by Jeanne Liebetrau & Peter Pinnock
More than 60 years after Operation Crossroads, Bikini Atoll brings divers face to face with history
THE DISTINCTIVE SHAPE of a flight deck materialises as I descend through the blue. I imagine a fighter plane returning, mission complete. The pilot negotiates the approach; the deck crew is ready for the landing; the fire fighting crews are on standby; and the gunners scan the skies for stray enemy aircraft.
I fin over the vast deck, from which hundreds of planes landed and took off so many years ago. A fine layer of silt stirs, revealing the rivets that once held the teak planks together. In the sponsons along either side of the deck, rows of ammunition are stacked as if ready to be loaded at a single command.
The rubber focusing eyecup on one of the .38 calibre guns is still in good shape. A colony of whip corals softens the harshness of the silent ship. Schools of coral groupers lazily swim over the piles of ammunition. While fore of the bridge the Number 1, twin five-inch .38 calibre guns stand resolutely pointing to the skies. It’s a surreal scene.
On the bridge, the flight deck control room and aeorological platforms are invitingly open. Further up, inside the communications room, the identification labels marking the speaking tubes to the decks below are clearly legible: “Aviation ready room”; “Main communication station”; and “Captain’s emergency cabin.” A table in the navigation room is a treasure trove of historical artefacts.
The largest diveable aircraft carrier in the world, the USS Saratoga was one of 73 target vessels for the atomic tests performed on Bikini Atoll. In 1946, fully laden battleships, battle cruisers, destroyers, transport ships, landing craft and submarines were strategically placed inside the atoll for Operation Crossroads (so named because the commander in charge felt history was at a crossroads). The history of Bikini, its people, the tests and the diving is an amazing story, told in the wrecks that lie deep beneath the water’s surface. And this exploration of the Saratogais just the checkout dive.
AT A CROSSROADS
After WWII, the US government decided to conduct tests on bombs similar to the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A fleet of 73 submarines, battleships, supply ships, and even an aircraft carrier was assembled and made battle-ready with live ammunition and fully fuelled.
Bikini Atoll was identified as the ideal spot to conduct Operation Crossroads because of its sheltered location and minimal logistics required to relocate the inhabitants. The Bikinians and some of their fishing craft were shipped off to Rongerap Atoll, 201 km away, and Bikini was transformed into a camp for more than 40,000 people, including observers and the press.
On 1 July 1946, the Able bomb was dropped. The press labelled it a spectacular flop because Able missed its target ship, the Nevada, managing to sink only five others: the HJMS Sakawa, USS Anderson, USS Lamson, USS Gilliam, and USS Carlisle. Three weeks later the second test, Baker, was conducted.
In contrast to Able, the Baker bomb was activated 30m underwater, creating a spectacular blast as tonnes of displaced ocean and pulverised coral was sucked upward into a huge mushroom cloud. Baker was more successful too, immediately sinking seven vessels including the submarines USS Apogon, Pilotfish, and Skipjack. USS Saratoga was badly damaged and sank a few hours later, as did HJMS Nagato. Though other ships may be more photogenic or full of more artefacts, the Saratogaand Nagato are the most famous wrecks in Bikini, and top the list of any diver’s wishlist.
THE BIGGEST, THE BEST
In fact, diving in Bikini typically begins and ends on the Saratoga, the first vessel launched as an aircraft carrier and today the largest diveable wreck in the world. At 251m she was the largest vessel in the sea, reaching a cruising speed of 22 knots – the fastest at the time. Her 80-plus aircraft fought in many air strikes in the Pacific and were known to have sunk one carrier, two cruisers, and several destroyers, plus damaging one battleship, several destroyers, and numerous merchant ships and hundreds of aircraft. She became a legend when, in the battle of Iwo Jima, she was badly damaged by five kamikaze pilots and seven bombs, but managed to stay afloat. Firemen doused the burning deck, which was rebuilt in only five hours.
On our second dive to the Saratoga, we journeyed down the elevator shaft into the hangar deck. Rows of incendiary bombs and Mk 64 aerial bombs greeted us as we entered. They may have been below decks for 50 years, but the live ammunition still made me nervous.
