On the wall of the Imperial War Museum in London, there is a quote, attributed to Plato. It reads, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
It is a funny thing, memory, because I recall that quote every time I dive on a wreck that has gone to the bottom after being hit by a torpedo, or bombardment, or antiaircraft fire. I even recall it when I dive on naval ships that have been deliberately safed and placed as diving sites because, while availability and thick-hulled longevity are two things that make naval vessels so popular as artificial reefs, the fact remains that such ships are made for battle. And naval battles too often conclude only when one or more of the combatants are no longer afloat.
That is a terrible thought: a possibility that exists only at the intersection of carnage and glory. Yet a visit to such wrecks also brings a feeling of peace, and fittingly so. After all, if Plato is right, these ships, these planes, these relics of war have seen the end of conflict. They have finally found their peace.
We expect to find the detritus of the world wars in the oceans off Europe, in the Mediterranean and in the chains of islands leading from New Zealand to Japan. But in the Caribbean, the echoes of those conflicts are shocking, unexpected. Yet here they are. The Antilla, a new ship of German registry, had the misfortune of being in Aruban waters when the Third Reich invaded Holland during the Second World War. Local authorities rowed out to place the U-boat supply ship under internment and, according to local legend, allowed her German skipper a few hours to think things over before surrendering his vessel. Realizing that his ship might be pressed into service to support the fight against his homeland, he went below and opened the seacocks. When the water came in contact with the hot boilers, they exploded, sending the 400-foot Antilla to the bottom. Such obvious acts of desperation would become common in the months and years that followed. One can only wonder what the players of that drama would think if they knew that the physical consequences of their actions — the shipwrecks — are now a major reason that many people travel to these islands.
I have my own relix that I carry with me when I travel to dive the wrecks of the Pacific. It is the eagle-globe-and-anchor emblem that once adorned my father’s field cap when he was a young Navy hospital corpsman assigned to a Marine aviation wing. It reminds me that the places I visit, both topside and below, are not detached artifacts, not the other world they seem to be. More than half a century ago, these coral-encrusted hulks were the battle-gray stage on which the greatest generation lived out an adventure — the sort of odyssey that only war can be: long periods of waiting, punctuated by joy and relief, by courage and fear, by the grandeur of South Pacific sunsets and the thundering nightmare of incoming shells. I think of my then-twenty-something father, who lived through all of those things, and wonder what went through his mind at such times. Hovering over these wrecks, with my exhaust bubbles rising to the sunlit surface above me and the evidence of that war quite literally within my grasp, I can easily imagine what it must have been like, but I can never truly know. Time covers those thoughts, those feelings, like the corals that cover these hulls.
One of my father’s war stories involves a semi load of Army PX supplies that were spirited away in the night — part of the inter-service rivalry that simmers but never cools, even during time of war — and then was buried in a bulldozed trench when his unit got orders to move on to the next island. He used to shake his head in disbelief at the thought of all those Lucky Strikes, the Hershey bars, Coca-Colas and Ray-Ban sunglasses gone to waste. I wonder what he would have thought had he seen, as we have seen, the jettisoned materiel that lies underwater off Vanuatu’s Million Dollar Point, a dive site that deserves recognition because, among other things, its name is almost certainly an understatement. War is waste in literally every possible sense of the term, and it is places such as this that underscore that fact. Yet there is a lightness here as well; no ghosts tread these decks. When steel is spilled, rather than blood, one can go to sleep after the day’s diving unbothered by the questions and the echoes.
In history classes, we get the notion that war has rarely touched our shores or waters in recent times. Underwater, we are presented with a different point of view. There is Bermuda, where vessels were scuttled in channels to keep German submarines from gaining access to the Great Sound, and where a spectacular paddlewheel still marks the wreck of the Civil War-era Marie Celestia, a Confederate blockade runner that never made it out of Bermudan waters.
Nearer to home, there is that area of the Outer Banks — the Graveyard of the Atlantic — where hunters and victims both can be found on the ocean’s floor.
I remember hovering in the control room of the U-352, looking at the dim lenses of the indicator lights and imagining what it was like during that German submarine’s final moments. To those who last breathed without scuba in that cramped space, the last thing they probably heard was the concussive thunder of a depth charge or the staccato stammer of a distant cruiser’s deck gun. Touching a long-frozen valve, I steadied myself and listened carefully for any remnant of that noise. But all I heard was the popping of shrimp. That and the parrotfish, steadily munching on the coral that decorates the old boat’s pressure hull.
How to Respect our Wrecks: Shipwrecks, aircraft wrecks and other such dive sites are very special submerged resources. To help us ensure our right to continue diving them, and to protect the wrecks, ourselves and other divers, Project AWARE reminds us that it’s important to approach these sites with the proper level of respect.
Respect heritage and loss
Wartime wrecks are often the final resting places of people who gave their all for their country. Treat these dive sites with the same respect you would extend to any gravesite, and protect them like the memorials they are.
Respect the environment
Fragile wreck sites demand low-impact techniques. Anchor well off the wreck, or better still, use mooring balls. Weight yourself properly, and ask a PADI Professional for a Peak Performance Buoyancy course if you don’t know how. Streamline your gear so nothing is dangling to snag on the wreck. Practice touch-free diving.
The only souvenirs you should bring back from a wreck dive are memories and photographs. Shipwrecks are stories, and part of the story is lost when artifacts are moved or carried away.
Respect your limits
Shipwrecks can and do claim the lives of unprepared divers. The PADI Wreck Diver Specialty course can give you the knowledge you need to dive a shipwreck safely. Take special care in entering intact shipwrecks; wrecks deteriorate and collapse over time.
Respect the law
To protect both wrecks and divers, many areas have laws regarding wreck access and preservation. Know and obey such regulations.
Natural shipwrecks, especially, can contain hazardous materials such as fuel, shifted cargo and ammunition. Attempting to move such things can be extremely dangerous. In addition, many shipwrecks abound with sharp edges and entanglement hazards. Be aware of this and dive accordingly.
Respect historic value
Shipwrecks contain clues to their times and their stories. When these clues are disturbed, such history can be lost forever. If you find an undiscovered wreck or come across an item of historic significance, leave it where it is, document it with photography or video if possible, record its location, and seek the advice of a local historical or archaeological authority.
For more information on Respect Our Wrecks, visit projectaware.org.
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