Awa Maru – A Cautionary Tale of Deep Sea Treasure Hunting

August 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

Photo: Shipspotting.com

The lure of easy money has long driven salvors and their financial backers to chase rumors of buried treasure. Unfortunately for many, the vast amounts of money necessary to find a ship, much less recover it, has often resulted in bankruptcy. For others, though, the successful location and excavation of a ship garnered them nothing more than worthless trinkets.  One of the greatest and costliest failures in shipwreck hunting history is the search for the Japanese WWII transport Awa Maru.

Guaranteed safe passage by the US government, the Awa Maru sailed for Tokyo from Singapore with more than 2,000 Japanese civilians and medical supplies in late March 1945. Although the ship was marked with a red cross and instructions given to US forces to grant the Awa Maru safe passage, a tragic miscommunication resulted in the torpedoing of the ship by the USS Queenfish on April 1, 1945.  Of the 2,004 souls on board, only one survived. The US submarine commander was removed from command and court-martialled. Rumors immediately began to run rampant that the ship was carrying millions of dollars in precious metals and artwork.

In the late 1970s, the People’s Republic of China began hunting for the wreck and successfully located it. Over the course of 3 dive seasons, Chinese salvors made 10,000 dives and and cleared 10,000 cubic meters of mud from the site.  In addition, the Chinese spent $20 million on the Dalihao, a specialized salvage barge, to perform work on the site. The Chinese eventually declared defeat after only finding human remains and personal effects which were sent to Japan. A declassified 1981 US government document revealed that the treasure was never aboard the Awa Maru, that it had been shipped via another vessel and that the Chinese expended millions of yuan and thousands of man-hours chasing after a treasure that had never existed. In defense of the Chinese efforts, though, noted shipwreck treasure expert Nigel Pickford listed the Awa Maru in his 1995 book The Atlas of Shipwrecks & Treasure as a significant treasure ship lost during World War Two.

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