One of the most extraordinary meetings in the aftermath of any war took place in May 2004 in Oranmore Castle, the home of the late Commander Bill King RN, and his family.
Some weeks previously the commander was contacted by the Royal Navy HQ to relay an unusual request. It had been contacted by Akira Tsurukame, a Japanese gentleman from Los Angles, who asked if he could meet the commander. Akira’s father Tsuruichi Tsurukame, was the chief engineer of the Imperial Japanese navy submarine I-166. This was a new type submarine, which had been wreaking havoc along the Malaysian and Indonesian coast in 1944. However, in a chance meeting, the commander’s submarine Telemachus spotted the I-166 on the surface in the Straits of Malacca, heading for a port in Burma. The Telemachus stalked her, and sank her with her last torpedoes on July 17. Akira’s father died with 87 crew members.
On receiving the request for a meeting Commander Bill King immediately agreed. But his family was apprehensive. The Commander was then a frail but vigorous 94 years old. The family feared some kind of retribution, some need to restore Japanese honour. Without telling him they informed the Gardai, and waited for the meeting with some dread.
Akira was so anxious for the meeting that immediately on arrival in Galway, quite late at night, he phoned the castle. Hoping that the family would excuse the lateness of the hour, he asked if he could come round. Alarm bells rang for the family, as Bill King threw open the front door, and with his acustomary warm gestures, invited the party inside.
It was an amazing evening for everyone. At Akira’s request the commander recounted in detail how he killed his father.* The Telemachus was his third command, and at the time the only British submarine in the area. With the fall of Singapore there was no British or friendly controlled harbour, closer than Sri Lanka, for rearmaments and supplies. He had a novice crew; the senior engine-room rating had explained that his only previous experience had been in railway engines. But clearly a crew with total confidence in their commander. His last six torpedoes were precious, and any ships the Telemachus attacked meant it had to surface, and attack with its deck gun. Constant training ensured that the gun crews were able to fire off their first round within 18 seconds of the submarine’s tower cleaving the surface. They had sunk four ships in this manner.
There was one part off the Straits which narrowed through which all enemy ships had to pass on their way to Burma. It was here, just after dawn on that July morning, the I-166 was sighted only four miles away. She was on the surface, obviously heading for a safe harbour. Her look-outs were relaxed, and inattentive.
However Commander King never saw the results of his attack. He was convinced he had hit the I-166, but immediately he fired his submarine began to act erratically, and, inexplicably, began to rise to the surface. It was immediately spotted by enemy anti submarine planes and ships. Telemachus was subjected to fierce bombardment and depth charges. But somehow, Commander King, being the brilliant seaman that he was, managed to extricate his ship from the bombing zone, and carefully brought her out into the deep ocean. The enemy, convinced that the Telemachus had opted for the narrow channel, pursued it there to no avail.
The Telemachus headed for Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. As they approached the harbour the destruction of the large Japanese U-boat, the 1-166, was confirmed. Commander King ordered that the Jolly Roger be flown from the tower. ‘ It was indeed a moving moment for us when rows of sunburned sailors turned out to give a “ cheer ship”. For most of my crew it had been a first patrol in enemy waters, and they had tasted early the sweet fruit of victory’.
The visit to Oranmore castle that night was inspired by Duane Heisinger, who lost his father when he was 14 years old. Lawrence Heisinger, was an army lawyer in the Philippines. He later became a POW of the Japanese after the fall of Corregidor, the final obstacle in the Japanese conquest of the Philippines in May 1942. Duane’s father died on board the Enoura Maru, one of the notorious ‘Hell Ships” in Takao, Taiwan, on January 12 1945.
Despite this Duane became committed in uniting people who had lost parents during the war, and hopefully to bring closure for them. Some years previously, he had set out to find what happened to his father,** and in doing so had met hundreds of people equally eager to fill in the spaces of lost family lives. Having united other victims of war, on both sides, Duane had actually arranged the Oranmore visit, but sadly passed away just weeks before it happened.
But significantly, Katja Boonstra was present. Her father Wilem Blom, was an officer of the Royal Dutch Navy submarine K-16. Ironically it was sunk by Akira’s father’s submarine on December 25, 1941. Everyone on board was killed. Katja was born seven months later. Akira was three years old when his father was killed.
Phyllis McNamara was present that evening. She said the atmosphere was one of great gentleness, and kindness. “ It was extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.”
A tree was planted in the castle garden in commemoration of the visit.
Next week: More about Commander Bill King, who died last September 21.
*I am taking the description of the sinking of the Japanese Submarine I-166 from the commander’s book: Adventure in Depth, published by Putnam and Sons, 1975.
** Duane Heisinger wrote about his searches for his father in Father Found - Life and death as a prisoner of the Japanese, published 2003.