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Diving in Truk, Micronesia 1973


It wasn’t really your average diving job

By John Oakes

Nothing can be said against any man who decided not to dive on the Sankisan Maru, and nothing heroic may be said of those who did. All of the sixteen men who made a significant number of dives on the encrusted little freighter did so for their own reasons. If one excuse was used more than others, it was that "The job hag to be done, so we do it." And, of course, that doesn't answer the question very well. Steve Aiken, who first recognized the significance of the cargo of the Sankisan Maru, saw it through his years of cleaning up scattered World War Two ordnance as another job with the inevitable twist that he had come to expect. Truk's Lead Divers, Kimiuo Aisek and Paulus Ykelap, may have brought years of diving leadership and the urge to test their great experience and extensive underwater skills. Sometimes, diving can be a financially rewarding field, and some may have come for that; but a more subtle reason that one came to suspect after a few days on the LCU springs from the principle of involvement. It is much like the drivers of a Triumph and a Porsche, who meet for the first time, compares notes, and just happen to go to a sports car rally where hundreds of people are involved in what they do best. Divers are like drivers, and where significant things are happening, they tend to come together.

The Sankisan Maru came to a grief off the west fringing reef of the island of Uman in Truk archipelago of the Eastern Carolines. She was bombed or strafed by United States Naval carrier planes in the raids of 1944. We believe she burned first in company with the many other hulks, burning, drifting, and sinking all over the Dublon Island anchorage to the northeast. The smoke of these pyres marked the sky over every island and anchorage in sight. But as the Sankisan burned, she burned with a difference; her fore and art cargo holds were heavy with ordnance, and it takes little imagination to envision the state of mind of her crew. When her time came and her after cargo of aerial bombs blasted her stern apart, she was a thousand yards from Uman and headed directly for the island's western shore. She sank there and came to rest in one hundred ten feet of water with her entire stern aft of her number three cargo hatch opened and petaled back like a great steel flower. Engines and engine beds were strewn about and bent propeller shafts stuck from shaft alleys at odd angles all atangle with boilers and pipes and iron plate. Finally, after same hissing and boiling, came silence that lasted for most of twenty-nine years. As she lay in the coral mud, she came to life again. Algae found her first, followed by hard and soft corals, and species after species of fish began to select new apartment houses of twisted steel. She became a place of safety and productivity as she had never been when she tramped about the Pacific with her cargo of war materiel.

Metal salvors came in the 1950's and raised some of the more valuable metals from her. Among them was a quiet, smiling young diver who worked his hooka rig with the other divers and then went on his way. Years later, Mike- Urumai came back again to work the forward hold of the Sankisan for a far different reason. The world had changed its collective mind about poisons and environment and the world habitat. This time, it was the cargo of the forward hatch that was of interest to the United States Environmental Protection Agency(EPA). The EPA had offered to partially fund the removal of the three hundred 400-pound submarine depth charges which Steve Aiken had identified. It was feared that among the chemical products of decomposition of the charge number 98 was picric acid, potentially harmful to the reef life of Uman. Truk District officials saw an additional hazard to the safety and reputation of the burgeoning diver tourist industry, and feared that a curious scuba diver might explode one of the detonators while prodding and prying incautiously with his knife.

When I first saw the number one cargo hold and came to comprehend the vast tonnage of small arms ammunition and detonation devices which were stacked on and tumbled around the depth charges, I realized that it was easily the greatest concentration of unknown chemicals and ordnance in the Truk Lagoon. The EPA made the salvage of the Sankisan an official pilot project because of its unique potential for pollution and catastrophy and proposed that it be made a test to determine whether local effort, expertise, and resources could master the intricate logistics and relatively sophisticated techniques required for the job. That faith exhibited, Truk District Administrator Juan Sablan pledged al1 necessary local resources. Serious planning began under the direction of the Division of Public Safety.

Bill Brewer, a Peace Corps Volunteer Marine Ecologist with the Department of Health Services, and I from the Division of Marine Resources were sent to Truk to make an underwater photographic survey of the Sankisan and to identify a proposed location for the underwater storage of the depth charges. We wanted a thorough study of the marvellous colonies of hard and soft corals that all but smothered the silhouette of the little transport with their enthusiastic growth. We set up biological test sites which we could later reidentify and so monitor the environmental effect of project activities. At the expense of onle flooded camera and many rolls of film, the survey was completed to our satisfaction. We felt we had the beginnings of what could become an important permanent record.

