On 24 September 1944, a squadron of 24 Helldiver bombers burst out of the sky above Coron Bay in the Philippines, located the Japanese supply fleet hiding among the islands below, and proceeded to blow it apart. The dive bombers, escorted by 96 Hellcat fighters – some of which were also carrying bombs – had just 15 minutes to sink as many ships as possible before their fuel would get too low for them to complete the 340-mile return journey to their aircraft carrier. The attack was ruthlessly successful, and left a legacy that wouldn’t be discovered until recreational diving came to this remote part of the Philippines.
Coron Bay has the best wreck diving in Southeast Asia, all packed into one relatively small area. There is nothing quite like the feeling of standing on a jetty, knowing that you have at least half a dozen huge wartime vessels lying within a short boat ride. Each wreck has its own special characteristics, but on the whole they are big, mostly intact, within reasonable diving depth and full of amazing artefacts.
If you prefer to explore the exterior of shipwrecks, these are ideal. The decks are wonderfully encrusted with coral and swarming with fish life. There are deckhouses, masts, cranes and lookout perches. The hulls have rows of portholes to give glimpses into the cabins. There are still anti-aircraft guns in place and huge circular gun mounts. Massive holds yawn beneath you, and in places the deck has been peeled back by the bombs, allowing you to float safely down into the belly of the ship.
If penetrating deep into wrecks is your passion, then Coron really is heaven on a stick. We’re talking 170m-long ships! With good planning and a knowledgeable guide, you can make the most of them. You can pick your way through the passageways; penetrate down to lower levels; and find engine rooms with massive boilers, workshops strewn with tools and kitchens replete with pots and pans.
Coron Bay lies on the northern tip of the island of Palawan, the most westerly of the Philippine islands, but is easily reachable from by plane from Manila. Back in 1944, it was a 14-hour steam for the Japanese convoy, whose leaders hoped Coron Bay was beyond the range of US aircraft in the region. However, within less than a day of their arrival at Coron Bay, Vice Admiral Mitscher, on board the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, ordered the 120 planes into the air and they set off to the very limit of their range. The first targets the Helldivers took on were the biggest – the Akitsushima, which carried sea planes and was heavily armed, and the Okikawa Maru, a 170m-long oil tanker. In no time, the Akitsushima was sunk and the Okikawa Maru fatally damaged.
Soon after, the Olympia Maru and the Kogyo Maru were under attack, and both went down with the loss of many lives. The Iraku, a provision ship, went down with flak guns blazing, and even the army auxiliary supply ship Kyokuzan Maru – hiding on the other side of Busuanga Island – was sunk before the attackers finally had to head off.