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Back to 1944 Beneath Truk’s Blue Lagoon

By Tim Rock
8/14/2018 • World War II Magazine

Descending through the warm, blue water, I suddenly caught sight of the full length and breadth of Fujikawa Maru. Gray reef sharks circled at the bow, a large school of blackbar barracuda hung at the stern. The freighter’s deck guns, softened by a mantle of red coral, maintained a ghostly vigil over electric-blue clouds of tiny chromis fish darting in and out. Sea anemones covered the cargo booms.

I made my way, hand over hand, slowly down the mooring line and into the forward hold. Intact Japanese Zero fighter plane bodies, propeller blades, aerial bombs, and ammunition sat tucked away in the depths of the hold.

At ninety feet down inside a shipwreck, it’s more than a little dark and eerie. My flashlight searched for other artifacts as I tried to keep my wits. At this depth, a diver always has to be on guard against narcosis: I didn’t want to be swimming around silly inside a confined space full of jagged steel with only one way out.

A small side door off the cavernous engine room led to an inky black chamber. With my flashlight I could make out workmen’s tools still hanging above a bench, a single light bulb dangling from a cord overhead. It was too dark and cramped for comfort, certainly for more than one diver, so I made room for the next guy and slid out and up.

Fujikawa Maru is one of about fifty World War II ships that lie at the bottom of Truk Lagoon—a vast graveyard of Japanese naval might left by the relentless U.S. Navy air attacks on this Pacific out post in February and April 1944.

Truk (now officially known as Chuuk) has attracted a growing number of diving and history enthusiasts since the mid- 1970s for the richness of its historical treasures and their relative accessibility. The slow natural transformation of the sunken ships into “shipreefs” abounding in coral and other marine life is another attraction: the lagoon’s astounding bio diversity includes more than 500 species of hard and soft coral and more than 700 species of fish.

Truk’s location and natural harbor made it both an asset and a liability to the Japanese. As a key supply base for Japan’s naval operations in the Pacific, the lagoon had much to recommend it: 140 miles of outer barrier reef, eleven high islands, five narrow passages.

But those same features hindered quick escape when the Americans caught the Japanese napping before dawn on February 17, 1944. Wave after wave of carrier planes, 450 in all, struck the bottled-up fleet in two days of raids. When it was over, Japanese fortifications and communications lay in ruins, hundreds of Japanese aircraft and ships were destroyed, and the way to Guam and the Philippines was opened to the Allies.

The beauty of diving Truk’s shipwrecks is that they come in all depths and degrees of difficulty. There isn’t much instruction available in Truk, but even a diver with a novice license, which permits diving to sixty feet, can see much by swimming over the shallower wrecks. Fujikawa Maru, Heian Maru, Sankisan Maru, and Rio de Janeiro all offer something to see from the sixty-foot level. Some wrecks, including the destroyer Suzuki and a Japanese Zero sitting in shallow water near Etten (where it crashed after being shot down during the American air strikes), can even be explored at snorkeling depth.

Advanced divers with a wreck-diving specialty (which includes training in how to maneuver in confined spaces and deal with the complications of decompression when returning from depths) have more choices. San Francisco Maru, whose upper decks lie at 150 feet and whose lower holds reach 190 feet, is the most spectacular and challenging of Truk’s wrecks.

When I dived San Francisco, I wasn’t sure if the lightheadedness I felt was the first warning sign of narcosis or just pure adrenaline. At these depths the state of preservation of artifacts is astonishing. Three Ha-Go light battle tanks stood balanced on the forward deck in the same spot they had for the last sixty three years. Venturing into the first hold, I came upon a line of trucks; in a second was row upon row of mines. As I headed back to shallower depths, my head cleared, and I had another perfect view of the tanks on my ascent.

Time, visitors, and looting have taken their toll at some sites. Although Truk’s wrecks are legally protected, enforcement is weak. Still, none of the sites have ever been officially salvaged, and most remain in remarkable condition—the occasional sagging stack, punched-out hold wall, and crumbling rail notwithstanding.

Visitors who come to dive, and nothing but dive, can spend a whole week living aboard a ship, diving several times a day. Most other visitors stay on the island of Weno, which frankly isn’t the best looking island in Micronesia, and may come close to being the worst. Past government corruption has left unpaved roads, poor utilities, and a generally disheveled look. But there is also great natural beauty to be found: high hills covered in palms and breadfruit trees, sandy beaches, and thick mangroves. Nearly every yard is full of bright flowers, including the fragrant ylang-ylang that is used for traditional head ornaments called mwarmwars.

A hike around Weno offers the chance to inspect remnants of the war which still can be seen above water: the former Japanese communication center, now a Jesuit high school but still boasting massively reinforced windows; the bullet holes on the walls of the Weno light house, which once guided Japanese ships into port with its powerful beacon, now lying on the jungle floor below; and Nevo Cave. A short hike up the hill past the government offices leads to the cave entrance; a passage through the mountain ends with an overlook of all of the downtown and Weno Harbor. A huge gun still commands the vista. When I was there, two girls sat on it, giggled, and watched the day go by.

On Tonoas (also called Dublon) Island, visitors can take a three-hour pickup truck tour of sites dating from the Japa nese occupation. Vast caves used for weapon storage and the burned-out hulks of fifty-foot-high fuel tanks, now resem bling squashed marshmallows, are the most striking vestiges of the war.

At Etten Island, a popular place for divers to stop for lunch and decompression between dives, I wandered through the jungle past taro patches and tapioca plants along an abandoned and over grown Japanese airstrip. At trail’s end is a huge headquarters complex, showing abundant signs of strafing and bomb damage. I looked in one building and saw a woman cooking. Another had palm fronds laid out in preparation for use as thatch. Still another was being used to dry clothes. Like the sea, the people of Truk are slowly reclaiming the last traces of the violent clashes that took place here more than sixty years ago.

 

Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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