Chuuk Lagoon: A Micronesian War Memorial and Wreck Diver’s Heaven

I looked up into the soft glow of the Truk Aggressor’s stern light, and floating across the illuminated nighttime water column were thousands of bluish-white sea jellies. I had only been down on the Fujikawa Maru for a few minutes and my descent to the forward deck had shown no such spectacle. The sight was, to put it lightly, mind-blowing. As one of my dive buddies put it after the dive, “It was like the spirits of the men who died here were accompanying us on our visit.” This encounter was one of many in Truk Lagoon that I was fortunate enough to add to my very special dive memories. Like many divers, a pilgrimage to Chuuk (Truk was renamed Chuuk years ago but is still widely called Truk Lagoon) and its famous World War II shipwrecks was a long time in coming.

Chuuk and Its People

The islands of Chuuk are nearly 6,000 miles (9,600 km) southwest of the United States, lying just above the equator. Chuuk is made up of about 200 islands and islets comprising 49 square miles (127 sq km) of mostly volcanic landmass. Chuuk is a member of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). The FSM is composed of the islands of Chuuk, Yap, Pohnpei (Ponape) and Kosrae. FSM’s 270 square miles (702 sq km) of landmass is spread over 1 million square miles (2.6 million sq km) of Pacific Ocean. Most of the atolls and islands are sparsely settled or uninhabited. Chuuk’s main islands of Weno, Tonoas, Uman and Fefan are within Truk Lagoon, and contain more than 75 percent of the nearly 50,000 Chuukese people.

Micronesia was most likely settled around 2000 B.C. from people originating in the Philippines and Indonesia. These early inhabitants had no metal, so they worked with stone. The amazing stone money of Yap is just such an example. They were also legendary navigators, who traveled the wilds of the Pacific Ocean in open boats searching for new lands. The islands were probably first viewed by Europeans in the early 1500s by Magellan. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that charts of the area were produced with the arrival of British and American whalers. As in other areas of the world, this influx of antagonistic voyagers brought much disease and suffering. Thousands died, with some islands losing as much as 90 percent of their population. Missionaries followed to convert what was left of the “heathens,” and by the start of the 20th century, Germany purchased Micronesia from the Spanish to start a massive copra (dried coconut meat from which coconut oil is extracted) exporting operation. Coconut plantations sprung up everywhere and communal property was parceled out to private investors. Since much of the Micronesian way of life is based on clan associations, these real estate transactions were not well-received. The Japanese “acquired” Chuuk from Germany in 1914. Japan was allowed to hold the islands under a 1922 mandate from the League of Nations, which forbid the fortification of the lagoon. From the 1920s to the end of World War II, Japanese culture and immigration had a heavy influence on the native people. By 1935, more than 50,000 Japanese had settled on the islands. At the end of the war, America had administrative rights, and the U.S. Navy controlled Micronesia until 1979. The constitutional government of the FSM was formed in 1979, with most military, financial and political affairs still being influenced by the United States.

Today the primary source of income is from copra, fishing and tourism. The Chuukese people live an unhurried life, with the family clan tracing its roots back hundreds of years. The average Chuuk household will have cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles sharing one roof. Because of the free association with the United States, it is fairly easy for FSM citizens to emigrate to the “mainland.” However, most islanders find their way back to Micronesia. Despite this influx of travelers to and from the United States, some of the Chuukese have a very novel way of looking at Americans. Several of my companions and I spent considerable time trying to convince one of the Truk Aggressor’s new crewmen that Americans have to work at jobs. He was certain that the government paid for our trips, and all we had to do was travel around the world on Uncle Sam. Oh, we should be so lucky. Why did he come to this conclusion? Because every week, without fail, a new group from America came aboard to go diving.

Chuuk LagoonThe Gibraltar of the Pacific

The Pacific war brought these islands their popularity when on February 16 and 17, 1944, the United States launched a massive air attack against Japanese forces. Forty-five ships were sunk and nearly 300 aircraft destroyed.

In the 1930s and early ’40s, the Japanese had built Chuuk Lagoon into a major sea base. It was known as the “Gibraltar” of the Pacific. The lagoon is 40 miles (64 km) in diameter with only five navigable passages, all surrounded by volcanic islands. With a maximum depth of 300 feet (91 m), there was enough room for the entire combined Imperial Fleet. With such superb natural defenses, Truk became very important as an advanced base for the Japanese military.

In early 1944, additional forces were brought in to thwart the expected American invasion. However, just days before the U.S. aerial assault began, the Japanese commander, Admiral Koga, began moving his carriers, battleships and cruisers to Palau and other destinations. When the first U.S. attack came on February 16, most of the major combatant ships had already left, leaving a few destroyers and dozens of freighters behind. Much of their cargo was still on board when the first planes came over the horizon. For two days American air power pummeled the atoll. When the attack was over, hundreds of Japanese sailors and thousands of tons of ships, airplanes and cargo were lying on the lagoon floor. These are the wrecks that draw divers from all over the world. It is a chance to dive into history and see how these sailors and soldiers lived and died.

