Seven miles above the iridescent Pacific Ocean, I'm experiencing a peculiar phenomena I like to call "The Long Day," which occurs when you fly westward just fast enough to keep the sun on top of the horizon and prevent it from setting. I'm in a trance-like state, departing and arriving, boarding and deplaning, taxiing and descending. It's an alphabet soup--IAH, HNL, GUM. As the little airplane icon on the overhead screen inches snail-like along the giant red arc on the map, I can't help but think of all those anxious GIs who crossed this eternal ocean in rickety troop transports, prop planes, landing craft … taking the Pacific back one beautiful, bloody beach at a time. I raise my in-flight cocktail and thank them for their service. I'm traveling nearly halfway around the world to honor the men and machines that paid the ultimate sacrifice, now lying in their watery graves.
World War II in the Pacific unfolded as a series of aggressive Japanese military offenses, arrows on a map radiating from the Empire like the rising sun. At its peak, Japan sprawled from Burma to Borneo, Manchuria to Micronesia. But when they attacked the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, they set in motion the American "island hopping" campaign that would catapult young Marines, soldiers and sailors across the ocean, to kill and be killed on islands most of them had never heard of. Even today, few people do, save the divers who drool at the potential to visit them.
To understand this war, "The Big One," is not to understand these islands but merely why we were even there in the first place. The islands of Micronesia--and their culture, of course--existed long before Americans and Japanese understood their strategic importance. Little did islanders know they'd someday be caught in the crossfire of a great global war between East and West.
When I arrive in Guam at dusk, there's part of me that doesn't feel like I've traveled very far. There are all the accoutrements of the good old U. S. of A.--Micronesia's largest island boasts a population of 150,000 as well as a Planet Hollywood, T.G.I. Friday's, and Outback Steakhouse. Heck, there's even a Home Depot now, and the locals haven't been this excited since the Kmart was built on Marine Drive. It's "America in Asia," and sun-and-fun-seeking Japanese, Taiwanese and Koreans invade en masse to sample the bounty. In fact, it's estimated that 90 percent of the island's tourists are from Japan, so it's a bit surreal to think being here just six decades ago would have meant dodging bullets rather than the speeding taxis I do now.
Indeed, Guam still plays a vital role in the U.S. military. Because of an aggressive "War on Terror," as well as troop cutbacks in Okinawa, it's estimated that the military presence here will swell to nearly 20,000 military personnel, government workers and dependents by early 2008.
It comes as no surprise that Guam possesses some excellent World War II-era wrecks--half a dozen in Apra Harbor alone and more than 60 total documented wrecks islandwide. There are also barges, landing craft and other war-era wreckage, including support equipment like bulldozers, cranes and weaponry. But what makes this place all the more compelling is the fact that at one site in Apra Harbor you can see two wrecks from both World Wars I and II--the SMS Cormoran and the Tokai Maru--on a single tank of air!
I'm at about 80 feet with outstretched arms, touching the hulls of both the SMS Cormoran, scuttled in 1917, and the Tokai Maru, torpedoed in 1943. My dive buddy is Jim Pinson, who's a part-time divemaster for Guam Tropical Dive Station, and who was featured prominently in a recent episode of the History Channel's "Deep Sea Detectives." He knows more about these two wrecks than possibly anyone else on Guam, except maybe Herbert Ward, who helped unravel the mystery of the Cormoran while working for the Navy in the '60s and '70s. Diving on the wreck for almost a decade, Ward was obsessed with exploring every cubic foot of it, until he ran out of air during a dive in 1975 and never came back.
The 290-foot Cormoran was built in Germany in 1909, owned by Russia, and then captured by the Germans in 1914. Prior to the onset of World War I, Guam interned the vessel, but the crew was free to pursue a livelihood on Guam. When war broke out, the Cormoran's captain chose to scuttle it rather than turn it over to the Americans. Before he could do so, U.S. forces fired a shot over his bow--believed to be the first shot fired by Americans at Germans in the War to End All Wars. Thirteen Germans went down with the ship, and the remaining crew was imprisoned stateside.
