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Asia Dive News : Scuba diving for sunken warships in Truk Lagoon

TRUK LAGOON, Chuuk (5 Aug 2005) - Bubbles from my regulator dislodge rust flakes and silt from the corroded pipes above my head. The blue water becomes a brown snowstorm. I move slowly, trying not to kick up more sediment with my fin strokes, as I hover over a row of tree-trunk-sized engine cylinders.

I'm 30 metres down, deep within the engine room of the Shinkoku Maru, a 160-metre-long Japanese naval vessel from the Second World War lying on the bottom of Truk Lagoon in the western Pacific. I'm all alone; my dive buddies have dawdled behind, leaving me to explore the wreck on my own. As my eyes adjust to the pale blue light, more of the engine room comes into view. Wires and fuel lines dangle from the rust-covered cylinders; round glass gauges line a small control panel; a narrow catwalk with up-and-down ladders winds along the top level of the chamber past more pipes and valves. Beneath me, stairwells descend into darkness.

The lagoon, on the island state of Chuuk in Micronesia, was the scene of a little-known battle which played a pivotal role in ending the war in the Pacific and turned the ocean floor here into the world's premier wreck-diving destination. The 60th anniversary of Victory in the Pacific will be commemorated on Aug. 15 and, as a keen wreck diver and a war-history buff, I decided earlier this year to travel to Truk. It's one of the most protected harbours in the South Pacific, and completely off the map for most tourists except divers.

I made the 12-hour flight southwest from Hawaii to see for myself the underwater tomb of the ships, airplanes and submarines that were destroyed in that fierce battle between the Japanese Imperial Fleet and carrier-based Allied aircraft. To explore the wrecks, I spent a week aboard a comfortable live-aboard dive vessel. I flick on my dive light and discover more equipment scattered about. A work bench, its legs blown off, lies on its side surrounded by a jumble of broken pipes and metal debris. I see a faint glow coming from below and go down to explore. A gaping, twisted tear in the hull, large enough to drive a car through, spills blue light into the lower reaches of the engine room. This was the fatal blow, the spot where a torpedo from an American aircraft pierced the ship's hull, ruptured an empty fuel tank, and detonated the fumes in a violent explosion that sank the Shinkoku Maru.

The Shinkoku Maru was one of 34 ships sunk during the two-day allied air strikes against the Japanese base at Truk Lagoon on February 17 and 18, 1944. Truk was the largest Japanese garrison in the Pacific outside of Japan and a huge obstacle for the Americans in their push toward Tokyo. Code-named Operation Hailstone, the U.S.'s attack resulted in one of the largest losses of military hardware in the Second World War. Including subsequent strikes, some 70 ships and 200 aircraft were downed at Truk.

Decades later, the devastating loss for the Japanese navy has become a boon for scuba divers. Most of the wrecks lie within recreational diving depths, in clear water, and are covered in coral and marine life. Unlike Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, where most of the ships were raised and rebuilt for war, there have been no salvage operations at Truk Lagoon.

Although their removal is strictly forbidden, the wrecks are treasure troves of artifacts: sake bottles, silverware and surgical instruments still lie untouched over 60 years later. Gas masks, guns and torpedoes can be found in many of the ship's holds, and crew members' personal effects, like bicycles and work boots, add an eerie reminder of the human toll of war. And, while most of the human remains were removed by the Japanese Navy and cremated in the early 1990s, sharp-eyed divers can still find bones in many of the wrecks. Unexploded ordinance remains a hazard, but a greater danger is getting lost in the labyrinth of holds deep below deck. For that reason, all wreck penetrations must be guided.

Exiting the engine room of the Shinkoku Maru, I discover why the wreck is widely regarded as one of the best dives in Truk Lagoon.

The deck railings are draped in pink and purple soft coral. Red gorgonian fans grow in the blown-out windows of the wheelhouse like giant sun shades. Hard coral covers the huge bow gun, which now resembles a mound more than a mortar. Schools of batfish and jacks hover above the wreck, and sharks patrol in the distance.

I make my way to the fore deck, where a raised cylinder, or pipe bridge, covered in anemones and clownfish extends towards the bow. The Shinkoku was an oil tanker, and this pipe used to fuel other ships. On Dec. 7, 1941, it served as the fuel supply ship for the Japanese fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbour.

