Truk Lagoon and its stunning Ship Graveyard

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My dream history lesson includes a tropical Pacific island where I step off a beautiful boat soaked in sunshine the warm Micronesian waters and descend on a coral covered ship that was part of World War II. This dream and these ships came to life for me during a recent trip aboard the MV Odyssey live-aboard. Truk Lagoon, now known as Chuuk, is most certainly one of the world’s greatest wreck diving destinations. These lush green islands with palm trees and calm blue waters make it almost impossible to fathom the immense battle that took place on February 17 and 18, 1944.

Truk Lagoon

Under Japanese occupation during World War II, Truk Lagoon served as one of the Japanese Imperial Navy’s main bases in the South Pacific Theater. Some compared it as Japan’s Pearl Harbor. This logistical and operations base for the Japanese Combine Fleet served as the stage for the United States’ attack called Operation Hailstone.

Known in Japan as Torakku-tō Kūshū (the airstrike on Truk Island), the United States took Japan by almost complete surprise with two days of daytime and nighttime airstrikes, surface ship actions, and submarine attacks. Ordered by Admiral Raymond Spruance, Vice Admiral Marc A Mitscher’s Task Force 58 included five fleet carriers (the USS Enterprise, USS Yorktown, USS Essex, USS Intrepid, and the USS Bunker Hill) and four light carriers embarking more than 500 planes. There were also seven battleships, numerous cruisers, destroyers, submarines and other support ships assisting the carriers.

Island of Chuuk. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Island of Chuuk. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Airstrikes, employed fighters, dive bombers and torpedo aircraft were used in the attacks focusing on airfields, aircraft, shore installations, and ships around the Truk anchorage throughout the day and night. Many airplanes were destroyed as they were unable to take off, having just been delivered off cargo ships and still being disassembled.

Although still a major success for the Americans, just a week before Operation Hailstone, much of the Japanese fleet’s larger warships were sent to sea to be relocated out of Truk Lagoon. This was probably due to the base becoming too vulnerable. But even with those ships gone, the Americans sank twelve Japanese warships, 32 merchant ships, and destroyed 249 aircraft. Many of the ships were loaded with supplies to be delivered to other parts of the Pacific and little of the cargo was recovered, thereby hindering the Japanese Navy in the Central and South Pacific and ending Truk Lagoon as a threat to Allied operations in the Central Pacific.

Many ships sank and many lives were lost, but the ships of Truk Lagoon now serve a new purpose underwater. Reborn as artificial reefs, the wrecks have become covered with marine life and become home to schools of fish, anemones, corals, sharks and much more. The wrecks of Truk Lagoon had been on my ‘must dive’ list for years, but Chuuk is a long way away from almost everywhere. Serviced only by United airlines, a stop in Honolulu or Guam is required to get to Truk Lagoon. My flights included eight hours to Honolulu, eight more to Guam, and a thankfully short two hour flight to Chuuk. Arriving very late, and very tired, I was greeted at the airport by several pleasant crew from the Odyssey who took us to the boat. Much too excited to sleep, I laid awake in my cabin waiting for morning and our first wreck.

Diving the wrecks

Japanese Submarine I-169 wreck. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Japanese Submarine I-169 wreck. (Credits: Argunners)

Finally morning had come, breakfast was served and Captain Nelson gave us the dive deck briefing. He touched on several important topics concerning diving these wrecks, the first being that these wrecks were not sunk on purpose. Unlike many wrecks sank artificially that are cleaned and made safer for divers, these are actual sunken warships with potential hazards requiring divers to be aware at all times of what they’re doing, especially inside the wrecks.

Visibility inside the wrecks can go from great to zero quickly from bubbles knocking off rust from overhead environments and stray fins can kick up silt leading to low visibility situations. These ships, having been underwater for almost 70 years, are beginning to show their age. For example, one of the Lagoon’s most famous wrecks, the Fujikawa Maru, known for its spectacular engine room penetration, has had most of its super structure collapse in the past year, making it dangerous to access its famous engine room.

Airplanes

Some of the more popular airplane wreck dives in the Lagoon include the Kawanishi H8K1 “Emily” Flying Boat and the Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” Bomber. Bomber aircraft were often given female names and fighter aircraft were often nicknamed with men’s names.

The Emily Flying Boat was known for its long range and nicknamed the “Flying Porcupine” was very difficult to shoot down because it had self-sealing fuel tanks and internal fire extinguishers. It held a crew of 16, had a 37m (124ft) wingspan and was 28m (92ft) long. It had four 1850 horsepower Mitsubishi Kasei engines.

