Chuuk at the End of the World

Chuuk at the End of the World – published in Zhenata Dnes magazine

Shinkoku Maru, Amagisan Maru, Aikoku Maru, Hoki Maru… The resounding names of shipwrecks were chasing each other in my mind like murmuring mountain brooks as I was dozing on the plane. Oite, Heian Maru… The steady sound of thin air, swishing along the body of the huge aircraft, shook me from my reverie. Only five hours have passed since Tokyo. I have another ten to Paris. In the surrounding gloom I see only Japanese faces. Three hundred Japanese and myself. Could one of my fellow travellers possibly have any relations among the 3,000 people who perished in the vessels I am dreaming of? The image of the ever-present skull in the hold of the Oite flashed through my mind. The Japanese do not like to remember Truk . They do not visit it. It doesn’t matter that it is the most remarkable wreck diving destination in the world. For them this is a sacred burial ground, a reminder of the humiliating national pogroms at the end of World War II. Oddly enough, the Americans do not talk much about Truk either. They love Pearl Harbor. They made a film about Iwo Jima. Perhaps because 40 of them died in the devastating attacks on 17 and 18 February 1944. Eleven during the Japanese torpedo attack against the USS Intrepid. There’s little heroism. Only proper American prudence. Forty casualties on the American side and 25 downed aircraft versus more than 3,000 killed Japanese, over 60 vessels with total 220,000 tonnage, 250 planes. Complete carnage. That’s no movie plot, unless for a horror film. The home of horror is there in the ships below the water of the lagoon – silent, corroded reminders of the Battle of Truk and Operation Hailstone.

Pearl Harbor was a good movie, almost educational. The only question left unanswered is why the Japanese attack America? And what they achieve besides sealing their own defeat? In 1941, the traumas of World War I are still a sore point for American society. As much time had passed between the two wars as for us Bulgarians since the changes in 1989. To change American public opinion, which, in addition, was also pro-German, is just like forcing us to again believe in developed socialism. There’s simply no way. A strong isolationist movement, opposed to participation in a new war, existed in the USA since the mid-1930. One of the most prominent advocates of this cause was Charles Lindbergh, the first aviator to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a solo flight in 1927, whose fame rivals that of Gagarin in the 1960s. Lindbergh used it to promote the Nazi cause in America. His voice was heard by millions. It seems that nothing can force the Americans to fight for somebody else’s cause. The Japanese succeed, however. Their attack against Pearl Harbor is like bloodletting for the Americans. A sacrifice. You must possess the innocence of child to believe that Roosevelt and Churchill were unaware of the plans of the Japanese. The absence of US aircraft carriers in Hawaii is sufficient proof of this. They are carefully guarded, needed for impending military operations on the Pacific front. Already in 1923 General Mason Patrick predicted that the next war would undoubtedly be decided in the air. The aircraft carriers are too precious to sacrifice…

And thus, the operation starts. A total 353 Japanese planes sink 18 ships. A total 2,402 US marines die. Today it would be called collateral damage . Japan gained temporary strategic superiority in the Pacific, keeping its almost total control of Asia. After the war the Japanese Admiral Hara Tadaichi summed up the result of Pearl Harbor as follows: “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.” The Americans were just as shocked as when the twin towers were hit in New York and effectively joined the war. Britain is saved. Russia gets a breath of air. The next act is imminent. Furious, America looks to the west. To the boundless expanse of the world’s biggest ocean – the Pacific. And to the 9,000 km separating the US west coast from Tokyo. A distance we are yet to cover. Our journey to Truk started with a flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii. Actually, it didn’t – it started five years earlier when Truk came up in our endless talks with Vlado Yavashev on our favourite subject of shipwrecks. Fired up, we resolved to take on the long journey to the island if the opportunity ever arose. As about most everything in diving, Vlado enlightened me on this subject as well. His long life in America has made him more progressive in many ways. If fate had not caused our paths to cross some ten years ago, I would have remained a decent recreational scuba diver and the dark great depths would have remained terra incognita to me. Dreams often come true and here we were on our way, a week into 2009, accompanied by some hundred kilograms of scuba diving gear and camera equipment.

The blue expanse of the ocean resembles fine Chinese silk, gently caressed by the ocean breeze 10,000 metres beneath us. Below the surface of the water there are another 4,000 metres left to solid ground – the average depth of the world ocean. We are flying for eight hours without a trace of this solid ground. Follow another 13 hours on board the so-called island hopper. The plane leaps like a frog from island to island, progressing westward along the equator. We land on dots marked only on detailed maps, small atolls, miraculously remaining above water due to endless geological processes. We’ve never heard of them and jump out of the plane every chance we get, as curious as the men responsible for the great geographical discoveries in their time. The terminal is often just a shelter amid palms and tropical vegetation. The pervasive humidity is felt in your every pore. The landscapes are completely different. High mountains alternate with smooth green islands. On the equator the sun is blazing under the huge magnifying glass of the Creator. We are in Micronesia. Somewhere between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator. On the other side of the earth. The time difference with Bulgaria is 12 hours. Somewhere near Kwajalein Island we cross the abstract dateline and can’t figure out whether we are losing or gaining a day. Fatigue is catching up with us. We feel as if we’ve been travelling for ever. But we have no reason to complain, stuck in our seats in the modern machine en route to the great adventure. My thoughts go back to the nine destructive aircraft carriers and their crews, which travelled the same route 65 years ago. By boat this distance is covered in about 20 days. We are nearing Truk. The reconnaissance aircraft must have flown somewhere below us at the onset of the attacks.