Parked in a corner sits a Curtis SB2C Helldiver, still intact apart from the engine cowling that has fallen off. The pilot’s dials and gauges are frozen in position.
The hangar deck ceiling has collapsed, crushing many of the planes, but amazingly there are fluorescent lights that survived both the blast and the sinking. Exiting the hangar deck we arrived in the mess. Crockery and cutlery lie scattered throughout. With too little time we proceeded to the command tower, where the compulsory decompression stops allowed us to explore each of the decks.
A dive to the bow of the Saratogais a phenomenal experience. Fully three metres longer than the Titanic, she sits upright on the lagoon floor at 52m. The bow curves gracefully towards the fl ight deck at 32m. Her heavy anchor chains lie tossed on the sands below. A giant hole is reminiscent of the stockless anchor’s size. A healthy growth of long whip corals blurs her sharp outline. I felt dwarfed by her immensity.
Out on the sand beyond the bow are two planes that were blown off the flight deck in the blasts. One is a Helldiver, the other a TB Avenger torpedo bomber. The bomb bay of the Avenger is open, revealing her lethal cargo. Sadly both planes now resemble dead insects, with their wheels protruding helplessly in the air.
ONE WEEK OF WRECKS
Over one week we dived seven different wrecks. Nothing has been removed, and on each one tonnes of unexploded ammunition and massive guns remain. At the stern of USS Lamson, a 104m long Mahan class destroyer, racks of depth charges are positioned for quick release into the ocean. There are five-inch .38 calibre guns, .50 calibre Bofors machine guns, and 20 mm antiaircraft guns. Interestingly, the red glass on the engine telegraph survived the blast. The USS Anderson is also a destroyer – hers was the only vessel whose ammunition exploded in the tests, yet the glass in her portholes survived, as did at least 12 torpedoes stored on her deck. Being so close to the Baker blast the battleship USS Arkansas was unceremoniously dumped upside down. The superstructure didn’t have time to fall off, resulting in her now resting on it with the turrets of the Number 1 12-inch .50 calibre guns projecting from underneath her deck. Wooden crates filled with unexploded emerald green, proximity fused ammunition lie alongside. USS Carlisle was a transport ship loaded with five-inch .38 calibre antiaircraft guns, Bofors machine guns, and a consignment of ammunition. In the 1940s, transport ships were hurriedly made using inferior steel. As confirmation of this, the Carlisle’s metal parts creaked eerily. The USS Apogon is perhaps the most intact diveable submarine in Bikini. In fact, the Apogon was pumped out and re-floated after the blast, but it wasn’t worth the engineers’ time to maintain the pumps so she was left to sink again. On the Apogon’s bow the open torpedo door reveals a Mk 24 torpedo ready to be fired. In front of the conning tower a five inch .25 calibre gun aims toward the bow.
TORA, TORA, TORA
The most infamous ship in Bikini is undoubtedly the HJMS Nagato, Admiral Yamamoto’s command centre for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Nagato rests upside down on top of the biggest guns imaginable. (With some tricky bearing and elevation calculations, these guns could fire an unbelievable distance of 33 km.) The projectiles for the four twinmounted 16-inch guns weighed in at 900 kg each!
Swimming under the deck was an unnerving experience – several tonnes of once hostile steel sat directly overhead. The gun barrels were unlike anything I’d ever seen. I couldn’t decide whether it was the length or the width that made them so formidable.
The Japanese-inscribed tampion still plugs the barrel of the Number 1 gun. The pagoda (bridge) was built exceptionally high to accommodate the gun director’s view. This fell off as Nagato “turned turtle,” and is llying alongside the upturned hull.
As I swam past the haunted ship I imagined hearing the echoes of “Tora, Tora, Tora”, and wondered from which bridge Admiral Yamamoto heard this code that signalled the attack on Pearl Harbor had been a success. Forcefully shaking away the terrible thoughts, I headed for the four giant propellers. Nature is now firmly in charge of these props that once powered this heavyweight battleship to 27 knots. Lightly encrusted with red and orange growth, it’s a reminder that much like life, everything has an end. For me, the Nagato was just the end of an incredible journey into the past, and hopes for a return in
the future. SD
Thanks to the guys at Scuba Diver AustralAsia.
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