Monday, November 21, 2016

Under the Sea!

A comment from Andrew about his childhood growing up on Kwajalein Atoll fired the synapses for this tale.

So, There I was.....* At the top of my game, flying F-15s in Okinawa Japan.  We're in the process of working up for another deployment to Cope Thunder.  Kadena AB had the only 3 PACAF air superiority squadrons, so we went to Cope Thunder.  A lot.  Which was good, because it was excellent flying and we flew against and with some of the best fighter pilots in the world.  Not THE best, mind you, cause that was us! But...Some of the best.

In any case, we're in the midst of the workups but it's Friday and flying is done, so we're in the squadron bar (yes, they had them back in the good old days.  That's where the REAL debriefs occurred.)  We're sipping a cold one, or three, and discussing the upcoming deployment.  One of the guys mentions that since the mid deployment weekend is a long one for some federal holiday or the other, he's going to go scuba diving.  He's got a tour guide scoped out who insists he knows where a WWII Japanese aircraft wreckage site is.
This is not THE wreck.  It's a Mitsubishi G4M1 ("Betty") bomber wreck in Truk Lagoon, Micronesia

That piques everyone's interest.

However, there's a small problem.  Not everyone is scuba certified, including me.  It was difficult to do without some time off as the probability of getting the "bends" is increased if you fly within a day or two of going diving.  Getting the bends while flying a single seat fighter a couple of hundred miles out over the Pacific Ocean might be...problematic.  So to get certified, you either had to take some leave, or only take the lessons on long weekends.

Another guy in the squadron, let's call him Jim, is also interested in seeing the wreck and is similarly lacking in certification.  But,  he knows "somebody".  This somebody can certify us (5 dives) in a weekend.  All we have to do is get off the flying schedule on Monday.  Since he is the squadron scheduler, that's not an issue.  "Juvat, you'll be the SOF on Monday and then Top 3. I'll be writing the schedule anyway so won't be on it."  "Yippee!  I get to sit around pondering my navel, while completely responsible for any flying related problems.  How good it that?"

You want to see the wreck doncha?


So, it's Saturday morning and we're introduced to our dive instructor, let's call him Norman (for a reason).  Turns out Norman is a DOD Civilian working at Yontan Army Base.  He listens to Radios.

Norman doesn't look like most other DOD civilians in the late 80s.  Hair in a pony tail, with an earring in one ear.  One might think "odd duck" when sighting him.

But, he's going to certify us for scuba diving by afternoon the next day, so why don't we get started.  We've met Norman at the sea wall, just south of Kadena's runways.  This area, for history buffs (Sarge?) is where the Okinawa invasion took place.  In fact, Yontan, where Norman listens to Radios was the first airfield captured and was where Bock's Car made an emergency fuel landing after rescheduling sunrise at Nagasaki.
Top Elipse is Yontan, Lower one is where we had our first lesson.

What made it good for invasion also makes it good for scuba,  deep water, not very far from shore.

I should mention Jim and my attire for our little training session.  One might think we'd be all decked out in wet suits and stuff like that.
For a multitude of reasons, we didn't look this good.

Looked much more like this (at least in my mind anyhow)

The only difference between us and Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt, is we're wearing our flight suits.  Jellyfish don't you know.  Bad ones!

Hey!  We wear them at least once a year for water survival refresher training, why not for scuba certification.  Well....More to follow.

We're ready for our first dive, so we get all our gear on and head out into the water.  Burn through the air in the tanks doing a bunch of emergency procedures.  Not much of interest or fun.  Drank quite a bit of sea water as I recall.

Head back to shore and Norman debriefs us on how we did.  I believe that consisted of "You guys did just fine, except for that drinking sea water stuff, might want to avoid that."  Really? I believe that's called ...drowning.

