Sunday, August 13, 2006

 

Navy halts sunken ship project

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The State
By Mark Stodghill
August 13, 2006



DULUTH, Minn. - St. Louis County, Minn., Undersheriff Dave Phillips' efforts to photograph the inside of the sunken heavy cruiser USS Houston for its survivors association have been halted by the U.S. Navy before he could get his remote-controlled underwater camera into the ship.

Barbara Voulgaris of the Underwater Archaeology branch of the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., said her office and the U.S. Justice Department were forwarded a Duluth News Tribune story reporting Phillips' trip to Indonesia to film the inside of the ship, which was sunk by the Japanese during World War II.

Voulgaris wanted to know how to reach Phillips.

"We've got some concerns because it's not legal for him (or his camera) to go inside the wreck or to take things off of it," Voulgaris said. She said Phillips also wouldn't be allowed to send his camera into the ship because it had the potential to disturb the site.

"As soon as they disturb it without the permission of the Navy - that's where the problem is," she said.

Phillips used vacation time and planned to photograph the inside of the ship. He joined a team headed by Jerry Ranger, a lieutenant with the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office in Florida and the son of a USS Houston survivor and prisoner of war.

Ranger was awakened by the News Tribune at 2 a.m. Saturday, aboard a 40-foot boat he and Phillips were sleeping on near the sunken ship. He didn't want to wake Phillips.Ranger had earlier received a phone call from Voulgaris.

"The USS Houston group is very behind this dive and they are upset and very concerned," Ranger said. "They want us to continue on with their wishes of entering the ship, not to loot but to photograph the deterioration of a World War II vessel that their organization survived."

However, because of Voulgaris' call, Ranger said the planned exploration of the ship's interior is in limbo.

Voulgaris referred to Title XIV of the National Defense Authorization Act signed by President Bush in 2004.

The Naval Historical Center said the purpose of Title XIV, generally referred to as the Sunken Military Craft act, is to protect sunken military vessels and aircraft and the remains of their crews from unauthorized disturbance.

The USS Houston went down on March 1, 1942, in the Sunda Straits off Java. Of 1,008 crew members, only 368 survived.

Phillips was contacted by the USS Houston Survivors Association because of his experience using a remotely operated vehicle camera during his duties with the sheriff's office and its volunteer rescue squad.

Val Poss, executive director of the USS Houston Survivors Association and the daughter of another USS Houston survivor, said that the planned exploration of the ship's interior has been halted because of the Navy's intervention.

"Originally, I was incredulous," Poss said by telephone from her home in Pflugerville, Texas. "I can understand their position of not wanting strangers to go in. However, these men have a personal interest. They are doing it for the survivors and for the history of the ship."

Poss said that several times over the years her association has tried to find someone in the Department of the Navy that "could assist us with stopping the looting of the ship." She said private divers have taken guns, brass fittings and other items for themselves, some of which have wound up being sold in Jakarta.

"The U.S. embassy in Jakarta advised us more than a half-dozen years ago that the ship was in international waters and that there was nothing that could be done," Poss said.

Now all her group wants is to be able to photograph the inside of the ship before it falls apart.

"Why after 64 years are we doing this? We are doing this for the memory to continue," Poss said, her voice cracking. "Excuse me, I get emotional. These young boys died for our freedoms. Our fathers spent 3 years in hell (POW camps) to come home. We owe it to them to keep the history of this sacred ship alive and to share those pictures, not only with the survivors, but if our government would allow it, the world."

Poss was working the phones Friday. She had calls into Washington, D.C., Duluth and to the boat Phillips and Ranger are on.

She couldn't reach Voulgaris, but said someone else in the Naval Historical Center office told her it would take 90 days to get the proper permit from the Navy to explore the ship.

"I explained to her that we had people at the site and it was costing them $1,000 a day, and they didn't have 90 days to wait, and asked if we could expedite this," Poss said. "I was advised that it still takes 90 days."

Voulgaris told the News Tribune that she didn't want to "look like the big, bad government coming down with the hammer." But because of the existing law, the men exploring the USS Houston faced the possibility of being arrested if they disturbed anything in the ship or tried to enter the U.S. with any artifacts from the ship, she said.

"We just found out about it (the exploration) yesterday," Voulgaris said. "Unfortunately, we can't just give them carte blanche permission to do whatever they want on the wreck. We told Jerry Ranger you can dive on the wreck, you can take pictures of it (from outside), but please don't disturb it without permission from the U.S. government."


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