Truk Lagoon: Immersion Into History
Ghosts whisper here. As I swim down a dim passageway of the Shinkoku Maru, small staterooms branching off to each side, it seems I can hear them, softly whispering, hissing at my passage. Many years ago, when I first explored this vast, sunken ship from World War II, I entered one of these rooms to find the skeletal remains of two Japanese sailors, their empty eye sockets staring at me as I disturbed their rest.
It was then I first felt their presence, first imagined I could almost hear muted voices. I remember thinking it could have been many things the soft scrape of bubbles from my breathing slipping over rusted metal, perhaps; the groans of the slowly settling ship's hulk; the sighs and gurgles of water moving through small spaces. Yet they seemed to be speaking to me: Tell our story.
Flash forward to 2008.
I sit, fascinated, in the Blue Lagoon Dive Shop, surrounded by war relics brought up from the sunken ships and planes in the lagoon just outside. I am listening to Gradvin Aisek relay the stories from his father, the late Kimiuo Aisek, the man destined to become Truk's diving pioneer:
" and the Japanese actually took over the islands in 1914, much earlier than most people realize. This place was called Truk in those days, because the Germans, who were here before that, couldn't pronounce the local name, Chuuk, and had called it Truk instead.
At first, for about 20 years, the islands were under civilian control, and things were peaceful. My father was born on the island of Dublon during this time, in 1927. When the military took over in 1934, however, things quickly changed. Heavy construction, getting ready for war, began all over Truk. Besides the Korean laborers they brought in, all Trukese men were put into forced labor as well. Over the coming years, they built airfields, docks, seaplane and submarine bases, gun installations, fuel and ammunition depots, and fortifications. Our small island place was turned into a naval base other than Pearl Harbor, the largest in the entire Pacific. My father's home island became the Japanese headquarters.
During those days, it was very bad for some, not so bad for others, depending upon what work they were given. For construction workers, it was very difficult they worked from sunrise to sunset, in heavy labor, digging tunnels, hauling heavy materials and equipment up to the tops of mountains where the guns often were, building everything the Japanese needed. Those working on their own islands could go home to their families at night, but those from other islands, especially the small outer islands, lived in camps where they worked. If you were sick or didn't come to work, Japanese soldiers would come find you and beat you. Workers weren't fed too much it was a hard time."
Although I had read the various histories of Truk Lagoon throughout the years, it became clear there was much I had not heard or understood before. Most all of my previous time here had been spent diving, and I began to realize that I had not fully comprehended the rest of the story what had happened to the local people and the full extent of the fortifications and weapons installations they had been forced to construct.
I recalled my flight in, getting that first look at Chuuk (the traditional name is now again the official one see "A Rose by Any Other Name ..." below) on the horizon. I couldn't help but think what American pilots must have been feeling as they made their approaches during the war. It probably looked much the same a large group of tropical islands within a huge, turquoise lagoon, all floating on a big, seemingly empty sea, far from anywhere. As Gradvin had said so succinctly, "No one had ever heard of us before the war, and if it weren't for what happened here then, no one would know of us now, either."
Remote though it is, its location adjacent to the major shipping lanes between Australia and both Hawaii and Japan and its unusually large, deep lagoon made Truk a natural staging and defensive position for Japan's WWII expansion into the Pacific. It played key roles in not only the attack on Pearl Harbor, but the invasions and occupations of island groups from Wake to the Solomons, Papua New Guinea and Guam.
As America began its retaking of the Pacific theater, Truk became a necessary target. With its reputation for defensive impregnability (the island was often referred to as the "Gibraltar of the Pacific"), the cost of an invasion was deemed prohibitive. The U.S. Navy decided, instead, to simply bomb the island fortress out of usefulness. Once completed, they would leave it behind as the assault northward into the Marianas continued. With this, Operation Hailstone, aka Operation Hailstorm, was born.