Emily Plane (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Emily Plane (Credits: Argunners)

This particular wreck was bringing back the Commanding Officer of the Fourth Fleet, his Chief of Staff and other senior Japanese Naval Officers from a meeting in Palau. US fighters repeatedly attack and the pilot still managed to escape the fighters and return to Truk Lagoon, although while trying to land the damaged aircraft the pilot lost control and it crashed and sank. The pilot, Admiral and Chief of Staff survived.

An easy wreck to dive at 15m (50ft), much of the plane is intact including several propellers. Near the plane sit several gauge panels and other airplane parts.

Betty Plane in Truk Lagoon (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Betty Plane (Credits: Argunners)

The Betty bomber was a small twin engine plane that sits in 15-18m (50-60ft) in the sand. Made to be as light as possible, the fuel tanks were unprotected and easily caught fire, making them very vulnerable. This wreck crashed on trying to land on Eten Island and it is unknown if it was shot down or crashed on its own. The engines are found about 90m (300ft) in front of the rest of the wreck closer to the island. This plane would hold a crew of seven, had a wingspan of 25m (85ft), was 20m (66ft) long and would have four 12.7mm machine guns, one 20mm cannon, and one 1750lb bomb.

Nippo Maru

Shipwreck of the Nippo Maru resting in Truk Lagoon. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Shipwreck of the Nippo Maru resting in Truk Lagoon. (Credits: Argunners)

Hit and sunk by three 500 pound bombs in its stern, the Nippo Maru was a 106m (350ft) transport ship mostly carrying water. Originally a passenger and cargo freighter, she was seized in 1941 by the Japanese and sits mostly upright with a 20 degree port list between 15 and 45m (50-150ft). The Nippo has a very noticeable wheelhouse with an intact telegraph and steering helm. Hold #4 is particularly interesting with its aluminum water containers, bottles and bike parts. On the port side bow a small, mostly intact tank is found as well as a truck chassis.

Artillery piece on the deck of Nippo Maru, Truk Lagoon. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Artillery piece on the deck of Nippo Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

San Francisco Maru

Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go Light Tanks on the San Francisco Maru wreck. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go Light Tanks on the San Francisco Maru wreck. (Credits: Argunners)

One of the deeper wrecks in the lagoon sitting upright from 45 to 63m (145-205ft), it is unique as there is not much growth due to its depth. It is also a very interesting wreck because it has three intact Japanese Type-95 light tanks that were crewed by three people these tanks go up to 30mph and had ½ inch armor. The San Francisco Maru was built in 1919 as a freighter she became a cargo ship in WWII.

Known as the million dollar wreck because of her estimated worth of cargo, divers find many very interesting war artifacts on this ship. Hold #1 contains sea mines and detonators, hold #2 has several trucks, fuel and aerial bombs and torpedoes and depth charges are found in the aft holds.

Rio de Janeiro Maru

View from inside the Rio de Janeiro Maru at Truk Lagoon. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Propeller of the Rio de Janeiro Maru, Truk Lagoon. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Propeller of the Rio de Janeiro Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

Before WWII the Rio de Janeiro Maru was an eight-deck passenger luxury liner that carried people and cargo from Japan to many areas of the world including South America, South Africa, the USA. Built in 1940 and converted into a submarine tender in 1940 for the Japanese Navy she serviced six submarines. After Japan lost most of its submarines she was reclassified as a transport ship. Sunk by at least one bomb from an Essex aircraft she now rests on her starboard side at 40m (130ft).

Another of my favorites, this 137m (450ft) wreck has an easily accessed large engine room with many knobs, gauges and pipes. There is also a hold referred to as the ‘bottle room’ with stacked boxes of beer bottles. The ship also has very large, photogenic, propellers. One needs several dives to fully explore this large, mostly shallow wreck.

Heian Maru

Name of the Heian Maru in Japanese and English. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Name of the Heian Maru in Japanese and English. (Credits: Argunners)

The largest wreck in the lagoon at 155m (510ft), the Heian Maru was built in 1930 as a passenger cargo ship. Recalled to Japan during a normal voyage between Hong Kong and Seattle in 1941 she was then converted to a submarine tender. Her name is found in English and Japanese on the hull and she was named after the ancient city of Heinkyo, “The City of Peace and Tranquility.”

Sunk on her port side and sitting between 10 and 30m (35-100ft) of water one of the most notable parts of the Heian Maru are Type 95, 7m (23ft) long torpedoes that are stored upright in the forward holds. Artifacts have also been gathered from inside the ship and placed together including a fantastic medical kit with several different colored bottles.

