MDI Divers

Historical Background

Between The Battle of the Philippine Sea, June 19th and 20th 1944, and The Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23rd to 26th 1944, the Japanese attempted to reinforce their forces occupying the Philippines.

For divers, Coron’s history started on 24 September 1944 when a US Navy strike force of fighters and dive bombers attacked a Japanese supply fleet of up to 24 ships, at anchor, in Coron Bay and around Busuanga Island.

Whether the Japanese fleet was spotted by aerial photo reconnaissance interpreters who noticed that some camouflaged ships had moved, or whether Japanese radio transmissions were intercepted is still debated.

Photos taken from the air during the attack do not show any signs of camouflage netting on the ships. The consequence of detection was a surprise aerial attack by US Navy carrier based aircraft that sank the fleet at Coron anchor. The US Third Fleet was under the command of Admiral William F.“Bull” Halsey aboard the battleship USS New Jersey.

Bull Halsey missed the battle of Midway sitting in a Pearl Harbor naval hospital with a skin rash. He had his chance to catch the Japanese navy by surprise at Coron. Tactical control of the Third Fleet rested with the air combat genius of the Pacific Fleet, Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, who was in command of Task Force 38 from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington.

Task Force 38 was engaged in the mission of naval air strikes against Japanese forces in the Philippines from Sept 21st to 24th 1944. Heavy air strikes against Japanese shipping in Manila Bay resulted in sinking 15 ships which forced the Japanese to move their remaining ships to other anchorages which they thought were out of range of US naval aircraft and land-based bombers. One of these secure anchorages was Coron Bay, only 12 to 16 hours steaming time from Manila.

Many of the ships arrived in Coron Bay on September 23rd. On the morning of September 24th 1944 at 05.50, a total of 96 Grumman F6F Hellcat fighter escorts and 24 Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers took off on a flight to their targets 340 miles away. The raid on Coron was a long distance carrier based air strike and would only allow the aircraft a brief time over the Japanese fleet.

At 0900 the strike force reached Busuanga Island, Palawan and found 12 large enemy ships anchored in Coron Bay and around Busuanga Island. After a 15 minute attack they left behind a carnage of burning and sinking ships. At least 8 ships were closely packed in Bay, a beautiful place bordered by pristine beaches and countless coconut palm trees.

The big transport vessel Kogyo Maru carrying vital aircraft spare parts for land based aircraft damaged cargo ships and one destroyer tried to conceal their presence in the narrow sound between Tangat island and Lusong island which confine the bay to the east and west. West, beyond Lusong Island, the seaplane tender Akitsushima and the oiler OkikawaMaru were swinging at their anchors in the slight tidal current. During the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the freighter Olympia Maru, the oiler Kamoi, other Located about 170 nautical miles southwest of Manila, Coron Bay was a supposedly safe assembly area for Japanese shipping. The cargo ship KyokuzanMaru and two others were anchored in a small bay on the northeast coast of Busuanga.

In the early morning of 24 September 1944, 22 American carrier-based dive bombers and 96 fighter escorts (some carrying bombs) of the Fast Carrier Task Force (TF) 38 surprisingly appeared. Without hesitation, a squadron of Curtiss Helldivers took on Akitsushima and OkikawaMaru. Although the seaplane tender was heavily armed and opened fire with all her guns, she was no match for the skilled dive bomber crews. A bomb hit the hull at the port side, causing a severe explosion. Wracked by fire and explosion from other impacts, Akitsushima went down in the passage between Lajo and Manglet Island. Fully laden with fuel oil, OkikawaMaru was fatally bombed and caught fire. However, she remained afloat and slowly began to drift to the north, she was finally sank on by a second air attack on 9 October. Meanwhile, the second bomber squadron had teamed up to sink the other ships. Ten dive bombers took on Olympia Maru. Three American pilots completed runs on the ship. It stood little chance to survive after the fourth plane hit the mid ships section causing the engine to stop. Finally, Olympia Maru sank from the stern, becoming a graveyard for 19 crew members.

In rapid succession, the remaining ships faced dive bombing attacks by the US Navy bombers. Kogyo Maru went down with no less than 39 seamen. Considerably armed with a variety of flak guns, Irako responded with ferocity. But even she was annihilated and sent to the bottom. The others suffered a similar fate. The final casualty of the morning-long slugfest was the KyokuzanMaru, which had erroneously felt secure on her natural anchorage far to the northeast. She and two other ships were attacked by planes from the USS Lexington. Damage and a fire were reported on one of the ships. The KyokuzanMaru was scuttled by the Japanese. Badly damaged, the oiler Kamoi was able to escape and to make it back to Hong Kong.