Tsushima Maru Requiem: Japan’s untold WWII tragedy of Titanic proportions

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  • 01TMaru 03.jpg - Tsuneko Maria Miyagi, survivor of the WWII Tsushima Maru maritime tragedy views a display of the doomed ship in the Memorial Hall and Museum in Naha, Okinawa. 01TMaru 03.jpg - Tsuneko Maria Miyagi, survivor of the WWII Tsushima Maru maritime tragedy views a display of the doomed ship in the Memorial Hall and Museum in Naha, Okinawa. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 02TMaru 18.jpg - Entrance sign to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii's Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, the vessel that torpedoed the Tsushima Maru the night of August 22, 1944. 02TMaru 18.jpg - Entrance sign to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii's Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, the vessel that torpedoed the Tsushima Maru the night of August 22, 1944. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 03TMaru 17.JPG - The prolific WWII submarine Bowfin docked permanently as a floating museum at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.Three of its torpedoes sunk the Tsushima Maru at sea at night in 1944. 03TMaru 17.JPG - The prolific WWII submarine Bowfin docked permanently as a floating museum at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.Three of its torpedoes sunk the Tsushima Maru at sea at night in 1944. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 04TMaru 12.jpg - Classic Okinawan musicians perform during opening ceremonies at Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum in Naha, Okinawa in 2004. 04TMaru 12.jpg - Classic Okinawan musicians perform during opening ceremonies at Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum in Naha, Okinawa in 2004. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 05TMaru 11.jpg - Opening ceremony to inaugurate the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall & Museum in Naha, Okinawa exactly 60 years after the WWII maritime tragedy. 05TMaru 11.jpg - Opening ceremony to inaugurate the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall & Museum in Naha, Okinawa exactly 60 years after the WWII maritime tragedy. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 06TMaru 15.jpg - Opening prayers at the inaugural ceremonies of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum in Naha, Okinawa exactly 60 years after the tragedy in 2004. 06TMaru 15.jpg - Opening prayers at the inaugural ceremonies of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum in Naha, Okinawa exactly 60 years after the tragedy in 2004. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 07TMaru 04.jpg - Heroine Tsuneko Maria Bartruff attending the opening ceremonies of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum on the 60th Anniversary of the tragedy in 2004 in Naha, Okinawa. 07TMaru 04.jpg - Heroine Tsuneko Maria Bartruff attending the opening ceremonies of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum on the 60th Anniversary of the tragedy in 2004 in Naha, Okinawa. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 08TMaru 06.jpg - Sole American guest and speaker photojournalist Dave Bartruff at opening ceremonies of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum on the 60th anniversary of the WWII maritime tragedy. 08TMaru 06.jpg - Sole American guest and speaker photojournalist Dave Bartruff at opening ceremonies of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum on the 60th anniversary of the WWII maritime tragedy. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 09TMaru 10.JPG - President of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Foundation and a child survivor of the WWII maritime tragedy Masakatsu Takara at the 2004 opening ceremonies of the memorial hall and museum in Naha, Okinawa. 09TMaru 10.JPG - President of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Foundation and a child survivor of the WWII maritime tragedy Masakatsu Takara at the 2004 opening ceremonies of the memorial hall and museum in Naha, Okinawa. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 10TMaru 16.jpg - Uniformed school girls view a poster of the WWII maritime tragedy in the Tsushima Maru Museum at its opening in 2004. 10TMaru 16.jpg - Uniformed school girls view a poster of the WWII maritime tragedy in the Tsushima Maru Museum at its opening in 2004. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 11TMaru 21.JPG - Rendition of the terror at sea for survivors of the sinking of the Tsushima Maru displayed in the museum dedicated to its memory which opened in 2004 in Naha, Okinawa. 11TMaru 21.JPG - Rendition of the terror at sea for survivors of the sinking of the Tsushima Maru displayed in the museum dedicated to its memory which opened in 2004 in Naha, Okinawa. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 12TMaru 02.jpg - Survivor-heroine of the Tsushima Maru WWII ocean tragedy Tsuneko Maria Bartruff and a museum exhibit depicting the shark-filled waters she endured for four days and nights as a teenager. 12TMaru 02.jpg - Survivor-heroine of the Tsushima Maru WWII ocean tragedy Tsuneko Maria Bartruff and a museum exhibit depicting the shark-filled waters she endured for four days and nights as a teenager. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 13TMaru 22.JPG - Reunion in 2004 of two survivors of the 1944 WWII maritime tragedy which took the lives of 1,508 aboard.(L) Hisashi Teruya, then age 4 was saved from drowning by then 13-year-old Tsuneko Miyagi at sea from shark-infested waters. 13TMaru 22.JPG - Reunion in 2004 of two survivors of the 1944 WWII maritime tragedy which took the lives of 1,508 aboard.(L) Hisashi Teruya, then age 4 was saved from drowning by then 13-year-old Tsuneko Miyagi at sea from shark-infested waters. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 14TMaru 20.JPG - Group photo of extended family of Tsushima Maru boy survivor Hisashi Teruya (far right) and his 14 family members. Tsuneko Miyagi (holding baby) as a teen saved him from drowning at sea exactly 40 years earlier. 14TMaru 20.JPG - Group photo of extended family of Tsushima Maru boy survivor Hisashi Teruya (far right) and his 14 family members. Tsuneko Miyagi (holding baby) as a teen saved him from drowning at sea exactly 40 years earlier. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 15TMaru 05.JPG - "Survivors Three": 60 years to the day after the tragic sinking of the Tsushima Maru in 1944. L-R Keiko Taira (Tsuneko's younger sister), Hisashi Teruya (the boy Tsuneko rescued at sea) and Tsuneko with poster created by CaliforniaSunday School children of her church. 15TMaru 05.JPG - "Survivors Three": 60 years to the day after the tragic sinking of the Tsushima Maru in 1944. L-R Keiko Taira (Tsuneko's younger sister), Hisashi Teruya (the boy Tsuneko rescued at sea) and Tsuneko with poster created by CaliforniaSunday School children of her church. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 16TMaru 19.jpg - Prolific writer Tsuneko Miyagi at her family home in Okinawa, Japan. Her book "Tsushima Maru Requiem" documented the WWII maritime tragedy she endured as a teen. 16TMaru 19.jpg - Prolific writer Tsuneko Miyagi at her family home in Okinawa, Japan. Her book "Tsushima Maru Requiem" documented the WWII maritime tragedy she endured as a teen. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 17TMaru 01.jpg - Book entitled Tsushima Maru Requiem written by a heroine of the monumental 1944 WWII maritime tragedy: Tsuneko Maria Bartruff. 17TMaru 01.jpg - Book entitled Tsushima Maru Requiem written by a heroine of the monumental 1944 WWII maritime tragedy: Tsuneko Maria Bartruff. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 18TMaru 09.jpg - Japanese youngsters view a "Peace & Love" poster made by California Sunday School children for the opening of the Tsushima Memorial Hall in 2004. 18TMaru 09.jpg - Japanese youngsters view a "Peace & Love" poster made by California Sunday School children for the opening of the Tsushima Memorial Hall in 2004. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 19TMaru 14.jpg - Tsushima Maru heroine Tsuneko Maria Bartruff at sea with soon to be Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2000 during the final sail over ceremonies of the sunken ship and its 1,508 entombed victims. 19TMaru 14.jpg - Tsushima Maru heroine Tsuneko Maria Bartruff at sea with soon to be Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2000 during the final sail over ceremonies of the sunken ship and its 1,508 entombed victims. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 20TMaru 13.JPG - The Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo where Tsushima Maru Heroine Tsuneko Miyagi was invited for an Extended private audience with their Majesties the Emperor and Empress in 2008. 20TMaru 13.JPG - The Japanese Imperial Palace in Tokyo where Tsushima Maru Heroine Tsuneko Miyagi was invited for an Extended private audience with their Majesties the Emperor and Empress in 2008. Photo by: Dave Bartruff
  • 21TMaru 08.JPG - WWII Tsushima Maru heroine Tsuneko Maria Bartruff and her husband of 53 years, Dave at home today in Northern California. 21TMaru 08.JPG - WWII Tsushima Maru heroine Tsuneko Maria Bartruff and her husband of 53 years, Dave at home today in Northern California. Photo by: Dave Bartruff

