The ghosts of Truk

Rusty Geller | VOLUME 28, ISSUE 4

Divers and history buffs are drawn to the watery World War II graveyard of Truk Lagoon.

Out in the Pacific, halfway between the Philippines and Fiji, is a lagoon with sleepy tropical islands, warm, crystal-clear water, and 50 diveable World War II shipwrecks. It’s called Truk Atoll, and it’s only a six-hour flight from the east coast of Australia.

I’d been hearing about Truk and its sunken Japanese fleet since I started diving back in the ’70s. I met my lovely wife on a dive trip about then, and together we’ve since dived all over the world.

Truk, however, has always been one of those legendary ‘maybe one day’ places for us. Now the kids are grown and off at uni, we’re starting to stretch our travel legs a bit, leaving our own boat at home and letting someone else do the heavy lifting. So when our 25th wedding anniversary came around and I asked my wife how she wanted to celebrate, she replied without hesitation: “Let’s dive Truk Lagoon”. Did I marry the right gal, or what?

We booked the trip through Diversion Dive Travel in Queensland and flew from Cairns to Guam and on to Chuuk, which is the modern name for Truk. We stayed a few days at the Blue Lagoon dive resort and then went aboard the luxury dive boat Odyssey for a week out on the lagoon.

TROPICAL FORTRESS

At 50sqkm, Truk Lagoon is one of the largest natural harbours in the South Pacific, which is why the Imperial Japanese Navy chose it as its forward supply base for World War II. The Japanese built a huge airfield, fleet repair facilities and submarine base, and emplaced long-range guns on the volcanic peaks covering the entrances to the lagoon. Fittingly, Truk was known as ‘the Gibraltar of the Pacific’.

Fully-laden ships would moor in the lagoon until their supplies were needed in the warzone. Almost three-quarters of a century later, around 70 of those ships are still there, courtesy of the US Navy, lying on the bottom next to their anchors, a ghost fleet frozen in time. It’s the largest collection of shipwrecks in the world, and it’s accessible to anyone with a dive ticket and a plane fare.

On February 17, 1944, the US Navy launched Operation Hailstone, the objective being to clear out Truk in preparation for the invasion of Japan.

The Americans sent 500 carrier-based planes to Truk, pounding the Japanese mercilessly for two days. When it was over, every Japanese ship was on the bottom, while most of the Japanese planes had also been destroyed along with various shore facilities. Then the US simply bypassed the islands, leaving the surviving troops and islanders to starve. War truly is hell.

After the war, the US administered Truk until the Federated States of Micronesia was formed, when it was renamed ‘Chuuk’ (pronounced ‘chook’). Far off the shipping lanes and with few natural resources, Chuuk was all but forgotten, and after 150 years of colonialism and war, the Chuukese enjoyed it that way. If it wasn’t for French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, it would have stayed that way.

FRENCH DISCOVERY

In 1969, Cousteau and the crew of his ship Calypso visited and filmed the shipwrecks for the documentary, Lagoon of Lost Ships. They found ships littered with planes, tanks and guns now covered with corals and teeming with fish. The Cousteau film put Truk Lagoon on the dive-travel map. Cousteau’s Chuukese guide, Kimiuo Aisek, realised the potential for dive tourism and began leading tours, eventually opening the Blue Lagoon resort and dive shop.

In the ’80s the Japanese removed most of the human remains and returned them to Japan for cremation. Now, swimming amongst the peaceful wrecks below the calm seas between the tropical islands, it’s hard to imagine the war that went on for years, and the carnage of February 17 and 18, 1944.

There are two land-based resorts, the Blue Lagoon and the Truk Stop, which offer guided dives from skiffs. They usually hold two dives a day, and – if you push them – a third at night. But the best way to dive Truk is on a liveaboard dive boat, of which there are two: Thorfinn and Odyssey. The venerable Thorfinn is an old North Sea trawler that has been in the lagoon for 25 years. She no longer moves – divers stay onboard and are run out to the wrecks on large inflatables. And then there is the Odyssey.

The American-run Odyssey is a 132ft floating hotel that moves several times a day to moor directly over each shipwreck, enabling divers to make up to five dives daily. Odyssey has six large, air-conditioned double staterooms, two single staterooms, and one double with separate beds, all with en suite. The company provides all meals, guides, tanks and weights for scuba diving, plus enriched air (Nitrox) and – by pre-arrangement – mixed gasses.

BLUE LAGOON

My wife and I flew in on United’s Island Hopper from Cairns via Guam, and landed on Chuuk’s main island of Weno. The crew from the Blue Lagoon picked us up in their bus and we bumped our way over the rutted streets out to the resort, on the site of the old Japanese Navy seaplane base.

It’s a comfortable motel-like complex on a peninsula of grassy lawns shaded by coconut palms. The rooms are clean, the view across the lagoon to jungle-clad islands is idyllic, and the food in the air-conditioned restaurant was good – especially the large plates of tuna, fresh sashimi, and chilled coconuts served with a straw. There is a full outdoor seaside bar featuring beers from the US, Europe, Australia and the Philippines.

