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World Naval History - The most known World War II Shipwrecks - El Capitan, in Subic Bay, Zambales

World Naval History - The most known World War II Shipwrecks - El Capitan, in Subic Bay, Zambales


Subic Bay played a significant role in world naval history. The Spaniards discovered its strategic location for sheltering vessels and ports and built the first naval station in 1885. It also served as a battlefield during the Spanish-American War in 1898. 


World Naval History - The most known World War II Shipwrecks - El Capitan, in Subic Bay, Zambales
Marine growth on the ship's rudder


When the Americans gained control over the Philippines, they established and developed a major naval facility and military reservation in Subic which was eventually turned over to the Philippines in 1992. Subic Bay also served as a battleground in World War II, where the Japanese forces maintained a shipbuilding facility. This resulted to several sinking of ships within the area. 


Presently, Subic Bay houses a large number of historical ship, aircraft and vehicle wrecks. These wreck sites are part of our Underwater Cultural Heritage (UCH) and are currently vulnerable to a wide range of threats from human activities and natural processes. With advanced technology, wreck sites have become more accessible to divers and salvagers, making them more vulnerable to damage. With these growing issues, the management of UCH and progress of underwater archaeology is a priority and a challenge as well. One of the most accessible and popular diving sites in Subic Bay is the USS Majaba, more commonly known as the El Capitan.


El Capitan, in Subic Bay, Zambales
Illustrations of the ship's rudder and possible gun platform


USS El Capitan was built in 1919 and initially named as SS Meriden then later renamed to El Capitan in 1923. It was acquired by the US Navy in 1942 then commissioned to service and converted to a miscellaneous auxiliary named USS Majaba (AG-43). It is approximately 80-90 meters long and has a cargo capacity of 13,400 ft3. 


The ship was deployed between Hawaii Islands in the South Pacific to bring supplies for the American forces battling the Japanese over the control of Guadalcanal. Guadalcanal was an important island for the Americans and vital to the Japanese for strategic position assaults. On November 7, 1942, the IJN submarine HA-11 fired a torpedo and struck the starboard side of El Capitan, resulting the destruction of its engine room and boilers. Though it suffered immense damaged, it did not sink and was transported to Solomon Islands for repair. It returned to Subic Bay and was placed out of service and decommissioned in 1946. The ship sunk at its dock on Ilanin Bay in July 14, 1946. The USS Majaba earned one battle star for its service in the World War II. 


World Naval History - The most known World War II Shipwrecks - El Capitan, in Subic Bay, Zambales
Measuring and documenting the ship's part


The National Museum of the Philippines has conducted field explorations and surveys on different Subic Bay shipwrecks since the 1990’s as part of its Cultural Heritage Management. 


World Naval History - The most known World War II Shipwrecks - El Capitan, in Subic Bay, Zambales
Measuring and documenting the ship's rudder


In 2019, surveys were conducted on El Capitan to document and monitor its condition for the protection and management plan of the Subic Bay shipwrecks. El Capitan is situated approximately 10-22 meters below sea level. The absence of obvious explosive damage confirmed historical records that the ship did not sink in action. Parts of the shipwreck such as the rudder and a possible forward gun platform were measured and documented. We also coordinated with Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority which is the primary authority over the Subic Bay Freeport Zone.


World War II wrecks in shallow waters are more accessible to illegal salvagers that destroys the metal parts of the wrecks for wholesale purposes. Many of these sites are war graves and regarded with respect for the troops and the countries they fought for. 

Besides their historical significance, these wrecks embody our cultural heritage. 

If you have knowledge of underwater sites being looted or destroyed, report immediately to local government authorities or contact the nearest #NationalMuseumPH office. Let us all take part in protecting our cultural heritage for future generations.



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Text and poster by Rachelle Ureta | NMP MUCHD

© National Museum of the Philippines (2021)

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