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Ballalai Island

In the northern sector of the Solomons near Bougainville lays the island of Ballalai. This tiny island was originally site of a plantation before the war but was occupied by the Japanese soon after the Americans landed on Guadalcanal island to the south, to serve as a forward airbase for Japanese fighters and bombers attempting to wrest control back from the US forces. The story of the island is a sad one and history records thatover a thousand prisoners captured on Singapore were moved here as forced labour to build the coral runway. Not one survived the war.

It is hard to travel in this region without treading the path of history. It was to Ballalai Island that Admiral Yamamoto was flying for an inspection when American fighters attacked his plan and shot it down over Bougainville. The bomber is laying in the jungle of Bougainville, only a short sail from Ballalai. Anyone who has read the famous WW2 airman, "Pappy" Boyington's book on his war exploits; "Ba Ba Black Sheep" will also recognise Ballalai as the site of some of his most important exploits. In fact if my memory is correct, it was over this very island that he was shot down and captured by the Japanese.

We visited the island to view its many war relics in the form of a large airfield (which is still in use) and dozens of planes laying in the dense jungle separated by literally thousands of lilly ponds which in reality are bomb craters. The dark conditions made for challenging photography and the stagant water made for thousands of insects. Tiger also told us that on previous visits he had been told by locals that a sunken Japanese submarine is visible in the water off the end of the runway - if you know where to look. We did not know where to look, so instead we concentrated on the island itself.

Not so on nearby Fauro Island. A large Japanese freighter lays close to shore in what, in these waters, is a comparatively shallow 50 metres. Still very dangerous for sports divers, especially when the nearest decompression chamber is probably over a thousand kilometers away. But we were determined to dive it. Tiger sent out one of the ubiquitous "rubber duckies" (zodiac inflatables) to search for signs of the wreck, such as leaking oil. After a fruitless search for several hours we spotted a native canoe and knowing that the locals usually use such wrecks for fishing (they make great artificial reefs and they therefore know them well) we decided to ask the fisheman if "He knew how we could find the wreck?" Yes came back the reply..... "Use your depth sounder!" So much for "primitive" villagers who have not caught up with the 20th century.

airplane wreck in the Ballalai jungle - click to enlarge!

The jungle reclaims everything in this part of the world. In the Pacific Theatre of War it is clear that as the conflict passed them by, many battle fields just lay as they were left when the war moved on. And unlike in Europe or elsewhere, where cities were re built and farmlands reclaimed the scars of war are still visible, just slowly being softened by the passage of time. Part of me thinks it is appropriate that nature should reclaim these sites but part of me feels sad that these important historical relics will one day disappear for ever.

Eye of the Wind off Ballalai Island - click to enlarge!

The Eye of the Wind lays at anchor awating our return from exploring Ballalai Island.

exploring the wreck - click to enlarge!

Our group explores a Japanese fighter, wrecked and thrown into a tree by the force of a nearby bomb blast. The fighter was the source of considerable fascination for us. Judging by the bent propellers, this larger plane looked as if it lays where it crash landed.

Peter Maynard
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Exploring the airplane wreck on Ballalai - click to enlarge! Exploring the airplane wreck on Ballalai - click to enlarge!

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