Saddle back up with new tanks and head back out.  This time we go further out into the sea, beyond the beach dropoff, but not quite as far as the dropoff to the South China Sea.  So, the water's maybe 30-50 feet deep. Visibilities good, and we can see a lot of stuff on the bottom.  Norman had told us that it wasn't unusual to see strange things on the bottom as the locals used it to dump off unwanted things, Refrigerators, cars,  bicycles etc.  The island is crowded, space is at a premium, so a landfill is not really an option.

Norman also told us that if we've still got air in the tanks after we finish the drills, we'll swim around and look for "stuff".

We dive and begin our drills, the South China Sea level drops an inch or so due to sea water consumption by the two of us, but we finish and still have air left.  Norman taps his dive knife on his tank to get our attention and gestures that we're going for a look around.

We swim around a bit and spot an old stove, a bunch of tires, nothing really of interest.

Suddenly, Norman stops and points down below.  There propped against a rock is what I think is a concrete drainage pipe.

Norman has said he'd interested in seeing Lobsters.  Harvesting them while scuba diving being illegal, I'm thinking he's spotted a lobster near this pipe and wants to take a look.

We swim down closer.  The pipe appears to be about 8" in diameter and has a flange on the end it's resting on.  It's quite encrusted with sea life and the residue there of.  I can't see any opening in the top end due to the encrustation.  I start swimming in search of the lobster that I think Norman has spotted.

Jim and Norman are looking closely at the drainage pipe.  I'm a bit puzzled, but hey, different strokes.

Pretty soon, I hear hammering noises and I turn around.  Norman has his dive knife out and is banging on the encrustation on the top end of the pipe.  He goes after it for a few minutes and suddenly a large chunk falls off.

Revealing an Ogival end to the drain pipe.

Drain pipes don't have Ogival ends.

Naval Rounds do.
Ogive means the curved but pointed business end of the shell.

I'm wasn't sure what the underwater blast radius of an 8" Naval Round was, but Michael Phelps would have had a hard time keeping up with me swimming back to shore.
You don't want to be anywhere near.

Debrief on that swim was quite a bit more colorful and pointed in a different direction.

I believe I heard "It hasn't gone off in 40 years why would it go off now?"
Rust and deterioration might be a reason.

Oh good Lord!

Our next dive is scheduled for after lunch and will be on the Pacific side of the island.  Good news, bad news,  it gets very deep, very fast over there.  E.G. Mariannas trench deep.  That's the bad news.  Good News.  Any unexploded ordnance will be well out of reach.

We tell Norman, no more dumb stuff.  Just get us through the next three dives.

Lunch over (it seemed very salty for some reason), we meet up with Norman on the other side of the island.

Two things are noticeably different.  First, it's the Pacific Ocean.  The waves haven't seen land since Hawaii.  They're anxious to make it ashore.  Second, the water is significantly colder. Our flight suits don't do much to keep us warm.

As we talk about what we're going to do,  we notice Norman is now carrying a spear gun.  When asked why, he mentions there are sharks on this side of the island.  For some reason, that Duh, Duh sound from Jaws starts playing in my mind.

We hit the water and are doing our drills, when suddenly Norman excitedly taps on his tank and points to the bottom.  I see a lobster walking on the bottom.  As Norman starts swimming towards it, the lobster accelerates towards a small hole in the coral, eluding Norman's grasp by a few inches.

As he looks into the hole, he realizes that it's a tunnel, not a cave.  If he reaches in to it, the lobster will exit the other side, so he motions for Jim to go over to the othe side and "lock the back door".

Jim does so, by putting his flipper across it.

Meanwhile, Norman is poking around the front door with his spear gun.  I'm thinking he's trying to hook the lobster and pull him out.


Off goes the spear into the hole, through the hole, missing the lobster and, without slowing down, through the webbing of Jim's flipper where it stops, missing his foot by inches.

I look over the top of the coral, half afraid that I'm going to see Jaws and his friends swimming down a blood trail towards dinner.  Instead I'm treated to the dinner plate sized whites of Jim's eyes.