To many war historians, the battle of Truk Lagoon was Japan's Pearl Harbour: Operation Hailstone was a surprise air attack launched from aircraft carriers; there was no invasion, and the attackers suffered relatively minor losses (only 25 US aircraft were shot down in the two-day battle). More than 1,000 Japanese troops were killed.

In the week I spent at Truk Lagoon, our group made four or five dives each day. The divers on the trip were mostly from the U.S., Canada and Germany. After a few days I was easily lulled into the live-aboard rhythm of eating, sleeping and diving. The marine life on the wrecks was as impressive as any tropical reefs I've ever seen. But the variety of war artifacts was truly unmatched.

In the Fujikawa Maru, I found two Zero fighter planes, partly disassembled with nose cones missing, likely on their way to the airfield on Moen Island. On the deck of the Nippo Maru were a two-man tank, its gun barrel gone, and several Howitzers. In the Rio De Janeiro Maru, a wine rack containing hundreds of bottles was still intact.

The massive size of the ships most are over 100 metres in length meant several dives were needed to fully explore them, and even then I felt I had only seen part of what each had to offer. Before each dive, the divemasters provided detailed briefings on the wreck and its history. The evenings were spent watching slideshows from the crew and from other divers who were shooting digital photos and video.

Militarily, Truk Lagoon has never been given the importance of Midway or Guadalcanal, turning points for the war in the Pacific where the Japanese navy suffered heavy losses. By late 1943, Allied strategy was to neutralize and bypass Japanese-controlled islands and head directly for Japan. Boeing had just begun to produce the B-29 bomber, an aircraft with a flying range of 5,000 kilometres almost the precise distance from the Mariana Islands to Tokyo and back. But Truk, situated 1,000 kilometres to the southeast, could not be left as a base to harass American operations from the rear. After the February attacks, all shipping was cut off and things became desperate for the nearly 40,000 Japanese troops stationed there.

One of those soldiers was Kashikichi Ito, now 80, who has returned to Chuuk most years since the battle to pay respect to his fallen comrades. The day before my dive boat departed, Ito and a small group of relatives of missing Japanese soldiers set up a memorial on the grounds of the Blue Lagoon Resort, on Moen Island, to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the Truk attacks. On a folding table beside the lagoon, they placed faded black-and-white photos of young, stoic looking soldiers. A cluster of incense sticks burned in a coffee can and a portable radio played traditional music. Two Japanese flags strung from palm trees flapped in the tropical wind.

After the brief ceremony, I shared a cup of sake with Ito, a friendly, slight-built man in a tan golf shirt. He told me in lilting English that he was a wireless communications operator stationed on Dublon Island, in Truk Lagoon, during the war. When the bombs began falling, he escaped to a nearby cave. "The ground moved like an earthquake," he recalled. After the attacks, with supplies cut off, things got worse. There was not enough food.

"Many soldiers were so skinny they could barely walk," he said, bending over and hobbling to demonstrate."My best friend died from starvation. Many young soldiers died." His eyes began to well up. "I am sorry that I am still alive, but they are now in the soil."

Life was even more difficult for the Chuukese people. Many worked for the Japanese Navy and were friends with the Japanese. But after the attacks, things changed.

"The Japanese stopped us from climbing trees to get coconuts, from getting breadfruit or bananas," Iteoshy Dommy, an 81-year old Chuukese who drove landing crafts for the Japanese, told me through an interpreter. Under a sprawling breadfruit tree, the grey-haired senior, with piercing eyes and a red Hawaiian shirt, said that the punishment for taking food was death. Dommy eventually escaped to another island with his family and was able to find enough food to survive. "Things were very difficult. It was the first time we'd seen war."

With the Shinkoku Maru and the Japanese Pacific Fleet on the bottom of Truk Lagoon, on Aug. 6, 1945 a B-29 named Enola Gay under the command of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets was able to safely take off from Tinian Island, in the Northern Marianas, on its way to Hiroshima. The war in the Pacific would soon be over.

As I spiral my way up the mast of the Shinkoku Maru, orange anthias flit in and out of soft coral and anemones. A school of batfish hovers nearby, cautious of my presence. My computer tells me I must stop to decompress from the dive. I hang beside the mast at five metres, blowing bubbles, bobbing in the gentle surge; the hull of the Shinkoku rests far below, a blue ghost from the past.

Source: Globe and Mail