Discovery of sunken merchant vessel forces Canadian history reboot

A group of marine scientists has confirmed Second World War merchant marine vessel Coast Trader was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Strait of Juan de Fuca inside Canadian waters.

Peter Mallett, Staff Writer ~

A group of marine scientists has confirmed Second World War merchant marine vessel Coast Trader was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Strait of Juan de Fuca inside Canadian waters.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in partnership with the Vancouver Maritime Museum and Ocean Exploration Trust (OET), conducted a 10-hour dive June 2 in the waters off the coast of Vancouver Island, and located the 324-foot supply ship that was under charter by the United States Army 40 nautical miles to the southwest of Vancouver Island.

“It certainly is a game-changer as far as Canadian history is concerned,” said Vancouver Maritime Museum Executive Director Ken Burton. “Up until this point we had operated under the belief this was a vessel under contract by the U.S. military that we believed was sunk in American waters.”

The ship remained lost for 71 years until its discovery during a 2013 survey by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. The dive team, organized by Titanic discoverer Robert Ballard, used a remote-controlled robotic submarine dispatched from the deck of OET’s Nautilus research vessel to descend 138 metres to the wreck on the sea floor. The Remotely Operated Vehicle was controlled from URI’s Inner Space Center in Narragansett, RI, and captured images, measured water conditions, and conducted visual inspection of the sunken freighter and its contents.

Burton noted that not only does the positive identity of the Coast Trader “completely alter our understanding of World War Two history” it also gives us a better understanding of the threat posed to Canada’s Pacific Coast by Japan at that time. Burton noted the dive also add credence to the theory that the Estevan Point lighthouse, a communications beacon for the Canadian Armed Forces at the time, was also likely shelled by the submarine a few days later.

“This finding brings an important part of [Second World War] right to our doorstep and proves the fears of a full-scale attack were very real and the submarines were right here operating on Canada’s west coast,” said Burton.

The sinking of Coast Trader occurred at the same time as the Battle of Midway and the occupation of the Aleutian Islands by Japan, and only six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He noted the well-documented sense of heightened panic and hysteria about the threat posed by Japan ensued on the Pacific Coast.

To dispel these fears, the United States military immediately denied the attack had occurred; their official line at the time: an “internal explosion” caused the sinking.
NOAA’s findings confirm the torpedo strike with video of the large hole in the ship’s hull.

The torpedo slammed into the ship on June 7, 1942, shortly after the Coast Trader set off from Port Angeles, Wash., bound for San Francisco with a cargo of 1,250 tons of newsprint in its hold. The Japanese Navy’s submarine I-26 was lying in wait at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The missile’s impact ripped an enormous hole in the ship’s hull and it quickly sunk beneath the waves while the crew of 56, some of whom were badly injured, scrambled into two rafts and a giant life boat.

“We believe that the Coast Trader had a crew of 36, but that there were additional military support persons on the vessel raising the total souls on the vessel at the time of the attack to 56,” says Burton.

Although the life boat and rafts were separated by a fierce overnight storm, the sailors were eventually rescued by the Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Edmundston after their nearly 40-hour ordeal at sea. One of the sailors eventually died from exposure and medical complications caused by the attack, but the rest of the crew survived.

The findings of the dive team also eased fears of a potential environmental disaster lying in wait. That’s because the Coast Trader was carrying an estimated 7,000 barrels of heavy Bunker C fuel.

It was previously believed that corrosion of the containers could pose an immediate threat to marine life and the coastal habitat of Washington and British Columbia, but the team’s findings dispel those fears.

“Our visual inspection proved the site is fairly well intact, which is a very important distinction,” Michael Brennan, Director of Marine Archaeology and Maritime History for Ocean Exploration Trust. “There is not much corrosion visible on the hull and the rest of the contents of the ship, and we would not expect leakage to begin in the near future.”

Brennan who coordinates and oversees the Nautilus’ archaeological activities refused to estimate when or how long it would take for the barrels to corrode and for leakage to begin. He noted other sunken ships such as the USS Arizona, which lies in the waters off Hawaii and has been leaking small amounts of fuel since its sinking during Pearl Harbor, poses a more immediate threat.

Brennan concluded that despite some early jitters before conducting the dive, the team was relieved when they got a positive identification on the vessel.  

“There is always a slight nervousness when you find your target and approach a shipwreck,” said Brennan. “Before you get an ROV on site there is always that concern that it’s not what you think it is. Our finding is important both environmentally and historically.”

Video and photographs of the dive and the Nautilus’ latest project can be found at

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  1. Camryn Jones says:

    Camryn Jones

    Camryn Jones began her acting career at an early age, when she was selected for a part in a famous play. She was also offered a minor role in a short film called “The Man from Mars.” Camryn Jones’ big break came in 2017 with her debut role in “Created Equal” as Samantha. The film was directed by Bill Duke and was centered on the story of former drug kingpin Alejandra Batista. Since then, she’s appeared in “The Mayor” and “Law & Order: True Crime.”

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  3. Dan Towers says:

    My father-in-law was 18 and an oiler aboard a merchant marine ship that sunk in Pacific waters. He would only share with me that he spent 38 hours in a lifeboat after the ship he was on was went down. I am attempting discover (15 years after his passing in 2002) if the rescued crew of the SS Coast Trader includes his name. Any leads to a crew-list would be appreciated. Thank you.

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