He takes off the flipper and shows me the spear and points towards the surface.  I nod enthusiastically.

Back on shore, Jim's got Norman by the scruff of his neck and giving him an earful.  Norman is sounding a lot like a poorly tuned motor boat (but..but..but..).

We decide that we're done with Scuba by Norman and we'll see a Japanese wreck another time.

Later on, we run into the guy organizing the tour and he asks how the lessons went and were we in on the tour.  We related our horror stories and he goes "No!  you did not get him!  He goes by Norman, as in Norman Bates from Psycho.  That man's bat sh!7 crazy!"
Are you coming back for Dive 4, Juvat?

No kidding!



  1. Unexploded ordnance, sharks, and a bonus reference to Lloyd Bridges and Sea Hunt (a favorite as a kid). Wow!

    Nice post Juvat, and thanks to Andrew for the inspiration.

  2. Yah just can't take some folks anywhere, doubly so when they're the expert.

    1. Expertise does not automatically confer common sense, although common sense is an important compliment to expertise.

  3. Oki is a great island, but Guam was so much nicer for swimming, snorkeling and diving. Tons of stuff in the waters there also. Never heard if Norman was giving lessons (of any type) on Guam. :)

    1. Did get down to Guam a few times and did some snorkeling (never got the opportunity to get my dive certificate). You're right, the waters there are very nice.

  4. Great story!

    References? I don't need no stinking references!

    1. Thanks,
      When I got to Army CGSC, I got introduced to one of their Bon Mots, "If you want it bad, you get it bad!" Applicable in this case.

    2. Sounds like another application of that adage: You can get it good, fast, or cheap. Pick 2.

      That picture of the drainage pipes reminded me of an informational show on USMC Boot Camp. I don't remember if it was a standard obstacle course or part of the Crucible, but they had a drainage pipe tilted down into a small "pond" of water, covering the end. Now I'm not particularly claustrophobic, nor do I have a problem with swimming underwater, but trying to navigate that obstacle while maintaining proper firearm discipline has me feeling like I'd get stuck with my head under water. Which, of course, is why these courses are confidence builders.

      Bruce Jones

    3. Yeah, that would take a bit of mental discipline to navigate.
      I never understood claustrophobia until I got put in the box at the Camp during Survival School. Thought I was going to lose it until I got my hand out of my box and into the box above me, which was unoccupied. That was all it took to get back under control. Funny how the mind works.

  5. Got several good laughs out of that, thanks!

    Had a buddy school who was into diving, until he started reading shark attack stories. Pretty soon, he'd only go in fresh water. Then, he decided to sand the paint scratches out of his tank, and because of that the dive shop wouldn't fill it any more. That ended his diving career, probably for the best.

    1. Thanks CW! Didn't see any sharks any of the places I snorkled (Oki, Guam, Hawaii), but knew they were there somewhere. Course I didn't snorkle anywhere the vis wasn't good either.

  6. Great story Juvat. Brings back some memories ("nah, they won't bother you unless you act like a wounded seal...").

    The lord looks out for fools and drunks...up to a point!

    1. Yes, he does and I'm pretty certain that I abused his patience in those categories more than a few times.

  7. When you mentioned the 'pipes' I got a cold tingling feeling where that was going to end up. Little issue with Japanese ordinance is that they used an explosive compound that becomes more volatile due to age and exposure to salt water.

    Because of the knowledge imparted to me within the first 10 minutes of landing at Kwajalein, which was a 15-30 minute slide presentation of "THIS WILL KILL YOU". more was more of a checklist for the kids and a complete horror show for the parents - everything from stonefish (step on this and you die in 30 seconds) to, yes, unexploded ordinance) I was cognizant of the dangers of UXB.

    So I was snorkeling at one of the islands north of Ebeye at Kwaj Atoll and found a whole case of Jap grenades. Employing emergency backup procedures, I promptly backed right up onto some fire coral. And, in the ancient days of the early '70s, the only treatment was either a jug of vinegar or being pissed on by every male in the dive party.

