Don Fetterly       WWII Historian & Traveler

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SS Masaya prewar condition

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Diver on Wreck of SS Masaya

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Schematic of SS Masaya
created by Don Fetterly

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PT Boat Propellers aboard.

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One of the recovered propellers donated to Tufi Dive Resort displayed at the bar.

What was your role in searching for the SS Masaya?
I returned to New Guinea and Telita in 1992 as part of an expedition to locate the s'Jacob and conduct an initial hunt for S.S. Masaya. This was followed by an expedition in 1994 on board Tiata to look for the Masaya and I-22 which was not successful.

For 53 years the S.S. Masaya lay lost but not forgotten beneath 165 feet of murky green, shark-infested waters off the East Coast of New Guinea. Then, on April 25, 1996, an expedition aboard the TIATA ended a 27-year search for the vessel when they found her for the first time since she sank.

I led a multinational search team, which discovered the ship, concluding a search, which had intermittently involved several salvage groups since 1969. Over the years, these efforts to find the Masaya failed because they relied on her charted sinking position. I had to do considerable archival research to get a true fix on her location. Some of the records were classified for military reasons and had to be declassified for this expedition. Descriptions of the attack on S.S. Masaya written by Australian Naval Officers were quite detailed and enabled us along with other information from other sources to readily locate the wreck. Masaya is located within 200 yards of the predicted position.

Information supplied in the records enabled the search to be highly localized. A search plan was developed and mapped out. Once the search area was reached, the team used shipboard equipment, including SONAR and GPS, to locate the vessel.

The search was carried out in the wee hours of the 25th of April under the cover of darkness and rainsquall to cloak our presence. The search area was laid out in a grid pattern with each search starting on the North and proceeding west and east in swaths 400 m wide. At the end of the second row, a strong SONAR contact was made at 0115, lying just outside the eastern boundary of the search area. The contact was noted and the remainder of the pattern searched. No additional contact was made. TIATA returned to the initial contact and began to criss cross the area to map the object. Using the scanning SONAR and high-resolution depth sounder the object was mapped. The dimensions were found to match those of the Masaya. The wreck lies in an East-West direction at 165 feet.

The first dive on her was at daybreak. The water was dim, with visibility at only about 8 feet because all of the plankton which was rising towards the light. We got down there, and suddenly there she was, lying along the bottom exactly as she went down. We found the wheelhouse, and you could tell it was a virgin wreck, because everything inside was just as it had been left. The wheel was one of the smaller brass kind they used to use, and everything was intact."

When we surveyed her, we found she was resting on her starboard side. The stern had extensive bomb damage, as well as damage from the impact of hitting the bottom. Over the past 53 years, there was also plenty of time for a growth of coral to cover the entire wreck.

Damage caused by the bombing and impact with the seabed are clearly visible just forward of the stern. The hull is buckled; the stern deck area and associated internal works are smashed. The deck with the deckhouses attached has broken (rusted) free of the hull and has slid down several feet toward the starboard side and now rests on the sand. The deck is detached from the stern to a point forward of the No. 1 hatch where it remains attached to the hull. Detachment of the deck has opened up the internal spaces of the ship and should make penetration much easier and safer.

A memorial service was held that evening to commemorate those killed in the raid and in recognition of the services being held in Australia and New Zealand commemorating ANZAC Day.

Upon returning from New Guinea the research continued and contact was made with Donald Galloway who at the time was 84 years old. Galloway was onboard Masaya when she was attacked at sunk. Ensign Galloway was in charge of the loosely planned operation to establish an advance base at a cove on Cape Ward Hunt 100 miles to the North. The Australians who operated Masaya were to deliver his 11 man base force and 50 Army soldiers with supplies at night to this new base which they were not sure they could find. The plan called for the S.S. Masaya to off-load her cargo of 500 drums of 100 octane avgas, a portable radio and other base equipment under cover of darkness. Ensign Galloway and his men were to swim the 500 drums of gas ashore after they were dumped overboard by Masaya. Galloway was the last man off SS Masaya as she went down. He had swam back to the ship to recover the body of the Army Gunnery Sergeant who was draped over the stern mounted 3X50 multi purpose gun.

I returned to Tiata in 1997 and we dived on the s'Jacob, S.S. Masaya and the two PT Boats at Tufi Harbor among several other wrecks scattered from Milne Bay to Oro Bay.

Two PT Boat Propellers we recovered from SS Masaya in 1997 while I was on MV Tiata. The top prop if you look closely has two bullet holes near the tip of one blade. These holes were made by Japanese bullets when the ship was under attack and being strafed and bombed.

This holed prop was cleaned and donated to the Tufi Dive Resort at Tufi Harbor. which was the advanced PT Base that Masaya had sailed from carrying material for a new advanced PT Base at Cape Ward Hunt. The prop is mounted in the bar and is shown prominently in ads for the resort.

The research did not end with the Galloway interviews; several visits were made to the National Archives II in College Park Maryland to track down Navy and Army records on Masaya and her sister ships. The search extended to other Museums where original plans for the conversion of the destroyers into banana boats were obtained including the detailed drawings. These records included photographs of the decommissioned destroyers reduced to hulks and the subsequent modifications made to them. The research extended into Australia where I was able to locate through the good auspices of Bill Lunney who co-authored the book Forgotten Fleet a history of the part played by Australian men and ships in the U.S. Army Small Ships Section in New Guinea. During a two-week research visit to Australia in 1999 Lunney introduced me to a couple of the Australians who were part of "E" Troop 55th Battery 2/5th Field Regiment. This regiment was transported from Milne Bay to Porlock Harbor on board S.S. Masaya in early November 1942. The troop was then transported by captured Japanese barge from Porlock Harbor to Oro Bay then onto the Buna area where they engaged and defeated the Japanese. These men provided valuable insight into the detailed out fitting and day-to-day life aboard S.S. Masaya.

As a change of pace I went on the inaugural cruise of the Spirit of Borneo to dive the Spratly Islands this was in 1993. The diving was not up to the level experienced in Papua New Guinea. There were no wrecks in the area and many of the reefs and atolls showed extensive signs of dynamite fishing.

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