The old people say that after the Allies bombed the Japanese fleet in Chuuk lagoon, so great was the volume of wreckage floating in the water that you could walk from island to island without getting wet.
It doesn’t look like that today.
Today you motor past pristine reefs that in any other part of the world would be internationally celebrated dive sites on your way to rusting metal graveyards.
After climbing back on board following a dive on the Fujikawa Maru, my father removes his mask, looks around at the paradisal vista and says “wouldn’t be dead for quids.”
I tell him that he will be pleased to learn that this is, in fact, a reasonable approximation of what the afterlife is like because I believe it is. He chuckles the smug chuckle of unexamined materialism.
Maybe it’s not just his materialism. The last couple of cancer scares have certainly opened him up to wider possibilities. (Surely, this is the whole point of death.) I think about my father’s perspective as we motor back to our home for the week… a converted Atlantic whaler captained by an opinionated Canadian currently on his third, early-twenties, islander wife.
My paternal grandfather was District Commissioner of the Sepik district of New Guinea. That was a proper ‘edge of empire’ posting. The following photos (he’s the one seated on the right, still with the boss sunglasses) are from a Shinto ceremony commemorating Japanese war dead in 1955.
Similar ceremonies were held all over the Pacific. In Chuuk they sent divers down to remove all the bones so that they could be cremated in a ceremony on the beach. (Take it from me, they didn’t do the world’s most thorough job.)
Whilst my grandfather was colonial commissioner, my grandmother was a journalist for Australian newspapers and sometimes the BBC. She also set up libraries in the district. In fact, when my father and his sister went back a few years ago, they got the key from a village elder and opened up an immaculately kept, dust-free library in the middle of a jungle. Each card in the card file still bore their mother’s precise script.
These were the sort of things you did when you were part of the imperial project. You also raised a son whose best friend was briefly a pig given as a gift from a local tribal chief to his mother that she couldn’t bring herself to slaughter and who -to this day- still speaks and understands pretty good pidgin English.
You also send that son off to boarding school in Sydney at the age of four -two years early- for him to discover that most of the world isn’t brown and friendly and nobody else has pet pigs.
The island his parents lived on had no harbour which meant you could only make landfall if the weather was good. As a small kid, he spent at least one Easter holiday and birthday circling his home on a rusty boat with a bunch of unfamiliar sailors. Unsurprisingly, he’s never quite understood birthday and christmas gifts.
Chuuk was one of Japan’s supply ports for the push south. When they became aware that they were about to be bombed (in a world before drones, we used spy planes), they did two things. They emptied all the fuel from the supply fleet into the destroyers and quickly sent them out of the lagoon. They then tried to run any strategic supply ships aground to salvage whatever they were supplying.
This supply fleet was effectively defenseless. There are sake bottles literally everywhere in these wrecks. Must have been one heck of a party on that last night. When the bombers arrived the next morning, the fleet essentially sunk straight down onto a shallow, sandy bottom… very convenient for recreational diving sixty years later.
Here’s some video from inside some of the wrecks we dived on. Definitely watch. It’s fascinating stuff. (Underwater camera tech has certainly improved in the last decade. I was shooting 4:3!)
What interested me so much wasn’t the octopus’s garden variety ghosts you find on a ghost ship, although they are there in abundance. What interested me were the… consequences. I remember swimming into a cargo hold through a torpedo hole and looking up at dozens of rusting fuel barrels fixed to the ceiling. Despite their liquid contents, the air in them caused them to float… leaving them stuck above me.
At least, stuck above me until they rust through and release their toxins into the ocean. This is actually a pretty big global environmental deal.
It’s also the right mental image for the ghosts of empire… consequences tumbling through time toward us. The car crash that is the private financial collapse of 2008 tumbling into a sovereign debt issue tumbling into the collapse of tiny islands run by Russian mafia, the consequences of a radical neocon agenda, a transport policy dictated by the auto industry, a father with a complicated childhood. Our lives are the totality of these echoes.
Whether they are the ones inside you or the ones out there in the world, imperial ghosts don’t stay dead forever.