    One of the wrecks on the lagoon side of Kwajalein island was "O" wreck, which had a vast supply of battleship rounds within its holds. Once in a while, one of those would get dislodged and roll away and go 'boom', tossing up a nice column of water, dead fish and at the wrong time of the year, Portugese man-o-war. Not fun. Wreck was well marked and everyone who borrowed a boat from the MWR people were cautioned to stand far off of the location.

    Sharks weren't a problem as long as you could see them. People were cautioned not to swim in murky water. Murky being less than 30' visibility (seriously). Lagoon was noted for having minimal 60-100' visibility on normal days. Black-tips, white-tips, they all acted like fat lazy dogs for the most part. We were told to leave them alone and they would reciprocated. Only one person got bit while I was there, due to alcohol and a stupid wish to try to feed the shark for a photo op (he was roundly considered a complete dumb-ass by everyone.)

    At the ocean side of Kwaj island, there used to be a restaurant with a pier that went almost out to the edge of the reef. On really low tide days you could go out there and if the waves were quiet, gaze down at the sharks swimming 150' below you. Reef stopped somewhere around the 2,000' or so level. Like looking at the edge of the world, just went down for ever and ever. Mesmerizing.

    At super low tide, you could go walking on the reef, collecting all sorts of animal life (that would kill you) from killer snails to killer fish. If you got hot you just go swimming in a shell or bomb crater in the reef.

    And I thought this was a normal childhood, until my dad retired and we settled down south of Patrick AFB.

    One of these days I'll give you my story on my hour long stay at Johnson Island. Fun times, fun times...

    1. I think that will make a remarkable tale. Looking forward to it. We sat through that video when my family arrived on Okinawa also. My 3 year old son took me down to the beach one night after I got home. While there he showed my a 81mm shell he and the nanny had found. Unexploded. Called EOD, they said they'd get there as soon as they could, but they were excavating 2 2000lb bombs from downtown Naha. Priorities don't you know.

    2. What I Did On My Summer Vacation, or, Fabulous Johnston Island!

      Okay, so there we were, June, 1970, flying from Honolulu to Kwajalein in a military chartered 707 (stewardesses included in the rental agreement) when about halfway there, some Army (or Air Force) security officer gets on the intercom and tells everyone to close their sunshades and keep them closed (this was punctuated by 2 armed MPs, one on either end of airplane (and how did they go unnoticed for so long to the small household ape that I was?)) Also was the comment that bathrooms will be closed in 10 minutes. Huh?

      15 minutes later the plane lands and brakes hard, accompanied by the sound of reverse thrusters. Plane stops, we hear sounds of something being dragged over top of the main door area, and we are all escorted off the plane onto a set of covered airport stairs into covered busses (unairconditioned school type) and driven to a place that had a covered entrance into a covered building with no bathrooms (that I recall) and no windows. We were there for about an hour(or so it seems) sitting on wonderful military issue hard wooden chairs, without my AF Major officer (???) And then the whole covered process reversed itself.

      Plane takes off, hard (which was probably easier as it seems about a quarter of the passengers were missing)(comment from Dad was, "Shut up and quit looking.") 15 minutes out we are kindly allowed to open the shades and go back to gazing upon unending ocean and clouds. Lots of ocean, lots of clouds.

      Years later Dad told us that was fabulous Johnston Island. So now I can legitimately say I've been to a place that got attacked by both foe and friend (shelled by Japanese in the '40, bombed by us twice with thermonuclear devices (sort of, kinda, look it up, it's vaguely disturbing.)

      I get the feeling that any further and substantial information on that stop will be available for public perusal sometime after the heat-death of the universe.

