LONDON – A new memorial commemorating those who died in the German sinking of a Japanese merchant ship in the final days of World War I will be unveiled later this year in Wales.
More than 200 sailors and passengers died when the Hirano Maru was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Irish Sea in October 1918, just over a month before the war ended.
As one of the Allies contributing to the war effort alongside Britain and France, merchant vessels from Japan were seen as legitimate targets by Germany.
After the ship was sunk, residents of Pembrokeshire, Wales, found at least 20 bodies along different stretches of the coastline, though the BBC says the majority were found on Irish beaches. Only 30 of the 240 people aboard survived the attack.
The bodies were buried in a local churchyard, but a wooden memorial erected at the time has since rotted away.
According to its owner, Nippon Yusen K.K., the ship had just embarked on a journey from Liverpool to Yokohama when it was torpedoed.
About two-thirds of those aboard were crew members.
In the local church of Angle, a small village in Wales, burial records list nine anonymous victims, naming only one man, Shiro Okoshi, who is listed in the shipper’s records as having been a waiter on the vessel.
It is unknown whether the rest were Japanese, as some of the passengers and crew were foreign, including the British captain.
The church also possesses old photos in the churchyard of a wooden grave marker, which according to its inscription was erected 11 days after the ship was sunk.
David James, honorary secretary of the West Wales Heritage Maritime Society, has been raising funds to create a new memorial with support from Nippon Yusen.
As a former serviceman, James served in the British Army in Germany and Libya, where he noticed the graves of British soldiers had markers, inspiring him to commemorate the victims of war in his hometown.
“We must remember them,” he said.
The unveiling ceremony for the memorial to the 10 victims will take place on Oct. 4, exactly 100 years after the sinking took place, and will be attended by residents and representatives from Nippon Yusen and the Japanese Embassy.
“The men in the graves there had families, somebody grieved when they died,” James said. He hopes the memorial will “show there is feeling here, and compassion.”
He also said he wants the memorial to keep the story alive for younger generations and help them understand the realities of war.
A spokesperson for Nippon Yusen said it was always difficult to retrieve keepsakes to send back to the families of victims who die when a ship is lost at sea.
The company believes the sinking of the Hirano Maru could be the greatest loss experienced in Japanese commercial shipping during World War I.