The mooring line became my only reference as I descended into the blue, until eventually the massive shadow of a ship appeared, but it seemed to terminate in a sheer wall below me. The stern section of the Aikoku Maru was to my front, but behind me was empty blue water.
On the first day of Operation Hailstone, 17 February, 1944, this ship was hit and fires started. These ignited ammunition stored in hold one, leading to a massive explosion, sinking the ship in less than two minutes and destroying the bow section.
The result was one of the highest death tolls of any single ship sunk during the battle – more than 900 men.
Truk Lagoon (now Chuuk, a state in the independent Federated States of Micronesia) was under Japanese occupation before WW2 and one of the main Pacific bases for the Japanese Imperial Navy.
On 17 and 18 February, 1944, the USA launched Operation Hailstone, a massive air and surface attack that sank 12 warships and 32 merchant ships, and destroyed an estimated 250 aircraft (most of them still grounded).
Today many of the ships and several aircraft rest in recreational depths in warm Micronesian waters with little or no current, and are full of Japanese artefacts, making this underwater museum both easy and fantastic to visit.
The years have covered the ships in abundant soft and hard corals and they teem with marine life. Those such as the Fujikawa Maru and Shinkoku Maru are must-dive wrecks that have been photographed from every angle.
Most divers spend a week checking off the top wrecks, but for those with tech training the wrecks resting below 50m are rarely seen, and it’s worth the extra effort to spend a few minutes among such epic historical monuments.
Swimming towards the stern under the giant king-post and mast that still stand, I came to the stern gun pointing skyward, still trying to fight off the air-raid.
Exploring behind the end of the ship I found the manual steering station, with the metal ring of the wheel resting in place and black coral growing around it.
Stern gun on the Aikoku Maru.
Looking over the end of the ship, I saw the unique “docking bridge” structure extending outward. Diving this ship always feels ominous.
Perhaps it’s the depth or the massive loss of life, but it seems more shadowy, and gives me goosebumps.
Seventy-five years under water have taken their toll. Entrances to the engine-room have become partly blocked as the structure has collapsed.
Some of the superstructure can still be accessed to see rooms containing items such as sinks and urinals. The ship was a crew-transport vessel, and hold four was partly converted into crew-quarters between deck spaces.
With limited time in which to explore, my computer was sounding an alert, I begrudgingly started back up, to spend more time hanging on the deco bar than I had on the wreck. That’s the price we pay to visit Truk’s deep wrecks.
The Amagisan lies off the south-west of Uman Island in the 6th Fleet anchorage. One of my favourites, this massive 137m wreck sits with bow considerably shallower (29m deck, 42m sand) than the stern (52m deck, 58m sand). It has a port list of at least 45°.
I love descending onto this wreck from in front of the bow and having the mysterious ship come into focus. Visibility is usually quite good, allowing you to see the bow, the prominent 7.5cm deck-gun and the massive king-post beyond.
Starting a dive on the mooring line at midships leads directly to the superstructure.
Galley on the Amagisan Maru.
Exploring the interior can induce a bit of a “funhouse” effect thanks to the angle of the ship, and sometimes even a little vertigo, as my mind tries to adapt to swimming from side to side within but in reality on a diagonal. My bubbles ascend, but appear to go to the side.
Entering the first level through a door, you can go down a level within the floor to a radio-room, where the large boxy radio can be seen fallen to the port side. In most rooms piles of silt and many of the contents have slid to this side.
There are bathrooms, and rooms full of batteries. On the third level towards the stern is a galley area with a giant rice-cooker and stove.
On the starboard side a diver can swim through the massive torpedo hole of twisted metal and into a huge cargo hold.
There are remnants of several bicycles, and an officer’s car with the frame and wheels in the centre of the hold and the broken-off body slid down the port side, as if it has crashed headfirst into the side of the ship.
An Isuzu TX40 tanker truck sits in the sand with a derrick lying over it at 45m. The skylights to the engine-room are open.
I’ve had only a slight peek into it, and found it excessively silty. Again, the angle of the ship makes it very disorientating.
I made my way to the stern recently and was disappointed to find that the stern gun, always an iconic photo-opportunity, had fallen down. This massive ship has so much to explore that I can never wait to return for more.
It’s hard not to say “my favourite” for every ship in the lagoon, but the first time I visited this oil-tanker I was blown away by its size (it’s 150m long) and how intact it is. It sits upright at 45°, its shallowest point at 37m and 60m in the sand.
A shallower tanker, the Shinkoku Maru, is a divers’ favourite because of an epic engine-room and dense covering of anemones and soft corals.
Although not a sister-ship, Fujisan has a similar design but hardly any marine growth. It gave me one of those ah-ha! moments, through which I could now make sense of the Shinkoku’s structure.
The pipe-bridge catwalk on the Shinkoku is so coral-covered that you can’t really make it out, while on the Fujisan you can see the pipes, knobs, attachment points, and fuel-tank hatches used to move oil in and out of the ship.
There are also paravanes used in minesweeping mounted on the deck.
The superstructure is mostly intact, with many rooms to explore, although I haven’t had time to do it justice.
A unique dome-like structure about 3m high sits above the engine-room, but no one has any idea what it is.
Fujisan’s bow telegraph, with a longnose hawkfish to the left;
I was photographing the bow on one dive when I glimpsed a red fish from the corner of my eye. Looking closer (but also contemplating my narcosis) it resembled a longnose hawkfish, a favourite but a fish I rarely see in Chuuk.
Further inspection showed several swimming around the telegraph. Narcosis aside, the photos revealed at least five.
The Fujisan arrived the day before the battle started. Photographed at the Dublon fuel pier on 17 February, she is thought to have got underway in a bid to escape before being hit in North Pass.
Turning back into the lagoon, she was hit again the next day, and sank to the south-east of Weno island.