The 440-foot Tokai Maru was put into service in 1930 as a luxurious passenger and cargo freighter, making runs from Tokyo to New York City. A little over a decade later, however, she was refitted for the war effort, shuttling personnel and materiel throughout the Pacific Theater. In 1943, while sitting in Apra Harbor, she was fired upon by the U.S. sub Flying Fish, hit, but didn't sink. The U.S. sub Snapper was luckier, sending a salvo of torpedoes over the shallow reef breakwater of the harbor and into the Tokai. Amazingly, she came to rest keel to keel with the Cormoran on Apra Harbor's soupy bottom.
Depths range from 40 to 120 feet on the Tokai Maru, and 80 to 120 feet on the Cormoran, making a dive profile that doubles your pleasure. If you immediately head to where the two meet then take a quick tour of the Cormoran, there's plenty of time to wander around the passageways of the Tokai on your way to the surface. You can even dive two more wrecks--the shallow 300-foot concrete barge American Tanker and Japanese Val Bomber--on your second tank (for a total of four in one day!), and still make it back to the resort in time for a late lunch. Another Apra wreck opportunity includes the Kitsugawa Maru, a Japanese merchant freighter also sunk by torpedo. It's in 60 to 140 feet of water.
Other Great Micronesia Wrecks
Once the pride of the Japanese Navy, she became target practice for U.S. atomic bomb testing in Bikini Atoll. The 708-foot battleship now sits upside down, in 110 to 170 feet of water.
This 700-foot German heavy cruiser fought alongside the Bismarck, but now sits upside down in Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, spanning depths from the bottom at 110 feet to above the waterline.
This 880-foot aircraft carrier--the world's largest diveable, intentionally sunk vessel prior to Florida's USS Oriskany--sits at the bottom of Bikini Atoll's lagoon in 40 to 125 feet of water.
This 400-foot Japanese cargo vessel sunk by the Americans in World War II now sits in 120 of sake-clear water off Rota in the Northern Marianas, just south of Saipan.
Territory of the U.S.
English and Chamorro
210 square miles
Shoichi Yokoi was a Japanese soldier, whose picture accompanies the word "tenacity" in the dictionary. Refusing to believe that Japan had lost the war, he remained holed up in a cave and hunted at night to avoid capture for 28 years. Only after an officer was dispatched to the island in 1972 to demand him to return did he relent.
Some 800 miles to the southwest of Guam, Palau--a small archipelago with one-tenth the population of Guam--has its own sizeable share of wreckage and chapter of World War II history. Just 500 miles east of the Philippines, Palau has preserved a more exotic, Southeast Asian flavor than Guam. In fact, Palau and its fuzzy emerald Rock Islands are so dizzyingly beautiful that wrecks don't immediately register with divers salivating to experience the destination.
Diminutive Palau was invaded by Japan as early as 1914, and became the headquarters for Imperial forces in the years leading up to World War II. In fact, many older generations of Palauans--some who are alive today--can remember the years when Palauan and Japanese were both spoken in the islands. Nowhere is this cultural impact more prevalent than on the southern island of Peleliu, the scene of intense fighting where more than 20,000 American and Japanese soldiers and Marines were killed or wounded. Today, touring Peleliu is like wreck diving on dry land, and everywhere you turn, there are remnants of battle.
Just an hour-and-a-half south of bustling Koror--with its resorts, convenience stores, restaurants and internet cafés--is a quiet backwater island of some 700 inhabitants that's an impromptu war museum you've got to see to believe. You'll drive by rusted-out tanks and gun emplacements, and there's even a Japanese Zero that crashed in a nearby taro patch. You can walk through the old Japanese headquarters building, with its massive skylight compliments of U.S. bombing raids. On my last trip to Peleliu only eight short years earlier, I solemnly toured caves where defiant Japanese soldiers had been flushed out with flamethrowers, leaving only charred skeletons and deteriorating weapons behind. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find artifacts in the wild, and most are now housed at a small museum that provides air-conditioned relief from touring the sweltering island.
