Torpedoes, bombs and really, really big guns
By Jeanne Liebetrau and Peter Pinnock
The distinctive shape of a flight deck terializes as I descend to 30m. I imagine a fighter plane returning – mission complete. The pilot negotiates the approach, the deck crew ready for the landing, the firefighting crews on standby and gunners scanning the skies for stray enemy aircraft. I fin over the vast deck from which hundreds of planes have landed and taken off. A fine layer of silt stirs, revealing the rivets that once held the teak planks together. In the sponsons (support for a gun) on either side of the deck rows of ammunition are stacked ready to be loaded into the tactically positioned 5â€ 38 calibre guns and MK2 Quad 40mm guns. The rubber focusing eyecup on one of the 38 calibre guns is still in good nick. A colony of whip corals growing on these weapons softens the harshness of the scene. Schools of coral groupers lazily swim over the piles of ammunition. Fore of the bridge the number one twin 5â€ 38 calibre guns stand resolutely pointing to the skies. How many planes did these big guns shoot down? On the bridge the flight deck control room and aeorological platforms are invitingly open. Further up, inside the communications room, the identification labels marking the speaking tubes to the decks below are clearly legible â€“ â€˜Aviation ready room’, â€˜Main communication station’ and â€˜Captain’s emergency cabin’. A table in the navigation room is a treasure trove of historical artefacts. This is the scene on a check out dive on USS Saratoga CV3, Bikini Atoll â€“ the largest diveable aircraft carrier in the world â€“ three metres longer than the Titanic.
Saratoga was one of 73 target vessels for the atomic tests performed on Bikini Atoll. In 1946 fully laden battleships, battle cruisers, destroyers, transport ships, landing craft and submarines were strategically placed inside the atoll for Operation Crossroads. Today these wrecks are the property of the Bikini people and since 1996 Bikini Atoll Divers have been taking adventurous souls on incredible exploration dives. The history of Bikini, its people, the tests and the diving is an amazing story.
After WW2 the new superpower, the USA, wanted to do tests on the atomic weapons that had just destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bikini Atoll was identified as ideal as it is sheltered with predictable weather, it was under Allied control and only 167 people would need relocating. The Bikinians were approached on a Sunday after church and told that they needed to give up their island paradise for â€˜the good of mankind.’ Perhaps they were intimidated by the monstrous battleships parked in their lagoon from which the officials had disembarked, or perhaps the Sunday spirit had something to do with it, but soon the Bikinians and some of their fishing craft were shipped off to Rongerap Atoll, 201 kms away. Bikini was transformed into a camp for 42 500 people involved in the tests including observers and the press. The first test was an aerial drop called the Able Blast. The press labelled it a spectacular flop. While it missed the target ship, it did sink five others: HIMJS Sakawa; USS Anderson, USS Lamson, USS Gilliam and USS Carlisle. The day after the test US personnel boarded the remaining ships to retrieve test monitoring equipment. Radiation levels were extremely high but minimal protective clothing was worn. The world was still blissfully unaware of the invisible danger of nuclear fallout.
Three weeks later the second test took place. This was the Baker Blast, an underwater nuclear explosion. This one was a spectacular sight as tons of displaced ocean and pulverized coral was sucked upwards into a huge mushroom cloud. This blast sank seven vessels immediately including the submarines USS Apogon, Pilotfish and Skipjack. USS Saratoga was badly damaged and sank a few hours later as did HIMJS Nagato. Although the third test was cancelled, the US continued to test nuclear weapons at the atoll until 1958.
Meanwhile, the Bikinians were starving to death on their new island home. The lagoon produced little fish and the coconuts were small. Once again they were moved, first to a tent city on Kwajolein and then to Kili Island where many still live today. In 1968 officials decided that Bikini was radiologically safe for the people. Subsequently in 1971 a few returned, but within a few years medical examinations found unacceptably high levels of cesium-137 ingested through eating coconut and banyan fruits. Once again the Bikinians were relocated. In 1982 through the efforts by Jack Nieden, legal action was taken against the US government resulting in the Bikinians winning a resettlement trust fund. Bikini Island still, remains elusive for Bikinians as all food must be imported making it unviable for traditional living.
