Nebraska Team Examines Ecological Impacts Of Pearl Harbor Attacks

The U.S.S. Arizona remains a symbol of the lives lost during the attacks on Pearl Harbor. (courtesy photo) The underwater wreckage is telling researchers about the ecological impact of shipwrecks
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December 22, 2016 - 6:45am

The U.S.S. Arizona was one of four battleships destroyed during the Dec. 7, 1941 attacks on Pearl Harbor. 1,177 crewmen were killed. 75 years later, retired professor Don Johnson and a Nebraska research team are studying the ecological impacts of the shipwreck. The team has also studied the ship’s corrosion, partly to know how long it will last underwater. It’s been an ongoing project that started back in 1998. Johnson says it all began as his career as a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln came to a close.

DON JOHNSON: "My wife and I were on a trip out to Pearl Harbor in 1998 for a wedding anniversary trip. It had been our first out there so we went out as tourists. I contacted Dan Martinez who is a historian at the park and Kathy Billings who is superintendent. Out of that discussion they had said they were interested in looking for someone or some party to get involved and do some research on their own and I said, as a metallurgist, I think I can put a team together from the University of Nebraska Lincoln."

Don Johnson is Professor Emeritus of Mechanical and Material Engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (courtesy photo)

Pearl Harbor - Into the Arizona

Check out more information about the U.S.S. Arizona by visiting the PBS site for the documentary "Pearl Harbor - Into the Arizona".

NET NEWS: "And it hasn’t just been the U.S.S. Arizona, you’ve studied several prominent shipwrecks across the world, right?"

DON JOHNSON: "Other research has gone on and we carried the information we learned on Arizona and projected that onto some of the other wreck sites- specifically off the coast of Oahu to two midget submarines that were sunk prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, one of the submarines was sunk by the U.S.S. Ward and that casualty became the first shot of World War Two in the Pacific. So we've had material off of both of those submarines and this has continued with research on other sites: one in the Panama Canal area and two or three off the East Coast of the United States and the West Coast, and a little bit of work on the Titanic and some other work in the north of Wales."

NET NEWS: "What makes studying these ships worth-while?"

DON JOHNSON: "Well primarily it's a matter of the shipwrecks. I think they've identified between 80 and 90 wrecks that contain not only possible oil hazards, but also some of these wrecks might end up being navigational hazards. Many of them then are archaeological sites. For example: the submarine we investigated down in Panama was a civil war submarine and one of the first submarines that was pretty much self-contained. They used it after the war for pearl diving and eventually the entire crew died from
‘the bends’ (Decompression Sickness) which they didn't really know anything about at the time."

NET NEWS: "19 years is a long time to being doing this kind of work, especially during your retirement. How do you feel personally about studying the U.S.S. Arizona. I know you yourself were a World War Two-era veteran. Is there a personal connection there for you?"

DON JOHNSON: "What better way to spend some of my time as a retired engineer and scientist than to have this opportunity to study the U.S.S. Arizona? You know, the ship lies there and it's primarily a tomb. It primarily reflects the valor and the sacrifices that were made by these sailors and soldiers and Marines that died that day. But I begin to realize that that ship lying in the harbor and in close vicinity and close access. It becomes really a legacy of science as well. I consider it to be quite an honor to do this. It’s a privilege to be able to spend some of my time. I'm retired and I have other things I do, but this has given me a real interesting twenty years. I’ll just put it that way."




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