The Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands is home to the largest collections of World War II underwater plane wrecks in the world. Read all about them in a new book by Brandi Mueller and Alan Axelrod
At the end of WWII, around 150 American airplanes, all veterans of the Pacific war, were dumped in the lagoon of Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. A master diver and superb underwater photographer, Brandi Mueller has dived to depths of 120 feet to capture rare images of these forgotten war birds, many looking as if they could still take off and return to the war-torn skies at any moment.
Encrusted in coral, these haunting aircraft are now home to a colorful array of tropical Pacific marine life, including fish, turtles, and even the occasional shark.
Located in the geographic region of Micronesia, Kwajalein (kwa-ja-leyn) is one of 29 atolls belonging to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. So far to the east, the Marshall Islands are just slightly west of the International Date Line and just a bit north of the equator. The islands cover over 1.26 million square kilometres (larger than South Africa), although only 171 square kilometres of that area is land (about the same size as Indonesia’s Komodo Island).
Atolls are ring islands that enclose a saltwater lagoon. They are formed by coral reefs that built up around a former island that has since disappeared over millions of years due to erosion. Flat and skinny islands of sand are left behind, usually with sheer walls on the ocean side and a protected lagoonal area fed by tidal influxes on the inside.
For Kwajalein this means spectacular walls dropping hundreds of metres right offshore with untouched, healthy corals and lots of pelagic life, and a lagoon of around 20 to 40 metres deep with sporadic coral heads and, thanks to World War II, copious wrecks including American and Japanese warships and planes.
World War II
The lagoon of Kwajalein Atoll is the resting place for a huge concentration of Japanese and American WWII wrecks, including more than 25 ships and over 160 planes. The Japanese took over and colonised the Marshalls in 1914 and used Kwajalein as an important military defence base during WWII. In early 1944 American forces invaded Kwajalein, bombarding and destroying all of the Japanese aircraft and sinking many ships.
When the war ended, the Americans were faced with the question of how to get their excess material back, including around 150 planes. It was decided it would be cheaper to get rid of the planes than to bring them back on ships, so they were simply pushed off the back of barges in the lagoon near Roi half a dozen square kilometres. These planes can be found at both deep and shallow diving depths, most around 30 metres, and in one area as many as 13 planes can be seen on a single dive.
The Airplane Graveyard has been called the most extensive collection of American WWII planes in one place. You’ll find Corsairs, Wildcats, a Helldiver, Avengers, Dauntless, PBJ-IH Mitchells, and more. Most of them sit on the sandy bottom looking like they have just landed, while others are nose down, upside down and in all other directions. There is also a Japanese Zero, which likely went down as a result of an accident while it was trying to take off or land before the end of the war.
The Airplane Graveyard : The Forgotten WWII Warbirds of Kwajalein Atoll
Photographed by award-winning underwater photographer Brandi Mueller, these extraordinary images of the forgotten American WWII Airplanes at the bottom of the Kwajalein Atoll lagoon, never before published in book form, have now been compiled and published in a new book The Airplane Graveyard : The Forgotten WWII Warbirds of Kwajalein Atoll.
With this new book, readers can discover the stories of these historic aircraft, their heroic role in the Pacific Theater of WWII, and how and why they ended up at the bottom of the Kwajalein Atoll lagoon.
In The Airplane Graveyard, Brandi takes you below the ocean’s surface to discover the forgotten remains of Douglas SBD Dauntless, Vought F4U Corsair, Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, Curtiss C-46 Commando, Grumman F4F Wildcats, Grumman TBF Avengers, and an astounding eleven PBJ-1 Mitchell Medium Bombers. The haunting images are accompanied by a text that includes a historical account of the aircraft by military historian Alan Axelrod. The book is due for release on December 4 2019 and is available now on pre-order at Amazon and other Asian bookstores like OpenTrolley Bookstore.
This article is based in part on an feature article written by Brandi Mueller first published in Scuba Diver Australasia magazine (All images are by Brandi Mueller). Read the rest of this magazine article in SD Issue 7/2014, AA No.80 of Scuba Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.