Chance passengers, hearing about our destination, warned us that we were headed to one of the most declining spots in the Pacific. After the war everything in the northern hemisphere to the Philippines turned into a territory economically and politically dependent on the USA. To maintain this status quo the Americans annually allocate considerable financing to some of the oddest administrative and tribal structures. Rumour has it that aid absorption control is not particularly strict. The situation is said to be especially lax in Truk – something we would be able to see for ourselves. With our experience of observers of such processes in our own country, it was very easy for us to see a part of the money disappear irretrievably into somebody’s pocket. The huge potholes on the road from the airport to the hotel did little to impress us and were an additional poof of this. Truk is a member of the Federated States of Micronesia – a community of several island states, speaking different languages and with dissimilar cultures.

Populated by the Austronesians via north-eastern Asia more than 3,000 years ago, each of these islands developed in very different ways. Among the Micronesians, the Trukese have a reputation of quarrelsome drunks, rapidly settling any differences with the law of the fist. We were repeatedly warned not to go out after dark. As if in confirmation of this, we could see the swaying silhouettes of these abstract dangers, creeping along the dark lanes. And all this amid blessed natural beauty. More than 2,000 sq km in size, locked in a coral perimeter of 225 km (cut by a total five navigation passes), Chuuk lagoon is one of the earth’s largest. It is dotted by 10 volcanic islands with a height of over 500 metres. The depth of the lagoon rarely reaches 100 metres. The water temperature is constant at 29°C - both on the surface as well as 70 metres below it.

Wreck diving is the island’s main livelihood. Even the car number plates read “World’s greatest wreck dive”. This mini-industry was founded by Kimio Aisek who at the age of 17 witnessed the attacks on the island from the top of a hill and, after diving caught on in the 1960s, discovered most of the ships at the bottom of the sea. For years he studied them and acted as a guide for keen enthusiasts. His grateful descendants have put up a memorial plaque on one of the decks 30 metres underwater. His followers today, probably catering to tourist whims, use the ship bodies to display objects, retrieved from not easily accessible parts of the sunken vessels which, regrettably, takes away a large part of the thrill and adventure of wreck diving. The morbid shifting of skulls in the ships’ belly is another common routine. Tourists with a penchant for the scary keep waiting to catch a glimpse of human remains. The guides invariably know of some spot where a mysterious skull is lurking. The competition often moves them somewhere else – either for fun or to make things even more scary. In 1986 the Japanese organised a large-scale operation to recover the dead bodies which, in accordance with their customs, are burned on funeral pyres in the presence of the family. That’s why there aren’t all that many skulls left today, whereas those wanting a glimpse of them are many.

Truk Stop – the hotel where we stayed on the night of our arrival, left us both with an oppressive feeling. I personally was vaguely reminded of the bad years of the International Youth Centre in Primorsko with the holes in the sheets and towels and the filthy bathrooms. Add to this the fear of the dirty tap water, a threat to anyone’s health, we were starting out with pretty downcast spirits. But the place where we would stay boasted the only diving centre on the island, able to provide helium for the gas mixtures and the decompression bottles needed for deep diving. This was enough for us to ignore the temporary discomforts - which happened anyway, as soon as the sun seeped through the curtains the next morning. The diving centre was run by Calvin, a chubby tattooed New Zealander, married to a Philippine woman who never stopped talking. She’d ask a question and immediately answer herself, mostly in the affirmative. The rest of her time was devoted to heaping abuse on Calvin who stoically put up with it. Both were good divers and invaluable helpers when it came to moving through the wrecks, but only if we managed to persuade them to go down together with us – not an easy task due to their laziness. A frequent occurrence in these parts of the world, where life is easy even if you don’t do anything and where Mañana Culture reigns.