      So many of my earlier childhood memories are like that. Strangly surreal, not really making sense, until, bing, the pieces fall into somewhat place many years later. Like why when my dad was first assigned to Vandenburg AFB, we lived in lovely Santa Maria. Dad said the hills between blocked the bad weather. So when we moved onto the base later (due to duty responsibilities he said later,) I noticed really no difference in the weather, but never got a decent answer. Years later I realized that he meant from the primary effects of a nuke attack. Also explained why he rented a house with a basement when the other houses next to us only had crawl spaces. Hmmm.

    3. Dang stupid fingers. AF Major father. My AF Major father. Gahhhh.

      And Johnston Island was shelled in the '40s. Double-Gahhhhh.

  8. Great post, as usual. Looking forward to Andrew's story.

    Paul L. Quandt

  9. Once upon a time, I sat up on Habu Hill to take pictures of the Habu mission taking off. (We got the frag ord two days before the mission, so I was ready!) About halfway into a roll of Fujifilm, a truckload of SPs showed up. There was some discussion, and I wore my cover a little funny for a while, waiting for the knot on my head to subside. They didn't break my camera, but did expose all the film.

    Next time, I sat out on the sea wall, off the end of the runway, and took my pictures.

    Thanks for bring back some fond (and not so fond) memories!

    1. Not sure if it was the same hill, but directly across the street from our second base house (the first got flooded) was a hill that was nicknamed Habu Hill. My son and I hiked to the top of it and it did have a nice view of the runways. Coming back down we found a few fox holes, but decided not to investigate them other than what we could see from several yards away. It was an interesting assignment.

  10. Too funny! And Truk Lagoon IS worth the trip, if you ever get the chance!

    1. Truk Lagoon. The place that got Jacques Cousteau banned from Japan for life. Seems that episode of his tv show where they enter the submarine and see all the bones was, well, they moved the bones from all over the sub for the shots.

      Japan takes moving their war-dead very seriously.

  11. Old NFO, I hear the tropics calling!

    Andrew and Scott, The Japanese Memorial garden on the south tip of Okinawa was very moving and the view of the Pacific off the cliffs from there was Peaceful. Quite unlike the battle itself.

    1. On Kwajalein Island there is a memorial cemetery put in place by Japan in the '60s. Any non-American body fragment found on the island when I was there went to that memorial. A peaceful and beautiful memorial to the 7,800+ Japanese and Koreans killed during the island invasion, many who were just vaporized by the fierce artillery barrage (Kwaj was where the lessons learned from Bloody Tarawa were first used. Point blank fire from navy ships and island based army units literally flattened the island, grinding much of the buildings and surface into sand and dust.)

      On Roi-Namur, there is a memorial put in place for the Japanese dead by Americans.

      Civilized people do that. They fight tooth and nail against their foes, then, when the struggle is over and peace restored, respect the enemy dead or alive. I fear we will never fight a civilized opponent again.

  12. Just as an aside- I read that some WWII wrecks are disappearing. Apparently pre-nuclear age steel is worth quite a bit since it isn't contaminated with any radioactive material that is found in most steel today, so the salvage companies are scooping it up and selling to instrument manufacturers.

    1. Wouldn't the steel be pretty corroded?

    2. The steel from the guns, armor, engines are actually pretty protected by the corrosive layer of rust. And there's all that bronze and other metals lying around also.

      I believe Juvat may be somewhat referring to the missing ships of the Battle of the Java Sea. An ad-hoc task force of British and Royal Dutch ships was sunk by IJN forces in February, 1942, and then the location was pinpointed in 2008. When a group of Dutch went to prepare the site for a memorial, they found the vessels missing.

      Here are two sites that list the details:

      Nothing is sacred anymore. What's next, breaking into the ossuaries at Verdun for the calcium? Savages. Total savages.

    3. And I read somewhere (sorry, can't remember where) that some suspect the local government was in collusion with some large nation-state that thinks it owns everything in that area of the world. Unfortunately, that would not surprise me one bit.

    4. Ooh,ooh, pick me! I know the answer to that one!


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