TOPICS > Science

Under the Sea

June 4, 1998 at 12:00 AM EST


PHIL PONCE: The discovery came three miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Yorktown took part in the World War II naval Battle of Midway. But on June 7, 1942, Japanese dive-bombers seriously damaged the Yorktown, and it was then struck and sunk by Japanese torpedoes. It had a crew of more than 2,000 sailors.

The vast majority survived and were rescued, but the ship has rested undetected more than 1,000 miles from Hawaii at the bottom of the Pacific ever since. Now it’s been found by deep sea explorer Robert Ballard, already well known for discovering the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck. Welcome, Mr. Ballard. First of all-


PHIL PONCE: –why is it that the Yorktown was something that you wanted to find?

The Battle of Midway. 

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, you know, the Battle of Midway was one of the great turning points in the war of the Pacific. Certainly growing up in California and in San Diego, as I did as a youth, I heard about the Battle of Midway, heard about the Battle of Guadalcanal, and for me. And for me World War II was fought in the Pacific. And this being such a quintessential battle and with so many of the survivors and veterans now dying, it seemed an appropriate time to go out and do a story on this great battle, and it was a daunting search, because the search area was actually much, much larger than the search area we had for the Titanic and Bismarck combined, and we were working in 17,000 feet of water, in an area that had volcanoes. It was very challenging. It was a lot of challenge to track her down.

PHIL PONCE: And not that we need to spend a lot of time on history, but briefly, the Battle of Midway was a turning point, because prior to that, what was happening in the war and-

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, we’d been losing everything at that point, you know, beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines. Japan was really-its sun was rising. It was expanding its empire, and it was really at the loss of their aircraft carriers, the very aircraft carriers that attacked us at Pearl Harbor, the loss of their four carriers and all of the airmen and planes that went down at Midway really was the turning point. And from there on out we were-Japan was more going on for the defensive than the offensive. So it was a great victory, and it took about just a matter of minutes for the tide of war to change and it was a great moment in American history.

A look at the Yorktown. 

PHIL PONCE: Well, we have some video of what it is you discovered. Let’s take a look at the video, and as we’re looking at it, give us some help in understanding what we’re looking at.

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, this is the actual bridge on the island of the Yorktown. It’s amazing the visibility we had. This is the clearest water I’ve ever seen in my life. We had visibility of almost 120 feet. You can see the shine on the metal of the stainless steel above the bridge. That’s the fire control. Just aft is where they controlled the airplanes landing on the deck. This is a base down on the deck itself, just a thin dusting of sediment that has fallen down there over the 56 years. Actually, today is the anniversary of the Battle of Midway. In fact, the battle is still going on at this very moment, if you were to go back 56 years. We’re now traveling along the edge of the deck, the superstructure. We’re going along a catwalk, heading from the bow on the starboard side, heading back towards the island of the Yorktown itself.

PHIL PONCE: Are we looking down on it? Is that the perspective?

ROBERT BALLARD: You’re looking down on it. We’re sort of flying along. It has a starboard list, so you can see it listing from a left-from right down to left.

PHIL PONCE: So it’s at an angle.

ROBERT BALLARD: Right. It settled in with a slight angle, and now you’re just starting to pick up the anti-aircraft guns that were just in front of the bridge. You can see the clips that were lowered in. It’s still armed and ready to fire. It’s still aimed at the skies, and now we’re pivoting on that anti-aircraft gun, and you can see that even after 56 years, you have this incredible state of preservation. The ship has-

“A deep-sea museum.” 

PHIL PONCE: And why has it been preserved?

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, it’s extremely cold. I mean, the temperatures are freezing temperatures, just above freezing. You’re in total darkness. The pressure now-here you look at how you can still see some of the camouflage paint; you can see into the-into the flight center, this is where they’re directing over where the air boss was, directing the airplanes landing on the deck of the Yorktown and again just well preserved in a high state of preservation. It’s like a deep-sea museum.

PHIL PONCE: And, Mr. Ballard, why is it that no one has looked for this deep-sea museum before?

