Sands of war
Pacific islands harbor relics
Posted: Jan. 20, 2007

Chuuk Lagoon - The cockpit of the Zero had seen better days. Though the joystick still moved, the seat had rotted away until only the metal was left.

The Japanese writing on the dials was still visible, but some of the glass that protected the speedometer and altimeter was gone. Considering the Japanese fighter plane was in the No. 2 hold of the Fujikawa Maru and the Japanese freighter had been at the bottom of Chuuk Lagoon for more than six decades, the Zero was in remarkably good shape.

Zero fighters, the fast planes that bedeviled American pilots high above the Pacific Ocean and took part in the raid on Pearl Harbor, are quite rare. Only a handful are on display in museums and even fewer can still fly. But on the bottom of the lagoon in this group of Micronesian islands, scuba divers can see one up close, swim into the cockpit and sit down for a unique sight few others - aside from those who pulled on Japanese uniforms - can experience.

Though it's easier to get around Europe to visit World War II battlefields, the South Pacific offers an interesting perspective of the battles that shed so much blood but eventually turned the tide in the war with Japan.

Intrepid travelers and World War II history buffs willing to hopscotch islands via air and sea are rewarded with war relics both underwater and on land, interesting museums, battlefields and now-pristine beautiful beaches that more than six decades ago were scenes of brutal combat.

Ironically, since islands like Guam and Saipan are fairly close to Japan, many of the places that were ferociously fought over by the Allies and Japan's imperial army and navy are now popular among Japanese tourists. In fact, Guam has thriving businesses that focus on moderately priced weddings and scuba instruction for the Japanese.

Many Americans come to visit, too. Because Guam, a U.S. territory that is home to American military bases, and many of the islands use U.S. currency, there's no foreign exchange rate to worry about. English is widely spoken.

Guam is the main starting point for visitors intent on seeing World War II battle sites in the central Pacific. It's the main airport hub for daily flights to islands such as Saipan, Tinian, Palau and Chuuk. Continental Airlines is the main carrier with connections from the United States through Honolulu, though there also are smaller regional airlines connecting the islands.

One day after the U.S. Pacific fleet was devastated at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked and invaded Guam. Today the beaches where Americans launched their invasion to retake the island in July 1944 are dotted with plaques describing the carnage that unfolded as GIs stormed ashore against unrelenting fire from Japanese artillery and Japanese soldiers firmly entrenched in caves in the countryside. There are six "War in the Pacific" historic parks filled with war relics to visit.

Some Japanese soldiers were more entrenched than others. One soldier - Sgt. Soichi Yokoi - hid in the jungles of Guam until 1975, clueless about the end of World War II. He was a minor celebrity in Guam until his death a few years ago; some of Yokoi's possessions, such as his handmade clothing, are on display in a museum.
Side-by-side shipwrecks

Among the shipwrecks in Apra Harbor are the Tokai Maru, a Japanese freighter sunk by torpedoes fired from a U.S. submarine in August 1943, and the German merchant ship SMS Cormoran that was scuttled by its captain before it could fall into the hands of the American military. The Cormoran preceded the Tokai Maru to the bottom of Guam's harbor by 26 years, though.

The ships ended up right next to each other, and divers can put one hand on the 440-foot Tokai Maru and another hand on the 290-foot Cormoran. It's the only place in the world where divers can visit wrecks from World War I and II at the same time.

The best place to see World War II shipwrecks, though, is Chuuk. Officially called Truk until recently but still commonly known by that name, Chuuk Lagoon's natural harbor prompted the Japanese to settle a significant number of its fleet in this group of Micronesian islands during World War II. It was the base for Japanese operations against Allied forces in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

In sort of a reverse Pearl Harbor, Allied planes sank more than 50 ships, planes and submarines in bombing raids over the atoll in 1944 during Operation Hailstorm. Now it's a submerged maritime museum. The wrecks are not marked and can be reached only through registered dive guides who ensure relics are not lifted by visitors.

So divers can swim through a ship's galley and see a large wok still on the stove or tools still hanging on nails in engine rooms or crates of sake bottles, many still filled with the rice wine, in the holds of ships. There are piles of bullets and artillery shells, bicycles, bathtubs filled with bright orange rust particles, trucks, delicate blue and white tea cups and tanks.

Decades after the war ended, the Japanese government removed skeletons and bones of military members killed when their ships sank or planes crashed in the lagoon.

Divers can visit some of the islands during surface intervals between dives and see ruins of Japanese communications centers and barracks on Chuuk.

While the shipwrecks and sunken planes are fascinating, none are well-known to historians. However, divers who travel to Palau can see a Japanese trawler sunk in 1944 by President George H.W. Bush when he was a young Navy pilot.
Island battle

During World War II thousands of Japanese troops were stationed on the islands of Palau. Though there were numerous air battles, only one of the islands was the scene of much fighting. The Marine invasion of Peleliu in September 1944 was brutal, with more than 12,000 Americans and Japanese losing their lives during the two-month battle for control of the airstrip, which can still be seen today on the tiny coral island.

Divers can see small tanks and other military equipment in the waters that lie off the beaches that served as landing zones for Marines. Much of the equipment is difficult to see though, since marine life has taken over with beautiful colored plants now attached to gun barrels and turrets.

On Peleliu a small ceremonial shrine marks the ground where thousands of Marines who lost their lives while trying to take the island were initially buried. They were later disinterred for burial in the U.S. A tour of the island includes Japanese bunkers, a cave where hundreds of soldiers were buried alive, war relics and a small museum filled with rusting helmets, Coke bottles and gas masks, as well as paintings and photos depicting the battle of Peleliu.

Fighting was also fierce on Saipan. Now the capital of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth, Saipan was taken over by Japan in 1914, which developed businesses and taught its language to schoolchildren. So when American Marines and soldiers - aided by Navajo code talkers - stormed the beaches, they were not liberating an island, like Guam, that had been invaded only a few years earlier by the Japanese.

The response by hundreds of Saipan natives was to commit suicide by jumping off what's now known as "Suicide Cliff" and "Banzai Cliff."

Tourists can visit the mountainous area in central Saipan where the Japanese military made its last stand and the spot where Lt. Gen. Yo****sugu Saito committed suicide.

Local legend has it that Amelia Earhart was captured by the Japanese in 1937 while on her around-the-world flight and held in a Saipan prison. Tour guides sometimes show off the now-abandoned cell where she supposedly was held. Of course, there is no evidence that Earhart was on Saipan, but it's a nice yarn nevertheless.

Pieces of Japanese artillery and other rusting war relics are on display not far from the Saipan harbor where American ships now dock and U.S. sailors come ashore to see the battlefields portrayed in the film "Windtalkers."

About half an hour ride by boat from Saipan is Tinian, the island known only for its two airfields and the two planes that took off from the concrete strips in August 1945. This is where the Enola Gay and Bock's Car left on their secret missions to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There's not much to see on Tinian because the airfields are now overgrown, though visitors can see the concrete pits where the bombs were loaded onto the planes.

Right before the U.S. military left Tinian, it got rid of lots of equipment by simply dumping it into the sea. Divers now can see mounds of empty bottles of Coke drunk by GIs stationed on the island.