The last bell
I SETTLED ON THE DECK at about 55m and orientated myself quickly, eager to head in the right direction.
I had been told that the ship’s name Reiyo was engraved on the bell, and I couldn’t wait to see it.
The Reiyo Maru lies well off the usual Truk tourist route. It’s the sort of wreck for which technical diving was invented. A dive here will throw at you everything any hardened deep wreck diver could ever wish for.
The Reiyo rests on an even keel in the extreme north-eastern quadrant of the 4th Fleet anchorage, an area generally very good for visibility – and the odd shark or two.
Even after 70-odd years on the seabed little growth has settled on the wreck, probably because of the lack of light.
At first sight it appears very clean and well-preserved, but grey and a bit dull.
But it isn’t. If not for the depth, this wreck would be one of the most popular dives in Truk. Resting on a clean white-sand seabed at around 66m, it is one of the deepest wrecks in the lagoon, with only the destroyer Oite and the Katsurigusan Maru slightly deeper.
It was discovered by the Cousteau expedition of 1969, and verified with a fathometer by Kwajalein-based divers four years later.
Klaus Lindeman rediscovered the site in 1980 but since then Reiyo has seen few visitors. Developments in closed-circuit technology are now changing all that.
Australian technical diver Craig Challen joins me on the deck, and I indicate towards the bow where, of course, most ship’s bells can be found.
We have landed on the forward well-deck, so we don’t have far to go. After checking our rebreathers’ set-points and computer read-outs, we fin off in an east-north-east direction.
We had been exploring the engine-room of the “Million Dollar Wreck” San Francisco Maru only 24 hours before, while the rest of our expedition team had been exploring the Reiyo.
When we met them on shore British divers Des Murray and David Wilkins had looked extremely pleased with themselves, and had been quick to tell us how they had found a bell that had been undisturbed for almost 70 years.
CRAIG’S TORCH waved frantically – f***, he had spotted the bell before me! Australian cave-divers are not supposed to do that when diving alongside British wreck-divers!
The bell was as big as described and, yes, the ship’s name stood out clearly, despite a certain amount of encrustation.
Craig used his strength and lifted it onto a nearby capstan so that I could shoot some stills.
After a few frames, I laid my camera on the deck and we both admired what we were seeing. A bell, on a wreck, in Truk Lagoon – a rare sight indeed.
By now there seemed to be a lot of activity around us. The bell had become the centre of attention as I’d been photographing, and other divers from our team had turned up to see it for themselves.
Before long the beehive of activity had kicked up the silt, and I set my mind on my next goal.
If you plan to explore any engine-room in Truk, it’s a good idea to be the first diver in, especially if you intend to shoot images.
These engine-rooms see zero flow, so degrading rust and sediment settles everywhere. Disturb it and your visibility is gone in seconds, so only a careful and experienced diver will enjoy an engine-room in its entirety in gin-clear water.
Any loss of concentration in such an environment can result in a total silt-out, and that can be fatal.
To a photographer, any disturbance of silt will result in dirty back-scattered shots fit only for your recycle bin. So the race to find clear water was on, and I reckoned the bell would keep the others busy for a while.
SWIMMING AFT, I maintained my depth as the forecastle dropped to the well-deck, where I could see holds 1 and 2. Two doors either side of the forecastle were slightly ajar – this was where Des and Dave had discovered the bell in storage. The forward mast lies to the port side, obviously blown off during the explosions during World War Two.
On my right was the port “weather-deck”, where a mass of angle iron is piled up, perhaps cargo intended for construction on the islands.
Smaller sections lay in a disorderly fashion across the deck, and aft and outboard of hold 2 I could see small crew-hatch openings leading below.
A large hole in the portside deck indicated where a bomb had struck, tearing the deck and hull-plating apart.
I stuck to the portside gunwale as I swam. Looking over the edge of the ship, I could see a large split leading downwards along it, and this had apparently been instrumental in the final sinking of the ship.
Two reasonably sized winches could be seen on the deck aft of hold 2, and then I reached the wheelhouse.
I had read the sinking and damage report of the Reiyo, and knew that fire spread throughout the wreck for at least a couple of days. This would have consumed the wooden bridge, and little of the equipment that would have been inside it could be seen.
Closer inspection indicated that telegraphs and helms might have fallen through the teak decking as the fire ripped through the ship.
Finning across the top of the wheelhouse area, I could see in the distance the funnel, collapsed to the port side but indicating the location of the engine- and boiler-rooms.
I noticed another diver over my right shoulder, perhaps someone with the same idea as mine, and finned a little harder to reach the open hatches above the engine-room.
With no air-conditioning on these ships, the hatches would have been left open to let in cooler air as they sat at anchor in the intense Pacific heat.
Belgian diver Danny Huyge arrived at the hatches alongside me. As a videographer he understood what I intended to do, and indicated that he would follow close behind.
I was right! The engine-room was free of divers, and as we dropped into the darkness it felt like making a freefall skydive at night!
Danny’s “big-time” light cast my shadow across the gantry walkways as we dropped to the room’s deepest regions. Best to begin exploration at the bottom levels and work our way up, out of any disturbed silt.
THE REIYO’S ENGINE-ROOM is perhaps as good as that of her sister-ship Nippo Maru, sunk nearby and regarded as one of the best on the tourist route.
Danny’s light picked out electrical switchboards and a wall full of capacitors and switchgear.
Our bottom time was clocking up, so the order of the day was a good look round and back up to the shotline.
I squeezed into a tight gap and edged around the back of the engine itself. On the far wall I could see a number of extremely large wrenches, all hung neatly in their fixed positions.
Danny found his way around the other side of the engine and moved into the frame to add scale as I shot some stills. Above us was a repeater telegraph, consumed by time and looking as eerie as rusticles inside Titanic.
As our eyes adjusted to the darkness and I looked around the old-fashioned machinery workshop, I got a feel of what it would have been like to work in here.
I could see heaps of rope and block-and-tackle equipment once used for lifting heavy objects in and out of the room. I could read the gauges on the engine. How often does a diver get to experience an intact engine like this
A bleep drew my attention to my wrist console. A quick check and everything settled down, but it was a timely reminder.
As we moved into shallower water, we could see the top of the triple-expansion engine, and gantry walkways either side.
Atop the engine were those wonderful ornate little 1920s oilers that once drip-fed lubricant into the working parts.
On the upper levels, small rooms branched off on either side. On the port side intriguing wheels led to unknown machinery, and insulated pipework turned the place into a maze of metalwork, though we kept an eye on the dim exit light high above us.
There was also a neat little workshop room built within wire-caged walls and still very much intact.
AS WRECK-DIVERS, Danny and I understood how triple-expansion engines worked, and what evaporators and other machinery on a wreck of this age do, but some of what we were looking at baffled us.
Our eyes followed the pipework of a large oil reservoir bolted to the wall to insulated electrical contraptions. What they once did was a mystery, but they made the dive that bit more interesting.
We had cooked up more than an hour of bottom time, and with some two hours of decompression showing it was time to leave. As we made our way up the shotline, our eyes now fully adjusted, we could see the decks below in the deep blue water. It was now obvious that the ship had been hit hard by the large bombs and subsequent fire.
I returned to the Reiyo for one final dive before my Truk expedition was over. I wanted to circumnavigate it, to weigh up its construction and the damage sustained in that 1944 air-raid.
Boat operator Nick from the Blue Lagoon dive centre finds the wrecks and will put a shotline in exactly where you want it. The downline was fixed securely into the bow, and I arrived to find him taking in the sights for himself.
It’s not often that the “Trukese” guys get to dive the deep wrecks, other than when CCR divers come to town.
Diving with a single cylinder of air, Nick’s bottom time was up in minutes, and he confidently left us alone for another hour or so of exploration and a further two of decompression.
At first visibility was blurred, the wreck resembling a desert mirage. I was sure it was a halocline. Reiyo, built with what is known as a plumb bow, appeared to be holding her construction quite well, unlike other deep wrecks.
At the opposite end, it is blessed with one of those wonderful counter-sterns, again still in brilliant shape and fabulous to see with the ship on that even keel.
The aft mast had fallen from its base and lay diagonally across holds 3 and 4. Its inverted crosstree section lay against the deck aft of the superstructure, but the top section of the mast appeared to be missing.
THE HOLD BULKHEADS in this area and aft weather decks seemed to have suffered heavily during the air strikes and were twisted and buckled.
This was a three-island vessel with an extended island amidships. There divers can view much damage but also kingpost standards either side of a hatch and still standing proud.
The amidships suffered heavy damage. It was here that Danny and I located the galley, where china plates and cups could be seen, bearing the Toyo Kisen K &K (Oriental Steamship Co Ltd) crest.
It was a delight to see the Reiyo ’s bell. The previous year our team had located and photographed the bell aboard the Oite destroyer, only to discover on our return that some souvenir-hunter had removed it.
These we think were the only two bells left in Truk, and sadly no one knows where any of the other bells from Truk’s many wrecks have ended up. Could the Reiyo’s be the last bell in Truk Lagoon
The bell is the heart and soul of any ship, below or above water, a focal point of beauty, but has beauty any value if it’s unseen! Let’s hope that on the Reiyo Maru at least, it remains to be seen.
The Reiyo Maru was a medium-sized freighter of 5446 tons, reasonably large for the small company that owned her.
Built in 1920, she carried both passengers and cargo from the Far East to New York, and from Yokohama to southern Chinese ports.
She made two trips to Truk, her first departing from Yokosuka in November 1943, carrying 3700 tons of consigned military stores, 1100 tons of tools and instruments apparently for repairing bombs. She was also said possibly to be carrying five large landing-craft.
She returned to Yokosuka in January 1944 to be loaded with similar cargo for her final trip to Truk, but was hit on 17 February – the very first day of the USA’s Operation Hailstone.
American bombers launched from nearby aircraft-carriers at 6am caught the Japanese
Dive-bombers from the Essex scored two 1000lb bomb hits, one amidships and the other just aft of the bridge.
Ten minutes later, planes from Intrepid managed another direct hit aft of the bridge amidships, and a near-miss off the stern quarter.
Fires broke out in hold 3 and spread through the ship to hold 2, where munitions caught fire, resulting in multiple explosions. Eight crewmen died in the raid.
Reiyo remained afloat for two days before the fire and explosions took their toll.
She sank at her mooring point about three miles off Eten Island, on a bearing of 060°.