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Vol. 15, no. 1
February / March 2012


Sea Hunt (Page 2)


The big blue: NOAA maritime archeologist Hans Van Tilburg has traveled all over Hawai‘i documenting and exploring ocean wrecks. Here he’s pictured with a Pisces V, a three-person submersible run by the Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory; it allows him to reach depths that SCUBA gear won’t. Still, he says, “nothing beats a live diver.”

While I push my feet
through the legs of a wetsuit, Hans praises the dive shop that discovered the wreck we are about to explore. B&B Scuba in Kihei took a cautious, preservation-minded approach to revealing the site after owner Brad Varney heard about it from some local fishermen in January 2010. Varney checked with NOAA, ascertained the history of the wreck and made sure there were no complications with human remains or historical or environmental sensitivities before adding the site to his company’s list of dive options. His crew is diligent about telling dive clients to leave the wreck as is.


“We’re going to get a look at a World War II Helldiver, a dive bomber that’s been sitting on a silty bottom under fifty feet of water since September 1944.” As soon as Hans says this, everybody else on our dive boat shuts up. He isn’t the captain; he’s just another diver, but everybody knows this is special—as luck would have it, they’re going to dive with a professor.


“You’ll see that the engine has broken away from the cowling. The vertical stabilizer has detached, and it’s lying in the sand. That’s the result of a defect that forced the pilot to ditch the plane. The pilot and his radio operator/gunner had time to get out before it sank. The wreck is fairly intact. For example, you can still see the instruments in the cockpit.”


He explains: the Helldiver, or Curtiss SB2C, was designed to launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier, plunge like a meteor to drop its bombs, then pull out and get back to the ship. The plane couldn’t tolerate such stresses. The Helldiver had a huge rudder assembly to keep it from stalling when it reached the bottom of the dive. Navy pilots called it the “big-tailed beast” or, riffing off the code SB2C, “Sonof- a-Bitch Second Class.” In the pell-mell manufacturing pace of that war, however, pilots had to make do with what they got. The Helldiver we are about to visit was on a training run in 1944 and headed back to the runway in Pu‘unene when the tail buckled. The two men on board had to swim for their lives.


Geared up, Hans and I jump into the dawn-lit sea and enter a vague world of blue glimmer and shadow. Even twenty feet down, there are no edges. But at thirty feet the sea floor begins to materialize and with it the cruciform shape of the plane. We hover around it. It’s not a big plane: It could almost fit in a living room. The hinged wings are fully extended, and I see square ammunition hatches on the top of each wing. The cockpit and gunner’s pit are fully exposed, the big tail flopped on its side settling into salt-and-pepper grainy silt.


An entire ecosystem of creatures has preceded our arrival. Antler corals branch upward from the old fuselage, crowned by a swirling crowd of dascyllus fish. Needlestiff urchins quiver as though electrified, and spaghetti worms stretch their long white filaments languorously over crusted equipment.


Using hand signals, Hans catches my attention. We hover upside down looking into the crusty cockpit—a good place to meet some moray eels, I think. Then I see his purpose. The instrument panel has been plundered, the instruments ripped out. The silent ocean world—the world of Hans Van Tilburg— contradicts our own so beautifully, and yet here is ours right before my eyes.


Afterward, sitting on the dive boat, I watch the Maui shoreline warm itself in the brightness of morning—the dry foothills of West Maui behind the condos and rock breakwalls of Ma‘alaea, the cane-field green of the isthmus, Haleakala towering to the right and the township of Kihei turning into resorts at Wailea.


My imagination shifts to the identical scene in 1944, when Hawai‘i was preparing for an invasion that never came. Aerial squadrons roared through this very sky. Bombs blasted that island there. Amphibious craft disgorged helmeted youth rehearsing for terrible experiences in the South Pacific. I see history.