These Three Sunken Wrecks Off The Solomon Islands Are Haunting Reminders of World War II

Off the coast of a pristine Pacific island, diver Christopher Hamilton plunges through the turquoise waters in search of ghosts. Somewhere in the depths beneath him, the remains of three 1940s aircraft lie on the seabed, frozen in time. And their hulking shells transport him back to one of the key battlegrounds of World War II as they emerge from the gloom.

For many years, these haunting wrecks have lain in the dark, known only to a small handful of locals on the Solomon Islands. But thanks to the work of explorers such as Hamilton, their strange beauty all can see their strange beauty. Swamped in coral and slowly rusting away, these long-lost fighter planes offer a glimpse into a distant and violent world.

Almost 80 years ago, the skies over the South Pacific exploded as the Allies and the Japanese battled on land, sea and air. And by the time the fighting died down, over 90 ships and more than 2,000 aircraft had been lost around the Solomon Islands alone. Now, divers are rediscovering their wrecks and capturing evocative photographs that serve as chilling reminders of the horrors of war.

An archipelago of half a dozen major islands and countless smaller ones spread out across the South Pacific, the Solomon Islands lie some 2,000 miles off the Australian coast. Today, their white sand beaches seem a world away from the hustle and bustle of the wider world. But back in the 1940s, war came calling at this remote part of Oceania. And the scars of those battles are still visible.

On December 7, 1941, the Second World War – which had been raging for two years – took an unexpected turn. In the early hours of the morning, Japanese forces launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, decimating the United States naval fleet. And with that, America entered the conflict.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Japanese, keen to strengthen their strategic position and create a buffer against U.S. attacks, decided to ramp up their presence in the South Pacific. And in May 1942 they successfully occupied the remote Solomon Islands. But within months, the outpost had become an important location in the Pacific War.

In the summer of 1942, the Japanese began construction of an airfield on Guadalcanal, the largest of the Solomon Islands. Recognizing the strategic importance of such a facility, the Allies determined to seize control of the region. And on August 7, troops led by the U.S. Marines landed on the island in their own surprise attack.

ADVERTISEMENT

For the next three months, the two sides fought for control of the base at Guadalcanal. Every day, fighter planes battled in the skies above the Solomon Islands, while conflicts also raged both on land and at sea. Eventually, in November 1942, the Allies won a decisive victory, leading the Japanese to evacuate the island within months.

By the time that fighting died down, more than 25,000 Japanese and American fighters lay dead. But despite the carnage, the Battle of Guadalcanal is today considered a turning point in the Pacific theater and, therefore, World War II as a whole. Marking a shift from defensive Allied tactics to strategic ones, the campaign ultimately contributed to Japan’s surrender.

ADVERTISEMENT

Just seven months after the Allied victory at Guadalcanal, in June 1943, they were able to use their advantage to assault Rabaul on Papua New Guinea. And with that, the Japanese lost their hold on the South Pacific – and ultimately the war. Today, the military base has a new life as the Solomon Islands’ main airport. A plaque now memorializes the thousands of soldiers and islanders who lost their lives during the conflict.

With its heady, tropical environment, wild danger and constant battles, the Solomon Islands Campaign was certainly among the most evocative operations of World War II. In fact, it was the setting for one of the most famous anecdotes to come out of the Pacific War. The story takes place on August 2, 1943, months after the Japanese left Guadalcanal. And it in, a torpedo boat captained by one John F. Kennedy sailed through the islands’ Blackett Strait.

ADVERTISEMENT

At the time, Kennedy was a 26-year-old Harvard graduate from a wealthy and influential American family. And of course, he would go on to become the 35th President of the United States. However, his experience in the Solomon Islands would forever shape him as a man. When his boat sank in a collision with a Japanese destroyer, the future leader found himself into a desperate situation that some of his men did not survive.

