Please see our gallery: Warbirds of Marovo Lagoon. Note: Only a few of the images appear within the text – click here for the full gallery at large high resolution in new tab window.
It was 1942 and American forces with their Allies were making an impact in the Pacific pushing back the tide of Japanese invasion. It was during this time the Australian forces had repulsed enemy forces at Milne Bay, and with great determination were clawing their way back along the Kokoda Trail. The Americans had landed at Guadalcanal in the central Solomon Islands and were engaging the Japanese in fierce combat on land, and in the adjacent seas with naval action that has come to be known as the battle of Iron Bottom Sound due to the numbers of capital ships that were sunk in action and came to rest on the sea bottom in thousands of feet of water.
Far away to the north in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands lies the enormous Marovo Lagoon, a natural deep water port and a key supply base of the Japanese war machine. Marovo Lagoon was to be a strategic step in the island hopping strategy of General Douglas McArthur, and it was to be retaken at all costs. From their new airstrip at Guadalcanal, Allied planes began the attack to re-take Marovo Lagoon, with countless assaults from the air, targeting shore installations, and shipping. We dived the victims of this relentless Allied attack – the two Japanese wrecks “Azusa Maru” and “Iwami Maru”. The “Iwami Maru” was sunk 26 December, 1942 and is believed to have been skip bombed as there are holes in the starboard side.
Seghe, on the picturesque Marovo Lagoon was chosen as base for a new runway which was built by American Seabees led by Colonel William Painter, in near record time. As the Allies relentlessly drove northward the role of Seghe changed into a staging area, and now-a-days is the airport serving the Marovo area with twice weekly commercial flights from Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. As you disembark into the heat of Seghe Field, you can almost hear the drone of fighter planes landing and taking off. Off the end of the runway are two submerged aircraft which we dived in gloomy silt laden water which makes underwater photography difficult but the images and story are presented here for the reader’s interest.
Upside down in about 40 ft of water is a Dauntless Dive Bomber. We dropped in off mark and spent about half an hour searching before the wreck was located; I believe it is on a SW heading from the P-38. The cockpit canopy is buried in the silty bottom, but the outline of the plane is visible in the murk. Radial engine with three-bladed propeller, bomb in the cradle, wheels down, wings, flaps, air brakes, and tail flaps can be identified. The perforated air brakes slowed to plane in a near vertical dive, allowing the pilot to precisely aim his payload. It is possible the plane suffered engine failure on take off fully laden, veered hence upside position with wheels down, and flaps extended. Little is known of the history of this plane, and my research has yielded little further information. The fate of the crew is also unknown but hopefully they escaped as the plane settled lower in the water upside down.
The Dauntless Dive Bomber was the mainstay of American carrier based dive bombers. The SBD-5 (Scout Bomber Douglas) was the most produced version of this line of aircraft, and used extensively by the US Navy and Marine Corps as a largely carrier-based scout plane and dive bomber.
My dive buddy, Alex the Armourer, has assisted with some history and technical information. Mr. Ed Heinemann led the design team to create, arguably, the best dive bomber of its time. It was rugged, had good range, predictable diving performance, manoeuvrable, would take punishment, and as many an enemy pilot found to his detriment, good defensive firepower. The plane carried a pilot and rear gunner.
It was powered by a Wright R-1820-60 1200 hp (895 Kw) air cooled radial engine, giving it a maximum speed of 255 mph (410 kph) at 14,000 ft (4265).
Defensive armament was provided by two forward firing 0.50 (12.7 mm) machine guns and the rear gunner used moveable twin 0.30 in (7.62 mm) machine guns.
The standard bomb load comprised of a 1000lb (approx. 500 kg) bomb and 2x 100 lb (approx 50 kg) bombs located on hard points on the centre section of the fuselage and under the wings. The central hard point incorporated a cradle arrangement which swung the load down on release, so as to clear the propellor blades. This feature can be well appreciated in the gallery. Still unclear to the author is whether there was an adaptation of the Dauntless to take a torpedo, as with the Avenger.
On a bombing run, the plane plunged nearly vertically towards its target, and once the bomb was release the pilot pulled out a maximum “Gs” as the tail gunner sprayed the receding target with machine gun fire. Over 50,000 of these serviceable planes were produced. One was flown by ex President George Bush (Snr.) . Though designed as carrier-based aircraft, they were also based at landing strips throughout the Pacific and with their heavy bomb load wrecked havoc amongst the enemy.
Not far away, and closer to the end of the runway is a P 38 Lightning Fighter. This huge one man twin-engine fighter was designed with a central cockpit, and twin booms, joined at the back by a tail plane. The story of this plane is that just landed, it was involved in a mêlée of planes landing and was pushed off the end of the runway, but alternatively it could have gone in by overshooting the end of the runway, and pancaked into the sea. It is probable that one propeller was turning, and the other feathered. Another theory suggests that the plane had been shot up, made a bad landing, and simply could not stop before running into the lagoon directly off the end of the runway. It has come to rest right side up in 30 ft of water. The tail planes appear collapsed suggesting structural damage but it is hard to be certain after some 65 years submerged. Engine covers are off allowing detailed inspection of the Alison V 12 1,150 horse power turbo/supercharged motors. The superchargers were driven by exhaust gases passing out of the “round things” on top and aft of the engine nacelle (see gallery). The fuel ports are seen. The cockpit details are clearly seen with thick but broken plexiglass, and engine controls on the port side, and intact stick. Armour plate is now mobile, but rested in the back of the seat, to help protect the pilot. The forward nacelle at certain angles reminds you of the head of a prehistoric dinosaur. A menacing 20 mm cannon projects forward centrally from the nacelle, and is surrounded by four 50 cal (12.7 mm) machine guns. In previous years, canisters of 50 cal rounds were seen. This plane was heavily gunned with 4x 50 cal and a central 20 mm cannon in the nose.
The P 38 was developed as a powerful fighter and saw action in both theatres of World War II. We think this plane could be the P-38F version which was based on Guadalcanal in 1943.
It came from Lockheed’s designer Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, in response to a US Army Air Corps requirement calling for an interceptor of minimum speed 360 mph (580 km/h) and a climb to 20,000 ft (6,100 m) in under six minutes. After the design was settle, the prototype built, the test flying and modifications data gathered and incorporated, a potent fighter much loved by all who flew her was born.
It was radical design for its time featuring such innnovations as : twin booms, tricycle undercarriage, bubble canopy, and immense firepower.With its superior speed and armament it was capable of taking on the enemy fighter, the Zero, in the Pacific. Over Europe, it took the fight to the Focke Wulf 190 and Messerschmitt 109. Later in the War its role as fighter was supplanted by the awesome P 51 Mustang, and some models were converted to a fighter-bomber role due to its massive power and load carrying ability. Several modes of this aircraft were built. It flew for many years after the War concluded, a record for its advanced and innovative design.
Power was supplied by two Alison V12 (V-1710-49, left, and -53 right) liquid cooled turbo supercharged engines producing 1,150 hp each rated power at 25,000 ft (7602m). The engines were ‘handed’ achieving counter-rotating propellors. In practice, the props rotated outboard as seen from the line of flight. This eliminated effect of engine torque, and improved the flying stability of the aircraft. This was achieved by reversing the rotation of the crankshaft by rearranging the spark plug firing order. Maximum speed was 395 mph (636 km/h) at 25,000 ft (7602 m); range with 300 US gal(250 Imp gal; 1,136 l) was 425 miles (684 k) at 305 mph (491 kph). Later fitment of drop tanks increased the range as did careful engine management.
Further afield in the War-littered Solomon Islands are wrecks of B 24, on land which I visited several years ago; and in the sea a Japanese Zero and P 39 Aircobra fighter. These treasured relics are protected by Solomon Islands law as War Memorials, access is highly regulated and souveniring is prohibited. The planes now host a wide variety of invertebrate marine life, anemones with Spine Cheek anemone fish, and many colourful soft corals. Iron containing parts have long since rusted away, but perspex and alloy surfaces are in surprisingly good condition.
To this day these wrecks attract scuba divers, often the descendants of former combatants from both sides. All who are privileged to dive these planes return with a greater understanding of the sacrifices of their forebears in the Pacific War.