News / Vancouver

Scientists examine WWII wreck found off coast of Vancouver Island

The sunken ship is believed to be that of U.S. merchant vessel that was likely targeted in a torpedo attack by a Japanese submarine.

The Coast Trader is seen at port on May 11, 1937, five years before it sunk off the coast of Vancouver Island likely as a result of a torpedo attack by a Japanese submarine.

Courtesy San Francisco Maritime Research Center

The Coast Trader is seen at port on May 11, 1937, five years before it sunk off the coast of Vancouver Island likely as a result of a torpedo attack by a Japanese submarine.

Historians believe they have located the wreck of a Second World War merchant vessel more than 70 years after it sunk off the coast of Vancouver Island.

If confirmed, the discovery could finally put to rest a decades-long mystery over whether sinking of the Coast Trader was the result of a torpedo attack by a Japanese submarine in Canadian waters or an internal explosion, as the Unites States Navy claimed at the time.

“It’s very much a whodunit,” said Ken Burton, executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum. “When it first happened, the military tried to cover it up and said it was basically a boiler explosion. There’s always been a shroud of questions around this.”

A historical photo of the Coast Trader at sea. The merchant vessel sunk off the coast of Vancouver Island on June 7, 1942.

From the archives of Grahame F. Shrader

A historical photo of the Coast Trader at sea. The merchant vessel sunk off the coast of Vancouver Island on June 7, 1942.

On Thursday, scientists with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Ocean and the Ocean Exploration Trust are diving deep below the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca using a remotely operated vehicle to take a closer look at the wreck.

The dive, which will be live streamed, will be coordinated at the Ocean Exploration Command Centre in Rhode Island by a remote ashore team, including Vancouver Maritime Museum curator Duncan MacLeod.

The team will try to confirm if the vessel is that of the Coast Trader and whether there is evidence of torpedo damage on the wreck. They will also be assessing if oil is visibly leaking from the wreck, which has potential to be a pollution hazard having sunk within hours of departing port with a full load of fuel, said Burton.

The mystery of the Coast Trader begins June 7, 1942, when the freighter ship left Port Angeles, Wash., with a cargo of 1,250 tons of newsprint destined for San Francisco.

The ship didn’t get far.

Roughly 56 km southwest of Cape Flattery, the vessel sunk in only 40 minutes, causing the 36 surviving crew members, several of whom were badly injured, to abandon ship in the one remaining lifeboat and two rafts.

Despite three crewmembers reporting seeing the conning tower of a submarine as they clung to the lifeboat, Burton said the U.S. Navy claimed that an internal explosion caused the wreck.

The Japanese I-26 submarine is believed to be responsible for a torpedo attack that sunk the Coast Trader merchant vessel off the coast of Vancouver Island on June 7, 1942.

Courtesy of the Yamato Museum

The Japanese I-26 submarine is believed to be responsible for a torpedo attack that sunk the Coast Trader merchant vessel off the coast of Vancouver Island on June 7, 1942.

“But that was for the war effort,” he said. “They had to keep secrecy … and try not to panic the population.”

After the war was over, a review of Japanese naval files uncovered that the country’s I-26 submarine reported conducting a torpedo attack on an unidentified merchant ship on the same date and location where the Coast Trader went down.

The specific location of the wreck, however, remained unknown until last summer when the Canadian Hydrographic Service came across a large, substantially intact wreck resting on the seabed, 138 meters below the surface.

If confirmed to be the Coast Trader, Burton said the discovery could “fundamentally change the script we have for the Second World War on this coast.”

“We had always assumed that it was an American vessel sunk in American waters by a Japanese submarine … but if we have an American vessel torpedoed by a Japanese sub in Canadian waters— that sort of makes you pay attention,” he said.  

“It really brings home how dangerous that time in our history was. We had enemy submarines prowling Canadian waters.”

A live feed of Thursday’s dive will be streamed online here.

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