Jumping off the boat and descending down into the deep blue, it’s warm almost like a bathtub. A black tip reef shark flits by. The visibility is good, maybe twenty, thirty metres. Then a massive dark shadow looms slowly out of the sea. It’s hard to tell what’s what at first, just a dark shape until you get closer, and you can see fish darting around, coral growth. Then you get to a point and suddenly a ship takes shape, masts, maybe the bridge, deck guns and it always makes you stop, take it in. It’s then that you see why the ship is at the bottom of the ocean … the mangled pieces of metal, gaping holes where torpedoes and bombs have ripped through steel, pieces of ship where pieces shouldn’t be.
This is Truk Lagoon.
Over 50 ships and planes lie within its fringing reef. It’s a shipwreck diver’s paradise but over 65 years ago it was hell for the Japanese fleet. Operation Hailstone started with ferocity on February 17, 1944. The Allies were desperate to stop the advance of the Japanese across the Pacific and it was critical to destroy the Japanese supply base at Truk. Aerial attacks carried out by planes from America’s aircraft carriers, destroyed as many ships and planes as they could.
Now they rest at the bottom of the Lagoon and only a few divers who make the trek ever get to see them.
When you dive at Truk, there’s holds full of massive torpedoes, planes and jeeps. Tiny three-man Japanese tanks still sit on some decks. There’s crates of ammunition, weapons, gas masks; everything needed to fight a war. But there’s also the human side; crates of sake bottles, some with their corks still in place, boxes of shoes, remains of uniforms, rice bowls, eating utensils all amongst the rubble. Chu’uk is certainly a diver’s paradise, but the human cost of the war is ever present and I certainly felt privileged, and humbled, to be able to witness it.
On my last trip I managed 24 dives over seven days and obviously didn’t get close to seeing everything but here’s the top ten that stand out of all of the ones I got to see.
The Yamagiri was a military transport freighter and was mainly used shuttling supplies between the Solomons and the Caroline Islands. She now lies on her port side and we swam down into the engine room via the massive torpedo hole in her hull. The full realisation of where I was and what I was witnessing was slammed home for here, in the engine room, is a skull embedded in the bulkhead ceiling. You kind of know that people died here and not all remains have been removed but to see the evidence on the first dive really struck me hard. It was hard to move away and that image has stayed with me to this day. We slowly wound our way through the ship and ended our dive in one of the massive cargo holds where there are huge 18.1 inch armour-piercing shells scattered around. I swear they looked almost as big as me!
The I-169 a Japanese submarine involved in the attack on Pearl Harbour, was at anchor when air raid warning came from overhead in April 1944. She was put into a dive to get away from the enemy, but one of the crew forgot to close the main induction valve and the control room was flooded. Sealed hatchways stopped the water from reaching other compartments and when the attack was over, a diver was sent down to see what happened. He heard crewman tapping on her hull but all attempts to raise the sub failed and three days later, the tapping had stopped. All of her crew were killed except for her commanding officer who was on shore at the time. The Japanese then depth charged her to avoid her falling into American hands. Many of her sailors’ remains were removed in the 1970s and she has now been welded shut so no penetration is possible. The conning tower was blown off during the depth charging and now lies intact to the port side of the sub and the explosives also blew her clean in two. She lies in about 40 metres of water and at over 100 metres in length it’s hard to see it all. This dive was one of the most memorable in part I’m sure, because of the story behind the sinking.
The Kensho Maru was a passenger carrier converted to a cargo transport for the war and was in for repairs when she was sunk by an aerial torpedo and at least one bomb. This dive was like taking a walk through the decks below and I loved snaking our way down ladders and gangways. There’s something surreal about swimming head first down a ladder. The corridors are tiny and narrow and I have to admit I was sticking close to the dive guide cause I was lost! The bowels of the ship led us to the enormous engine room and out to the side where her massive anchor now rests against her hull.
The Nippo Maru was being used as a water transport, ferrying water around to the outer islands in Truk where water was scarce. The Nippo was sunk by aircraft bombs and now rests listing slightly to port in roughly 30 metres. Sinking down through blue water, we had to swim across to the ship and the first thing that materialises out of the water is the bow as she sits upright in the sand. Her deck still supports a Japanese light tank and is scattered with artillery shells. Covered in amazing marine life, she is a photographer’s heaven.