On Feb. 17 and 18, 1944, a huge fleet of American ships, including the carriers Enterprise, Yorktown, Belleau Wood, Essex, Intrepid, Cabot, Bunker Hill, Cowpens and Monterey, carrying more than 500 aircraft and accompanied by battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and support vessels, launched against Truk. As Kimiuo described it:
"It was 1944; I was 17 years old. One morning, just before dawn, we heard loud explosions and thought it was the Japanese practicing. Then my uncle ran in, waking everybody up it was a surprise attack. We ran and hid in a cave; everyone was very afraid. I went out and watched, and saw American planes dropping bombs, ships on fire and airplanes falling from the sky. The attack lasted two days, and there was terrible destruction ."
In the two days of continuous bombing, the Japanese lost some 60 ships and 300 aircraft along with airfields, fuel and munitions depots, and communications and other installations. Operation Hailstone was a unique and resounding success, and Truk was removed as a viable player in the continuing war. As planned, except for periodic, follow-up saturation bombing by B-24s and B-29s in the following months chiefly "real-world" practice for aircrews on their way to bomb the Japanese homeland the islands were left behind until the Japanese finally surrendered in 1945.
The most poignant part of Kimiuo's story unfolded:
"During the following months, they came back again and again, usually big bombers, dropping bombs everywhere from the ocean to the land and to the ocean again, over and over. Almost everything was gone, then the ships, the airfields, the warehouses, everything. The worst time was after that. The Japanese took anything the people had. Any food they found, any fish they caught, even if someone climbed a tree and got a coconut, everything was taken. People were starving, and they ate anything they could find. The soldiers made everyone work in the fields growing sweet potatoes and tapioca, because those were the fastest foods that could be grown with a crop in only three months. The local people survived by stealing from the fields at night. They also only cooked and ate at night, when the Japanese soldiers couldn't see the smoke from their cooking fires, afraid they would be caught. If they caught you, you would be beaten, or worse. It was a very, very bad time."
After the war's end, Truk once again subsided into obscurity. The jungle grew and covered over the scars of war, burying them deeply under a cloak of green. The ocean did its part with even more exuberance, and under the clear, warm waters of the lagoon, a fantastic reformation took place. The many ships and planes lost there 44 ships and a number of various aircraft are now located and divable became massive undersea gardens, with incredible growths of hard and soft corals, gorgonian fans, anemones and sponges; and shoals of fish took up residence, bringing renewed life to these many implements and depositories of death. And, for nearly 30 years until diving began in Truk they lay, undisturbed and unexplored, with their vast collections of military and personal artifacts, and the remains of their perished crews; undoubtedly, the most beautiful, bountiful collection of shipwrecks ever seen, anywhere.
With Fresh Eyes
Now, so many years later, despite nature's transformations, what has not faded is the sense of history that's utterly enmeshed in the fabric of these quiet islands. It's almost palpable, and you instinctively know that you are in a place where inexplicable events events bigger than life once occurred. And, upon your first descent onto one of those fantastic shipwrecks, you suddenly find yourself immersed in and reliving history, to an extent impossible to ignore.
With Kimiuo's story recounted to me and in-depth rereading of the fascinating military accounts of Operation Hailstone especially the aircrew debriefings and targeting reports I plan my dives and island hikes with those historical references as my guide. For the first time in all of my trips to Chuuk, the ships and wreckage become more than isolated war relics; instead, they are the pieces and players in the tumultuous series of events that was the attack on Truk Lagoon. This adds a fantastic sense of anticipated discovery and an exhilarating mind's-eye view of the occurrences of those frightful two days so many years ago this was war theater, real history, at its most dramatic, and I have a front-row seat.
My first dive is on a ship that might have been seen by young Kimiuo as it was attacked. The 353-foot-long Nippo Maru was a passenger-cargo vessel fitted for wartime to carry water, ammunition and ordnance. It had been active in supplying troops throughout Micronesia and arrived in Truk on Feb. 10, 1944. Anchored at the far edge of the Dublon anchorage, the Nippo was hit in the first strike against ships on Feb. 17. Avengers from Essex scored with three, 500-pound bombs amidships; it sank quickly, upright on a 165-foot bottom.
