’42 midget sub committed to the deep

Aussies look to protect submerged wreck of brave Japanese pair


SYDNEY — The wartime midget submarine discovered off the beaches of Sydney is to be left on the ocean floor and is expected to become a permanent tomb for the two crewmen killed inside the vessel after their attack on Sydney Harbour in 1942.

Australian government officials have confirmed that the sub will probably never be raised for various reasons, including technical difficulties. The vessel’s discovery last month by amateur divers ended a 64-year mystery about its whereabouts.

The officials also confirmed it is “highly unlikely” any attempt will be made to retrieve the remains of the two young submariners — known in wartime Japan as “hero gods.”

Japanese officials, in close consultation with Canberra, concur with the decision.

Following diplomatic consultations, steps are being taken to introduce as a matter of urgency new technology to increase surveillance over the wreck site some 5 km off Sydney’s northern beaches. Currently, a protected zone over the wreck, which lies 50 meters down on the seafloor, is being patrolled by local water police.

Australia has declared a protection zone of 500-meter around and over the wreck that carries penalties of up to 10,000 Australian dollars or five years jail for divers and boat enthusiasts who breach the zone.

Although the submarine suffered some damage, there is no evidence that the two men activated any escape hatches, leading government officials to believe their remains could still be inside.

The officials say there are a number of reasons for not attempting to raise the sub. A gash in the side shows it is filled with sand and debris.

In reaching the decision not to disturb the wreck, note, too, has been taken that a brother of one of the submariners, who initially prayed that the remains of his brother would be recovered, has subsequently admitted this was “an impossible wish.”

The Australian government pointed out that it is international best practice under the UNESCO convention on the protection of cultural heritage to leave shipwrecks on the seabed. Further, the wreck is a hazard that could explode if interfered with.

It is believed that the midget submarine M24, one of three to attack Sydney Harbour on May 31, 1942, is still armed with two scuttling charges each containing 67 pounds of TNT.

Australian officials also believe any efforts to raise the sub might destroy it. The sub is in relatively good condition apart from a large tear behind the conning tower and possible evidence of bullet holes.

Another factor in leaving the sub on the ocean floor is that a recovery attempt, according to Australian officials, might cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The future of the sub has been the subject of almost daily diplomatic consultations in Canberra between the Japanese Embassy and the government. The embassy has said it is most appreciative of the actions taken to date to preserve the wreck and to protect it for the long-term future.

The discovery last month sparked enormous interest in Australia, with much discussion on what to do with the wreck.

The crew, Sub-Lt. Katsuhisa Ban, 23, and Petty Officer Mamoru Ashibe, 24, fired two torpedoes at the cruiser USS Chicago in Sydney Harbour but missed. One torpedo ran harmlessly ashore. The other exploded alongside an old ferryboat being used as barracks, killing 21 Allied sailors, mostly Australians, and injured many others.

The Chicago and Australian warships fired on the M24, which appears to have been damaged in the attack.

Three midget submarines from mother submarines off the coast raided Sydney on the same day, seeking warships that had taken part in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Two of the wrecked submarines were recovered, each containing two Japanese dead.

The whereabouts of the M24 had been a mystery for over 64 years, although the wartime Australian government correctly believed the vessel had escaped the harbor and had been destroyed.

Both Japanese and Australian officials have closely monitored the views of two brothers of the M24 crew who initially had differing ideas about a possible recovery of the remains of Ban and Ashibe.

The Japanese Embassy said that while the wishes of the relatives of Japanese war dead were taken into account, there are other practical considerations.

One of the brothers, Itsuo Ashibe, 83, of the city of Wakayama, said that as war approached, his brother, Mamoru, took him aside and swore him to secrecy: “When he was alive, he didn’t tell our parents but he told me: ‘It’s a secret. But when war breaks out, I’ll be getting in a small two-person submarine and I’ll be the first to attack the enemy warships. I’ll die a glorious death.’ “

This week, Ashibe told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Tokyo correspondent: “From a bereaved family, I strongly wish they would salvage the whole submarine. But on the other hand, I think it’s an absolutely impossible wish.” Ashibe now wants to go to Sydney to pour sake in the water over the wreck site.

