Scuba Diving Photos
The Ghost Fleet of Operation Desecrate One
Operation Desecrate One
The well-defined, coral-caked bow of the massive Iro is covered with life.
It’s not the darkness below that unnerves me. Nor is it the thought of the dozens of sharks I’ve been diving with on nearby reefs. What’s nagging me is the uneasiness that goes with exploring a tomb. Bathed by soft morning light, I’m descending toward a ship where men spent their last moments, where lives ended in dramatic, violent fashion 68 years ago. Materializing slowly from the blue, the monochromatic details of Iro, a colossal Japanese fleet oiler, abruptly become sharper and more precise.
My uneasiness is trivial compared with what the Japanese must have felt. By late March 1944, most of the Pacific islands had fallen into American hands. The Japanese Navy was all but decimated. What was left was a small number of war ships, tankers, cargo ships, troop carriers and a few seaplanes at anchor within the confusing warren of Palau’s limestone islands. Their sailors must have known the Americans were coming.
Hovering above Iro’s coral-encrusted bow and its huge, circular gun platform, I imagine the morning of March 30, 1944. Early on, American planes appeared over Palau and rained high explosives on the remnants of the Japanese fleet, part of Operation Desecrate One. Sailors aboard the already damaged vessel must have scrambled for lifeboats or dived overboard into the lagoon as Iro met its doom. Over the next two days, almost continuous air bombardments sent at least 60 ships to the bottom.
Stretching into the distance, the ghostly ship is discernible by fractions, its entirety overgrown with sponges, hard corals, oysters and wispy black-coral colonies. The shadows of the open bridge and main superstructure come into view as I proceed. Turning on my focusing lights, the true, vibrant colors of the artificial reef that has taken hold of the deck, its fuel equipment, hatches and portholes are brought to life. Entering a long, narrow companionway beneath the bridge, I navigate above a thick layer of accumulated sediment that coats the dark hallway floor. Fine silt hides any personal effects that may lie in the gloomy rooms opening on either side of the passage.
Exiting the ship’s dim confines back onto the open deck, I float like a troubled spirit above the large engine room lined by catwalks. Adding motion to the eerie scene, a thick school of bigeye jacks swarms near the stern, spiraling around a loading tower that rises into the distant sky. Circling Iro’s stern gun, I realize it’s time to journey forward in time and begin ascending the nearest mast. Like Palau’s terrestrial hardwoods, Iro’s masts present a vertical surface for a host of sun- loving, filter-feeding organisms, and so my safety stop is consumed with critter hunting.