Medical Kit found in the Heian Maru. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Medical Kit found in the Heian Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

Many torpedos can still be found in Heian Maru. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Torpedos can still be found in Heian Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

Kiyosumi Maru

Kiyosumi Maru in 1934 (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

Kiyosumi Maru in 1934 (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

Stepping off the Odyessy and descending upon our first wreck, the Kiyosumi Maru, feels like entering another world. The intact ship body, sitting 12m (40ft) below the warm Micronesian waters starts to bring to life the battle that took place here. In Japanese, maru, means circle or round. This name is given to ships that circle back to where they came from. The warships did not have that distinction, as they were sent into battle, not expected to return. The Kiyosumi Maru was a 137m (450ft) long and 18m (6ft) wide freighter that also carried passengers launched in 1934 and converted into an armed merchant raider in 1941. She participated in the Battle of Midway and had been towed to Truk for repairs after being damaged by aircraft bombs.

Sunk on her port side, laying in the sand at 31m (100ft), we swam the length of the ship and eventually entered hold #2 through the hole caused by the bomb that sank the ship. Covered in growth, particularly long branched bushes of black coral, jellyfish seemed to be strategically placed around the outside of the ship as if they guarded it. Originally holding eight guns, all have been removed, but the platforms remain. Our dive guide led us into hold #5 to see parts of two bikes and then hold #6 to see two massive spare propeller blades. Collections of bottles found inside the ship have been gathered in several places on the outside for divers to see. We also came upon a gas mask that almost looks like you could put it on and use it today.

She was sunk in Truk Lagoon on February 17, 1944 when USS Enterprise and USS Yorktown planes scored direct bomb hits. 43 seamen lost their lives on the Kiyosumi Maru.

Yamagiri Maru

The Yamagiri Maru was a 133m (437ft) passenger/cargo carrier launched in 1939 and converted to a military transport ship in 1941. This ship was damaged by two torpedoes in 1943 from the submarine USS Drum and repaired in Rabaul before sailing to Truk and then sank by dive bombers from the Yorktown and Bunker Hill.

Sitting at 36m (120ft) with its shallowest parts around 18m (60ft), this ship’s most interesting feature is in hold #5. On their way to be delivered to the battleships Yamato and Mushashi were Armor piercing shells 45cm (18in) long, weighing over 3000 pounds each, that could be hurled 38 kilometers. These gun rounds were for the largest guns ever made for a battleship, the largest American battleships had only 40cm (16in) guns.

Ammunition of the Yamagiri Maru (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Ammunition of the Yamagiri Maru (Credits: Argunners)

Being a lover of macro ocean life, I couldn’t help but be amazed at all the little creatures that could be found making their homes in these sunken ships. One second the dive guide would be pointing out 45cm ammunition and the next moment I would find a nudibranch crawling its way up across the bow of the WWII wreck. Anemones seem to have happily made their homes all over the wrecks and their respective anemone fish eagerly come up to look at you, looking back at them.

Fujikawa Maru

Fujikawa Maru before the Second World War. (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

Fujikawa Maru before the Second World War. (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

The Fujikawa Maru is one of the lagoon’s most famous wrecks. Covered in lush coral this ship was built in 1938 as a passenger cargo ship that carried raw silk and cotton between South America and India. Commissioned into the Japanese Navy in 1940 and outfitted with 15cm (6in) guns on her bow and stern, she was tasked for transportation, including the delivery of aircraft and aircraft parts to Pacific islands.

Barracuda at the Fujikawa Maru shipwreck. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Barracuda at the Fujikawa Maru shipwreck. (Credits: Argunners)

Fujikawa Maru (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Wreck of the Fujikawa Maru (Credits: Argunners)

Carrying planes to Truk, the Fujikwawa Maru offloaded thirty B5N2 bombers (Jill planes) which lay in pieces on Eten Airfield (Eten Island) during Operation Hailstone. They were unable to help defend against the Americans. Bombed by air attacks on February 17th, the Fujikawa was still afloat on the 18th. Essex dive bombers hit the port quarter with a 1000 pound bomb and finally two Monterey airplanes attacked and witnessed a huge explosion and the ship in flames.

Fujikawa Maru (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Fujikawa Maru (Credits: Argunners)

Still aboard the ship during the attack were three Zero fighter planes in cargo hold #2 and a fourth plane that is possibly an A6M “Claude” fighter, the only known surviving plane of that type. The Fujikawa sits upright and we followed our dive guide from the surface down into cargo hold #2 to see these mostly intact planes. In the clear water the planes look as if a pilot could sit in them today and fly right out of the ocean and back into the air. We also saw spare wings and fuel drums.

