American to salvage Japanese sub full of gold, opium sunk in Atlantic in ’44

by Eric Talmadge

The Associated Press

The I-52 is the stuff of shipwreck legend. Possibly the most advanced submarine in the world at the time, Japan’s I-52 was sunk in the Atlantic on June 23, 1944, while en route to a rendezvous with a German U-boat. The rendezvous remains a mystery.

It was laden with two tons of gold and two tons of opium, probably for conversion into morphine painkillers. But was it also carrying a secret offer of peace?

Paul Tidwell, an American shipwreck salvager, said Friday he is planning an expedition within a year — most likely in November or in May 2006 — to raise the I-52 from the seabed, and perhaps even return the sub to Japan. He didn’t know how much the operation will cost.

“We want to return all the human remains to the Japanese families,” he said. “We have the full support of the Japanese government.”

Tidwell uncovered the story of the sub, which carried 112 passengers and crew, in a search of declassified documents in Washington in 1990.

“I knew I-52 was special, I knew there was gold on it,” he said. “I was driven to find out everything possible about the submarine and what her mission was.”

Because of the dangers to surface ships, Tidwell said, subs were used to carry high-priority officials, messages and cargo between Germany and Japan. At 108 meters long, the I-52 was the biggest submarine ever built at that time.

“It was a marvel of technology,” he said.

Tidwell said he believes the submarine was on a mission of such extreme importance that the Allied powers took exceptional pains to make sure it was sunk before it reached the coast of France.

They succeeded: It was sunk by depth charges and acoustic torpedoes off Cape Verde and Barbados.

“It’s 1,000 miles from the nearest land,” he said.

Tidwell initially thought the sub might have been carrying information on atomic bomb research. Some historians now believe officials aboard may have had a peace offer they were hoping to coordinate with the Germans.

The salvage effort may clear up such speculation.

“Because of the depth, paper is preserved,” he said. It is resting on the ocean bed some 5,500 meters deep, he said.

Tidwell has conducted two expeditions to the site — the first discovered its location in 1995, and he led a return trip to film it in 1999.