Vast submarine network
The ship, then called the Dickenson, first set sail in early 1923 as part of a fleet of ships that maintained the growing submarine telecommunications network at the time. The ship set out from Chester, Pennsylvania, as part of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company fleet, and arrived in Hawaii in July of that year.
The Dickenson ferried supplies and patched up cables at the remote Midway and Fanning Islands from 1923 to 1941. Then, soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Dickenson evacuated British employees of the telecommunications company Cable and Wireless Ltd., from Midway Island, ferrying them back to Oahu. Some of the evacuees even spotted a submarine tailing their ship, before American ships chased it away.
During the war, the Midway Island telecommunications hub stopped functioning, and the Dickenson was renamed the U.S.S. Kailua and was sent to maintain cables in other locales in the South Pacific.
After the war, the ship returned to Pearl Harbor, but neither the Navy nor its original owners wanted it. On Feb. 7, 1946, the ship was torpedoed and sunk into the deep waters off Oahu, but no one recorded its final resting place.
"From her interisland service to her role in Pacific communications and then World War II, Dickenson today is like a museum exhibit resting in the darkness, reminding us of these specific elements of Pacific history," said Hans Van Tilburg, a researcher with the maritime heritage program in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Marine Sanctuaries.
The team came across the WWII ship by accident last year. The shipwreck was about 2,000 feet (609 meters) below the water's surface and was still sitting upright, with its lone mast still pointing upward and the wheel still intact.
"It is always a thrill when you are closing in on a large sonar target with the Pisces submersible, and you don't know what big piece of history is going to come looming out of the dark," Kerby said.
Almost everything on the ship was still in place, and the identification was easy -- the navy ship number, IX-71, was still visible on the ship's bow.