At a SOUTHWEST PACIFIC PORT, 6 August 1945 (Delayed) * The TACHIBANA MARU, a prewar Japanese line and wartime troop transport masquerading as a hospital ship (contrary to international law) was brought into port here today by a prize crew from two American destroyers from the 7th Fleet.
The ship was boarded in the Banda Sea area, north of Timor, N.E.I. Not since the early days of 1942 had any allied surface ship entered this inner sanctum of the Japanese domain. It was seized when the boarding party discovered her cargo marked with red crosses contained hundreds of rifles and small machine guns. Most of the 1663 Japanese soldiers packed into her as "patients" were physically fit for immediate combat.
Although the ship was painted white and carried three fifteen foot lighted crosses it became evident at the dock here today, just how completely she was devoted to hauling arms.
As the Nips were marched from the ship today, the prize crew began a thorough examination of the cargo. All of the hundreds of crates opened today yielded arms. Contraband consisted of between 30 and 40 tons of ammunition and several hundred tons of rifles, machine guns, mortars, and communications and filed equipment. The crew broke out in a sweat when they learned what was in those crates used as a sleeping platform in the salon by 500 Japs during the three sleepless nights and days while brining the prize into port! Those Japs, numbering half a battalion had lived on top of more arms than they could man.
"We are just now realizing what a powder keg we were on" said Lt. John Hansen, 7235 Merril Ave., Chicago, a member of the prize crew. Ten officers and 70 sailors and marines from the two destroyers had taken turns, four on and four off, guarding the Nip "patients" and the Jap crew of 63. The ship's captain, a squatty bald merchant marine, Yasuda Kigiro and his 13 officers had been transferred to the destroyer Charrette immediately after the capture together with some of the 62 troop officers, to minimize the danger of riot or an organized attempt to overcome the small American guard.
Captain Watson picked the CHARRETTE commanded by Lt. Comdr. Gerald P. Joyce of Green Bay, Wisconsin and the CONNER commanded by Lt. Comdr. William Sissons of Detroit, Michigan.
About 9:PM on the 2nd the destroyers picked up a contact on radar. Probing deeper into enemy waters the contact was identified by the large red crosses as the hospital ship heading southwest with deck lights and open portholes twinkling impudently . After stalking her on the horizon all night the destroyers closed in at dawn.
Peterson jumped from the bouncing gig and climbed the gangway followed by Lt. James Baley of Columbus, Ohio (ship engineer), Lt. Robert Kowetz from Roxbury, Mass. (search conductor), and Lt. Louis Cartell from Marfa, Texas (ship's doctor).
The captain dressed in a loose white shirt, white trousers and wooden clogs, showed all the gold in his teeth, bowed and nodded. he invited Peterson and the officers into a circular lounge under the bridge. They declined. He asked an orderly to bring tea. He told Peterson he didn't stop at the firs signal because he didn't understand the flag. In a few minutes the orderly returned with glasses of hot tea spiked with Saki (rice wine).
Cartell went into the troop quarters to inspect the patients. Bailey hurried to the engine room to cut the electrical system and thus prevent the discharge of any possible mine. Kowetz, wearing a telephone and stringing a line behind him, began his search. With him were 11 sailors including Danniel Spurr, 1016 So. Oakley Blvd. Chicago. They carried two axes, two crowbars, two hammers, and two wire cutters; equipment authorized by international law for boarding parties. The ship's Nip storekeeper led the way.
The doctor returned son to the bridge. he said three-fourths of the patients most of whom were listed as ill with malaria or beri beri were fit for combat. Only one was a litter case, the only injured "patient" was a Nip who had lost a thumb when a crate fell on it.
On the bottom deck a three foot square hatch opened into the hold. "Food and medicine" said the storekeeper. "Open u'" said Kowetz. His crew jerked the hatch open and pulled out a sack nearest the opening. It held rice. The storekeeper grinned. Next came a case of Saki. The sailors grinned. The sailors pried open the case and the grins faded; it contained artillery shells, and so did the next case. "Mickey Finn!" Kowetz shouted into the phone. Mickey Finn was the code that signalled the discovery of arms. Kowetz and his crew grabbed the two cases of shells and ran for the bridge. If the Japs were going to strike, now was the time and the bottom of the ship with hundreds of Japs all around them was no place to be. "Mickey Finn, send them over" Peterson said into the walkie-talky radio that connected him to the destroyers.
The ship's crew showed Bailey about the engine room and the two 1,200 horsepower diesels. Electricians, including Nicholas Thome of 6557 So. Fairfield Ave., Chicago, prepared to darken ship. They disconnected the large crosses. When dusk came light leaked from the ship. It was a question of blacking out completely to lessen the danger of a Jap sub attack or keeping some lights on to assist in guarding the prisoners. The crew decided on some lights. They had gotten underway at 10:AM that morning for the Palawan Islands.
A prisoner who spoke a little English asked an American to kill him. Some thought the Japanese were wining and would win the war. Most had been away from Japan 4 years and were discouraged.
On the destroyer the crew led the captain and a few of the officer prisoners to the showers. The captain and another sat down in the stalls and were then shown that showers were taken standing up. One officer later said he thought they were gas chambers.
The TACHIBANA and the destroyers arrived in port here today. The prisoners were taken in groups of 20 to a stockade. American and Australian Army troops lined the pier to seem them brought ashore safely. Among the guards was Earl Lightfoot of 6824 St. Louis Ave., Chicago. The prize crew will remain aboard for some time because it will take several days to uncrate and list the ship's arms. The Yanks "last letters" have all been destroyed, all except the one Lt. Ed Theros, interpreter from Grand Island, Neb. wrote to his wife. It got into the mail accidentally. Theros came back safe and sound.
The TACHIBANA, of 1772 tons and 279 feet long, was built in 1935 for passenger service in Japan's Inland Sea. In 1943 she was panted white and given the red crosses of a hospital ship and used as a troop and munitions transport.