Often boasted as one of the most beautiful wrecks in the lagoon, this beautiful ship is covered in pink and white soft coral, blue sponges and every inch of it is covered in different colored marine life. On the deck a plaque dedicates the preservation and respect of the Fujikawa and other wrecks in the lagoon. Collections of artifacts from the inside are gathered on different parts of the ship including china with Japanese brandings. Schools of tuna and smaller fish circle the wreck, and a large barracuda seemed to be standing guard over the bow gun.

Often considered one of the best wreck penetrations, much of the superstructure of the Fujikawa Maru has collapsed recently, making it very difficult and potentially dangerous to enter the engine room due to its instability.

Shoes & Soles inside Fujikawa Maru (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Shoes & Soles inside Fujikawa Maru (Credits: Argunners)

Inside the Fujikawa Maru (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Inside the Fujikawa Maru (Credits: Argunners)

Fumitsuki Destroyer

The Fumitsuki is a dedicated warship built for the Japanese Navy, and has no “maru” following its name. One of only two made-for-war ships sunk in Chuuk, it is a 97m (320ft) Mutuki Class destroyer built in 1926 and was in Truk for repairs from an attack by US planes near Rabaul on January 4th, 1944. Prior to the Rabaul damages, the Fumizuki helped relieve Japanese forces in the battle of Guadalcanal as part of the “Tokyo Express.” Damaged by bombing during Operation Hailstone, her crew abandoned her when she lost power. They attempted to tow her to a new anchorage, but had not noticed the ship had its anchor dropped to avoid drifting on the reef.

Sitting between 24 and 36m (80-120ft) this warship still has intact bow and stern guns and a torpedo launcher. Being built as a warship and not a more comfortable passenger ship, we could immediately tell how much more compact the spaces are on the ship. We swam through companionways and looking into crew spaces are noticeably smaller and reduced in size compared to the passenger ships.

Propeller of the Fumitsuki. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Propeller of the Fumitsuki. (Credits: Argunners)

Shinkoku Maru

Shinkoku Maru (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

Shinkoku Maru (Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite wreck in the Lagoon, the Shinkoku Maru, has become a fantastically beautiful artificial reef. Pink and purple anemones can be found all over the top deck and schools of fish, big and small, have populated the ship. Sitting between 9 and 40m (30-135ft) the 152m (500ft) Commercial tanker was built in 1940 and before the war transported oil from the USA to Japan. Its name meaning “Divine country” It was requisitioned by the Japanese Navy into a naval tanker in 1941. She participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Minor damage to the Shinkoku occurred on August 17, 1942 when the ship was torpedoed by the US Submarine Gudgeon and was repaired. Arriving to Truk only three days before the carrier strikes on February 14, 1944, it is thought she received a bomb hit amidships by Yorktown planes, but she did not sink until an unknown air group stuck the ship with a torpedo attack later in the day. Planes from Bunker Hill made six torpedo drops that all missed.

Medical Kit of the Shinkoku Maru (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Medical Kit of the Shinkoku Maru, Truk Lagoon (Credits: Argunners)

Sinking upright, the masts used to be above the water line, but due to possible boat traffic hazards, they were toppled by explosives. The ship was identified by the ship’s bell that was found with the name engraved.

With the super structure of the Fujikawa Maru collapsing, it’s my opinion that the engine room tour of the Shinkoku is probably now the best in the Lagoon. My dive guide took me into the ship through the smoke stacks that start around 18m (60ft). Headed straight down to around 33m (110ft) you can exit the ship through the torpedo hole at 41m (135ft) in the bottom port stern. We came out the torpedo hole and looked up at the massive ship and went back in through the hole to tour the engine room, generator rooms and other areas inside the wreck.

Along with the fantastic penetration, this ship has prolific and abundant marine life. Schools of batfish are found along the top deck and several sharks were seen passing the ship. With the superstructure being fairly shallow and so much marine life and abundant artifacts gathered on the deck, this wreck definitely needs several dives to see all of it.

Artifact of the Shinkoku Maru (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Artifact of the Shinkoku Maru, Truk Lagoon (Credits: Argunners)

Hoki Maru

Another Lagoon favorite is the Hoki Maru due to her cargo. Construction equipment and vehicles are found in hold #5 including intact trucks, tractors, a steamroller and two bulldozers. The trucks have right hand steering wheels and the tractor looks similar to a John Deere model.

Bulldozer in the Hiko Maru. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Bulldozer in the Hiko Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

Originally named the Hauraki, this ship was a British/New Zealand cargo and passenger ship launched in 1921 and seized by the Japanese in 1942. Renamed the Hoki Maru she was used for special transport. Sitting around 49m (160ft) in the sand, this 137m (450ft) ship’s bow was severely damaged by two 1000 pound bombs that hit the port side igniting fuel and causing a massive explosion and fire. The deck appears to have been peeled back or ripped open from the rest of the ship.

