Drama of Fake Hospital Ship Capture

By Arthur Vesey
(Chicago Tribune Press Service)

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.

Only One Jap Couldn't Walk

Only one of the 1663 "patients" couldn't walk from the ship. All others were marched off under guard without incident. They had left New Guinea in small boats for the Kai Islands, a few hundred miles to the west, in the final months of last year. The TACHIBANA took them aboard in the Kai Islands on August first to take them to Soerabaja, Java.

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.

Seizure Packed With Drama

A Fillipino girl heard a Jap officer tell of using a hospital ship as a troop transport and reported it to an American intelligence officer. As a result of this a Royal Australian Air Force Liberator from a base near Darwin, sighted a suspicious hospital ship leaving the Kai Islands and notified the United States command. Admiral Kincaid, commander of the 7th Fleet ordered Captain W. H. Watson, Commander of the Destroyer Division to send two destroyers into the Banda Sea to intercept the TACHIBANA MARU.

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.

Job Full of Danger

The job was dangerous because according to international law a boarding party must go unarmed. The executive officer of the CHARRETTE, Lt. Comdr. Ernest R. Peterson of Council Bluffs, Iowa was chosen as the boarding party leader. There was a very good change that the Jap crew and "patients" might try to overpower the search party and hold them hostage. Should that happen the destroyers were prepared to sink the target held in their gun and torpedo sights. Many of the boarders wrote letters to be mailed home if they did not return. The destroyers had pulled alongside the hospital ship, one to starboard -- one to port. International flag signal "Stop Ship" was hoisted and the quarry obeyed, rolling in the heavy sea. The Jap ship lowered a gangway and the boarders in small boats pulled alongside.

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).

Jap Captain Served Tea

Interpreters told the Jap deck officer standing atop the gangway that they wanted to talk to the captain. The officer led them to the bridge. Peterson through interpreters said he had come aboard to search for contraband and asked to see the ship's records.

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.

Code Signalled Arms Discovery

Kowetz and his men quickly checked the forward staterooms while carrying on a running conversation with Peterson to make sure the telephone line was kept intact.

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.

Japanese Captain's Face Red

Peterson told the Japanese captain that contraband had been found, that he was under arrest and that his ship would be seized. The captain turned red and stammered that he didn't know of any arms aboard. Three boas standing ready on the destroyers dropped into the rough water and with engines running full, bounced toward the TACHIBANA. The first men to reach her teased aboard a seabag of tommy-guns. Peterson slit it open and members of the boarding party grabbed the weapons. Within five minutes 70 sailors and marines were aboard and fully armed. They scattered over the ship quickly. The Jap ship's officers were rounded up and put into a boat with the Nip captain for transfer to the destroyers. With the troop list the prize crew went through the ship calling off the names of 62 troop officers. These, including 4 majors, were herded into the lounge below the bridge.

Yanks String Barbed Wire

Sailors and marines strung barbed wire barricades around the two main deck salons, which held the bulk of the troops. In one of these large rooms a platform of wood had been built between the floor and the ceiling, providing an upper deck. On this and on the floor about a thousand Japs sprawled. In a second salon crates marked with red crosses, indicating they contained medical supplies, were piled three feet deep and on these 500 Nips squatted, sat, or lay, The stench was nauseating. The only sanitary facilities for these 1500 Hips was one three-place latrine. For washing there were two lavatories. Troop officers had been quartered in staterooms above the main deck. The rooms were the usual accommodation of small transports. They were dirty from neglect. One stateroom contained 300 boxes of ashes of cremated Nips being sent to Tokyo shrines. Big vats of cooking rice steamed on the afterdeck. Even here the stench was terrific.

Captain Was Surprised

The prisoners looked befuddled. Two days later the ship's captain said the seizure had been accomplished so quickly that nobody but he knew what was happening. Three sailors ran up the American flag and below it they ran up the Rising Sun. For the first time on any ship an American flag flew above Japanese colors.

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.

Helmets Protect Heads

One destroyer sent over canned delicacies for the prize crew but had to make a second trip with a can opener. The men asked for helmets to protect the heads of 6 foot Americans from bumps on low passageways built for 5 foot Japs. nip cooks fed the troops daily at 8:AM and 4:PM, passing out rice balls and bits of chopped meat.

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.

Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Patrick Clancey (patrick@akamail.com)