War Wrecks of the Coral Seas
Diving War Wrecks

It’s called “Iron Bottom Sound.” Between 1941 and 1945, this swath of ocean off the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal saw some of the fiercest fighting of World War II, with American and Japanese forces clashing almost daily at times. For some, the name still conjures up memories of pain, bravery, and brushes with death.

Today, however, Iron Bottom Sound is best known as a mecca for scuba divers, who can explore the dozens of war wrecks that litter its bottom. From fighter planes and tanks, to cargo ships and destroyers, Iron Bottom Sound has become a kind of underwater museum. Major wrecks include the American cruiser Quincy, the Australian heavy cruiser Canberra, the Japanese aircraft carrier Kinugasa, and the battleship Kirishima. While most are in water too deep to be visited by recreational divers, more accessible wrecks have helped make the Solomon Islands, where Iron Bottom Sound is located, a world-famous destination for divers.

The Japanese freighter Kasi Maru lies in Iron Bottom Sound.

There are more than 900 islands in the Solomons chain, which stretches for hundreds of miles across the South Pacific. And divers say there are at least as many wrecks. On NATURE’s WAR WRECKS OF THE CORAL SEAS, for instance, viewers visit the Kasi Maru, a Japanese freighter that was strafed and sunk while unloading cargo on the island of Munda. She now sits in 50 feet of water, next to a barge that accompanied her to the bottom.

Not far away, in Rendova lagoon, sits an American Douglas Dauntless dive bomber with a remarkable story. On July 23, 1943, Marine Corps pilot Jim Dougherty and his radio gunner, Robert Bernard, set out to sink Japanese ships that were supplying local troops. As Dougherty swooped low over the island of Munda on a bombing run, flak from several shore guns crippled his plane. Miraculously, he managed to nurse the failing craft back to nearby Rendova, which had been seized by U.S. troops just 2 days before. He then crash-landed in the lagoon, where he and Bernard were rescued. His plane settled into 35 feet of water, never to be seen again — or so he thought.

More than 50 years later, Dougherty got word that divers had rediscovered his plane. And in 1995, the 75-year old former pilot returned to the site of his crash landing. Donning scuba gear, he swam slowly down to the wreck and then sat in the cockpit one last time.

Nearby Gizo island also has sunken treasure. The 450-foot-long Japanese transport Toa Maru, for instance, lies on her starboard side in 40 feet of water. Artifacts are scattered across the seafloor around her, ranging from Saki bottles and small jars to gas masks and cooking gear. Ammunition still lies stacked in her holds, waiting for guns long silenced. One can almost see the chaos that accompanied her sinking.

The Solomon Islands are home to dozens of World War II wrecks.

In waters close by sit the wrecks of two American aircraft that wrought similar havoc. The Hellcat was a nimble dogfighter that held deadly aerial duels with Japanese fighters. The Corsair, with its distinctive bent, gull-shaped wings, was another air combat workhorse. Today, both planes sit quietly on the bottom, their powerful engines mute, their wings covered with sponges and coral.

Such wrecks have become an important mainstay of the Solomons tourism industry. But they also pose threats to the environment. Fifty years after their destruction, some wrecks are beginning to leak oil, imperiling coral reefs and beaches. Some biologists say reefs around Western Guadalcanal are dying from oil pollution. To address the problem, officials have been working on plans to remove oil from some wrecks — without destroying their value as historical sites or memorials to those who once fought fiercely over the South Pacific.

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Online content for WAR WRECKS OF THE CORAL SEAS was originally posted May 2003.

  • Don Goss

    Has anyone ever dove on a shipwreak of the USS Seminole off Guadalcanal/ If so, do you have any pictures, my wife’s Grandfather was the Captain of this ship

  • Dan McAnarney

    Kashi Maru mission was led by marine pilots from VMF-213 Lts Boag, Defabio and Thomas. Here is an excerpt from the official War Diary for this unit: July 2, 1943 Lts Boag, DeFabio and Thomas were ordered to accompany four B-25’s on a strike against a Jap Ak., that was reported to be along the New Georgia shoreline of Kula Gulf, just behind Munda, near Rice anchorage and heavily camouflaged. They took off at 1430. The B-25’s were supposed to rendezvous over the field, but due to some misuderstanding, this was not done. The F4U’s flew along the Northern coast of New Georgia on a heading of 294° Mag, in an effort to locate the B-25’s, finally joining them on the northernmost point of New Georgia at 2000 feet. They then proceeded southeast along the New Georgia coast of Kula Gulf, passing over the target. The B-25’s could not locate the target so the F4U’s made a straffing run on it to the northward going down to an altitude of 50 ft. The AK was perfectly camouflaged apparently having trees felled over its decks, and blended in perfectly with the landscape. Lt. Boag led the straffing, diving on the ship from the ship from the southeast and hitting it broadside. Lt. Thomas followed on Boag’s right and DeFabio followed Thomas on the left. Fires were started on the ship by this first straffing run. The F4U’s circled and made a second straffing run. The B-25’s could then see the target so they circled and made a run on the ship from the same direction. The F4U’s circled and made another run from the northeast, raking the ship from stem to stern. Smoke and flames were belching from the ship at this time. The B-25’s followed again over the same path dropping their bombs and strafing their target. After this second run by the F4U’s and B-25’s they circled over Kula Gulf where they could see great fires and explosions coming from the ship. The F4U’s made another run followed by the B-25’s. The two B-25’s broke awat and circled over the Gulf while the other two made another run on the burning ship followed by a fourth straffing run by the F4U’s. After this the fire went out and the ship could not be seen. There were many explosions aboard the ship before she disappeared. They did not observe any personnel. The F4U’s joined on the two B-25’s that made the last run and proceeded homeward, the other B-25’s about five miles ahead of them. Later observations confirmed the destruction of this ship.

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