Skip to main content
No. 134:
Sunken Ships at Truk

Today, we meet the ghost of a Japanese navy. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

On February 17th, 1944, American carrier-based bombers ambushed a large Japanese fleet in Truk Lagoon. Truk is a circle of coral, 40 miles across, with 11 small islands in it. It's a perfect natural anchorage in the western Pacific ocean. Our bombs put sixty ships and thousands of Japanese sailors to rest in a stunningly beautiful cemetery -- among coral, plumed hydroids, and white sponges -- with curious damselfish and squid nosing through the tanks, skulls, and fine tableware that have found a strangely natural place in the fantastic landscape on the shallow ocean floor.

Here sits a three-man tank, stridently green in a cloak of marine flora. There are the controls for the stern-gun of the Fujikawa Maru, festooned with orange sponges and soft corals. Below is a bin of huge spheres, blanketed in green and orange -- live mines with small blue fish darting among them.

The Truk site adds practical and moral dilemmas to the perennial question of historical preservation. I do not speak metaphorically when I call it a cemetery. After the war, Japanese divers retrieved what remains they could find. But so many washed bones lie just beyond reach.

The government of Truk protects this phantom navy from looters, but the ghosts also mount their own guard. In the waning days of the war, the Japanese ran low on the materials normally used to make explosives. They resorted to untried chemical alternatives in their ordnance. Old munitions are dangerous enough, but many of the bombs and mines in these hulks are so unstable that they've been known to go off spontaneously. It isn't just that they can't be moved -- they can't even be jiggled.

Oceanographer Sylvia Earle swims through this landscape asking how it should be treated. The ocean will eventually eat it up; and, she argues, we should yield to that due process. Oil tanks will corrode away and spill their limited contents. Munitions will gradually leak into the surrounding water. The small creatures of the sea will slowly weave the devastation of Truk Lagoon into the reefs around it.

But for a while longer, brilliantly colored fish will continue to steer divers through this remnant of WW-II. That terrible conflict will show itself to a few people in terms that no record-book reveals. History will live, and education will be completed. The next world war won't be started by people who still have this kind of intimacy with the last one.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Earle, S. A., Life Springs from Death in Truk Lagoon, The National Geographic Magazine, May 1976, pp. 578-611.