WASHINGTON, August 22, 2012 – On August 22, 1944, at the height of World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese tramp steamer Tsushima Maru sailed out of the port of Naha, Okinawa, a 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, with a precious cargo of non-combatant civilians bound for a “safe haven” in the heartland of Japan.

Throughout the South Pacific, fierce battles were raging on land and at sea…Guadalcanal, the Marianas and Iwo Jima.  The Tojo-led Japanese military machine was in retreat, but determined to fight to the very last man with its indomitable, time-honored samurai spirit laced with classic kamikaze suicide fervor.

But then a mercy ship was arranged by the Japanese authorities to evacuate the youngest and oldest members Okinawa’s native civilian population off their home island prior to the forthcoming U.S. invasion.  The Battle for Okinawa would become the final and deadliest campaign of World War II. 

More than 1,600 islanders were now aboard the 6,745-ton merchant ship on their voyage to safety.  But just 28 hours later at sea, more than 1,500 aboard would descend into a watery mass grave in the dark of night within 12 minutes after being hit by three torpedoes from an American submarine, the USS Bowfin. 

Thus the tragic toll of the Tsushima Maru was comparable to that of the famed SS Titanic known worldwide from best-selling books and Hollywood movies ever since it sank in 1912.  The Titanic’s toll was 1,513 lost with more than 700 saved.  The Tsushima Maru’s: 1,508 lost, just 177 saved.

