It will come with a rush and a roar and a shudder. It will come howling and laughing and shrieking and moaning.–Dalton Trumbo
Yesterday I went scuba diving and explored two wrecks from Operation Hailstone, the battle which crushed the Japanese fleet during World War II. We visited two different sites. The first, Gosei Maru, was a Japanese supply ship used to get materials to the submarine fleet. The ship was hit by a torpedo during the battle and rests, bow down, in the lagoon. The stern is 15 feet below the surface, the bow is at 130 feet. Its scale is massive, which is only exaggerated by the fact that, I’m not that big, and shouldn’t be underwater in the first place. It’s kind of haunting and terrifying–like being on the set of some disaster movie, only it’s not a movie. It’s there. It’s real. I touched it. We swam up to the hole where the torpedo slammed into it and brought her and her crew down. Going
in, you can see the munitions she carried. Depth charges and torpedos clutter her inside. You can also see the galley where people ate, the floor tiles they walked on, the lanterns they lit at night to guide their way. All sunk, all crusted with coral, and all surrounded by fish darting in an out of old instruments and holes in steel that is so decrepit you can no longer call it just rusted.
The next site was Japanese bomber downed just off the shore of a tiny island called Etten which served as the airstrip during the war. The bomber, nicknamed Betty, must have been trying to land when she went in. Resting at slant the highest point was starboard wing tip at 40 feet below the surface, and the lowest point was the port wing at 70 feet below sea level. All along the fuselage were
dozens neat, round bullet holes where she was hit. The nose cone was cracked, and we swam into the plane itself. Clearly visible was where the different crew members sat. Indistinguishable canisters that looked like large bottles rested on the bottom. Outside in the sand lay a corroded machine gun. But what I found most fascinating was the control panel. Half buried in the sand was a cockpit panel. Imagine if someone ripped the dashboard off your car and dropped it in the ocean. Antiquated gauges and dials across the face, what I guessed to be the altimeter to the right, it was no more and two feet long at most. When I waved some of the sand, the instruments had little metal plaques as labels for them. The plaques had writing etched into them, Japanese writing. Of course I couldn’t read it, but someone could. The young man in the pilot’s seat could. The Mitsubishi factory worker who fashioned it could. People could. People who woke up in the morning and got dressed. People before me who, like me now, touched this. They were alive they were here.
One of my students told me that ever since he started volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, he can’t just drive through the city anymore. He notices neighborhoods he never did before. He sees people he used to ignore, and he wonders. He wonders who they are. He wonders what their stories are. How did they get here? Where were they before this? Earlier today? Last week? Last year? What if life took them in a different direction? Staring at the tin inscriptions on a crashed warplane at the bottom of the ocean, I know how he feels.