Snorkel on a Genuine World War II Plane Wreck in Vanuatu
It’s not every day that you get to snorkel with a World War II plane wreck. But in Vanautu you can do just that, and it is surprisingly easy and accessible, and amazingly under-touristed.
The opportunity to visit the plane wreck is through the World War II Relics Museum of North Efate, between the villages of Baofatu and Takara, on Efate’s northern coast, easily accessed from the Ring Road, and about an hour’s drive clockwise from The Havannah (an indulgent adult’s only resort in Havannah Harbour).
Like many activities in Vanuatu, it is well signposted, but you are still never sure that you are in the right place. The main sign from the road looks like this:
Turn off at the sign and follow the grassy lane to a gate - the gate is not locked and easily opened (don’t forget to close it behind you).
It looks as if it the trail goes nowhere, or at best, that it is someone’s private property (which it probably is) but don’t stress. Soon there are two further small signs, suggesting you are in the right place.
A little further on you come to a small shed which is called the 2nd Lt. J. Vittitoe Museum.
The museum was locked when we first arrived, but within minutes a young man by the name of Julio arrived and opened it up for us.
There is not a great deal to it, a few artefacts, but there are newspaper clippings and details of the story of 2nd Lt J. Vittitoe who crashed on his way back to Efate from an escort mission.
Details of the crash, as told by the Lieutenant himself are as follows (Source: The Korean War Educator):
“We, in the fighters, were busy doing our thing when one of our second tour pilots realized something was wrong. The bombers had missed the target and we were lost. Nothing but blue Pacific as far as you could see. Our Commanding Officer, Lt Col Gregory Weissenberger, back at Quoin Hill realized that we were well over due. He got someone with a radio homing device that gave us a heading back to Quoin Hill, 070 degrees. However by this time it was every man for himself to get back with what fuel he had left. The bombers all made it back to their field called Bauer. I had the propeller on that ole Corsair turning so slow I could almost count the revolutions, and just enough manifold pressure to maintain altitude. By the time we had Efate in sight we were given the choice of Quoin Hill or Hauannah Harbor Airfield. I had Quoin Hill in sight at about one-thousand feet and about one-half mile from the beach indicating ten gallon of fuel remaining, when the engine quit. I turned left to parallel the beach and into the wind I think, and headed for the water. I dropped the flaps kept the wheels up and glided to the water. Just prior to hitting the water my right flap started retracting due to no hydraulic pressure. I was able to keep the aircraft level with rudder. As it settled, the propeller and engine started hitting coral and for a moment it looked as if it was going to flip on its back, but settled on the reef half submerged.
Two natives waded out, took my parachute, and I followed them ashore in waist deep water. Two pilots were killed on this mission. Their Corsair quit between the beach and the air strip.”
After visiting the museum, Julio asked if we would like to visit the submerged plane - and we obviously said yes! Grabbing our snorkelling gear, Julio lead us a short distance to his little boat, and we motored gently through the mangroves to the open water. Just a few metres from the shore, Julio dropped anchor, and pointed us in the direction of the wreck.
On the afternoon of our visit, the water was slightly cloudier than the usual gin-clear visibility in Vanuatu, and the sunken plane was not visible from the dinghy. But as soon as we submerged, it was possible to see the entire wreck extending out in front of us - damaged and ravaged by time and the sea, but essentially intact. It was fascinating to see the interplay of machine and mother nature - expanses of metalwork and rivets and struts, now coated in coral and sand and surrounded by sea-life.
It is quite an amazing experience, and one of the few places in the world where such a wreck can be explored by simply snorkelling, rather than diving.
Now the only problem is, according to Down Under Aviation News, Lt Vittitoe’s Corsair is presently being restored in Adelaide, Australia. So if that is the case, who’s Corsair did we see?
It would appear a second Corsair, part of the same mission, ditched a little further out to sea than Lt Vittitoe did. So while his wreck was salvaged and is being restored, the second remains in the water and it is actually this one you are seeing.
Regardless, what we definitely can confirm is, there is a largely intact plane in the water, Julio took us out to see it, it looks like a Corsair (not that we are experts by any stretch) and it was a good bit of fun snorkelling around on it and capturing a few shots.
Like many activities in Vanuatu, there are amazing adventures and experiences to be had, but the lack of information and promotion can make them a little tricky to find (case in point, see the Vanuatu forums on TripAdvisor!). But for those with a spirit of adventure, this means these activities are blissfully under touristed, and can be visited not just without a crowd, but often without another soul! We highly recommend a visit before the word gets out…