By Monty Halls, images Dan Burton
Palau, for all its twenty-first century tranquillity, was the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the second world war.
And so we travelled half way across the world to Palau. This is a true tropical paradise, with 307 exquisite rock islands cloaked in dense foliage, fringed by the shelves of coral reefs covered in crystal shallows leading to the dark velvet of deep water over precipitous undersea cliffs. Meander through the warren of islands under blue tropical skies, feet sinking into talcum powder sand with the warm wind in your face, and you could be excused for thinking that you had arrived at the singular most peaceful spot on earth. But stare more closely at the darker overhangs on the rock walls, and the beginning of a grim secret starts to be revealed. Take a hike into the sheer rock hills at the centre of the islands, sweating and grunting under the canopy, slipping and wincing over razor-like limestone and coral rocks, and the secret is revealed in sick detail. Concrete pill boxes stand as if abandoned only hours before, huge guns still point out to sea covering narrow deep water channels, and everywhere is the detritus of a vanquished army.
Palau, for all its twenty-first century tranquillity, was the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the second world war. Such expressions slip easily off the tongue, and perhaps conjure up images of GIs chewing gum whilst firing from the hip under swaying palms as the enemy dies theatrically before them. The reality was a living hell â of the 12,000 Japanese soldiers dug in to the island of Peleliu, only 19 were taken prisoner. The rest died fighting a battle they knew they would lose against a campaign hardened enemy in the most bitter hand to hand fighting seen in modern warfare – medieval savagery in paradise.
This history is so recent that the lingering echo of the final gunshot still seems to sound around the lagoons, mingling with the shrieks of the white tailed tropic birds that wheel overhead.
Our hosts were Samâs Tours, a well established dive and adventure tour operator based on the main island, and incomparable guides through the archipelago. Before exploring the wrecks sprinkled around the islands, we simply had to experience the roaring currents that bathe the outer reef, washing over the some of the truly great dive sites on earth. Blue Corner proved to be the reg-free-flowing-mask-wobbling-teeth-clenching pelagic extravaganza of legend. Great schools of blackfin barracuda swirled above cruising grey and white tip reef sharks, and a lone hovering eagle ray peered down at us, perfectly motionless in the racing blue water. As the team hung at the deco stop, several grey reef sharks swirled aggressively in for a closer look, seemingly rattled by the incongruous presence of a white plastic bag pulsing in mid water. These passes became so aggressive that the final diver on the deco stop made the sensible decision that he would rather be on the boat with a minute of deco outstanding than working his way slowly through a large fishâs alimentary canal with a smug piece of electronics on one wrist.
There was also the opportunity to explore the Temple of Doom â entered through a trapdoor size hole at the base of an eerie blue cave. Chandelier Cave proved as enchanting as any computer generated Tolkien movie set, a chain of echoing sumps streaked with mineral deposits and dripping stalactites. Jellyfish Lake provided a surreal surface interval snorkelling experience, and gloriously coloured soft corals and gorgonians provided a backdrop for the 1500 fish species that swim in the most species rich seas on earth. As a finale to our non-wreck related diving, our boundlessly energetic and eccentric guide Kevin Davidson arranged a Nautilus dive. This involved dropping a bait to 1000 feet in a cage to draw in the Nautilus for examination the next morning. Normally the bait is a chicken, but the combination of a large yacht in the harbour and Kevinâs infectious enthusiasm meant that this particular trap was baited with a commandeered pheasant. This obviously attracted a better class of Nautilus, and a bumper crop was viewed by the team the next day in a dive that will be written up as a separate feature.
We were here for the wrecks though, and the scene was set by a sobering presentation from local guide Ron at the centre the night before the wreck dives were due to begin. The tales of the savagery of the fighting and the level of the brutality on both sides left us thoughtful and sombre, a stark reminder that these were real ships, real aircraft, real people.
First dive was the Iro, a giant tanker that burnt for three days before sinking. Sitting upright in 30 metres, she still bears the clear scars of the bomb strike that mortally wounded her. The huge pylons that acted as refuelling struts still reach for the seas surface, cloaked with extraordinary coral growth and clouds of fry.
Next was the Jake float plane, lying in 15 metres of water, upright on skewed floats, propeller pitched drunkenly towards the sea bed. The fuselage is snapped in half, providing a glimpse of spars and struts. The cockpit still has glass panels intact, and is thrown open in a terrifying moment that has been frozen in time, giving the team a voyeuristic chill as they sweep around the wreckage. But for an accident of time it could have been any of us in the team clawing desperately at our straps as the stricken aircraft plunged towards the sea bed, and the young men who were then the pilots drifting over the wreck in the year 2003, showing passing interest before heading back to shore as we did for a quiet beer and a chat as the sun set. There was still time that day to snorkel over the remnants of a Zero fighter lying intact in five feet of water. The pilot, nineteen years old, staggered from the crashed aircraft and walked to shore, where he lived for three months before being repatriated to Japan. He still returns occasionally to Palau.
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