Truk Lagoon and the Lost Japanese Ghost Fleet

truk lagoon

Aerial view of the attack off Dublon Island - photo: National Archives

Truk Lagoon; February 17th, 1944:

Kimiuo Aisek, a young Chuukese teen, watched transfixed as American planes descended on Truk Lagoon, a remote Micronesian atoll in the vast Pacific Ocean and the headquarters for the Imperial Japanese Combined Fleet during WWII. It was called Operation Hailstorm and among other things, was supposed to be payback for Pearl Harbor. With little warning, US Navy Task Force 50, one of the largest fleets ever assembled in the war, launched a massive naval air attack against Japanese ships and air bases in Truk Lagoon. Over the course of two days, the airstrikes would sink more than 45 Japanese ships including 19 warships and 26 merchantmen totaling over 220,000 tons of shipping.

truk lagoon

A Japanese tank lies on the deck of the Nippo Maru - photo: Sharkman

Truk Lagoon is similar to Pearl Harbor

in that it is a large, well protected and relatively shallow body of water. It was called Japan’s Pearl Harbor by some and Japan’s mid-Pacific Gibraltar by others. It is a huge lagoon surrounded by several high, volcanic islands that were heavily fortified. The entrances to the lagoon were protected by mines and gun emplacements located on the fringing islands. It was the perfect base for operating a large fleet of ships. And impregnable – or so the Japanese believed.

truk lagoon

The Rio de Janeiro Maru, a 461' ex-ocean liner turned submarine tender - photo: Sharkman

A photographic overflight by two US Marine reconnaissance planes on Feb 4 tipped the allies hand and most of the major Japanese warships hastily left the lagoon for the anonymity of the open sea.  They left just in the nick of time.

truk lagoon

The trappings of the sailor's everyday life are all around us we explored the wrecks - Photo: Sharkman

The raids that followed were so thoroughly destructive and effective – sinking ships, destroying infrastructure and eliminating airbases – that Truk’s offensive capabilities were destroyed and the lagoon became useless to Japan for the rest of the war. Once navigational hazards were cleared, the ships resting on the bottom of Truk Lagoon because a lost memory.

truk lagoon

An aerial view of the attack off Eten Island - Photo: National Archives

However, Kimiuo had worked both as a dock worker and navigation pilot during the early 1940s and that experience, combined with hie eyewitness account of the attack gave him an excellent working knowledge of where he could later find the wrecks. Even more so, he had a blazing curiosity to see what, if anything was left of the lost ships. While he was working as a diver for a crown-of-thorns control program, he took a rickety compressor and ancient dive gear and used the opportunity to start looking for the wrecks. What he found was stunning.

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The bridge of the Nippo Maru, much quieter than in 1944 - Photo: Sharkman

The Japanese Ghost Fleet of Truk Lagoon

is remarkably intact and a seemingly living testament to WWII and that day in 1944. As you can swim through many of the ships, wiggle down into engine rooms, pass through galleys, hospital rooms and bathrooms, you can hear the men talking and see where they would have been having breakfast when the bombs started dropping.  You get a profound sense of the everyday life that disappeared so quickly that morning.

truk lagoon

The famous "R2D2" compressor down in the machine room of the Fujikawa Maru - Photo: Sharkman

There are planes, tanks, artillery pieces and giant naval shells on the shipwrecks but also porcelain coffee cups, sake bottles, lanterns and tools. On many of the shallower wrecks, the well preserved artifacts are slowly beginning to disappear and deterioration is taking its toll on the all wrecks which have now rested under the waves for more than a half century.

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Soft corals and a profusion of life carpet the Shinkoku Maru, a 500' tanker - Photo: Sharkman

The soft corals and fish life that have taken up residence on these ships are abundant and festoon the ships in defiance of the ships original intent. As you swim along with only your exhaust bubbles breaking the silence, you have the profound sense that the combination of nature and time is the ultimate healer.

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The legacy of the sunken Japanese fleet at Truk Lagoon is the life it sustains today - Photo: Sharkman

Kimiuo Aisek has passed away but his legacy – the magnificent wrecks of Truk Lagoon that Kimiuo found – remain for us to continue to explore.

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