The Nippo is well-preserved, and visibility, as usual, exceeds 100 feet. At the deck's 130-foot depth, the dive is cool, quiet and blue. I am determined to get two photos here a shot of a Japanese tank on the deck amidships, and another of three, wheeled howitzer cannons stored on the deck aft of the bridge.
My guide, Cheni, takes me straight to the howitzers and is pressed into service as a model. We then move to the tank an extraordinary sight its turret, wheels and treads intact and sharply visible, with little marine growth.
I get my shots, and we move toward the bow for a safety stop. As we ascend, two divers on rebreathers enter a deep passageway far below us, on what must be a fascinating penetration dive. Their disappearance into that mysterious, concealed space, its contents and inhabitants, for many Japanese sailors died on this lonely ship only imaginable, starts an eerie feeling in which imagined wartime flashbacks begin to intrude on my thoughts; like some old film that, unbidden, turns itself on and off inside my head.
We arrive at the Fujikawa Maru late one afternoon, just before dark. Approximately 435 feet long, this passenger and cargo ship was converted to an armed airport transport for the war. It had been damaged by a torpedo and bombs, and was brought to Truk for repairs in December 1943; it had been back in service only a month when Operation Hailstone began. Planes from several battle groups attacked the Fujikawa where it was anchored off Dublon. A torpedo hit amidships by an Avenger from the Bunker Hill, followed by a huge explosion and fire, is credited for its sinking, upright in 110 feet of water.
As we descend, the light is dim, but, almost everywhere, because of the late hour, the soft corals and various cup corals thickly covering the ship are coming into full, nighttime bloom. Our lights pick up extravagant blazes of riotous color from masts, spars and railings. Once I reach the deck at 60 feet, I enter the forward hold, which is packed with rows of artillery shells, drums and propeller blades. Moving to hold No. 2, there is a fantastic jumble of aircraft and parts, including the intact fuselage of a Zero fighter plane.
I move to the bow; incredible growths of hard and soft corals, anemones and gorgonian fans seem to adorn every available surface. A vast school of fusiliers swirls about us. Passing the collapsed forward mast, I finish my dive at the bow gun a 25-foot-long, 6-inch, British naval gun, its menacing shape softened by a hanging garden of soft corals.
On another day, we reach one of the lagoon's monster-sized ships, the 461-foot-long Rio de Janeiro Maru. The passenger liner, converted into a troop transport, had been active throughout the war. Suffering damage by a torpedo from a U.S. submarine in 1942, it had been repaired and arrived in Truk only a few weeks before Hailstone. It was initially hit by several bombs from Yorktown Dauntless dive bombers on Feb. 17 while at anchor east of Uman Island, and left sinking. The Rio was hit again that day by one or two 1,000-pound bombs by Bunker Hill Helldivers. It sank during the night on its port side in 100 feet of water, after a ferocious fire and explosions of its own ammunition.
We begin our dive amidships, along the vertically oriented deck; the gigantic main stack hangs over our heads as we move through shadow. We pass jutting hoists and reach the large rear holds, the first full of coal and gun parts, the next spilling over with thousands of beer bottles.
It's a visually disconcerting swim through gloom, the long stern mast looming horizontally above me from right to left. A group of blue trevally feeds, cutting in and out of seemingly millions of yellowmouth cardinalfish that practically fill the holds. A large, only vaguely familiar shape hangs from the ship; I suddenly realize it is the heavily grown-over, 6-inch stern gun, difficult to recognize in its sideways orientation; its ominous, dangerous bulk starts my flashbacks spinning once again.
In the midst of all this poignant history, I'm brought back to the present, to the unexpected, by a world-class shark dive, near the lagoon's outer edge, at the aptly named Shark Island. Off to the side of this picture-postcard, coconut-palmed islet, we drop down on a lovely, live-coral slope along the white-sand channel, in water simply teeming with sharks. No feeding is necessary to attract the apex predators there is a shark cleaning station here that draws them in, and for an hour and a half, I sit at 40 feet in the calm water as 20-plus gray and blacktip reef sharks repeatedly circle past and around me. Right on cue, one of the grays stands up vertically in that strange, undulating, "clean me" posture unique to sharks. I am amazed once again surprised and delighted by the incredible offerings of the sea.
