Diving Papua New Guinea: New Britain – Kimbe Bay’s Zero Wreck

The Kimbe Bay Zero Wreck

As the story is told around the bar at Walindi, the day the wreck of the Zero fighter was found was soon after a small plane had crashed on take-off from Hoskins Airport at Kimbe Bay.

So when local villager William Nui saw the wreck laying on the sandy sea floor he thought he had found the wreckage from the recent crash and not that of a WWII Japanese fighter plane that had remain undisturbed for nearly 60 years!

That the wreck was actually spotted in the first place is an interesting story in itself, because William was free-diving for sea cucumbers at the time when noticed what seemed to be a large shadow on the sea bed.

Like many people in PNG, William is very superstitious and as he got closer he thought that he was looking at a ghost lying face-up with its arms outstretched, soaking up the sun.

Terrified he shot to the surface and to the relative safety of his canoe, eventually summoning up enough courage to go back down to take a closer look – realizing when he did that it was the wreck of a plane rather than some demon of the deep.

William took his story to the local authorities and word of the discovery made it to Max Benjamin, the owner of Walindi Plantation Dive Resort, who was rather dubious but felt that the story should be checked out and the rest, as they say, is history…

The Kimbe Bay Mitsubishi Zero Wreck

Diving PNG:  New Britain – The Mitsubishi Zero, a legendary aircraft…

Mitsubishi Zero A6M (www.aviation-history.com)

The Mitsubishi Zero fighter was to the Japanese WWII military forces what the Spitfire or Hurricane were to the British military, or the Grumman F4 Wildcats and F6 Hellcats were to the United States…

A truly remarkable fighting machine.

It achieved its legendary status initially from its role in the Japanese Navy’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

At that time the USA had nothing that could outfight it because of its exceptional speed and maneuverability.

Japanese Kamikaze Pilots

But it was the Zero’s eventual role as the transport of choice for the infamous Kamikaze (Divine Wind) suicide pilots that ingrained it into the psyche of a generation.

More than 3000 volunteer pilots, some as young as 17, gave their lives in what they believed were divine missions to protect Japan.

It was a devastating and demoralizing strategy, but one that eventually failed due to the rapidly declining manufacturing capability of Japan compared to the overwhelming one of the USA.

Initially such attacks were on an ad-hoc basis when damaged planes were deliberately crashed into Allied ships in a final attempt by the pilot to inflict as much damage as possible.

But in October 1944 the Japanese Naval Air Force deployed specially modified Zeros from Air Group 201 in the Philippines in the Battle of Leyte and before the war ended a total of 49 Allied ships had been sunk by Kamikaze attacks.

Diving PNG:  New Britain – The History of the Kimbe Bay Zero

When Max Benjamin first dived the Kimbe Bay Zero he found it in quite remarkable condition, particularly so given that it had been underwater for almost 60 years at that point in time.

There were no signs of bullet holes or other combat damage that would have indicated the plane had been shot down, rather the ‘off’ position of the throttle lever and the pitch control set to reduce air speed clearly pointed to a controlled landing in the sea.

The probability being that the pilot had got lost and ran out of fuel – a relatively common occurrence as WWII progressed and confirmed by Japanese records showing that in 1942 only 10 Zero pilots had been shot down in air combat, while 16 had disappeared due to ‘unknown causes’.

Max and his wife Cecilie are both very knowledgeable about WWII history and were fascinated by the newly found wreck, so they tried to piece together the history of the plane using a combination of factual Japanese military war time records and anecdotal stories from local villagers.

The cockpit of the Kimbe Bay Zero wreck

The aircraft’s serial number and date were still visible on the wreck, and military records show that the plane went missing during the battle of Cape Gloucester on West New Britain on 26 December 1944.

The pilot on that day was Tomiharu Honda but his fate remains a mystery, although a local story suggests that the native people helped get him to the nearby village of Talasea, but what happened after that remains a mystery.

Given the sacrifices made by the Kamikaze Zero pilots and the way the Japanese military venerated them, losing a plane due to navigational errors would have been a very significant loss of honour and one theory is that the pilot could not face this and spent the rest of his life in the jungles of New Britain.

An alternative, but slightly more gruesome theory is that he ended up as the main course of a ceremonial feast for a head hunting tribe – a practice still common in those days….

Either way, while Tomiharu Honda’s navigation skills may not have been perfect, there is no doubt that he could certainly fly the Zero well and performed a flawless ditching which inflicted virtually no damage to the plane and brought it to rest just 50m from the shoreline.

As divers, we can be thankful for those skills because the Kimbe Bay Zero wreck is a superb example of the genre…

Diving PNG:  New Britain – Diving the Kimbe Bay Zero wreck

The location of the Kimbe Bay Zero wreck

The Zero wreck is located towards the northern end of the Willaumez Peninsular, that affords much of Kimbe Bay’s protection from the elements, in a small bay close to the popular South Emma’s dive site.

Laying in just 17m of water the wreck is easily dived and bottom time is not a big issue, although its location close to the shore means that it is best dived when there has been several days of no rain as run-off can make the visibility fairly limited.

The plane sits serenely on the sandy bottom and is covered with a light marine growth with numerous small barnacle-like hard coral growth on the wings and fuselage.

The three blades of the single propeller are still very much intact and have a rich covering of sponges and some colourful coral.

The fish life is concentrated around the open cockpit which hosts a large anemone and a small colony of nemos just behind the pilot’s seat.

The total length of the fuselage is just under 10m and the tip to tip wingspan is 12m, so it’s not a particularly big wreck.

The Zero is dived regularly by Walindi’s day boats and the resort’s liveaboard Febrina also visits the wreck form time to time.

Diving PNG:  New Britain – Photographing the Kimbe Bay Zero

If you are only going to dive the Zero wreck once, make it a fish-eye lens day and if you don’t have a fish-eye – take your widest lens…

The day I dived the wreck was four days after the last rain, so the water was quite clear and the very nice American divers I shared the boat with that day kindly let have 15 minutes on the site before they entered the water.

While other divers add a sense of scale to the wreck and a nice touch of drama, they are also highly likely to kick up the soft sand around the wreck as they explore it and you can quickly see your National Geographic cover shot disappearing in the resulting gloom…

Good buoyancy control and no finning is the order of the day and if you do get in first head for the front of the plane near the propeller, get low (carefully) and fill the frame.

I shot at ISO 500 on my D700 to allow me to use a small f stop for good depth of field with a reasonable shutter speed.

Next Page: Environmental Challenges in Kimbe Bay

Back To: Walindi Dive Resort

Download: X-Ray Magazine Zero Wreck Article