Ashibe lost four brothers in the war. When the wreck was discovered, he said: “I have nothing to show for any of them. If there were just something — a shoe perhaps, or even if I could have a rusted piece of the sub that I could bury at his grave, I would be happy, then it would mean that my brother came home.”

The brother of the sub commander, Kazutomo Ban, 74, a retired doctor from Hekinan, Aichi Prefecture, feels relieved to know where his brother died off Sydney, but from the outset after the discovery thought that the wreck should not be disturbed.

“I don’t see the point of raising the vessel and disturbing his peaceful sleep,” Ban said.

He remembered going with his mother to the railway station to see his brother off to war. Their father was a senior naval officer.

Katsuhisa Ban, who was highly trained, knew he wouldn’t be returning. He wrote a letter to his mother stating that he would “drive his submarine into the heart of an enemy battleship.” In fact, he came close to achieving a major naval feat.

Ban’s last act aboard the submerged mother submarine off Sydney, before entering his midget sub, was to write: “Nations that fear death will surely be destroyed — it is necessary for the youth of Japan to take notice of this.”

Australian divers in the next few weeks are expected to take part in the first dive on the wreck since it was discovered by seven scuba divers last month. The purpose of the dive will be to allow assessment of the wartime damage to the sub.

The assessment will be the first step in the decision-making process to plan the long-term future of the submarine. Officials have note that with one overseas wreck, a huge metal net was placed over it so it could be inspected by divers.

In 1942, the Royal Australian Navy in Sydney attracted unusual wartime praise from Radio Tokyo and Japanese newspapers for its chivalry in giving the four Japanese submariners recovered from the harbor a formal military funeral.

Details of the Australian Navy’s actions, initially kept secret, came to light in a letter sent in June 1942 by the Swiss consul general in Melbourne, Hans Hedinger, to the then Japanese ambassador to Australia, Tatsuo Kawai.

Hedinger was present at the crematorium in Sydney’s eastern suburbs on June 8 1942, when the extraordinary honor was bestowed on four of the six submariners in the raid.

Hedinger told Kawai that the naval ceremony for the four was conducted with great dignity. He wrote: “The coffins, which were of good quality, were placed in the chapel of the crematorium and were each draped with a Japanese flag.

“While the remains were being placed in the crematorium furnace, the naval escort, which included a firing party, bearers and bugler, stood at attention outside the crematorium, the firing party with arms reversed.

“As the last coffin disappeared from view, three volleys were fired by the naval party, after which the party presented arms with fixed bayonets while the bugler sounded ‘The Last Post,’ ” the consul general wrote.

The ceremony had been arranged by Sydney’s naval chief, Rear Adm. G.C. Muirhead-Gould, an Englishmen, who was deeply impressed with the bravery of the Japanese. He asked Kawai if he could cremate the remains of the four.

Twenty days after the Japanese raid, Muirhead-Gould asked in a broadcast why Australians shouldn’t honor such bravery, saying: “It must take courage of the very highest order to go out in a thing like that steel coffin . . . how many of us are really prepared to make one thousandth of the sacrifice that these men made?”

Kawai, under house arrest in Melbourne, wrote poetry praising Muirhead-Gould’s chivalry as an enemy who “knew the pathos of things.”

He was permitted to take the ashes of the four submariners back to Japan. His arrival at Yokohama in October 1942 aboard the Kamakura Maru created national interest in the heroics of the submariners.

Kawai took the relatives of the four downstairs into a lounge and recounted the actions of the young men in Sydney, saying: “Glorious indeed was their end. Look at this photograph. It is of the naval funeral held by the Australian Navy. Even the enemy was moved by the bravery of the heroes.”

Ban and Ashibe died in the samurai tradition. On leaving Sydney, they were to turn due south to link up with waiting mother submarines. But the midget sub was found several kilometers north of Sydney Heads, raising the prospect that Ban lured patrolling Australian warships away from the larger submarines.