"The SS Hilda is a nice wreck within reach of experienced divers"
Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Kyokuzan Maru
Thousands of feet below me, littered on the brilliant blue waters, are a dozen or so very small islands. Off the plane's port side there is a huge reef running out from Mindoro. The view is magnificent as the plane starts its slow descent towards the small dirt airstrip I can just make out ahead.
We make a giant turn and I can see off to my right our destination, Dimakya Island. It really looks idealic from up here. Straight below there is a long thin island which, with a few smaller islands, makes a very protective harbour. This is the resting place of the Kyokuzan Maru, a Japanese ship sunk by the US Navy during World War II.
A few minutes later we make a smooth landing at the small "airport" (that is being very generous) at Decalachao (a location, not a town - a least from what I saw), although the airport has apparently the grand name of Yalu King Ranch. One hour and ten minutes ago we had taken off from Manila and we were now on Busuanga Island in the Calamian Group of the Philippines. Busuanga Island is a fairly decent sized island, about 55 kilometres long and 20 kilometres at its widest. It has a few hills, with some rugged jungle sections as well as quite large grassed cattle stations in the centre.
A village on Busuanga Island
On this part of my trip I am staying at Club Paradise on Dimakya Island. For more information, see the Club Paradise Page. You can stay here and dive the Kyokuzan Maru or you can stay in the bustling town of Coron and take an overnight trip to this place to dive shipwreck. As you travel to the protected harbour that I flew over earlier, you pass by small villages. What an ideal location, so unlike Manila or even Coron.
The run to the wreck of the Kyokuzan Maru from Club Paradise is about 60 minutes by fast banca. From Coron it is a longer trip requiring an overnight stay on the banca or a local island.
A typical banca on a beach on Busuanga Island
I have not yet been able to find much information about the Kyokuzan Maru, especially the early life of the ship and its specifications.There is no record of any ship under the name Kyokuzan Maruin any Lloyds Register in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In any case ship is approximately 160 metres long and a cargo vessel. However, the Coron History Report by Peter Heimstaedt (see references) says that the ship was 135.9 metres long, with a breadth of 17.8 metres. The ship was said to displace 6,492 tons and was powered by a 3,882 shp geared turbine driving a single prop.
In late September 1944, some Japanese ships, including a convoy of 12 Japanese ships, took refuge in the Busuanga Island area of the Northern Palawan group of the Philippines. Eight of the ships were anchored in Coron Bay, the rest to the west and at least one on the northern side of Busuanga Island. The Kyokuzan Maru was anchored in a very small harbour on the northern side of Busuanga. Apparently the ship was disguised as an island!
Late on the afternoon of 23 September 1944, Fast Carrier Task Force (TF) 38 under the command of Vice Admiral "Bull" Halsey positioned itself for an attack on the ships in the Coron area. At 5.50 am on 24 September 1944, 180 Grumman F6F Hellcat and Grumman SB2C Helldiver planes lifted off the American and headed off on the 350 kilometre flight for the waters of Coron Bay. This was to be the longest carrier based (and return) attack ever carried out. At 9 am the planes reached Coron and located at least 18 large Japanese vessels and started their attack.
The planes attacked the ships in Coron Bay and the ships to the west first. The final wave of planes attacking (VB-19) were only reaching the northern side of Busuanga Island when the other planes were attacking the ships south-west of Coron. They were ordered to attack the Kyokuzan Maru and two other ships anchored in this area. It is reported that the planes scored a direct hit on her port side and a number of near misses. This ship was reported to have caught fire on the port side near the living quarters. She did not sink and there does not appear to be any damage that may have caused her to sink, although the hull may have suffered cracks/splits that are now not visible. It is also report that she was finally scuttled by her crew.
Today the wreck of the Kyokuzan Maru sits upright in just over 40 metres of water at 12° 09' 58"N and 120° 09' 19"E. It is basically fully intact and two dives on the wreck are just enough to gain an impression of the ship. The wreck is almost fully intact, very much like the Japanese wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon. The forecastle area of the bow is quite interesting, with easy access into the rooms and a few things to see. On the starboard side there is evidence of a bomb exploding and causing quite a bit of damage.
Behind this there are three holds, with upper and lower decks. When we dived here there was a strange, milky fog in the lower hold so I could not examine it. The 'tween decks has a bit to see, including 200 litre drums and the remains of some unidentifiable objects. Around the join of hold one and two there is a large hole where the torpedo that sank the ship hit. It must be below the level of the middle deck as I could not see it from inside the wreck. Hold three is quite fascinating, with a Toyota Lexus (yes, Lexus) to be found there. This is allegedly the only one left in the World. As you move to the rear you pass the first of the two kingposts and two masts.
The third hold has a coal bunker which gives access into the engine room. There are other ways to get into the engine room including from the bridge area, through the skylights or, even easier, through a large hole where the funnel once stood. The engine has been salvaged, but the boilers and other bits remain. The funnel lies over to the starboard side and is an enticing swim-through.
Above the engine room, the bridge is an excellent place to explore, with many different cabins to see. On the port side there is a large bath and just behind this, a hole in the roof where a bomb dropped by the Americans went straight through the roof and the floor. I did not have time to explore under this to see if it exploded, but I suspect that it did not go off as there was no real damage to the floor. The bridge area also has some crockery and kitchen items to see.
To the rear of the bridge there are two more holds, both with the fog and some items, including drums and rope. In the rear hold you can see the prop tunnel and the damage caused when the prop shaft was removed by explosives. You can swim into the shaft from outside (there is, of cause, no prop but the rudder is there) and exit in the hold.
Above the stern there are the remains of a gun turret, only the skeletal remains of the mount are still there. There are more holes to explore in this area.
This is an excellent dive, as good as many in Chuuk, but not containing as many artefacts.
After our first dive here we go a few kilometres to an island where we have lunch on a small beach. Despite my comments above about the quality/cost of the food, the lunch here is excellent, well worth the cost. After a couple of hours we do our second dive on the wreck and then have a leisurely trip back to the resort.
A video I made of my dives on the wreck in 1997. Shot on Hi8 video, digitised in 2011 and edited in 2012.
Coron History Report by Peter Heimstaedt - Note Mr Heimstaedt emailed me a number of times in the late 1990s telling me that the information I had then on my site about this wreck was wrong but refused my requests for the real information