Guam – This week, Chuuk State is marking the 70th anniversary of a World War Two battle that put the Micronesian archipelago in the history books and left a legacy of underwater monuments that have attracted scuba divers from throughout the world.
70 years ago today, on February 17 1944, carrier based American fighters and bombers launched “Operation Hailstone”, an attack on the Japanese fleet in what was then called the Truk Lagoon.
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It was a major Japanese naval and supply base. After 2 days of bombings, Japan’s 4th Imperial Fleet was destroyed. U.S. forces sank 12 Japanese warships and 32 merchant vessels, as well as downing 275 Japanese aircraft.
In the process, they transformed the Chuuk Lagoon into the biggest graveyard of ships in the world.
This week, Chuuk State is marking the anniversary of that battle, which is an often forgotten chapter in chronicles of the Pacific war.
[Wreath of Peace floats on Chuuk Lagoon Monday as US Soderberg rests at anchor during 70th observance of Operation Hailstone]
Japan’s ambassador to the FSM, FSM President Manny Mori and the U.S. Ambassador to the FSM were on hand as “Wreath of Peace” was laid on the waters above the wreckage at the bottom of the Chuuk Lagoon.
Dianne Strong is a retired UOG professor and a writer, who is in Chuuk this week for the event.
“Truk is the forgotten battle of World War II,” said Strong explaining that “there was no amphibious followup. It was an aerial attack that lasted 2 days, February 17th and 18th 1944. You go to museums all around the world, take a look at the Pacific history, Truk is never mentioned.”
But she says, the people of Chuuk haven’t forgotten “because they have the underwater legacy of all those sunken ships.”
Roughly 29 American died during the battle, a negligible loss compared to bloody battles else where which claimed thousands of U.S. servicemen.
But Strong points out that it was a significant strategic victory, which paved the way for the invasions of Saipan, Tinian and Guam. The battle was an important “stepping stone on the way to Tokyo.”
Today, the lagoon is an underwater museum of historic ships and airplanes.
“Beautiful artificial reefs that are 70 years old”, said Strong. “The airplanes, the “Emily Bomber”, the “Betty Bomber”, ships, a destroyer, just beautiful reefs. So I love, not just the history, but this beautiful artificial reefs. We call them ship reefs.”
Strong is the author of “Witness to War”, a recently published book on the late Kimiuo Aisek who, as a 17 year old Chuukese youth watched the attack that sent the Japanese fleet to the bottom and later made it his life’s work to lead divers from around the world in the exploration of the wreckage of war at the bottom of the Chuuk Lagoon.
“From tragedy can come beauty”, says Strong. And Kimiuo Aisek helped bring attention to the beauty left at the bottom of the Lagoon in the wake of the battle.
Kimiuo’s legacy, says Strong, is the opportunity he created for his people.
“The Truk Continental Hotel, was purchased by him. Its now the Blue Lagoon resort, the Blue Lagoon dive shop. And his memorial museum which is going up .. more than 130 people are employed in these enterprises. They’re not coming to Guam. They’re staying home, making minimum wage and living their lives in their home.”
“I hope people realize that there are Chuukese that can succeed wherever they are and that we should honor Chuukese.”
Kimiuo died in 2001 at the age of 73.