Victory In Japan: Deep Memories
As Europeans danced in the streets on VE Day in May 1945, bitter fighting still raged across the skies and waters of Asia. It was not the end of World War II. The white flag was only waved for good on Victory over Japan Day on the 15 August 1945 – 75 years ago today.
Fighting spanned Asia-Pacific waters from Hawaii to north-east India, where more than 3,000 warships ended up crashing onto the bottom of the Pacific. In recent years the hunt for these memorials has turned up trumps thanks to cutting-edge technology and deep charitable pockets.
After the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941, by March 1942 Japan had seized Malaysia, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, Philippines and island groups in central and western Pacific. Next on the Land of the Rising Sun’s cross-wires was isolating Australia and India by knocking out their naval bases in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
In early summer 1942, Imperial Japan struck. Virtually the entire navy put to sea to lure the US to a watery grave. Japan’s bait was Midway, a speck of an atoll in the central Pacific and a strategic Allied air base. Taking the Midway would open up the sea route to Hawaii and Pearl Harbour, 2,090 kilometres to the south-east.
Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, commander-in-chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, was supremely confident. He’d successfully led the surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour six month earlier. Now for the knockout blow. Little did he know that American codebreakers had cracked the radio messages laying out Yamamoto’s attack on Midway. US forces knew Japan’s aims, what ships were involved and when they left port.
As soon as the Japanese fleet was spotted, the so-called SBD – Slow But Deadly – Dauntless dive bombers sped into battle. An American fighter pilot later described how “I saw this glint in the sun and it looked just like a beautiful silver waterfall; these dive bombers coming down….”
Three of Japan’s mightiest aircraft carriers, the Kaga, Akagi and Sōryū were hit in quick succession by 1,000-pound bombs. Planes, fuel and bombs and other weaponry stored in their hangar decks turned the warships into giant firetraps. In eight minutes, the carriers were mortally wounded on 4 June 1942. Around 2,000 Japanese and 200 Americans were lost in the struggle.
It was the beginning of the end in the Pacific theatre of war. “The Japanese never recovered,” Craig Symonds wrote in The Battle of Midway, adding that “They simply did not have the industrial capacity to produce a score of new carriers in the midst of war… The Japanese had no option but to rely on… young and untested pilots, who, however earnest and determined, lacked the training, and especially the experience, of their predecessors.”
Now the frozen remains of the Battle of the Midway’s sunken sentinels are re-telling their tales. Researchers searching aboard the Petrel, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s high-tech exploration ship, have discovered the wreckage of the Kaga and Akagi off the coast of Hawaii, 5,180 metres under the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and in 550 metres of water respectively. The Akagi still sits upright on its keel. Expedition director Rob Kraft said that "You can see the gun emplacements on there. You can see that some of the flight deck is also torn up and missing, so you can actually look right into where the flight deck would be."
These discoveries are two of the most iconic discoveries found by the crew of Paul Allen’s Petrel, whose mapped trail of 30 sunken warships includes the USS Hornet, Wasp, Juneau, Ward, Lexington, Helena and the USS Indianapolis.
Japan’s ultimate oceanic ‘death star’, the Musashi, has also been found one kilometre deep off the Philippines. At 73,000 tons and 244 metres long, it was the largest and most technologically advanced battleship in the world. Its hull was protected with 18-inch armour plating, while its own 18-inch guns were the largest mounted on a warship. It would be sunk in the largest naval battle of World War II. Some 19 torpedoes and 17 bombs were needed to down the Musashi on 24 October 1944 in the lead up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Half of the warship’s 2,399 crew lost their lives, including Commander Vice Admiral Toshihira Inoguchi.
After eight years scouring seabeds from the M/Y Octopus, Allen and his team located the battleship off the Philippines in the Sibuyan Sea, searching with a BlueFin-12 Autonomous Underwater Vehicle. “Since my youth, I have been fascinated with World War II history, inspired by my father’s service in the U.S. Army,” Paul Allen later said. “The Musashi is truly an engineering marvel and, as an engineer at heart, I have a deep appreciation for the technology and effort that went into its construction.”
From the US side, Paul Allen’s explorers have turned up the aircraft carrier USS Hornet, another casualty of the Battle of Midway that plummeted 4.8 kilometres under the South Pacific. The Hornet was abandoned off the Solomon Islands after being heavily damaged by Japanese bombers and torpedo planes. Richard Nowatzki, one of the warship’s gunners who survived the battle, remembered how when the planes left, “we were dead in the water. They used armor piercing bombs, now when they come down, you hear ‘em going through the decks... plink, plink, plink, plink... and then when they explode the whole ship shakes.”
