Zero fighter wreck
In early 1942, during WWII, the Allies were in full retreat as the Japanese advanced across the Pacific. The small RAAF force in New Guinea was wearing away and the local American General was impatient to get US fighter squadrons ready for combat prior to the expected Japanese invasion of Port Moresby. Anticipating a Japanese attack on the staging field at Horn Island, General Brett had already ordered P-40s of the 7th Squadron, 49th Pursuit Group USAAF forward to gain some combat experience.
On 14th March, eight Japanese “Betty” bombers and 12 Zero fighters flew towards Horn Island. They were spotted by Australian coastwatchers over the New Guinea south coast and Horn Island was alerted. Capt Bob Morrissey ordered his eight USAAF fighters into the air. The P-40 pilots scanned the sky but could see nothing. The Japanese strike force had come in an unexpected direction and slipped past the Americans unnoticed.
The Zero fighters strafed the airfield and RAAF Hudson bomber A16-136, petrol and ammunition dumps were destroyed. The P-40s finally sighted the Japanese formation but the Zero escorts were alert and whipped around to meet the new threat from the American fighters. In the first head-on attack the flight leader, Lt Junior Grade Nobuhiro Iwasaki, was hit and forced to bale out. His Zero crashed onto Hammond Island and disintegrated. A year later his body was found in mangroves some distance away from the crash site.
The P-40s couldn’t match the Zeros in a dogfight and the USAAF aircraft were soon taking heavy combat damage. Luckily, the heavy but heavily armoured P-40 could take a lot of punishment. One P-40 was lost and many others damaged. Capt Morrisey was under attack from behind when his wingman, Lt A.T. House, dived in to help. Houses’ guns jammed. To save the life of his comrade House rammed the wingtip of his P-40 into the cockpit of Petty Officer First Class Genkichi Oishi’s Zero. Oishi was plucked out of the cockpit and fell into the sea, probably already dead after the impact. The Zero can still be found in about 4 metres of water off Hammond Island. The fighter plane was found 55 years later by Arthur Seekee, manager of the Gateway tourist resort on Horn Island. The site is on Aboriginal land and diving it is very difficult without local assistance.
Horn Island plane wrecks
The Horn Island airfield saw several other aircraft crashes during WWII. There are pieces of B-17 bomber off the end of the runway in tidal water of varying visibility. Of some interest to aircraft buffs, but they are scattered sites and you will need a local guide. Large sections of undercarriage are about the largest remaining items. You will need local assistance to find these, usually only easily done if you are working there for a while. Diving the reefs in the area for crayfish is one of the main recreational pursuits around the islands.
The RMS Quetta was a British India Steamer Company vessel launched in March 1881.. The Queensland Government negotiated to have a service between the United Kingdom and Brisbane, with refrigeration for frozen meat. Quetta was specifically built for the Australia run and she made her first voyage to Brisbane in 1883.
On 28 February 1890, she hit an uncharted rock in the middle of the channel near Albany Island in the Torres Strait. The rock ripped a hole through the plates from the bow to the engine room amidships. She sank within three minutes of hitting the uncharted rock and 133 on board were lost. At the time of the disaster Quetta had 292 people aboard: a crew of 121, comprising 15 European officers, 14 from other trades and 92 lascars from India; 70 Javanese in temporary deck houses, travelling to Batavia after working in the cane fields; and 101 other passengers.At the time, it was Queensland’s worst maritime disaster. A subsequent marine Board of Inquiry found fault with inaccurate navigational charts, and such was the public outcry that the Queensland Government rushed to complete the survey of Torres Strait. New charts published by the end of the 1890 resulted in a safer shipping route between Queensland, India and Britain. She now lies on her port side, largely intact, and teeming with life.
The Fenstanton left Newcastle, loaded with coal for Singapore. All went well until Tuesday, the 30th September 1884 when they were passing through Torren Straits. The steamer struck on Moresby rock. A fresh wind was blowing at the time, and a moderate sea was running. The fore part of the ship was firmly aground and she could not be dislodged. She sat on the rock for a week, with the stern still afloat but unable to budge. A storm soon broke her up.
5 – 10m
The ship was en route to India, with 2420 tons of Newcastle ooal. The Volga was a 1698 ton iron ship built at Glasgow and only two years old. She struck on a sunken rook about midway between Double Island and Mac Point, and did not stop, grinding over the reef. A quarter of an hour afterwards she had rising water in her hold. At 5 o’clock that afternoon there was 9ft. of water in her hold, and they sailed her to a shallow reef and abandoned ship. The Volga is rarely visited wreck and is a jumble of debris patrolled by lots of schooling fish.
SS Mecca / Phoenix
The 240 ton, 40m timber paddle steam Phoenix was built at Greenock in 1842. In mid-July 1855, while on a voyage to Singapore she was wrecked on Ipili reef in the Prince of Wales Channel, at the western approaches to Torres Strait just north of Thursday Island. All were saved. A giant paddle wheel can still be seen on site.
14 years later, the SS Mecca hit the wreck of the Phoenix and sank. The Mecca controversially had on board 300 Chinese sailors for the A.S.N. Company. An array of Chinese coins can still be seen on the site which is in the reef shallows.
HMAS Warrnambool was one of sixty Australian Minesweepers (or corvettes) built during World War II in Australian shipyards. Warrnambool was laid down on 13 November 1940 at Mort’s Dock, Sydney. Following completion Warrnambool was engaged in patrols in Bass Strait and northern Australian waters. She was present at Darwin for the first Japanese air raid on 19 February 1942, and rescued 73 survivors of the ship DON ISIDRO. During the rescue operation Warrnambool was bombed by a Japanese flying boat, but sustained no damage.
In the first twelve months Warrnambool carried out five evacuations or rescue trips, endured 18 air raids, and ferried 4,000 troops to New Guinea.
Late in 1942 Warrnambool was transferred to the Australian east coast and spent most of the remainder of the war on anti-submarine patrols. Warrnambool was present at the Japanese surrender at Koepang, Timor, on 11 September 1945. Warrnambool‘s post war career involved mine clearance work in Solomons, New Guinea waters and the Great Barrier Reef area. On 13 September 1947 minesweeping operations were in progress to clear an old minefield near Cockburn Reef, laid during 1941-43. Warrnambool struck a mine. Four crewman were killed and thirty-two men were injured. Warrnambool now lies on her port side in 25 metres of water, with her military artifacts in place. The 50 metre long is one of the few intact warship wrecks in Australian waters.