In late May, the ex-U.S. Navy LCU No, 1482 was swung by her stern anchor bow on to the protruding forward mast of the Sankisan. Through two days of rain and squall, she was jockied about until her bow ramp was directly over the hatch of number one hold. Sometime during the shifting about of the second day when position was just fight the big P&H crane dipped her hook into number two hold and the first team of divers sent up a three-bladed propeller and hub from a Mitsubishi zero. That was too much success, and while we had been instructed to spend a day refining techniques on the truck and airplane parts in the second hold, everything was moved to number one and the next team dived onto the job we had been preparing to do for so many endless weeks.

Before a week on-site was out, fifteen depth charges had been swung aboard the modified LCM, Dublon, and transported to the underwater storage site. The shallow reef chosen for the storage phase had been photographed and selected for its considerable distance from land and for the fact that it was primarily dead acropora coral not likely to be further harmed by the leaking picric.

At this stage, with a bit of experience to guide their thinking, three divers quit, leaving the crew short-handed. No more divers in the immediate area were qualified and something had to be done to keep the project and its expensive collection of machinery operating. Dr. Jim McMillan had come to the project from the U .S. on his own time and money to help activate the new portable Galeazzi emergency recompression chamber. Jim and I put our heads together and decided to call on our professional diving instructor organization for volunteers. The National Association of Underwater Instructors is an organization of volunteers to begin with, and when Arthur Ullrich, the NAUI Headquarters Manager, cabled a beautifully succinct "Can do," it was no more than we had expected. Out of one single meeting of diving instructors in Orange County, California, Art got twelve positive replies from people who had the qualifications, the time, the resources, and the inclination to go to Truk. Six eventually came, staggered at different time intervals to work with the three remaining Trukese divers and to begin one of the finest charters in human cooperation and mutual involvement that can be imagined.

Life on the LCU was somewhat less than plush. It was harsh, dirty, and odorous - not like the Orange County living rooms these men had come from, and the diving they faced was the muckiest kind of work diving. All romance and glory rapidly soaked off in clouds of silt and picric acid that totally obscured vision after the first dive of every day. If the job or the living conditions bothered the NAUI people, it did not get in the war of an almost instant admiration for the skill and the steady courage of their Trukese counterparts. The six NAUI men all brought comparatively vast technical knowledge and varied diving experience to the project, and found it matched by the natural watermanship, local experience, and inborn tenacity of Paulus, Mike, and Kimiuo. Enough cannot be said for the adaptability on both sides, or for the great advantage that a shared skill and a deep dedication to diving can produce between widely divergent peoples.

Long, hard work days became weeks, short in retrospect, and by the 27th of June, it seemed that nightfall would see the last of the charges removed. The P&H hook dipped, the crane signal lights flickered "hook up, hook down, boom left, boom right," and by dusk one lonely charge remained, rusted and coral-encrusted into a corner of the bulkhead. No amount of pulling or prying or hauling could break it loose.

With time for only one more series of dives, two teams prepared for a final effort. The first managed to break the charge loose but ran out of time and could not wrestle the charge to the middle of the hold for the P&H. Dusk had turned to dark so three hand-held dive lights were brought out and the last working dive onto the Sankisan Maru began with the expected twist.

The last four divers descended into the most beautiful and rewarding dive of the project. Plankton excited by passing fins exploded like hundreds of tiny flash bulbs, and the black silk and velvet of a night dive wrapped each diver in his personal cocoon. Even that last depth charge trailed a perverse kind of beauty as it cleared the hatch combing and flashed through the surface of the water overhead.

A quick last softie was made over the starboard rail to pick up that original eleven hundred pound bomb which rested alongside the ship and the last of the ordnance was slung aboard the LCM. Grateful divers released the hawsers binding the LCU and the fleet stood off for the boat pool on Moen.

Long, hard, and enervating weeks had passed, and a tough job, become ordinary after all, was safely and gratefully completed. There had  been more sprains and abrasions than danger or heroics, and more hard work and physical discomfort than anything else. Time, with her own tendencies, will make it a good story, and perhaps with its passage into history, the event of the Sankisan will become a full-pledged partner in the many-layered saga of Truk Lagoon.