Wednesday, December 13, 2006

 

Midget sub discovery stirs ghosts of the past

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The Sidney Morning Herald
By Bob Wurth
December 13, 2006


KAZUTOMO BAN, 74, a retired doctor, remembers going to the train station with his mother to see his brother, Sub-Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban, off to war in 1941.

It was a scene being repeated all over Japan, but the older brother, from a proud Imperial Navy family, already knew he would never return.

The discovery of the midget submarine off Sydney last month has brought mixed emotions for Dr Ban, who lives in Hekinan, a small city 40 kilometres from Nagoya, surrounded by water. "I feel relieved that we now know the exact place he died, [but] now I think we should leave him to rest in peace," he told the Herald.

"I don't see the point in raising the vessel and disturbing his peaceful sleep. What will be found? Probably nothing. It benefits nobody."

But as Australian and Japanese authorities consider what to do with the remains of midget sub M24, Itsuo Ashibe, 84, brother of the other submariner who died on board, says he is "filled with a hope" that the vessel will be raised. "As a member of a bereaved family - and someone who lost four brothers during the war and as a man who has nothing to show for any of them - I pray it will happen," he said.

"I know it is likely that nothing remains, but nonetheless, I want to know.

"There is probably little interest - in Japan, at least - to raise the vessel, and realistically there is probably nothing remaining inside. But if there were just something, a shoe, perhaps, or even if I could have a rusted piece of the sub that I could bury inside my brother's grave, I would be happy."

The discovery of midget submarine M24 has ended a 64-year mystery but is now the subject of delicate discussions between Japan and Australia on how to determine if there are remains inside and, if confirmed, how they might be brought to the surface.

The last 12 months have been an emotional time for the two surviving brothers of the submariners who rode the M24 to their deaths. A year ago they were informed that an Australian filmmaker, Damien Lay, was claiming, in a live television broadcast, to have discovered the M24 near Palm Beach. But Mr Lay's discovery was disproved.

Then on November 26, almost a year later to the day, a diplomat from the Japanese embassy in Canberra telephoned Dr Ban to say there had been another discovery, and this time it looked like the real thing.

Within a few days the discovery of the M24 was confirmed by the Royal Australian Navy.

Sub-Lieutenant Katsuhisa Ban and his navigator petty officer, Mamoru Ashibe, initially had not been selected to be in the Sydney attack force, but were on standby on the mother submarine I24 in case they were needed. They were thrust into the operation after an accidental blast aboard the mother sub, less than two weeks before the Sydney attack date.

When the decision came, Katsuhisa Ban knew his duty. He wrote to his mother in beautiful calligraphy, saying he would drive his submarine "into the heart of an enemy battleship". He came near to achieving a naval victory.

The midget submarines had a reputation as being ineffective and dangerous after their failed part in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, but elements in the Imperial Navy continued to push for their use.

When the decision came, Katsuhisa Ban knew his duty. He wrote to his mother in beautiful calligraphy, saying he would drive his submarine "into the heart of an enemy battleship". He came near to achieving a naval victory.

The midget submarines had a reputation as being ineffective and dangerous after their failed part in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, but elements in the Imperial Navy continued to push for their use.

In Sydney Harbour, alive to the presence of enemy submariners, the boyish 23-year-old Katsuhisa Ban fired two torpedoes at a cruiser, USS Chicago, at anchor off Garden Island. Both torpedoes missed. One ran up on to the shore and failed to explode. The other exploded on the seawall alongside the Kuttabul, sinking the old ferry, which was being used as a barracks, killing 21 men, mostly Australian naval ratings.

Deep in the sea off Sydney on May 31, 1942, the two submariners prepared to leave the mother submarine for the M24 attached to the larger vessel. Katsuhisa Ban prayed, shaved his hair off, gave money to the sailors who had assisted his preparation and then wrote one final message indicating that death was expected: "Nations that fear death will surely be destroyed - it is necessary for the youth of Japan to take notice of this."

Underwater he and Mamoru Ashibe clambered through to the midget riding on the mother sub, and headed off at sunset to join the other two ill-fated midget submarines, each with their crew of two.

Petty officer Ashibe, 24, also knew that his chances of survival were slight. His surviving brother lives quietly in retirement in Wakayama city, on the Seto Inland Sea. "Should the vessel be raised and remains found, I have no hope or desire that any kind of military ceremony, like that held [in the 1940s] for the other four [Japanese officers killed in Sydney Harbour] will or should take place," he said.

The Curtin government allowed the Japanese ambassador, Tatsuo Kawai, to take home the ashes of the four submariners, whose wrecked submarines were recovered in 1942.

Mr Kawai's arrival with the remains of the four aboard the Kamakura Maru at Yokohama pier in October 1942, where the ship was met by the friends and relatives of the four submariners, created a great outpouring of national pride. The event was heaven sent for wartime propagandists after Japan's naval war was in decline. Japanese newspapers were full of the deeds of the submariners.

The ashes of the four naval men were in white boxes on a huge altar before the Rising Sun flag aboard the Kamakura Maru. The grieving relatives of the submariners came aboard the ship and placed bouquets and sakaki branches on the altar.

Mr Kawai then invited the relatives to a lounge downstairs, where they were seated, as the press crowded around. "Let me recount the scene of their heroic end," Mr Kawai said. "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 daring of the heroes."

Mothers and fathers listened attentively with deep nods, tears filling their eyes. Mr Kawai related how the mother and father of one of the submariners came to see their son off. When they learnt that their son was determined to make the supreme sacrifice, they gave up their plans of finding a bride for their beloved son and spent the last night with him in a small boarding house room.

"Such father. Such mother." Mr Kawai said, moved to tears himself.

In 1943, shortly before his own death in action, the Japanese naval commander-in-chief, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, announced that Emperor Hirohito had granted a citation to the submariners in the Sydney raid and another that took place at the same time in Madagascar.

The men were elevated to "Hero God" status and each was posthumously elevated two ranks, which meant a larger payout to the relatives.

The two missing submariners Katsuhisa Ban and Mamoru Ashibe, whose bones today may still be in the M24 off Sydney, also became "Hero Gods."


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