Before boarding Odyssey, we spent two days diving with Blue Lagoon from its skiffs, which were spacious, but basic. The guides were locals: reliable, knowledgeable and mature. We did two dives a day and jumped four of the local wrecks. It was a good warm-up for what was to come.

There’s something special about diving shipwrecks, especially ones sunk in battle. Seeing such large, manmade objects underwater is startling. As we descended, the wrecks appeared out of the deep blue as hazy shapes, then took form and detail until they filled our view. Some of the ships are upright, some list precariously, some lie on their side attesting to their calamitous arrival on the seabed. Nature laughs at man’s feeble attempts to be significant, for now fish swim along the masts, corals encrust the decks, and colonies of anemones cling to the superstructures. As we dropped onto the ships it felt ghostly: 70 years after they were sunk, people are inhabiting them once more.

Buoyancy offset gravity as we glided over the decks. It was like being a kid again, not knowing where to look first. As we explored we started to recognise coral-encrusted shapes and tried to guess what they were: ship’s telegraphs, davits, winches, deck guns. And then we slipped inside.

A ghostly emerald glow seeped through the portholes illuminating cabins, holds and workspaces. We floated through hatches and down corridors where sailors and passengers once strode. In the galleys we saw stoves, pots and dishes. In holds we saw trucks, artillery shells, torpedoes, bicycles, boxes of beer bottles, and entire airplanes that were being shipped to destinations never reached. We saw where people lived, slept, ate, worked, and died. On the bridges we saw the wheels, the compass binnacles and telegraphs, and gazed out portholes over the foredeck in hazy blue-green light below 30m of sea water. In one engine room we saw a ship’s clock frozen at the moment of her sinking. As we explored we stole glances at our gauges, reminded that our time below was limited. After half an hour of wonder, we forced ourselves to slowly re-emerge into the muted daylight, and on up to the surface.

On the way up we lingered at the top of a mast for a safety stop amidst fairy-like swarms of colourful fish darting through delicate corals and sponges. We looked back down at the ship and saw it as a whole once again, appreciating that people built it and that people sank it, and thought about all that happened in between: voyages, ports of call, the war and that final day of conflagration. And when we emerged from the sea and climbed back onto the dive boat, we realised we’d experienced something very special.

EVEN BETTER

Late on the second day we boarded Odyssey and the diving went from good to great. We filled out forms, had a light dinner and a glass of wine, and were told diving would begin the next morning about 8am. We assembled our cameras and hit the bunk, in this case a queen-sized bed.

Breakfast was at 7am: eggs, pancakes, cereal, fruit, coffee and juice. Then there was a thorough pre-dive briefing, detailing the highlights of the first wreck. It was the Kiyosumi Maru, a boat typical of the sunken fleet. She was a 135m passenger/cargo vessel built in the 1930s for the Tokyo to New York run. When the war started she was converted to an armed raider, with deck guns and torpedoes. Sunk by dive bombers from the USS Yorktown and USS Enterprise, she is lying on her side in 33m of water, with the side of the hull at 14m. A huge torpedo hole allows entrance to the engine room. The superstructure is partially collapsed. A bicycle still hangs in one hold, the anti-aircraft guns and torpedo tubes can still be seen on deck.

With 30 per cent O2 Nitrox, we had a 45-minute dive with a safety stop at 3m, after which we enjoyed a refreshing morning tea. Two hours later we were back in the water, this time jumping the Fumizuki, a 100m destroyer sitting upright with a port list. The sand is at 38m, the deck is at 30m. She was pretty well crunched-in from bombing, but had the classic knife-bow destroyer hull and a deck full of armament. There was a delightful corridor to swim down, and under the stern the screw could be seen protruding from the sand.

After lunch the Odyssey moored above the Shinkoku Maru, a 150m tanker sitting upright in 38m of water with her deck at 21m. We did three dives: one on the bow where the coral-encrusted gun still points ahead, her bow telegraph still readable. Another dive took us into the engine room. The third was a night dive in which we encountered sleeping turtles and beautiful soft corals.

Back onboard we had dinner, hit the bar for a nightcap and then turned in. Not bad for the first day.

WRECKS TO REMEMBER

Some highlights of the rest of the week included the Fujikawa Maru, an aircraft transporter with two fighter planes in her hold. The Heian Maru, a submarine tender, featured torpedoes, bombs and periscopes, while the Rio De Janiero Maru, which is lying on its side, has a hold packed so tightly with boxes of beer that they form a wall. The Shinkoku Maru has a hold full of machine gun bullets, some still in strips; and another hold with radial airplane engines and truck chassis. The Nippo Maru has a howitzer field gun on the foredeck and a medium battle tank on the aft. A Mitsubishi ‘Betty’ bomber was mostly intact, 20m down, where it had landed on the sand after crashing short of the runway.

We made 29 dives in eight days on 13 wrecks, including a submarine and the bomber. It was the dive trip of a lifetime – the only problem now is how to top it.


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