Under the waves, the history lesson continues. We're diving the wreck of the Chuyo Maru, just minutes from Sam's Tours. And that's a huge selling point--while boat rides to Palau's most popular reefs take an hour or more, the wrecks are a wetsuit-donning away from the dock in Koror. The 285-foot Chuyo was a Japanese freighter sunk during Operation Desecrate One in the spring of 1944. In depths from 40 to 120 feet of water, you'll see its stern gun, munitions boxes, compass and telegraph, as well as lionfish, stonefish and ribbon eels.
Next we dive the Helmet Wreck, which actually has no documented name. It is believed to have been confiscated for the war effort by the Japanese, and proved to be a difficult ship to sink. It took seven 500-pound bombs and four rockets to dispatch it to the bottom. Today, she holds eponymous helmets, as well as gas masks, munition boxes, engines and bottles. In 20 to 110 feet of water, there's a lot of stuff on the 185-foot coastal freighter to explore.
There's no greater irony than seeing an airplane underwater, and a great example of this is the Jake Seaplane just north of Koror. The Japanese Aichi E13A-1 floatplane was shot down in 1944 and landed on the 45-foot bottom. The plane is upright, angled slightly to starboard, and the engine cowling has since collapsed. Peer into the cockpit for an eerie look back in time.
Other interesting sites include the tanker Amatsu Maru--Palau's biggest wreck at 500-plus feet--in 70 to 130 feet of water, the less-frequently dived freighter Teshio Maru, and perhaps the best-known and most popular of Palau's wrecks, the Iro Maru. Techies will be intrigued by the USS Perry, a 314-foot destroyer sitting in 240 to 260 feet of water off Angaur, two hours southwest of Koror. In 1944, just a day before the invasion of Peleliu and Angaur, it hit a mine and sank. Incredibly, this large vessel remained undiscovered for almost 60 years, until 2000.
Wrecks Of Truk Lagoon
This diver-friendly 437-foot Japanese aircraft ferry rests upright in 130 feet of water, and is quite possibly the lagoon's most popular day or night dive. Her masts break the surface, and the deck's at 70 feet.
The 375-foot San Fran features stores of photogenic tanks, trucks, bombs and ammo, all sitting at a tech-friendly 100 to 200 feet of water.
If you like wrecks that double as reefs, you'll love the Shinkoku with its vivid soft corals and loads of tropical fish in 40 to 125 feet of water.
Independent nation, in free association with the U.S.
English and Palauan, with small pockets of Japanese
177 square miles
Became independent in 1994. By constitution, the capital was recently moved from Koror to Melekeok. The new capitol building was built by the Taiwanese government and cost millions to complete. It's fashioned after the U.S. Capitol and caused a stir as it sticks out of the Babeldaob countryside like a sore thumb.
Average water temperatures are consistently in the high 70s to mid-80s all year. More than 100 feet of visibility is not uncommon off Palau, but vis can be slightly lower in Truk Lagoon.
Tropical and humid with daytime temperatures in the mid- to high 80s. Nighttime temps can drop to the mid- to low 70s.
U.S. citizens visiting Palau and Truk need a passport and a customs form. International flights connect through Guam or Hawaii. Each island airport has its own customs and immigration officers; if you plan on visiting several islands on one trip, you'll pass through customs and immigration lines at each stop.
Palau, $20; Truk, $15.
Federated States of Micronesia Visitors Board, www.visit-fsm.org; Palau, www.visit-palau.com; Guam, www.visitguam.com; Truk, www.visit-chuuk.com.
For detailed information on Micronesia dive operators, comprehensive travel guides, special dive deals and recent trip reports submitted by users, go to our web site at www.scubadiving.com/travel/pacificandindianoceans.