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, it’s really only organizations like the National Geographic Society that sponsor it, along with the builder, Newport News Shipbuilding helped sponsor this expedition. It’s so remote, Midway is really in the middle of nowhere, and this is a series of programs we’ve done with National Geographic with the Titanic, Bismarck, Guadalcanal, and now the Battle of Midway, and very few organizations like National Geographic.

PHIL PONCE: What plans are there for it? Are there any plans to either raze it, to take artifacts?

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, we worked this whole expedition was actually done with the United States Navy, various organizations and the Navy, one of them the Naval Historical Center, and we gave them complete records; they had experts out on the expedition. These will all be available to the public. But it’ll remain on the bottom, and I think someday become a memorial site, just as the Arizona is in Pearl Harbor. So the Yorktown is safe and well, sitting upright in 17,000 feet of water.

PHIL PONCE: So there are no people plans to take any artifacts?

ROBERT BALLARD: Absolutely not.

PHIL PONCE: And the reasoning behind that is-

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, it’s a war grave, and in many ways Mother Nature is doing a better job preserving it than we could possibly preserve it, plus, she’s very deep into the bottom. Remember, she weighed 53,000 tons. And she fell 16,000 feet and went deep into the bottom. Half of her is into the bottom. You’ll never take her out of the bottom.

Japanese wrecks also found. 

PHIL PONCE: There are other wrecks in the vicinity, yes, Japanese aircraft?


PHIL PONCE: Aircraft carriers went down as well.

ROBERT BALLARD: That’s right. There were four carriers. The very four carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor that were sunk at Midway, Kaga, Agaki, Soryu, and Hiryu, and all of those were about 150 miles to the West, but our focus was to find the Yorktown.

PHIL PONCE: And I understand that in looking for it, you had to sort of do a back and forth pattern, like-you described it as-someone described it as like mowing a lawn.

ROBERT BALLARD: That’s right. We used a search system from the University of Hawaii that’s sort of like a giant lawnmower, and we towed it back and forth. Here is the actual vehicle–the U.S. Navy’s ATV-this is based-

PHIL PONCE: And ATV stands for-

ROBERT BALLARD: Advanced Tether Vehicle. It’s based in San Diego. And they came all the way across from San Diego to Honolulu, where we outfitted and then this was the vehicle that actually went down and confirmed that we had found the Yorktown. But it was the Hawaii system, which is a long towed sonar, that actually found it. So a combination of technologies-we controlled this remotely operated vehicle. There it is. You can see it operating underwater, using lasers for ranging, very sophisticated piece of technology, took some very spectacular pictures, and we’ll be doing a two-hour special with National Geographic on it-

Survivors return to the ship. 

PHIL PONCE: There were more than 2,000 survivors from the Yorktown.

ROBERT BALLARD: That’s right.

PHIL PONCE: Have you heard from them? What have their reactions been to your doing this?

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, we took ‘em with us. It was an incredible expedition. We took the Japanese pilots-it was really amazing-that actually attacked Pearl Harbor-still alive-that attacked the Arizona, and were players in the Battle of Midway, and had their carriers sank beneath them of the Kaga. We brought two Japanese pilots. We brought two American veterans-one from the Yorktown and one who flew out of Midway and was the only survivor of a torpedo squadron of Grumman avengers, went on the expedition, and that really made the expedition-to sit there and take them down and show ‘em their ship-and then have the catharsis that goes on with that, these oral histories that we’ve now been able to capture by finding their ships and taking them to them.

PHIL PONCE: There are scientific responses to something and then there are personal responses to things. What was your personal response to finding the ship?

ROBERT BALLARD: Well, you know, I was born June of 1942. I was born just after the Battle of Midway, and as I said, it was so much a part of my life growing up in San Diego, where the Navy fleet was based, and to then be able to associate yourself with this great moment in history, it was quite thrilling, it was quite an honor, like being associated with the Titanic and Bismarck. When you think of the Yorktown, you got to add another chapter, and that was finding her and filming her. And we’re very proud of what we did.

PHIL PONCE: Mr. Ballard, congratulations, and thank you for being here.