At first, the crew of the torpedo boat were presumed dead following the incident. They were later rescued, though, from a deserted island thanks to a message the future president carved on a coconut shell. Decades later, Kennedy kept that same husk in the Oval Office as a reminder of his ordeal. And that’s far from the only relic of the Solomon Islands Campaign that continues to capture the imagination today.

ADVERTISEMENT

Over the course of the Solomon Islands Campaign, historians believe, as many as 1,500 Japanese aircraft were lost. The Allies themselves lost some 800 planes. Meanwhile, off the coast, the seas filled up with wrecks as 50 Japanese ships and nearly the same number of Allied vessels were scuppered by their enemies.

Eventually, of course, the war ended and peace returned to the South Pacific. But the great machines that caused so much death and destruction did not disappear. In fact, even today, wrecks and crash sites litter the region, creating a fascinating graveyard that offers a morbid glimpse into the past.

ADVERTISEMENT

Given the nature of war, however, not all of the lost vessels and aircraft are accounted for. So what happened to the fighter planes that were shot down somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, or the battleships that sank down to unmarked watery graves? In modern times, it appears that researchers and explorers are trying to track down these missing relics of WWII.

In January 2019, for example, a team of researchers succeeded in locating the wreck of the U.S.S. Hornet. An American aircraft carrier, this vessel took part in the Battle of the Santa Cruz, near the Solomon Islands in October 1942. But when it came under heavy attack by both air and sea, its crew abandoned ship.

ADVERTISEMENT

After a Japanese torpedo blast dealt the deciding blow, the Hornet sank to the bottom of the ocean. And for almost 80 years, its final resting place remained unknown. Then, in 2019, researchers funded by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, managed to locate the missing wreck.

Using data uncovered in naval archives, the team were able to build up a picture of the Hornet’s last known position. Then, they used an underwater autonomous vehicle to track down the exact location. And finally, after eight decades beneath the ocean, the vessel stepped into the spotlight once more.

ADVERTISEMENT

In photographs taken at the wreck site, the weapons of the Hornet are clearly visible, still poised as if to strike. Meanwhile, on the same expedition, the researchers also successfully located the wreck of the Japanese battleship Hiei. Back in November 1942, the vessel took part in the Naval Battle of Guadacanal.

Off the coast of the Solomon Islands, the Hiei succeeded in inflicting serious damage to a number of American ships. However, the Japanese vessel ultimately caved under an unrelenting attack from the U.S. Air Force. And on November 14, it sank beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean.

ADVERTISEMENT

Just as for the Hornet, the ultimate resting place of the Hiei remained unknown for decades. Then, in January 2019, the same team of researchers located the wreck in the Solomon Islands’ Central Province, just off Savo Island. And soon, they were able to photograph the rusting guns and hull of this long-lost World War II vessel.

While undoubtedly haunting, however, the remains of the Hornet and the Hiei sit far below the surface. And as such, they are much too deep for human eyes to see. That, though, isn’t always the case. Some shallower wrecks have, in fact, become hotspots for divers throughout the South Pacific.

ADVERTISEMENT

In between the islands of Tulagi and Guadalcanal, for example, there’s a stretch of water once known as Sovo Sound. Today, however, it goes by the name Iron Bottom Sound, thanks to the numerous World War II wrecks that litter the seabed. On any given day, you’ll see divers exploring vessels that disappeared below the waves many decades before.

In many cases, these shallower wrecks were never actually lost. Their locations have, in fact, been known since the war. But might some more mysterious, as yet undiscovered, relics also lurk beneath the surface? Christopher Hamilton, a Canadian photographer, certainly believed so. And he set off on a mission to find them.

ADVERTISEMENT

In March 2016, Hamilton released a series of photographs showcasing an incredible discovery he’d made off the coast of the Solomon Islands. Following the advice of locals, he mounted a diving expedition to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. There, he stumbled upon the remains of three fighter planes, each shot down during the battles of World War II.