A Special Recon
Throughout my reading, the targeting maps and pilot debriefings have included much information about the airfield at Eten and the headquarters island of Dublon, just across a narrow channel. I manage a visit first to Eten, a small island that had been extended by laborers into the shape of a huge aircraft carrier. The wartime reconnaissance photos show a large administration building and a row of heavily fortified buildings just nearby. Now, walking down a jungle path atop the old, crushed-coral runway, we come upon the administration building heavily bombed, but still standing. To the side, there is the row of fortified buildings, with 4-foot-thick concrete walls still intact and smooth, each one with a small, blasted hole or shredded dimple on its ceiling from a delayed-fuse, bunker-piercing bomb. Black, scorched walls are evidence to horrific, undoubtedly fatal, blasts.
The reports also contain repeated references by pilots to heavy anti-aircraft fire from the small mountain on the southeastern corner of Dublon, affecting their bomb runs on the Eten airfield. The targeting maps indicate three anti-aircraft batteries in that general location; I am intrigued, and to my delight, receive an invitation to explore Dublon. We see bunkers, many tunnels built into the sides of hills and the bombed-out communications center. Just past the old Japanese military hospital, we begin the climb I have requested to a gun location my guides have identified. Near the top, we round the curving hill to a stunning view of Eten, its landing field running directly across the line of sight. Planes making bomb runs up and down the runway would cross this view, from horizon to horizon. Then, just steps farther up the path, there it is in the center of a circular concrete pit, a twin-barrel gun, undoubtedly one of the three so often mentioned in the reports, still intact, its malevolent lines ample testimony of its danger to American pilots during Operation Hailstone. My flashbacks again begin to spin, this time as if they don't intend to stop.
My last wreck dive in Chuuk is on an old acquaintance, the 500-foot-long tanker Shinkoku Maru. A veteran of many Japanese campaigns, including Rabaul and Midway, it had arrived at Truk only three days before Operation Hailstone began. Anchored northwest of Eten Island, the Shinkoku was attacked by Dauntless dive bombers from the Yorktown and received a hit on Feb. 17. The next day, an unidentified strike group hit the tanker with torpedoes; it sank, aflame, on an even keel in 125 feet of water.
Our dive begins aft of the bridge. The ship is Truk's most-brilliantly vital shipwreck, thickly covered with hard and soft corals, cockscomb oysters, sponges and other life of every description. There are many, many fish in thick schools and in every nook and cranny. We enter a passageway at about 90 feet to reach the large engine room, which is well-lit from openings above. Catwalks surround the huge cylinder heads, and a large torpedo hole opens into blue water. There are many crew effects; a number of sailors died here in explosions, flames and escaping steam. It is a somber place, a place, I know, of death.
I swim forward along the deck, appreciating the sunshine and the life-filled scene around me. A brief foray into a short passageway reveals an infirmary and its operating table, with a few bones piled in a wooden box. Near the end of the dive, we visit the 45-foot-deep navigation bridge a bright, soft-coral-festooned room complete with an upright ship's telegraph.
At the last moment, I venture down the passageway to the now-empty stateroom where I found the Japanese sailors so many years ago. Their ghostly whisperings still resonating through my mind; I begin to think that perhaps some sense of peace has finally come to those lost souls of that cataclysmic time, and it has. Their remains have been taken home to their families and buried in their homeland; in bits and pieces through the years, their faint voices have been heard and their stories have been told. As I linger, I, too, realize a moment of peace in this cool, dimly lit place. I look at where the skulls once lay.
Their story has been told.
Special thanks to Blue Lagoon Resort and Dive Shop (bluelagoondiveresort.com), Continental Airlines (continental.com), Chuuk Visitors Bureau (visit-fsm.org/chuuk), and Truk Stop Hotel and Truk Lagoon Dive Center (trukstophotel.com).
"A Rose by Any Other Name
So, what is it? Truk or Chuuk? Well, it depends, and if you ask locals, some will say it really doesn't matter. Chuuk was the original name, but the Germans, during their occupation, began calling it Truk. This stuck until the mid-1980s when Chuuk was officially readopted.
But, when writing about the war, the wrecks and the diving, writers will still generally use Truk, with present-day references generally as Chuuk. However, there's more: Moen, the central island, is now officially Weno, although you will see and hear both; Dublon is now Tonoas, although some residents still refer to it as Dublon; and Eten is now Etten, which, unless you see it written, you would never know is different. Even the war operation itself, depending upon the reference book you read, will be referred to as either "Operation Hailstone" or "Operation Hailstorm."
Thank goodness kind locals told me it really doesn't matter. Whew!
On Weno (Moen), visit the Japanese communications center, now used as Xavier High School; the 15 cm Vickers-type naval coastal gun in the caves above the airport; and, if possible, the Japanese lighthouse. On Etten (Eten), visit the airfield administration building and adjacent fortified buildings with their interesting bomb damage. On Tonoas (Dublon), see the Japanese hospital, the commandant's bunker, the concrete tunnels and the hilltop AA gun battery. After diving, visit the Truk Stop Hotel's veranda Internet café, the hotel's excellent restaurant and their local nightspot, the Hard Wreck Café.
The Guide to Chuuk
Average Water Temperature: 85 degrees F
What to Wear: In the water, a 3 mm fullsuit or skin. Topside, casual, tropical clothing; women should be aware of the Chuuk custom to keep thighs covered in public (although bathing suits, etc., are fine on dive boats).
Average Viz: 60- to 100-plus feet
When to Go: Chuuk is protected and out of the normal typhoon belt, so it can be enjoyed year-round.
Must DoDon't miss toasting the sunset at Blue Lagoon Resort's aptly named Sunset Bar.
Shinkoku Maru: With likely the most-beautiful marine growth and the most fish of any of the lagoon's ships, the 500-foot-long tanker is worthy of multiple dives to even get a sense of all it has to offer.
Fujikawa Maru: The Fujikawa, a 435-foot-long aircraft transport, is easily accessible the deck is at about 45 feet but has excellent penetrations for experienced wreck divers.
Fumitsuki Maru: The last wreck discovered in the lagoon (in 1987), the 493-foot-long destroyer has two large, soft-coral-covered deck guns, torpedo tubes along the sides and a trove of personal effects scattered about.
Rio de Janeiro Maru: The 461-foot-long converted passenger liner's huge deck guns and a hold full of thousands of beer bottles make it unique.
Nippo Maru: This 353-foot-long passenger-cargo vessel's cargo includes a Japanese tank sitting upright on the deck, with three, wheeled howitzer cannons nearby.
Continental Air Micronesia out of Honolulu, via Guam is your best bet. For the adventurous, there is the famous "puddle-jumper" Air Micronesia flight, which departs from Honolulu and stops in Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae and Pohnpei before landing in Chuuk some 12 hours later. Pack carefully, as there are no longer any baggage exceptions for scuba gear; complete routing on Continental can save on any excess baggage fees.
Rigged & ReadyDive Rite O2ptima FX: Extend your bottom time with this electronically driven rebreather with built-in decompression ability. (Additional training is required.)
Although Truk diving is close and easy to reach, with three dives per day the norm, the lagoon's live-aboard dive boats offer opportunities for extended diving. They either anchor near concentrations of wrecks, with short trips to sites via small dive boats, or they actually anchor at various wrecks, allowing multiple dives on them. Either way, the live-aboards may offer as many as five dives per day, including night dives, a special treat in Truk. Several live-aboards service the area, including Expedition Fleet's MV Pacific Explorer II (expeditionfleet.com), Odyssey Adventures' Odyssey (trukodyssey.com) and Thorfinn (thorfinn.net).
Chuuk Visitor's Bureau
Truk Stop Hotel/Truk Lagoon Dive Center
Blue Lagoon Resort/Blue Lagoon Dive Shop