The ghost fleet of Truk Lagoon

By Mike Asplins

Ghost fleet of Truk Lagoon

Ghost fleet of Truk Lagoon

Ghost fleet of Truk Lagoon

Ghost fleet of Truk Lagoon

For most divers Truk Lagoon is near the top of their wish list of places to dive and many would rate it the finest wreck diving anywhere in the world. The destruction of so many ships and aircraft, by the planes of US Carrier Force 50 on 17/18 February 1944, has left a memorable record on the ocean floor.

Due to the nature of the lagoon most of the wrecks lie side by side, so it is easy to dive multiple wrecks in one day. The protection of the reef leads to calm waters, which combined with the high water temperatures, has led to extensive colonisation with the shallower wrecks having an abundance of brightly coloured corals and marine life.

I found that the best way to explore the concentration of wrecks was on a live aboard. Multiple dives on the same wreck means you can explore different sections at leisure, do deep engine room penetrations or simply enjoy the marine life on the external parts. The ability to moor directly over the ship and fall off the back was an ultimate pleasure for those who hate zodiacs!

One can only visit a fraction of the 52 wrecks in a week, but it is possible to see a wide variety and each has a distinctive and memorable personality. On the Yamagiri Maru there was a disturbing find, deep within the engine room, of the skull of a crewman fused by the heat of the fire to the hull. This was one of numerous mortal remains found all over the wrecks of Truk Lagoon and raises questions about divers disturbing these last resting places. Recent requests to bring up further remains have surprisingly been rejected by the Chuuk government. For the Japanese the wrecks are a shrine to their war dead and the continued disturbance by divers causes great upset. In contrast Allied ships, on which lives were lost, are classified as war graves and can rarely be dived, and then with great consideration.

The Shinkoku Maru is one of the largest and most stunning wrecks in the lagoon. Large parts of the ship are in shallow water and she is perfect for multiple dives, including spectacular night dives, exploring the fantastic artificial reef that has grown on her masts and superstructure. Pretty much every colour of soft coral could be found and large groups of reef fish abounded. Grey reef sharks even circled close to the wreck, coming in occasionally to check on us. If this wasn’t enough adrenaline the wreck could be penetrated in a number of places, but using one of the guides was strongly recommended as it was pitch black and heavy with silt at lower levels. The bridge and superstructure can be easily explored and once again in the infirmary there were human remains lying on the operating table.

The Fujikawa Maru is possibly one of the top wrecks in the world as she lies close to upright, is well within sports diving depth, has magnificent deep penetrations and a fascinating cargo. A dive into the engine room and workshop is a must to see the famous ‘R2D2’ compressor and numerous machine tools. Going down to the third level could only be done with an experienced guide as it was forbiddingly dark, but worth it to see a still solid wooden telephone box and perfectly preserved gas mask. Even those who were not claustrophobic admitted to being pretty nervous! The other unique feature is in hold number two where the fuselages of a number of Zero fighters rest on the bottom, making for stunning photographs.

Having waited two years to dive Truk, it still exceeded my high expectations. We were even fortunate to swim with a school of 10-12 dolphins who appeared intrigued by our presence. Surfacing to find dolphins jumping over one’s head made this a wonderful and charmingly rare event. Each dive was different with huge ships, small personal artefacts, dark engine rooms, colourful corals and abundant marine life competing for the highlight of the day.

Mike dived with Odyssey (

www.trukodyssey.com

)

History: Japanese involvement in Micronesia can be traced back to the early years of World War I when German raiders were harassing Allied shipping in the East China Sea from colonial island bases. Japan was requested to join the Allied war effort and they jumped at the excuse to expand their sphere of influence in the Pacific. Japan captured various German islands around Micronesia and set about exploiting them. Suspicions soon began about Japanese intentions as they denied access to all foreign vessels and refused to provide further help in other theatres of the war. After the war Japan was awarded a mandate to govern, despite American protests, provided the islands were demilitarised. Japan immediately set about exploiting the islands for their own interest and relegating the local Trukese to third class citizens, all in breach of the mandate rules. Until the 1930s, however, trade and tourism were the main focus leading to a build up of port facilities and the first flying boat base.

By 1937 the various agreements struck after WWI, limiting military expansion, had expired and Japan began to build communication facilities and military airfields in a substantial way. By 1941 Truk was home to not only the Fourth Mandated Fleet, but also headquarters to the Combined Fleet that was responsible for the planning and execution of the attack on Pearl Harbour. Truk made the perfect naval base, being an atoll 40 miles in diameter with only five navigable passes, but 100m deep in places. It could easily accommodate the whole fleet and had sufficient islands to support coastal defence guns and land based fighter/bombers. Its strategic location and substantial repair facilities made this the most important Japanese base outside of mainland Japan. Shortly before America attacked, the lagoon contained some 100 vessels, including the superbattleships Yamato and Musashi with their 18” guns, and around 370 aircraft of various types.

The Allies were well aware of Japanese preparations, but had little solid intelligence on which to assess the strength of the islands. In January 1942 an Australian air reconnaissance brought back limited information other than to confirm the significant naval and air threat, but the follow up bombing attacks did little damage. It was not until 3 February 1944 that the Americans conducted successful over flights in preparation for their planned sea-borne invasion. The photographs showed a huge number of naval vessels including aircraft carriers and battleships. Operation ‘Hailstone’ was hurriedly rewritten and brought forward to include only the fastest and most powerful ships in the US fleet, hoping for a decisive surface battle. This force included nine aircraft carriers with over 500 fighters, dive-bombers and torpedo bombers. Unfortunately Japanese Admiral Koga had seen the writing on the wall and withdrawn all of the major naval units from the lagoon, back to Japan never to return. Despite this when American attacks began on 17 February 1944 they found 60 vessels at anchor, most of whom were merchantmen either under repair from US submarine attacks or unloading military hardware for the local defences. In the two days of attacks that followed over 45 ships were sunk including six medium warships and a number of special naval auxiliary ships. In addition over 270 aircraft were destroyed leaving the islands virtually defenceless from the air. Due to the damage caused the base became ineffective and the Americans never invaded

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