According to newspaper reports, Hamilton set out from New Zealand on an adventure around some of the most remote islands in the South Pacific. The photographer’s mission was to visit and record some of the region’s fascinating wrecks. And with his discovery in the waters off the Solomon Islands, he certainly achieved that objective.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I planned a six-month sailing voyage from New Zealand, through to Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, and Papua, with a view to getting to some of the most inaccessible, forgotten wrecks of the Second World War,” Hamilton told the Mail Online in 2016. Once he reached the archipelago that hosted some of the conflict’s most violent battles, however, there was a special treat in store.

The wrecks of the three fighter planes were reportedly first found off the Solomon Islands back in the 1980s. And before that, only those that lived on the islands knew of them. Speaking to the Mail online, Hamilton explained. “Naturally, I would not have been able to find anything if it were not for the help of the local people,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I think the key to finding the wrecks is to not be on a timetable,” the photographer went on. “Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you search all day and still come away with nothing. It’s just one of those passions, the closer you look, the more addicted you become.”

So what was the story behind the wrecks that Hamilton discovered? According to experts, the three aircraft – one Japanese and two American – were lost in a series of fierce aerial battles between the Allies and the Axis powers. Moreover, it’s believed that each one met their fate in 1943, the same year that the U.S. triumphed at Guadalcanal.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Japanese aircraft, a Mitsubushi A6M Zero, was a fighter designed to engage in long-distance battles. First launched in 1939, it was capable of reaching speeds of 350 miles per hour and had a range of almost 2,000 miles. And it came with two bombs and four machine guns that would allow it to tackle enemy forces.

However, this fearsome fighter paled in comparison to the another aircraft Hamilton discovered on the seabed. Christened either The Joker’s Wild or Black Jack, this was a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress – once among Japan’s most formidable foes. First put into service back in 1938, these bombers also had a range of around 2,000 miles.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Boeing Flying Fortress had far more in the way of heavy artillery than its Japanese counterpart. In fact, as many as 13 machine guns filled the aircraft’s 74 feet, along with some 17,600 pounds-worth of bombs. Sadly, however, none of that was able to save this particular plane when bad weather hit on July 11, 1943.

The aircraft had reportedly taken part in a raid on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul when it encountered difficulties and went down. In a miraculous twist, the crew survived their fall from the skies, although three sustained injuries in the crash. And after crawling into the bomber’s life rafts, local villagers eventually rescued the men.

ADVERTISEMENT

The third aircraft, meanwhile, was an F6F-3 Hellcat that also served as a fighter for the U.S. Air Force. Launched later than the other two planes, in 1943, it was among the most popular aircraft designs of World War II. In fact, manufacturers produced some 12,000 of them over the course of just two years.

Equipped with six machine guns and capable of reaching speeds of 376 miles per hour, the Hellcat was a formidable fighter. Interestingly, historians believe, this particular aircraft once bore the name Betsy II. And on September 16, 1943, it suffered from engine failure during an attack on the western Solomon Island of Ballale.

ADVERTISEMENT

Like the other two aircraft, the Betsy II also fell from the skies, finally coming to rest 185 feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Today, their wrecks lie on the seabed rusting and covered with coral. They even have human remains still trapped inside. But how did it feel to stumble upon these eerie graves after so many years?

“I could actually place my hand on the controls that the pilot would have gripped with such adrenaline, all those years ago, as he attempted to achieve a smooth water landing,” Hamilton told the Mail Online. “Photographing wrecks allows me to be near something that has been frozen in time, untouched for so many decades.”

ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s difficult to describe the feeling of going into a wreck, particularly on wrecks where human remains are still trapped inside. It is very strange yet exhilarating and very moving,” Hamilton continued. And now, thanks to his discovery, more divers will be able to explore the wrecks off the coast of the Solomon Islands. Through their experiences, we can hope, the sacrifices made on both sides of the conflict are never forgotten.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT