A tale worth telling of (our) nature in the raw


I’ve been away in sunny climes for a while, and now I’m back at my desk in Kurohime. Actually, it is sunny and fine here as I write this, too, but there is a chill in the air, and flocks of small birds are twittering through the trees, migrants, coming down from higher up the mountain. Looking over my shoulder I can see that some of them are dusky thrushes. The leaves are just beginning to change color, and I’ve put the house stoves on.

It’s good to live with wild nature around me, but since we established the woodland trust this summer, we’ve been just as much concerned with human nature. Hence I am reminded of something the great biologist and naturalist Konrad Lorenz once said to me: “The two most important studies for humankind are biology and history.”

It’s human nature and history that I want to touch on today, because I’ve just come back from the Mediterranean, following up some history that has deeply concerned me in the last few years. Of all human activities and expressions of human nature, is it not war that most deeply scars, alters and affects us? Though I am myself happy and content here in Nagano, still my thoughts keep going to Afghanistan, to Iraq . . . and to the past.

On the Nicol side, my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father were all navy men you see — and for many of their combined years at sea, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Britain’s Royal Navy were the very best of friends . . .

So it was that, on June 11, 1917, two IJN destroyers, the Matsu and Sakaki, were on a zigzag course in the Aegean Sea, 600 meters apart and sailing at 18 knots. Thick banks of fog obscured vision, and for a lot of the time the lookouts could only discern their own wakes in the grayness. Both ships had recently taken on board a new weapon in the war against German and Austrian submarines, and they were eager to try out these barrel-size depth charges.

An urgent shout came from a lookout called Seto on the Sakaki. Periscope off the port bow! Nobody else had seen it in the foggy haze, but Cmdr. Uehara shouted for everybody to watch out. At a mere 180-meters range the periscope came up again. This time they all saw it. The guns opened fire and the commander bellowed for a fast turn to port: “Omokaji ippai! Isogei!

It was too close. Even as the destroyer began its turn, they could see the trail of the torpedo speeding toward them. Some heard their captain shout “Shimatta! (That’s done it!)” in despair, just a second or so before the whole ship was shaken and stopped by a explosion that hurled a maelstrom of fire, smoke, water and debris into the air. The entire bow, including the big gun, was blown off. The fighting bridge was smashed backward, crushing the first funnel and coming to a broken, bloody stop against the second funnel.

The captain was thrown into the water, where his mangled body soon sank. The others with him on the bridge were also killed. The engine room flooded, and the 26 men down there were lost or injured. An engineer called Araki had gone up with his mess tin; otherwise he would never have lived to tell the tale. The gun room was obliterated. Yet, miraculously, the ship did not sink.

Fifty-nine men were dead, nine seriously wounded and several others had lighter injuries that did not deter them from their duties. At the stern gun, Lt. Yoshida directed fire, while another lieutenant, a man named Shoji, was covered in blood yet still issuing orders. Chief engineer Takegaki lay on deck with his groin hideously injured, his spine showing white through bloody flesh and torn uniform, eyes glazed with shock. Chief Petty Officer Ariga was doing his best to help the wounded.

Even though the Sakaki’s bow section was gone, the ship stayed afloat. Nobody panicked, but all expected a second torpedo.

The sister ship Matsu kept circling at 350 meters, firing warning shots and waiting for the periscope to appear again. They saw it briefly and raced in, guns firing, to drop a pattern of six depth charges. Aboard the Matsu, Paymaster Lt. Kakutaro Kataoka had been off duty and asleep when the attack started. He dashed up on deck and almost knocked over a steward in a life jacket.

Until 2:15 that afternoon, the Matsu kept circling, Cmdr. Yokochi anguishing over his decision not to go immediately to aid the Sakaki. Had he done so the U-boat would surely have attacked them, too. SOS signals brought the RN destroyer HMS Ribble to the scene, followed soon by a French torpedo-boat and another RN destroyer.

British sailors and engineers boarded the Sakaki to take off the wounded and assist with damage controls. They took the stricken ship in tow, moving at a dangerously slow and vulnerable 6 knots. Sunset came at 7:40, but it wasn’t until 8:30 that they reached Suda on the island of Crete, where the wounded were transferred to a British naval hospital. Those of the dead they had managed to recover were cremated and laid to temporary rest in a British naval cemetery in Suda Bay, with the Sakaki’s damaged foremast raised there as a marker.

Back at their base in Malta, the rest of the Japanese flotilla held a memorial service aboard the flagship, the cruiser Akashi. That July, Cmdr. Yokochi of the Matsu received a letter from the captain of HMS Ribble.

“It’s a pity,” the letter ended, “that Sakaki lost so many fine fellows. In all my life, I have never seen nor heard of such a fine display of courage as her wounded showed. They were simply splendid, never a sigh or a groan the whole time. I trust they are well on the road to complete recovery now.

“We heartily congratulate your flotilla on sinking a submarine the following day.

“Good luck to Matsu and Sakaki in the future.

“Yours very truly, “H.P.R.”

This story came to my notice through some accounts written by the survivors; one of them was that engineer with a mess tin aboard the Sakaki. His grandson, Sumiyo Araki, lent me a copy, which sent me squirreling off doing research. (I have been writing a series of historical novels on the Japanese navy.) I came across another splendid account by paymaster Kataoka, so good that I persuaded a publisher to republish it, with myself responsible for the editing.*

As it happens, I have an old friend who was an IJN officer in World War II, and is now a famous architect. His name is Takekuni Ikeda, and I discovered that his father, Takeyoshi Ikeda, had been the commander of the destroyer Momo during World War I, serving also in the Mediterranean.

I took the royalties I had earned from editing the account by Kakutaro Kataoka and, accompanied by Sumiyo Araki, and with Takekuni Ikeda, his wife, and a few other Japanese friends, I went to Malta last month to present the money through the Japanese consul there to help toward the upkeep of the naval cemetery in Kalkara, where the people of Malta have carefully tended a monument to the dead of the destroyer Sakaki and to 11 other Japanese navy men who died in the Mediterranean during World War I, patrolling or escorting troopships and other essential convoys as they fought with the Allies against German and Austrian submarines.

It was a largely forgotten tale, brushed under the carpet of history by the events of World War II. But it is a tale full of courage, sacrifice and heroic rescue. Had it not been for one young man, treasuring the tattered old accounts of his grandfather, I might never have had the privilege of helping to retell it.