Diving into the history of World War II
It’s 8am on September 24th, 1944. The Japanese fleet is entrenched around the island of Busuanga in the Calamian islands, in northern Palawan, Philippines. They have used this place for some time as a supply center and as a defense outpost for their positions in the Pacific, avoiding the Americans to approach the motherland, Japan.
After Pearl Harbor, almost one year before, and the constant American bombing, the Japanese troops were very diminished, and it was necessary to establish refueling and supply points.
8:30am: while the Japanese fleet began their morning exercises, the USS Lexington, more than 300 miles away, launched 96 Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters and 22 bombers, armed to the brim with bombs and torpedoes, knowing that they would have only one opportunity to end all possible targets anchored around the island of Coron.
At 9am the first to fall was the Akitsushima Maru, one of the famous seaplane tenders that gave such advantage to the Japanese over the Pacific. Despite being armed with 3 large air defenses, there was no match for the clever American bombers. A torpedo pierced the hull on the port side, causing an explosion that sank the ship in no time, taking with it the entire crew.
Next to fall was the Okikawa Maru, a cargo ship carrying fuel for the entire fleet. A fire started after some bombs and the whole ship was burnt. But it was not until 16 days later when it sank a little further north, near the “Black Island”, in a spot between the islands in shape of a funnel that causes extremely strong currents.
Across the archipelago, another group of fighters and bombers took chargue of the Olympia Maru, Kogyo Maru, Morazán Maru and Irako, one of the last to fall and the one that presented the toughest battle to the Americans. Finally, one of the Japanese ships anchored in the northeast, in an excess of confidence due to its advantageous position in the bay and the mountainous nature of the islands, was the last to fall, the Kyokuzan Maru.
Only a small tanker support vessel was able to barely survive and return to Hong Kong, the Kamoi Maru.
It’s 9am, but this time in 2011. The Filipinos say “Calmada” to refer to a sea that looks like a mirror, only tainted by the movement of the “bangka”, the famous local boats used in both Indonesia and the Philippines. The sun rised three hours ago and we are 31m away from the place where the remains of the Olympia Maru lie (formerly and mistakenly named Tangat Wreck). We are above the water, and it lies beneath in a slight angle to port, almost in perfect condition, the bridge totally collapsed, but all columns and chimeneys still in place.
At depth 31m we find our way through the corridors and cabins inside the wreck. Through the openings and holes in the hull some rays of light iluminate the rooms and the view is spectacular. You can still see the holes caused by bullets and bombs. Even though everything inside was salvaged and the only remains are just shells, ropes, and the structure of the ship, the simple fact of going through each of the compartments is quite an experience.
After almost two hours waiting on the surface, we headed towards the Morazán Maru. It did not get its real name until 2006, when an arduous investigation tracked back this english freighter, that worked as a banana cargo ship in South America, and finally was taken by the Japanese for their wartime service. In this case the wreck is lying completely on the starboard side, beneath 25m of water, and the feeling of diving among the aisles with a 90 degree rotation changes your bearings and orientation.
After these intense wreck dives, we headed to a curious divesite, rather quieter than the previous Japanese burial grounds, the Lake “Barracuda”, a unique dive site in the world, due to its water mixing fresh and sea water and its temperature. To get there, you need to walk across 100 meters of steep rocks (although now there is a walkway) to get to an inland lake within the island of Coron, consisting of several thermal springs, whose waters communicate with two channels to the sea. This creates a unique effect where the top layer of fresh water is approximately 31-32 ºC and salty water reaches 38ºC at some points. The rugged underwater formations look like fiction planet landscape, and the bottom is covered with a gelatinous mud, made of organic material in decomposition for hundreds of years, where you can put your whole arm inside and go through the mud (not without some considerations).
The next day the sea gives us another exceptional day. Today it is a special day, as we’ll visit the famous Akitsushima Wreck and Okikawa Maru, two of the most remote and interesting wrecks in the Calamian group.
We reached the Akitsushima after diving into 35m of water, lying on its starboard side. From the outside you could see how the deck is completely busted. After the explosion, the ship took only a few minutes to hit the bottom after the American attack. We penetrated the wreck at the bottom of the crane and its giant cogs, and after advancing through several corridors we got to the storage area, where thousands of fusiliers, glassfish and small yellow tail barracudas have decided to make a home, safe from currents and predators. This ship has something special: maybe its two huge platforms where the 2 12.7cm guns were defending themselves against the Hellcats, or the elevator for the ammunition, the launch track for the seaplanes, or the amount of marine life.
You can dive three decks deep inside the wreck and is easy to get lost in corridors, cabins and rooms, but it is certainly a memorable dive.
A bit tired, but ready for the next challenge, we went to explore what would be the last and most complicated wreck. The Okikawa, after drifting for several days was sunk in a second attack 3 weeks after the main one. It lies at 25m with the bow completely destroyed and ripped appart, but leaving an excellent penetration dive on the stern side.
After a quick descent, avoiding to spend much energy in the strong current that always stirs this area, we came to the area where the propeller was located once, nowadays a perfect place to start penetration. A small hole where my shoulders barely fit, with a torch in hand, leads to a small engine room where the real penetration begins.
The cargo where the fuel was stored has a lot of little rooms, narrow hallways, and 6 large compartments that should have been burned by other ships in the fleet, but was burned in the waters of Coron.
It has been 67 years since all these ships were sunk. Many of them have a thick layer of coral around them, and a few objects are still inside. However diving inside them will give you a feeling that can’t be explained with words. Hundreds of Japanese sailors died in this September 24th of 1944, and they missed a strategic point that eventually leaded to the tragics August 6th and 9th of 1945 where Japan “lost” their part of the war after the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Undoubtedly, this has been one of the most rewarding experiences of our trip through the Philippines, both historical and in diving. These dives are not easy, they involve wreck penetration and are recommended only for experienced divers. It is mandatory to dive with a reliable shop with professional divemasters and instructors, keeping it safe but also fun!
There are plenty operators in Coron, some of them are clearly not-so-good. About the rest, our ambassadors can recommend Rocksteady Dive Center, a German owned operation focused on the safety of the divers, and probably the only one with a ratio of 2 divers for each divemaster.