darwin’s Parliament House.
 
The unveiling of a plaque, to be later installed on Casuarina Cliffs, was undertaken by the Japanese Ambassador to Australia; federal Senator Nigel Scullion, and the Chief Minister of the NT, together with the President of the Australian-Japanese Association (NT).
 
Mr Takashi Ootaki, grandson of crew member Petty Officer Second Class Ryohei Ootaki, made a short speech. WWII RAAF veteran, Mr Brian Winspear AO, who experienced the first Darwin air raid, was present in his uniform to reconcile with the Japanese Ambassador.
 
Those attending were gifted with a paper crane to take away, which carried the name of a submariner. At 7pm, at the end of the event, 80 balloons were released outside to free the souls of the dead.
 
I-124 still lies outside Darwin today. Strangely, she is less known to Australians than the three midget submarines which attacked Sydney Harbour also in 1942. But I-124 remains one of the country’s most interesting stories of the country at war: a tale of bravery on both sides, loss, and an insight into the secret war fought in Australia’s north.
 
-o-o-O-o-o-
 
Dr Tom Lewis OAM is a military historian. One of his books is Darwin’s Submarine I-124, published by Avonmore. He served in the Royal Australian Navy, retiring as a lieutenant-commander.
 

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