Tsuneko, Heroine of the Untold World War II Tsushima Maru Tragedy

By Bartruff, Dave | The World and I, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Tsuneko, Heroine of the Untold World War II Tsushima Maru Tragedy


Bartruff, Dave, The World and I


Dave Bartruff is an award-winning photojournalist who has traveled to more than 90 countries. Based in California, he has been a contributor to The World & I since 1987.

Pretty, bright-eyed Tsuneko Miyagi could hardly contain her joy. For the first time in her young life, she was about to go abroad. The 13-year- old high school girl was embarking on an ocean voyage that would take her northward nearly 500 miles - far from the tropical coral reefs that surround the sandy shores of her native Okinawa - to Kyushu, one of the four main islands of Japan.

Better yet, she was not traveling alone. On deck with Tsuneko were her favorite grandmother, her 11-year-old brother, 8-year-old sister, and the fiancee of her eldest brother. Joining them were many teachers and students from schools across her island homeland, including elderly folks like her grandmother.

Nearly half of the 1,660 passengers sailing with Tsuneko were students ranging in age from 7 to 15 years; 826 children in all. Nearly everyone else on board, young and old alike, were leaving home for the first time as well. The students, especially, were filled with great expectation, since it was to be their first opportunity to see snow or ride aboard a train, experiences their small native island did not provide.

Little did Tsuneko and her shipmates realize, however, that the 6,745- ton vessel named the Tsushima Maru on which they were steaming out of port on August 21,1944, would within hours become one of the most monumental maritime catastrophes of the entire Second World War.

At sea tomorrow, the vessel, a 30-year-old cargo ship would be torpedoed by an American submarine, the USS Bowfin, and within 12 minutes, it would explode, break in two and sink with the loss of 1,508 lives, including two of her own family along with 42 members from her home village.

Tsushima Maru versus Titanic

This World War II tragedy ranks in magnitude with the sinking of the world-renowned Titanic in 1912, which claimed 1,513 lives, yet thankfully yielded over 700 survivors.

The sinking of the Tsushima Maru, like the Titanic also occurred after dark (at 10:23 p.m.) but was complicated further since it took place in high seas caused by an approaching typhoon. Besides, under wartime circumstances, no rescue was attempted as the vessel went down even though it was sailing in a convoy. It was part of a five-ship flotilla made up of two other cargo ships and two Japanese naval escorts. As the broken Tsushima Maru plunged in flames into the deep, the rest of the convoy simply held course and steamed away from the tragedy.

The U.S. submarine also continued on its mission, never surfacing and knowing only that it had sunk an unmarked, unlighted cargo-passenger vessel sailing in a Japanese naval formation.

Because of these adverse circumstances, only 177 aboard the Tsushima Maru managed to escape with their lives.

What has made the Tsushima Maru's loss all the more tragic was the long sorrow of silence following the tragedy. All mention of its sinking was immediately suppressed by the Japanese wartime authorities. Survivors, including crew members were prohibited to talk about the episode under threat of severe punishment. No official inquiry was ever taken. The fate of passengers, dead or alive, was never communicated to their families. It took years after war's end, in the 1950s, before the tragedy was finally brought to light and the long sorrow of silence broken.

Follow up media coverage of the catastrophe prompted His Majesty Heisei, the Emperor of Japan to compose a Japanese waka poem based on the Tsushima Maru tragedy for his Year End Presentation to the Japanese people in 1997.

On the American side, too, it took more than 20 years for the crew of the Bowfin and the American public to learn of the Tsushima Maru's horrific loss, especially the death of the 767 children. …

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