The Fujikawa was used as an aircraft supply ferry during the war and she had just unloaded thirty B5N2 bombers onto Eten Airfield when Operation Hailstone started. She was hit by a single aerial torpedo amidships and she now lies upright in about 35 metres. There is huge damage in the cargo hold where the torpedo hit but there’s also the fuselage of a Zero fighter in another hold sitting on top of the rubble just waiting to be unloaded. Other holds contain plane wings, machine guns and artillery shells. Her stern mast is visible from the surface and leads you down to the wreck. The Fujikawa is one of the most often dived and one of the most beautiful wrecks at Truk.
This is an amazing dive. The Gosei Maru was used by the Japanese Navy as a submarine supply ship and she was carrying torpedoes and depth charges when she sank – most have since been removed. She was sunk by a torpedo during the Hailstone attacks and is lying on her port side. The stern is only in 2.5 metres and the bow rests in 35 metres. I backward rolled into the water and turned around and there she was, disappearing down the sandbank. When you reach the bow you can see the depressions made in the steel when she slammed into the bottom. Her holds still contain torpedoes, and a swim through her passageways revealed a bathroom with tiles still intact on the walls and floor.
The Rio was originally a passenger ship but was used as a submarine tender during the war. During Operation Hailstone she was attacked by aircraft and hit by at least one bomb and sank quickly and now lies on her starboard side in roughly 40 metres. This dive started with a magnificent but ghostly swim through the engine room that powered twin propellers with over 7,500 horsepower each. Then upwards and on into the holds where there are seemingly endless boxes of saki and wine some of which are still stacked in neat towers against the wall. How they weren’t all shaken loose during her sinking I’ll never know. We swam slowly through the dark bridge where there were bowls and plates still scattered around.
The Sankisan had a relatively short life. She was built in 1942 as a passenger transport but the Navy converted her into a military transport ship in 1943. The back half of the ship doesn’t exist anymore; disintegrating into a tangled mess of metal and then into nothing where her stern should be – no-one is sure exactly what happened but it’s thought that a bomb in her ammunition hold possibly led to her sinking. It’s hard to imagine half a ship to be spectacular but her bow is pristine. From front-on it’s a picture perfect scene; blue water, magnificent bow covered in coral growth and marine life and it’s not until you swim slowly over her deck that you get to see the devastation that lies behind. She still has one intact hold and it contains copious amounts of ammunition spread everywhere. Boxes and crates full of bullets, thousands more scattered loosely. It’s a surreal scene.
It was the Allies that christened the Japanese Mitsubishi G4M bomber the ‘Betty’, and the bomber was used with great success in the early part of the war. Later on everyone realised that the bomber had a tendency to catch fire easily due to the location of her fuel tanks so she became far less effective. Not as spectacular as the big shipwrecks (and tiny by comparison) but I’m including it because it’s kind of weird seeing most of a place underwater with her thin aluminium skin. It’s also only about 15 metres deep so it’s a good dive to do late in the day. This particular airplane crashed on approach to Eten Island and no-one knows for sure whether it was shot down or crashed. The plane sits upright on its belly, with the nose and cockpit turned slightly askew. One of her engines lies about fifty metres away with one ghostly bent propeller blade still attached.
The San Francisco Maru is one of the premier dives here at Truk. It’s deep and nitrogen narcosis is rampant. It takes a fair amount of concentration to keep your wits about you. She is almost 120 metres long, a freighter built in 1919 brought out of semi-retirement during World War II to carry cargo. She sits upright in the sand with her stern resting in 70 metres of water. There are still three tiny three-man japanese tanks resting on her deck and plenty of artifacts scattered around such as ceramic bowls still nestled in their protective newspaper – you can still make out the Japanese printing. This dive was only to the San Francisco’s deck … next time I’d like to visit her holds; the large square entry way looked so inviting.
These are my current top 10 wrecks out of the 24 that I’ve dived. They were all dived using a single tank containing air with some decompression stops required on some of the deeper wrecks so time was always a limiting factor. I can’t wait to go back and explore some more and hopefully do more than one dive on a couple … I think that’s the only way to really get to know and understand a wreck and it’s story and I think it’s important these stories never get forgotten … even if many of them were the enemies’.