WWII Shipwreck Explored for First Time in Almost 75 Years

On the 7th June 1942, the Coast Trader, an unremarkable coastal freighter that plied her trade along the western coast of the USA sailed out of Port Angeles, Washington, laden with 1,250 tons of newsprint destined for San Francisco. She was 324 feet long, on long-term charter to the US Army and was the type of ship that no-one looked at twice. However, she was destined for fame. As she passed Cape Flattery she was sunk by a single torpedo fired from I-26 a submarine of the Imperial Japanese Navy. She sank quickly and a passing fishing boat picked up survivors in a lifeboat. The survivors were taken to Neah Bay where the Canadian Navy was informed of the sinking. They sent the corvette HCMS Edmundston to investigate and they picked up two life rafts full of survivors.

This sinking occurred six months after the Japanese devastated Pearl Harbor and was part of a plan by the Japanese Navy to cause panic on mainland USA. The Japanese had invaded the Aleutian Attu Islands along with Kiska and they had bombed Dutch Harbour. Then the sinking of the Coast Trader, and two weeks later the attack on the Canadian freighter, Fort Camosun, by the Japanese submarine I-25, and the shelling of the Estevan Point lighthouse near Tofino in an attempt to destroy the radio-direction finding equipment installed there were all attempts by the Japanese Navy to direct the attention of the US Navy away from the Pacific by causing panic on mainland USA as it appeared that the war was being brought home.

Ken Burton, the director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum explained how the sinking of this insignificant little freighter caused such problems, “The story of the day when it happened was that the boiler blew up and the Coast Trader, coming out of Port Angeles for San Francisco, wasn’t thought to impact Canada very much,” Burton said. “The U.S. military didn’t want at first to acknowledge it was a submarine attack, and put it out that an “internal explosion” had sunk the ship.”

But what we have is an American ship under charter to the U.S. military torpedoed and sunk in Canadian waters by a Japanese sub. A Canadian ship is involved in the rescue, too.”

Japanese submarine I-26.
Japanese submarine I-26.

Jacques Marc, the explorations director for the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C., said Coast Trader’s sinking was a significant historic event. “The vessel itself is not significant. It was a typical freighter of the Second World War. But as an event, the sinking was significant because there were very few ships torpedoed off the U.S. west coast, and even fewer off Canada.”

The offensive was on and we had an enemy sub prowling our coast. It was these sorts of things that led to the seizure of the Japanese fishing fleet in British Columbia. The fact the Coast Trader was sunk in Canadian waters perhaps made these concerns at the time well-founded.”

The panic caused by the devastation at Pearl harbour resulted in the Canadian Government of the day seizing around 1,200 fishing vessels owned by Canadians of Japanese descent and by the time the Coast Trader was sunk the Canadians were interning Canadians of Japanese descent inland, well away from the coast so they could not provide any assistance to the Japanese Navy. This internment policy was very heavy handed and the Canadian Government redressed this in 1988.

In 2010 a Canadian Hydrographic Service vessel produced a multi-beam echo sounder sonar image showing an object, seemingly intact, and approximately the same size as the Coast Trader lying in the mud about 450 feet underwater in the Tofino Basin, two miles inside Canada’s boundary. Then in 2013 the wreck was positively identified by the NOAA as one of 87 wrecks with the potential to pollute the coast of America should the fuel on board escape its rusty containers. The Coast Trader was carrying 7,000 barrels of heavy bunker C fuel when she left harbour on her fateful voyage.

Type 93 torpedo, recovered from Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on display outside U.S. Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C., during World War II.
Type 93 torpedo, recovered from Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, on display outside U.S. Navy headquarters in Washington, D.C., during World War II.

A model constructed of tides and wave action shows that if the fuel leaks into the ocean it has the potential to pollute the west coast of Vancouver Island between Barkley Sound and Tofino. The NOAA recommendation for the environmental and socio-economic impact was low to medium but they did recommend that the wreck should be surveyed.

A partnership of the research vessel Nautilus, the Ocean Exploration Trust, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) teamed up to explore the vessel. They were looking to answer a few key questions, like how intact the vessel was, reported National Post.

“She’s sitting in a very ecologically sensitive area. If she were to release that oil, it would impact the west coast of Vancouver Island,” said Jim Delgado, the NOAA’s director of maritime heritage. “The original assessment, that the risk of a leak would be low to medium – I think we’re going to downgrade that to low, because this ship, other than the area of the stern and the area the of the torpedo, is very intact.”

Also of interest was the cause of the Coast Trader’s sinking. There were some theories that a boiler explosion caused the wreck, not a torpedo. “You can see right down into the boiler flats, and they’re intact,” Delgado said. “I’ve seen other torpedoed ships and this is definitely major damage and consistent with the damage of a Type 93 Japanese torpedo.”

Because the vessel appears stable and the risk of a leak seems to be low, there will likely be no attempt to recover the oil. Recovery would be very expensive and it is so deep that the oil has likely formed a “tar” and would not travel if it did leak.

“This thing looks as solidly riveted as when it was built – except for where the torpedo hit it.”


Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE