Diving into the past at Truk Lagoon

Diver John Lachelt tells of his exploration of the sunken Japanese fleet in the Pacific

Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2003

Near a pinprick Micronesian island, called Truk Lagoon, lie the submerged carcasses of more than 60 Japanese war vessels, sunk by U.S. bombers during World War II. Just this time last year, Channel Dive Center owner John Lachelt dove through an eerie Japanese ship's control room and stumbled upon human remains in a submerged warplane.

"You know the Japanese attacked us, and we attacked them. We fought all the way through those islands (in Micronesia), leaving thousands and thousands dead," Lachelt said. "When you dive (at Truk Lagoon) you have a sense of respect. It's very quiet. You know people were interred there."

Lachelt will show slides and video and talk about his most recent Truk Lagoon dive, at 6:30 and 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. The event is free and part of the U.S. Forest Service Fireside Chat series.

Before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, they built up a considerable supply base in Micronesia, a sprinkling of tiny islands that sit inside the bowl of a large, extinct underwater volcano in the Pacific, northeast of Australia. About three years after Pearl Harbor, the United States led a counterattack.

"We realized that aircraft carriers from Japan were moored in Truk Lagoon, and in February 1944 we found them asleep and basically started to attack," Lachelt said.

The U.S. attack destroyed cargo ships and battleships, sinking their remains more than 90 feet. Over the past half-decade the rusting military skeletons have become a home for fish, sharks and garish coral. Legend also says that Amelia Earhart, whose plane mysteriously was lost over the Pacific in 1937, may have been shot down by the Japanese at Truk Lagoon. For the few divers who visit the clear, warm turquoise waters every year, the area is a haunted playground.

Last spring Lachelt flew from Juneau to Seattle, Seattle to Guam, Guam to Truk Lagoon - more than 8,000 miles - so he could explore the wrecks himself. He photographed ghostly interior scenes: barnacled catwalks hanging over a silent engine room, overturned rice pots in an off-kilter kitchen, a seaweed-covered officer's bathtub, a perfectly intact gas mask swarmed by tropical fish, a vast cargo hold filled with bottles of rice wine.

"Wow - awesome, terrific, splendid - there aren't enough adjectives to describe Truk Lagoon," Lachelt said.

In his talk, Lachelt will go into further detail about the theories of the disappearance of Earhart, and tell the story of a disabled Truk Lagoon submarine, stranded on the ocean floor with sailors inside. He also will show some underwater footage of sharks feeding on a piece of tuna.

"There were hordes and hordes and hordes of sharks," Lachelt said, adding that he wasn't afraid of them, even when he was watching them feed nearby.

"Luckily, we're not on the menu," he said.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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