KOCHI – A mysterious tragedy involving sailors trained for suicide attacks by the Imperial Japanese Navy occurred on a beach in Kochi Prefecture on Aug. 16, 1945, the day after Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers, ending World War II.
More than 100 of the sailors were killed by exploding bombs in the incident on Shikoku, but queries about it remain unanswered to this day.
“I don’t know why it happened,” said Sayoko Maeda, 86, who was then a 16-year-old student at a girls’ high school in Aki, adjacent to the area where the sailors died, which is now called Konan.
Sailors dug trenches day after day during the war at a base on the beach for Shinyo torpedo boats near Maeda’s home, she recalled.
The plywood motorboats, each driven by one or two men, were equipped with explosives designed to detonate when they rammed their targets.
The coastal area was rarely affected by the war. Maeda remembers chatting and playing with sailors outside the base after school with her classmates. The girls used to swap steamed potatoes for biscuits with them.
She also remembers eating the same biscuits as she listened to the Emperor’s surrender announcement on the radio on Aug. 15, 1945, wondering what would happen after the war.
In the late afternoon of the following day, Maeda saw the sailors hastily carrying bombs with a diameter of around 1 meter, on bikes in the alley in front of her home. They were headed toward the base.
“I wondered why they were carrying bombs when the war had ended,” she said.
The bombs reached the beach, but then exploded, causing strong concussion waves. Scared, Maeda ran to a nearby tunnel.
While wounded sailors were carried away on stretchers, bombs continued to explode, damaging houses in the area. The death toll topped 100.
The following day, many people were mobilized to gather pieces of human flesh that were left scattered across the area.
“When I saw the scene, I couldn’t say a word,” Maeda said. “It happened so suddenly and I couldn’t imagine that sailors would die in such a manner.
“I was later told that the sailors had been ordered to attack enemy ships sailing in the sea,” Maeda said. “But why was the order issued (after the end of the war)?”
A memorial service for the victims is held every year. Though the number of participants has declined in recent years, “I cannot forget the Shinyo unit,” Maeda said.
According to later accounts, more than 20 Shinyo boats exploded while preparing for attacks at around 7 p.m. on Aug. 16, 1945, killing 111 sailors and other people working nearby. It is still not known why the attack was ordered.