Trucks in the Hoki Maru. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Trucks in the Hoki Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

Vehicle wreck inside the Hoki Maru. (Credits: Brandi Mueller)

Bulldozer wreck inside the Hoki Maru, Truk Lagoon. (Credits: Argunners)

Afterthoughts

Wildlife on the Fujikawa Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

Wildlife on the Fujikawa Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

With so many wrecks in Truk Lagoon, one needs multiple trips to see them all, much less explore them adequately. The MV Odyssey, a 40m (132ft) luxury liveaboard with nine very comfortable private staterooms, a spacious dive deck, large camera table, and fantastic meals makes it easy to dive as many of the lagoon wrecks in a week as possible. Offering five dives a day and a fantastic and knowledgeable crew, I can’t imagine a better way to make the most of a week diving Chuuk.

I’ve often heard people talk about diving Chuuk and they think it is too advanced for them. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. For divers who do not want to go “deep and dark” the outsides of the wrecks have become fantastic artificial reefs with hard and soft corals, anemones, large schools of fish, and plenty of the macro critters found in other parts of Micronesia (most of the time divers are too enthralled with the wrecks to search for them!) Almost all the wrecks can provide a spectacular dive above 30m (100ft). And usually when the Odyssey dives the very deep wrecks, they will provide an alternative wreck for those who do not want to go that deep.

The experienced and well-trained Odyssey crew will also go above and beyond to make sure every diver on the boat gets the diving they are looking for. Dive guides can recommend easier dive plans for those wanting to stay shallower and outside the wreck. And if you want to go “deep and dark” they will take you on mind blowing penetrations into engine rooms, cargo holds, and more. Aboard the Odyssey divers are given the opportunity to dive at their leisure or have one of several fantastic dive guides lead them. Technical diving is allowed on the Odyssey for certified or experienced tech divers.

Beautiful Wildlife on the Shinkoku Maru. (Credits: Argunners)

Beautiful Wildlife on the Shinkoku Maru in Truk Lagoon. (Credits: Argunners)

Many lives were lost and ships sank in the waters of Truk Lagoon. But underwater the ships have been reborn as thriving artificial reefs. Almost 70 years in the nutrient rich waters of Micronesia have made these ships stunning and colorful marine habitats. Hard and soft corals cover the outsides of the ships and large school of tuna, barracuda and sharks swim by. The ships are also the gravesites of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice – their lives for their country. The wrecks provide a tangible history lesson and nothing is more exciting than being able to visit and explore.

Sources used: Thorfinn, PacificWrecks, Battlestations, Morison, Samuel Eliot. Aleutians, Gilberts and Marshalls, June 1942-April 1944 (History of US Naval Operations in WWII). 2011 and Balley, Dan. World War II Wrecks of Truk Lagoon. 2001. Courtesy to XRAY Magazine for first publishment of the story.

Read also:

  • Shipwrecks of Truk Lagoon, list with all known shipwrecks in Chuuk.
  • Airplane wrecks in Truk Lagoon, next to dozens of Japanese vessels also Japanese airplane wrecks can be found in Chuuk Lagoon.
  • Nippo Maru, (aka Nichiho Maru) was torpedoed and sunk in the Balabac Strait west of the Palawan Passage.
  • San Fransico Maru, sunk on the 18th of February, 1944 taking 5 crewmen with her.
  • Rio de Janeiro Maru, bombed and damaged in the Pacific Ocean east of Umon Island, Truk by United States Navy aircraft. She sank the next day.
  • Heian Maru, ocean liner converted into a submarine tender, sunk in February 1944.
  • Kiyosumi Maru, auxiliary cruiser which was sunk in the Pacific Ocean off Fefan Island, Truk by United States Navy aircraft.
  • Yamagiri Maru, sank by dive bombers from the Yorktown and Bunker Hill.
  • Fujikawa Maru, she was sunk on February 18, 1944 by diver bombers.
  • Fumitsuki Destroyer, one of only two made-for-war ships sunk in Chuuk.
  • Shinkoku Maru, naval tanker that was sunk in February, 1944.
  • Hoki Maru, a British/New Zealand cargo and passenger ship launched in 1921 and seized by the Japanese in 1942. Sunk.

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About Author

Brandi Mueller is an underwater photographer, scuba instructor, and boat captain living in the Marshall Islands. She loves diving the many wrecks there but also travels as much as possible to scuba dive and take photos.

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