Bikini Atoll Divers utilize simple yet comfortable accommodation. Food is brought in by supply ship or plane, the water is safe to drink and ice-cream is on tap in the dining hall! The only other persons living on the island are parks officials who maintain the island for the visiting scientists who monitor the radiation levels in the coconut plantation. The nearest island is 201 kilometres away and there is only one flight a week onto the atoll. Dive safety is therefore of paramount importance and detailed briefings include the wrecks’ history, the dive plan and an emergency plan. The danger of diving Bikini is not the radiation but the depths.
Listening to Saratoga’s history I realized she demands a lot of respect. Sara was the first vessel to be launched as an aircraft carrier. At 251m long she was the largest vessel in the sea and could cruise at 22knots â€“ the fastest at the time. Her cargo of 81-83 aircraft fought in many air strikes in the Pacific and was known to have sunk one carrier, two cruisers and several destroyers, plus damaging one battleship, several destroyers and numerous merchant ships and hundreds of aircraft. She became a legend when, in the battle of Iwo Jima she was badly damaged by five kamikaze pilots and seven bombs but didn’t sink. Firemen doused the burning deck which was rebuilt in only five hours.
The second dive on Sara we head down her elevator shaft into the hangar deck. Rows of incendiary bombs and AN Mark 64 aerial bombs greet us as we enter. It may have been down here for 50 years but the live ammunition still makes me nervous. Parked in a corner is a Curtis SB2C Helldiver that is intact apart from the engine cowling that has fallen off. The pilot’s dials and gauges are frozen in position. The hangar deck ceiling has collapsed crushing many of the planes but amazingly there are fluorescent lights that survived both the blast and the sinking. Exiting the hangar deck we arrive in the mess. Crockery and cutlery is scattered all over the place. With too little time to scratch we proceed to the command tower where the compulsory decompression stops allowed us time to explore each of the decks.
The bow dive on Saratoga is a phenomenal experience. Sara sits upright on the lagoon floor at 52m. The bow curves gracefully towards the flight deck at 32m. Her heavy anchor chains lie tossed on the sands below. A giant hole is reminiscent of the stockless anchor’s size. A healthy growth of long whip corals blurs her sharp outline when viewed from afar. I feel dwarfed by her pure size. Out on the sand beyond the bow are two planes that were blown off the flight deck in the blasts. A Helldiver and the other is a TB Avenger Torpedo bomber. The bomb bay of the Avenger is open revealing her lethal cargo. Sadly both planes now resemble dead insects with their wheels protruding helplessly in the air.
Over the week we dive on seven different wrecks. Nothing has been removed from these wrecks. Each one remains armed with tons of unexploded ammunition and massive guns.
The most infamous of the ships is HIMJS Nagato. This was Admiral Yamamoto’s command centre when attacking Pearl Harbour. The Nagato rests upside down on top of the biggest guns imaginable. With some tricky bearing and elevation calculations these guns could fire an unbelievable 33kms. The projectiles for the four twin mounted 16â€ guns weigh 900kg each. Swimming underneath the deck is unnerving – there are several tons of once hostile steel overhead. The gun barrels are hard to describe â€“ is it the length or the width that makes them so formidable? The Japanese inscribed tampion still plugs the barrel of the No1 gun. The pagoda (bridge) was built exceptionally high to accommodate the gun director’s view. This fell off as she turned turtle and is lying alongside the upturned hull. As I swim past I wonder in which deck Yamamoto heard the call â€˜tora tora tora’ signalling that the attack on Pearl Harbour was a success. I move away from the horrific thoughts and head for the four giant propellers. Nature is now in charge of these props that once powered this heavyweight battleship. Lightly encrusted with red and orange growth, it is a reminder that everything has an end. For me, this was the end of an incredible journey into the past and hopes for a return in the future.