Whereas the world immediately learned of the Titanic tragedy, no one in Japan was aware of the Tsushima Maru catastrophe, for all mention of the incident was immediately suppressed by the Japanese wartime authorities.

Survivors including crew were prohibited from revealing the tragedy under threat of severe punishment.  Besides, no official inquiry was ever launched and the fate of the passengers: dead or alive were never revealed to their families.  It was only in the 1950s that the disaster was brought to light in Japan and the long sorrow of silence broken. 

On the American side too, it took more than a decade for the crew of Bowfin submarine and the American public to learn of the Tsushima Maru’s horrific loss, especially of the 767 children aboard.

Just 59 children did survive, less than one in ten.  One of these was pretty, bright-eyed 13-year-old Tsuneko Maria Miyagi, but it took a high order of courage and heroism for her to make it through to rescue.

Blown overboard and wounded by the initial torpedo explosions, she would spend four nights and three days submersed in the ocean with only her head and shoulders above water clinging to debris from the doomed ship. 

Initially she was one of about 25 survivors clinging to a large piece of floating debris.  Tragically, by the time of her rescue only four had survived.

With bleeding wounds to her head and body, the teen’s heroics began early in her ordeal.  She recalled in the wee hours of her first night adrift at sea, she felt something submerged brush her legs.  She was terrified it was a shark for the waters were teeming with them; attacking and killing survivors at will.

However, Tsuneko took a chance and reached down to catch hold of the arm of a small child, not knowing if the youngster was dead or alive or even a whole being.  But her courage paid off as she brought to the surface a four-year-old boy, waterlogged but still alive, and placed him atop the floating debris to which she was clinging.

Sixty years later, to the very day in 2004, Tsuneko and the boy she rescued, Hisashi Teruya, were reunited in Naha, Okinawa during the opening ceremonies of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum.

Along with Hisashi were 14 members of his family spanning three generations.   A picture was arranged to be taken of his family along with Tsuneko.  Later, as I pondered the group photo, it hit me that if it were not for the teenager’s heroism four decades earlier, the picture would just be a portrait of Tsuneko herself. 

By Day Three of Tsuneko’s 1944 ordeal adrift at sea, hope was turning to despair for the dwindling numbers of her fellow survivors.

But as darkness fell, a vision of redemption and hope suddenly appeared through the lens of her Christian faith for the weary believer.

Walking on the water she saw a bright and shining figure approaching. “I couldn’t recognize exactly who,” she said,  “Jesus or the Virgin Mary or God Almighty.  But just the same I understood it was the promise of hope that God was still with us.” 

By noon the next day, Tsuneko’s vision did come true as a Japanese patrol boat sighted and rescued the teen of faith and her four companion survivors. 

However Tsuneko’s wartime ordeals were not yet over.  After a month of rest and recuperation on the island of Kyushu, the original destination of the ill-fated vessel, she was sent in harm’s way again to labor in an aircraft factory near Tokyo where kamikaze suicide planes were being built.

Both the factory and her residence were eventually destroyed in air raids, but again she rode out the wartime storm of adversity, this time on land: the ultimate survivor.

Prior to the opening of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum in Okinawa in 2004, she published a book of her ordeal at sea.  A poem she composed, Tsushima Maru Requiem, was set to music and played during the opening ceremonies.

And a 1,000-voice choir sang her composition as well nationally on NHK,  Japan’s national television and radio broadcasting network.

The inaugural ceremonies of the new Memorial Hall ended with the presentation of a Peace Poster created by American Sunday School children from a California church.  It was Tsuneko’s church as well as her husband of 52 years, the author of this account. 

Author’s Note: In 2000, fate brought Tsuneko together at sea with Junichiro Koizumi, one of Japan’s most popular postwar prime ministers during the final sail-over ceremonies of the ill-fated vessel with its victims still entombed at the bottom an unreachable deep ocean trench.

Then on September 21, 2008, Tsuneko was invited to Tokyo for a private audience with the Emperor and Empress of Japan.  What was originally scheduled as a 30-minute visit lasted 1-1/2 hours.

Her connection with the Imperial Family goes back to the days when her uncle, Professor Eisho Miyagi was tutor to then Crown Prince Akihito, now Japan’s Emperor.  After WWII, another uncle, Seisaku Ota, served as governor of Okinawa. 

With his deep interest in Okinawa, the Japanese Emperor composed a Japanese waka poem based on the Tsushima Maru tragedy for his annual Year-End Presentation to the Japanese people in 1997.

Additional information:

 

http://www.tsushimamaru.or.jp  email: info@tsushimamaru.or.jp

 

Website of USS Bowfin:  http://www.bowfin.org

 

Recommended books:   Maritime Disasters of WWII by George Duncan

                                              Worst Disasters at Sea by David Ritchie

 


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Dave Bartruff

California-based Dave Bartruff is an award-winning photojournalist who has traveled to more than ninety countries.

Column Description: “Faraway places with strange-sounding names” is my middle name.  I’d like to introduce myself to you as often as I can.

 

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