That’s how our ten days of diving began. The fear of the impending unknown, called forth by the economic instability, had caused many people to shelve their holiday plans. Chuuk was no exception. During most of our underwater adventures we were alone both in the water and on the boat, steered by one of Calvin’s aides. I’ll have to say one thing for the locals though: successors of the remarkable navigation traditions of the Polynesian, our guides identified without fail the location of the shipwrecks according to signs on the surroundings land known only to them. Occasionally veiled in a moist mist, it was more than a kilometre away. No modern gadgets like GPS or fishfinders here. Just instinct, experience and a sharp eye. The powerful engines would instantly take us across the lagoon to yet another ship, our captain would point to the dark water and say wryly: “Here”. He never erred. The wreck’s silhouette could be discerned in the dense blue water after the 20th metre. The good visibility allowed the whole body to be seen immediately. Sometimes lying on an even keel, sometimes on its side. Twisted pieces of rusty metal, showing more or less visible traces of detonations, explosions or fires. Still guarding their deadly cargo in their insensitive bellies. Munitions, mines, tanks, a dismantled Zero fighter , trucks, guns, submarine periscopes, depth bombs – below the water of the lagoon you’ll find everything necessary to easily conquer Zanzibar, for instance. The Trukese fishermen have discovered a different application for the explosives found underwater. They regularly salvage mines and depth bombs and use them for fishing. But the bombs don’t play along and quite often, heated up by the tropical sun after so many years in the salt water, they fulfil their initial purpose, exploding in the middle of the village causing loss of human life. Actually death is everywhere. This was evidenced by our meeting with the Oite wreck - a 100-metre kamikaze type destroyer lying at great depth near the north pass of the lagoon. In February 1944 it was travelling to Truk from Japan together with the Agano cruiser, when an American submarine torpedoed the latter. After rescuing the survivors, the Oite was ordered to return to Truk and thus landed in the middle of Operation Hailstone on 18 February. As soon as it entered the lagoon, it was torpedoed. Its unsuccessful attempt to escape can be seen on You Tube at: The film is a newsreel of the period: “We Blast Truk! Jap Fortress”. About midway through it you will see a ship trying full steam ahead to escape the planes, its propellers trailing an S-shaped stream. Alas, everything is lost and, blown in half, it soon sinks to the bottom together with the men rescued from the Agano. Only 20 of the 589 crew survived. Discovered recently, the Oite is a challenge and requires technical diving due to the 75-metre depth at which it rests. Its two sections lie parallel at some 50 metres apart from each other. The stern is stunningly beautiful with those huge upright propellers and its big gun. But the big shock is the bow section, lying upside down, with human remains strewn everywhere. It was probably the great depth which prevented the Japanese from recovering them in 1986. Throughout our dive we were followed by curious sharks, circling in the blue expanse around us. The feeling of being watched by fierce ocean predators, while knowing that you still have half an hour before decompression, is definitely not for the fainthearted. Diving down to this ship is the best thing that could happen to you after you’ve donned the oxygen tanks, resolved to learn to live underwater.

Every day we spent many hours underwater, torn between the tragedy of the past and the beauty of the present. The powerful camera flashes briefly revealed splashes of colours among the darkness enveloping us. We had worked out a system in which Vlado was assisting me with a third flashlight from a distance, lighting up the recesses of the dark rooms. During our stay we took more than 4,000 photos. In the end we were so fed up with filming means of destruction that we asked to be taken to see something humane, not connected with military life. The photo of the two bicycles from the Amagisan Maru is a result of this request. On the day before our departure we enjoyed one of our greatest dives. The wreck was located deeper and a bit father away from the well-trodden paths. It was obvious that it was rarely visited. It was lying at a heel of about 45° portside. Just before the superstructure the deformed metal revealed the place where the torpedo had fatefully damaged the ship’s body. Slowly we entered the deep levels of the cargo sections. Covered in reddish silt and looking abandoned there was a big limousine, clearly an expensive one, quite out of place among the surrounding destruction. The locals later told us that it had been intended for the senior command, if not for the commander-in-chief himself of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Combined Fleet – Admiral Mineichi Koga. Claims that are bold and difficult to verify. We were swimming in the warm transparent water, enjoying the perfect experience. We drifted past piles of scattered cartridges, barrels and traces of the life of the crew that shared the fate of the vessel. The huge coral-encrusted gun of the bow was pointing permanently upwards to the long gone enemy. Near the mast and chimney we were surrounded by a passage of silvery fish. They drew precise circles around Vlado who was floating motionless in the water. It was wonderful. Afterwards, while decompressing, I took out a pencil and wrote on a wooden board designated for the purpose: “That was for dessert!”

The next morning the tropical rain was so heavy that the pilot got on the plane and moved it closer to the shelter serving as an international terminal – in order to leave us relatively dry for the forthcoming flight to Guam. That’s where Vlado and I parted ways. He was heading home to New York while I was flying back to Sofia via Tokyo and Paris. Behind us we left several undiscovered ships, which means that we will return.

1. Chuuk is the official name of the island after 1990, formerly known as Truk to many travellers throughout the centuries. I use both names to denote the same place.
2. The internationally accepted term of diving for shipwrecks
3. Hailstones are small balls of ice that fall like rain from the sky
4. Mason Patrick – US Army General, Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI. Strong proponent and supporter of the Air Force
5. Unintentional or incidental injury or damage to persons or objects that would not be lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time. Such damage is not unlawful so long as it is not excessive in light of the overall military advantage anticipated from the attack.
6. The imperial Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter is justifiably considered one of the best WWII aircraft due to its excellent manoeuvrability and very long range.