The Diving

It is easy to imagine what it must have looked like in the heyday of the Japanese navy, with hundreds of ships at anchor in the lagoon. Since most diving is in the lagoon, there are few natural reefs to visit. However, some of the shipwrecks have become completely festooned with soft and hard corals, sponges and anemones. In fact, some are so smothered in marine life that certain sections of them do not even look man-made anymore. The ships are spread all over the former anchorage, so there are a variety of depths and conditions which accommodate novice and experienced divers. Always keep in mind that these wrecks are “natural.” Unlike artificial reefs, these vessels do not have diver exit cutouts, or entanglement dangers removed. And while a considerable amount of unexploded ordnance has been recovered, there are still many tons of high explosive ammunition lying around to get the heart pumping. Despite the potential hazards, thousands of divers have explored these ships without any problems. Diving within your limits of training and experience will help to ensure a safe journey.

The dive operators primarily visit about 20 main wrecks. Both land-based and live-aboard options are available, and even fully supported technical diving is offered on some charters. The live-aboards can more easily reach the more remote wrecks than day boats, but most of the sites are within range of all. The lagoon, however, can churn up with afternoon squalls that make the live-aboards more comfortable. Some wrecks are too deep for recreational diving, and some are in very poor shape. On this trip we explored 10 ships and one airplane. Even though we had a week, the ships are so big that it would take many dives on each one to fully explore them. In most cases, we made two dives on each site, with up to four on a couple of favorite wrecks such as the Fujikawa Maru. Despite staying on this ship all day and into the night, I felt we had only scratched the surface of what it had to offer. Within its 437-foot (132-m) length is crammed all sorts of war material, including bullets, artillery shells and Zero fighter aircraft. It is probably the most well-known wreck in the lagoon. The Heian Maru is another popular spot. It was a sub tender and the flagship of Vice Admiral Takagi, commander of the submarine fleet. It is also the largest wreck in the lagoon at 510 feet (155 m) long. Submarine periscopes and Long Lance torpedoes are on the menu for this dive.

Not all the wrecks are merchantmen. The Fumitzuki is a 320-foot (97-m) destroyer that was caught by dive bombers before it could escape. Compared with the squat freighters, the sleek warship is a very different dive. Entering this wreck would be extremely difficult, as well as dangerous, due to the very small hatches and tight dimensions of the vessel. There are many interesting objects on deck to view, such as the torpedo tubes, control turret and artifact displays.

The diving depths are often triple-digit, which makes for limited bottom times. Since most of the hulks are freighters, however, they have kingposts — tall masts that can extend well over 20 feet upward off the decks of ships sitting upright. Once you have used up available bottom time on the deeper portions of the wreck, you can spend considerable time checking out the incredible amount of sea life that has made these posts home. The kingposts of the Sankisan Maru for example, have a gorgeous assemblage of soft corals, nudibranchs and gobies. In fact, many photographers never see the rest of the ship once they discover the profusion of growth and activity here. The Shinkoku Maru is a 500-foot (152-m) tanker that is literally covered with critters. Scores of anemones, clownfish, lionfish, soft corals and even a couple of sharks call it home.

Even though most of the marine life is only on the wrecks, few divers ever leave the lagoon, though most operators do offer trips to the outer reefs for drift and shark dives. Touring these sunken ships is like visiting a museum. Everything from a small medical kit to airplanes can be found at their final resting place. Most human remains have been removed and given proper burials, but some skeletal remains turn up from time to time. When you look at the torn steel and huge holes in these vessels, there is no doubt as to the violence that sent them to the bottom. Sake bottles and shoe soles litter most of the wrecks, and many personal items can be viewed without doing any penetration. Over the years, dive guides have done extensive exploration to find items of interest to create artifact displays. Most of these are on the upper exposed decks of the ships. Many interesting items can be viewed at these areas. These wrecks and their artifacts are considered national treasures. Removal of even a small item, such as a bullet, can get you extremely heavy fines and even jail. Look but don’t touch.

Topside

There are no high-rise megaresorts or golf courses and, except for sightseeing, there is a limit to what you can do in Chuuk. You can visit some out islands called the Western Islands by small aircraft or boat. Ulul, the main island, has a population living much as it did hundreds of years ago. The men wear loincloths and the women wear only grass skirts. They live off the sea and have few modern contrivances. No formal lodgings exist, but you can make arrangements for overnight stays with help from officials on Weno.

Most of the inns and resorts of Chuuk are clean and well-run with restaurants associated with them. They will organize island tours, and renting a car is not usually a problem. The towns and villages are simple, with no malls or American fast-food facilities. Due to the volcanic nature of the islands, there are few accessible beaches for sunbathing. While it sounds like there is little to do on Chuuk, there is one very good reason to come here — it is a wreck diver’s wonderland. Also, being able to immerse yourself in the culture of these islands, without the distractions of our “modern” society, is an experience not to be missed.

The sunken ships have a finite life span. They probably will only last another 50 years or so. Diving the wrecks of Chuuk Lagoon is a must-do trip in any diving career. The diving depths compare to wall diving destinations, and as long as you have good buoyancy skills and watch your depth, exploring these time machines is a treat that you will never forget.

Story and photos by Joseph C. Dovala