The 27,500-ton USS Nevada is another iconic loss crossed off the list of missing in marine action. The Nevada has unbelievable stories to share. It was fatefully the only warship to make it out of Pearl Harbour and then attacked German positions at Normandy on D-Day. Next up, Nevada supported the invasions of Okinawa and Iwo Jima. In its later years, on its last legs, the battleship was ingloriously painted bright orange and used as target practice for the first nuclear test at Bikini Atoll. It survived a 23-kiloton aerial detonation (the bomb missed) and a second underwater detonation. Finally, on 31 July 1948 the US Navy deliberately sank the grand old ship in the Pacific.
The final resting place of the 175 metre-long Nevada was discovered in 2020 by SEARCH Inc. and Ocean Infinity using an Autonomous Underwater Vehicle, 65 nautical miles south-west of Pearl Harbour, after a search of 100 square miles of seabed. The wreck is well-preserved with paint still intact on the steel hull and its 32 anti-aircraft guns ready to fire. Some of the experimental military hardware has survived against all odds, such as a tank stowed on Nevada to see how a 23-kiloton surface blast and a 20-kiloton underwater explosion would affect it.
Alongside ferocious battleships, Paul Allen’s researchers on the Petrel found 11 of the 35 aircraft onboard the USS Lexington when the carrier went down in the Battle of the Coral Sea on 8 May 1942, including the Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat flown by Noel Gayler, one of the first aces of World War II. The Lady Lex was discovered 800 kilometres east of Queensland and 3,000 metres down. The Japanese flag decals painted on its side, showing how many enemy planes had been shot down can still be seen, as well as a Felix the Cat insignia that helped the Navy identify the aircraft.
Elsewhere beneath Pacific waves, Project Recover has identified SBD-5 Dauntless dive bombers in Truk Lagoon in Micronesia. The planes were downed in Operation Hailstone, a massive US military assault on Japanese fortified positions in the Pacific in February 1944.
Despite the passing of time, these wrecks are far from stable. Just as natural erosion, rusting and salts continue to slowly strip these wrecks, the old hulls are slow-ticking time bombs for the marine environment as homes to unexploded ordinance, oil and fuel. Anthony Talouli, the Pollution Advisor to the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), and his teams have pinpointed 53 wrecks off Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Solomon Islands as at high risk of spilling their fuel. Making safe historic warships owned by Japan and the USA, and possible still physical grave sites, holds tricky cultural and technical sensitivities.
The Major Projects Foundation, set up by Paul and Wilma Adams of Newcastle, is also leading research into how best to deal with oil leaking from shipwrecks and the explosive remains of war in the Pacific. Options on the table include pumping out oil, using bacteria to break it down and reinforcing hulls to slow down rusting. After 20 years of talking, it’s time for action: changing the narrative with science.
All the while, cruisers and destroyers of up to 8,390 tons, like the Dutch De Ruyter, Java and Kortenaer, Britain’s HMS Exeter, Encounter and Electra, and a US Navy submarine have been stripped for metal since 2012 off Indonesia and Malaysia. Some lost in the Battle of the Java Sea in February 1942, these casualties of war – and the fight for freedom – are being looted for the value of their steel, aluminium and brass. Mighty memorials are being reduced to shredded piles of metal.
The Pacific theatre of naval war holds huge potential to educate future generations ever-more divorced from the horrors of World War II. The past’s sunken deep also bears an important message for today. While America and China jab fingers in a dangerous blame game whose trade war damages both countries’ people and economies, the lesson of how both nations relied on each other is mistakenly forgotten. The huge cost China paid, in particular, in keeping Japanese kamikaze forces busy and not let loose on the West, has faded into oblivion.
Two years before Britain and France, and four years before the US, it was China that first took on the Axis powers in 1937. While the US suffered 11,606 military losses in the Pacific, the UK 5,670 soldiers, Australia 9,470 and India 6,860, 4 million Chinese died taking on Japan and Germany. An inconceivable 18 million Chinese civilians were killed. These were by far the highest casualties of World War II. On its side, Japan lost a colossal 1.74 million troops.
Divers, robotic explorers and researchers see different things when they discover wartime wrecks. Some see indescribable awe, others faded beauty, and yet more the high-adrenaline thrill of the chase. The most enduring image, though, must be the folly of battle and the memory of how nations united can achieve greatness. Sabre-rattling and dropping bombs literally sink humanity.