An underwater trail of rusting World War II remains will soon be added to the US National Heritage Register if a bid by Flinders University researcher Jennifer McKinnon is successful.
Dr McKinnon (pictured), a lecturer in marine archaeology, is working to ensure the trail of underwater war wreckage – including battleships, aeroplanes and assault vehicles – is officially protected under US legislation.
The historic trail was officially launched last November in Saipan, with free underwater maps of the nine dive sites distributed to tourism and dive companies throughout the Pacific region.
It follows four years of research by Dr McKinnon, including a field trip with Flinders archaeology students in 2010 to chronicle the stories behind the heritage using archaeological recording techniques.
Meanwhile, Dr McKinnon has just returned from a three-week trip to Saipan where she has been working with the US National Park Service’s Submerged Unit and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – the organisation responsible for producing 3D imaging of the Titanic – to develop an interpretive video of the maritime heritage trail, for display at US national parks in the Pacific.
“It’s the other half of our history,” Dr McKinnon said of her latest efforts for heritage listing.
“We have half of our history on land and a large percentage is underwater and if we don’t take the time to research, understand and preserve it we’ll only have half of the story,” she said.
The shallow waters off Saipan, part of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, are littered with battlefield remains from the fierce fighting that occurred there between Japanese and American forces in 1944, otherwise known as the Battle of Saipan.
While exploring the wreckage is already a popular pastime for snorkelers, SCUBA divers and in particular Japanese tourists, Dr McKinnon was the first researcher to officially map the sites and develop interpretative posters and dive guides.
She said the trail provides important historical insights into wartime conflict.
“We worked out that one of the sites might be related to one of Japan’s last pushes to defeat the US forces, confirming what’s written in the history books,” Dr McKinnon, who is also President of the Australasian Institute of Maritime Archaeology, said.
“After the US marine and army forces pushed north along the island, as a last ditch effort the Japanese decided to load their troops onto barges and attack from water.
“But the US saw this happening and destroyed all of the barges so it’s very likely that the barges we found underwater were part of that attack.
“Now, when a diver visits the site, they will know from the dive guide that those barges are not just rusty hunks of metal on the seabed – there’s actually a story behind the site.”
Dr McKinnon said heritage listing the trail would ensure the remnants were preserved for future generations, while at the same time helping to boost tourism on the island.
“The trail is meant to be sustainable so it doesn’t damage the wrecks and it also acts as an economic stimulus for the island because people could come from all over the world to visit the sites,” she said.
Dr McKinnon was a recent recipient of Flinders Early Career Research Awards, an annual prize from the Vice-Chancellor to acknowledge individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to research at the University since finishing their PhD.
The Florida-born archaeologist was also awarded a Humanities Award from the Governor of the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana in 2011 for her work in developing the World War II Maritime Heritage Trail.