FAST BACKWARD: Wartime shipwrecks in the gulf

To the mariners, the idiom ‘Davy Jones’s Locker’ evokes funereal phobia for it refers to “the state of death of drowned sailors and shipwrecks” forever delivered to the bottom of the sea.

During World War II, the gulf of Davao, a sprawling depth of blue-green sea, has been the Davy Jones’ Locker of many soldiers and the planes, ships, and submarines, they manned or piloted. There’s so many of these casualties, both human and steel, in faded pages of archival records that an illustrious historian can always compile a list by doing research.

To the eternal creativity of drumbeaters, some of the shipwrecks, mostly Japanese vessels, have beautifully integrated with the seafloor of Samal island, blending with the corals and the seascape that have become favorite destinations of wreck and scuba divers.

More than any maritime tragedy in postwar era, the aerial bombs exchanged between foes resulted in the sinking of war ships. For instance, on November 2, 1942, Gifu Maru, a Japanese vessel, was sunk by USS Seawolf near Cape San Agustin, in Davao Oriental, while on a war patrol in the Philippines-East Indies area. A day later, the 7,189-ton steamer Sagami Maru, once the pride of the Nippon Yushen Keisha (NYK) Shipping Line of Japan, appeared on the horoscope of USS Seawolf under Lt. Cdr. Frederick B. Warder.

In an online article in Pacific Wreck dated January 6, 2006, Davao journalist Carlos Munda described the encounter in The Sagami Maru and the USS Seawolf:

“The day of November 3, 1942 dawned bright over the lightly choppy waters of the Davao Gulf. It had been a productive first week for the hunting Seawolf. Just the day before, it had encountered the outbound 3,500 ton freighter transport, Gifu Maru and sent her to the bottom… Now, less than 24 hours after, Lt. Cmdr. Warder was once again peering through his periscope at another Japanese prize – one that had escaped him once before.

“With a light wind blowing from the north, the Sagami Maru lay at anchor just off the beach in Talomo Bay, blissfully unaware of the danger that lurked just beneath the ruffled and white-capped surface. It was eight in the morning, and the ill-fated ship had less than four hours before it would settle to its final resting place 300 feet at the bottom of the Davao Gulf.”

The tragic fate of the Japanese vessel resulted in the death of 102 persons, including several Filipino US army rangers. But nothing beats the significance of August 13, 1944 when three war ships were sent to Davy Jones’s Locker that day in Davao Gulf.

As a part of a diver’s itinerary, the Sagami Maru wreck poses danger. Munda adds:

“Among the interesting sights and artifacts one can still see on the Sagami are the Japanese army trucks and motorcycle sidecars in its cargo holds. A newly discovered forward compartment also contains boxes of ordnance. There is also a resident hawksbill that makes its home near the bow winches.

“Topside, the ship is layered with heavy silt deposited by the nearby rivers and creeks. This makes visibility within the ship dangerous for divers. Visibility can go from a few meters to black zero in seconds, trapping the unwary… in the maze of its inner compartments.

“There are several entry points into the wreck – the forward and aft cargo holds, the topside decks, the galley area and the broken-off smoke stack – but none of them are recommended except for the most experienced divers using the right gas mixtures for the depths involved.”

Meanwhile, Ch 12, an auxiliary submarine chaser, was torpedoed in the Davao Gulf by USS Bluegill on August 13, 1944. Also sunk by the same American warship that same day were Kojun Maru, a Japanese transport and Misagu Maru, an auxiliary submarine chaser. In the case of Kojun Maru, forty-two people died in the tragedy, while Misagu Maru contributed five deaths.

On February 25, 1944, Nissho Maru, a Japanese fleet tanker ship, was sunk near the mouth of Davao Gulf by submarine USS Hoe, while it was in convoy. A month later, on March 24, 1944, Shinkyu Maru, a Japanese cargo ship, was torpedoed by submarine USS Bowfin in waters off Davao Occidental. And, on April 26, 1944, Tokiwa Maru, a Japanese transport ship, was sent to the bottom of the sea by US submarine Bonefish.

On June 8, 1944, Kazagumo, a Japanese Yugumo class destroyer, met its fate in Davao Gulf when it torpedoed by USS Hake. Another ship sunk by USS Hake was the Kinshu Maru, on June 17, 1944. On August 5, 1944, USS Cero sunk Tsurumi, a Japanese oiler ship built in 1922.

In 2007, a US Navy aircraft, with human bones inside it, was reportedly discovered at the bottom of the 50-hectare marine sanctuary of Malalag Bay, in Davao del Sur.

The place was marked PBY-4 No. 1227, which was later confirmed by Lt. Col. Frederick A. Riker of the US Department of Defense, as a WWII Cattleya Class Patrol Bomber, a kind of seaplane listed as missing in action in Australia in 1942.

On November 14, 2007, the human remains and plane artifacts found in the wreckage were turned over to the US Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC) represented by Richard Keith and Brent Hepner.