Sunday, April 11, 2004

When decency prevailed over tradition
Trilochan Singh Trewn

A glimpse of a nuclear aircraft carrier task force operating off the Japanese coast
A glimpse of a nuclear aircraft carrier task force operating off the Japanese coast

IT is a standard war practice that the victors loot the property of the vanquished. But sometimes, human considerations far outweigh baser instincts and regard for the fallen enemy prevails over the need to assert.

Such was the case when the Indian navy was called upon to join the mission to destroy all significant Japanese warships, as per the terms of the Armistice signed by Gen Macarthur after World War II. This task was to be jointly accomplished by allied nations. It meant that Japan’s property worth millions of dollars had to be consigned to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

For Jawaharlal Nehru the decision was a painful one as he had a soft corner for Japan, with whom India had enjoyed close cultural, religious as well as business relations. He had already declined to accept reparations in the form of equipment and machinery from Japan in lieu of the war damages. However, he could not refuse to participate in the sinking of the mighty and magnificent Japanese naval fleet. So, it was decided to depute one Indian naval frigate at a time to Japanese waters to take part in this operation along with naval ships of the allied countries.

Our ship sailed from Mumbai in 1946 under the command of Captain H.Aubrey Tod. He was an experienced captain who meant business. On arriving in Japan, we found the American, British, Canadian, Australian and other ships already there. Our base was in Kure, Japan. The task of bombarding and sinking the ships was physically easy but mentally trying as it involved killing the ships that are a lifeline for the marine fraternity.

The ships that had to be bombarded and sunk included Japanese battleships, of Yamasiro Class 29330 tonnes, displacement length 673 feet and beam of 94 feet with dozens of turrets of 14-inch guns, AA guns as well as 21-inch torpedo tubes. These looked like mighty sea fortresses from close quarters. Besides, there were heavy cruisers of Tarao class. Then there were Mitubisi-type submarines of 1300- tonne displacement.

We were assigned the task of sinking these mighty submarines. They were all anchored and tied together without any crew. Only the common care and security staff were present. Use of the ships’ machinery had ceased months ago.

A fisherman’s hut in south Japan islands
A fisherman’s hut in south Japan islands

As per the age-old tradition in naval as well as mercantile marine practice, sea farers can pick up any item of their use as a trophy from a sinking ship or ship that is to be sunk. Many sailors/officers from other ships were seen removing Emperor Hirohito’s portraits, fancy-looking barometers, decorated chinaware and even zinc bars from a battleship and a submarine. Although the act entailed no criminal offence, none of the Indian sailors or officers brought any Japanese trophies aboard the Indian ship, Sutlej, out of regard for the Indian people’s sensitivity on this subject.

Early next morning, powerful tugs arrived. They started taking these warships away from the coast to the deep Pacific waters. Each of the allied ships were allocated their targets. Bombardment was on on the waterlines to end the project fast. It was a sad day. The huge turrets of these ships, which looked like citadels and had once struck terror in the heart of the allied navy, were going down unsung.

On the evening before our departure from Japan, many of officers and sailors from Indian ship were welcomed in Japanese homes and offered Suki Yaki meals. During mutual cordial talks one professor Watanabe head of the family brought out that they had not seen sugar for last two years due to continuous allied bombardment. Very thoughtfully next day early morning a messenger from the Indian Captain knocked at their single storey wooden house and handed over a packet of 5 lbs of cane sugar as a humble gift from citizens of India to a Japanese home.

Even when very difficult decisions had to be taken Indian Navy did not forget to make the balancing acts of sensitive response towards Japanese people.