Fallen submariners honored in Australia

Navies pay respects to pair who perished after attacking Sydney Harbor

by Bob Wurth

SYDNEY — The Australian and Japanese navies, in an unpublicized ceremony, jointly paid homage earlier this month to the bravery of two young Japanese submariners who raided Sydney Harbor in 1942.

The ceremony continues an Australian tradition of honoring the courage of the attackers of Sydney almost 65 years.

Sub-Lt. Katsuhisa Ban, 23, and his navigator, Petty Officer Mamoru Ashibe, 24, killed 21 naval ratings, mostly Australian, when they fired a torpedo at the barracks ship HMAS Kuttabul from their midget submarine M24.

The Royal Australian Navy says the ceremony at sea “provided the opportunity to recognize the sacrifice of two brave sailors.”

It took place on Feb. 7 aboard the escort ship HMAS Newcastle over the site of the wrecked M24 discovered off Sydney’s northern beaches last November.

The two most senior officers of the Royal Australian Navy and the Maritime Self-Defense Force participated.

The chief of the navy, Vice Admiral Russ Shalders, invited the chief of staff of the MSDF, Adm. Eiji Yoshikawa, aboard the Newcastle for the service during the admiral’s visit to Australia.

The Australian Navy did not invite the press aboard and confirmed the ceremony only after being questioned. No photographs were taken.

According to the RAN, Adm. Shalders recited a prayer, as did an Australian chaplain, and the two admirals jointly threw a wreath into the sea in the protected zone surrounding the submarine 5 km off Long Reef in what was a simple, private service.

Adm. Yoshikawa then dropped a letter into the sea “in accordance with Japanese tradition” written by a relative of one of the two submariners.

The letter is thought to have been written by Mamoru Ashibe’s younger brother, Itsuo, 83, from the city of Wakayama, who was visiting Sydney at same time of the shipboard ceremony. Ashibe toured Sydney Harbor on a launch but did not join the ceremony aboard the Newcastle at sea.

The RAN said its comment on the bravery of the two Japanese submariners, Ban and Ashibe, was “based on an enduring respect between professional sailors and the operational circumstances in which these men died.”

Before the raid, Ban wrote a letter to his mother saying he intended to drive his vessel “into the heart of an enemy battleship” in Sydney. Ban came extremely close to sinking a cruiser moored off Garden Island, the USS Chicago. One of his two torpedoes passed under the Chicago.

The discovery of the M24 north of Sydney Heads enhances the bravery of the two submariners. The M24, after receiving a battering in Sydney Harbor and being pursued by multiple craft, was instructed to turn south once outside the Heads for a recovery rendezvous with waiting large submarines off Port Hacking.

By turning north outside the Heads, Ban and Ashibe chose not to risk the big I-class mother submarines but to end their lives.

When asked if keeping news of the ceremony from the public had to do with respect for the victims and relatives of the Kuttabul, the RAN revealed that the visiting Japanese admiral had honored the Kuttabul victims: “The ceremony was a small element of the overall visit program for Admiral Yoshikawa. It is common for a visiting foreign chief of navy to visit RAN warships and, on occasion, a brief period at sea in order to experience the Australian fleet.

“The RAN took the opportunity on this occasion to facilitate this event, within the context of the overall tour program. In fact, the tour of Newcastle and the sea ceremony was preceded by a wreath laying at HMAS Kuttabul memorial.”

The day after the ceremony aboard HMAS Newcastle, Itsuo Ashibe toured Sydney Harbor and visited the key points of the midget submarine attack of 1942.

At one point on his harbor tour, Ashibe poured a small bottle of sake into the water. He said he had long wanted to honor his brother in this way and was determined to visit Sydney when the M24 was discovered last year.

He did not want publicity but admitted that his wish in wartime had been that when his brother returned from duty, the two would share Mamoru’s favorite sake. “Mamoru liked this sake,” Ashibe commented.

Australian authorities meanwhile are making further efforts to protect the wreck of the M24 off Long Reef Beach. Acoustic buoys equipped with cameras are being tested off Sydney’s northern beaches to enforce the protection zone around the M24.

Heritage officials are hoping that the high-technology digital surveillance buoys being tested might become a permanent method of keeping boating and diving enthusiasts away. Currently anyone entering the protection zone is liable to federal and state fines amounting to more than 1 million Australian dollars.

Two of the devices being tested are designed to pick up the sound of boats entering the protection zone, 500 meters in diameter, sound a computerized alarm at a base in Sydney and then relay pictures back to an operator.

Currently the protected zone is patrolled by water police boats. A government spokesman said to date no one had attempted to enter the zone declared last November. The acoustic buoys are the result of discussions between Japanese and Australian officials who have placed the highest priority on protecting the wreck site.

There are no plans to raise the midget submarine or to enter it. However, the federal and state authorities are eager to begin an archaeological survey of the wreck site. The survey, using an unmanned submersible equipped with cameras, has been delayed on several occasions since Christmas by heavy seas off Sydney.