While many think of America’s involvement in World War II as a time when GIs went to Europe and fought against the Germans, it’s sometimes forgotten that much of the real dirty work was done in the Pacific against the tenacious, well-seasoned and often brutally inhumane Imperial Japanese forces.
Though it is true that the Americans took a beating during the initial part of the Pacific campaign, they bounced back and ultimately triumphed with ten-fold capabilities and strength, getting to Japan’s doorstep by the time the island nation capitulated in 1945.
One “win” for American forces was Operation Hailstone in February of 1944, a blisteringly efficient naval air operation that resulted in surprisingly few casualties- for the Americans, anyway.
Much of the air attack was focused in the Caroline Islands, mainly at Truk Lagoon, where the Japanese had set up a large “springboard” base for the purpose of expansion into the other islands of the Pacific.
By 1944, the Japanese had begun withdrawing to the home islands, holding key locations in an effort to stave off the Allied advance. It was due to the timing of this withdrawal that Operation Hailstone was sent into motion.
Not wanting the Japanese to have air superiority or logistics trains to the island of Eniwetok (which the US would invade, only to later do nuclear testing on the island and render it unsuitable for future use), the US Navy determined that the massive supply and air presence at Truk had to be taken out.
On February 17, 1944, under the watchful and formidable protection of Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters, US Navy bombers began their runs on military, auxiliary and cargo vessels in the lagoon, as well as knocking out supply depots, a submarine base, airfields and more.
By the end of the battle, the Japanese had lost 2 light cruisers, 4 destroyers, 3 auxiliary cruisers, 6 auxiliary ships, two submarine tenders, three small military vessels, 32 merchant ships and over 250 aircraft. The human casualty count tallied with 4,500 Japanese personnel lost, compared to the loss of around forty US personnel.
The Japanese did fight back during the battle, damaging the carrier USS Intrepid (which survives today as a floating museum in New York City) and the battleship New Jersey, which served into the 1990s and is now on display in the state of her namesake.
Today, you can dive around Truk Lagoon (now known as Chuuk lagoon) and see the aftermath of the battle, with aircraft and vessels resting on the bottom in excellent condition (at least for their age). In the engine room of one vessel, the skull of a Japanese engineer can be found lodged into part of the ship, with the skeletal remains of his body having fallen beneath him after being struck by a torpedo.
If you’re lucky enough to dive the sight, please resist the urge to collect artifacts or human remains- the site itself is a protected war grave, and pilfering from the grave would be no different than digging up one’s grandmother to get a pearl necklace.
You can watch the full video of Phil Blake’s dive on YouTube.
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