Losing their Hearts in San Francisco:  The San Francisco Maru of Truk Lagoon

“Come back.  Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”  ~Euripides, Greek classical tragedian playwright

Built in Japan in 1919 by the Kawasaki Dockyard, The SS (Steam Ship) San Francisco Maru was a medium-sized freighter of the time specifically designed for the Japanese Yamashista Kisen Line.   She was a 385ft, 27ft beam, 5,800+ ton passenger-cargo ship that served as part of Japan’s wider commercial fleet involved in world-wide trade.  The word “Maru,” meaning “circle” in Japanese, has been used to designate a Japanese merchant vessel since the 16th century.  Although the exact reasoning of this particular ship-naming convention is lost to time, the idea of a safe circular journey for ships and their crews is probably not far from the mark.  As to the city-name?  The Japanese at the time often named ships to reflect their primary destinations.

The San Francisco Maru

The San Francisco Maru

During World War II the Japanese were in desperate need to meet the logistical needs of their new Pacific empire, suddenly stretched far, wide, and thin.  Many commercial vessels were thus taken into service of the Emperor, a fate no different for the San Francisco.  Following her requisition by the Imperial Japanese Navy, the ship was detailed to transport military cargoes between the Japanese homeland and far-flung Pacific destinations.  Like most of the other Japanese merchants during WWII, the San Francisco was armed, in this case with a single 75mm/3” deck gun forward to both defend against surface submarine attack, and to provide an opportunity to attack and capture other unsuspecting merchants she happened to meet along the way.

Although damaged by aerial bombing in 1943 while delivering supplies in New Guinea, the San Francisco suffered her fatal blows after arriving at Truk Lagoon (current day Chuuk, part of the Federated States of Micronesia) in February 1944.  Packed with war materials, including cargo holds full of bombs, mines and torpedoes, she arrived just days before a massive American attack on this Japanese stronghold.  During Operation “Hailstone” (ラック島空襲 Torakku-tō Kūshū, lit. “the airstrike on Truk Island”) between 17-18 February 1944, waves upon waves of US Navy carrier-based planes were launched against shipping found at Truk, as well as the significant military presence Japan had built up there since the end of World War I.  After the first day’s attacks, the San Francisco was observed and reported by US forces as being on fire with smoke belching amidships.  The next day, she was reportedly hit by at least six 500-lb bombs, and was left burning furiously and sinking stern first.  At least five crew members were killed.  Operation Hailstone is often referred to as the “Japanese Pearl Harbor” due to the massive damage inflicted on the Japanese fleet.

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

Basic Orientation of the Wreck Today

It’s position lost to the fog of war made even more obscure by the passage of time, the wreck was “discovered” in 1969 by Cousteau (no doubt with the help of locals who all but knew her location), but was not dived again until 1973 when the ship’s bell was recovered and her identity confirmed.

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

Bow Gun of the San Francisco

The San Francisco lies very deep, and rests on an even keel with the superstructure beginning at ~140fsw, weather deck at ~165fsw, and the sea bottom around 210fsw.  Upon descent, her wreck remains invisible, and only passing about 50’fsw do her twin masts first come into view, themselves reaching up only to 105’fsw.  Heading from the forward mast to the bow, you cross over the open access to cargo hold 1 and finally reach the vessel’s most impressive and picturesque deck gun at ~150fsw.  Most deck guns of the wrecks in Truk are covered with an immense amount of growth, but due to the depths of the San Francisco, this is not that case of her wreck.

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

Hemispherical Mines of the Forward Cargo Hold

After touring the gun – a must on this shipwreck in Truk – one should immediately descend down into hold 1 forward, where you will find a cargo space packed with hemispherical landmines, at one time destined to help defend the beaches and shallow waters of Truk Lagoon against potential Allied invasion.  Watch the depth here though; the hold descends down to almost 200fsw!  Exiting up and aft out of hold , immediately proceed aft and around the forward mast to hold 2, where divers will find a plethora of scattered aerial bombs, complete with tail fins and the remains of their original wooden packing crates, along with the remains of Japanese trucks in the hold’s ‘tween decks.  Still deeper, drums of fuel can be seen.


Perhaps the highlight of visiting the San Francisco, however, are the three iconic Japanese tanks still found resting on the ship’s main deck.  These tanks, built by Mitsubishi, are Japanese Light Type 95 HA-Go tanks covered in with ½” armor.  They appear toyishly small in appearance, but would have been manned by a crew of three and could make up to 30mph on a six-cylinder, air-cooled 120hp diesel engine.  Weighing ~7.5 tons, the tanks were armed with three weapons:  a 37mm main battery turreted gun, and two 7.7mm machine guns, one forward (non-coaxial) and one rear-facing.  The tank was only mildly effective against infantry and was never designed for armored battles, and with an extremely cramped interior, only the lightest armor, and a hand-operated turret, the tank suffered enormously in battle as more modern battlefield weapons came into play.  Two tanks are found on the starboard side of the ship, with one to port.  This is perhaps the most photogenic part of the wreck, and if your bottom time is already limited (as it is on this wreck), make sure to reserve at least a few minutes for these infamous tanks.


From here, our planned dive run time required us to start our long ascent to the surface, where we completed our accelerated decompression profiles as we went.  It’s hard to leave the wreck, especially seeing the cratered remains of the superstructure (severely damaged from bombing), and knowing that the rear cargo holds contain a mixture of trucks, crates of ammunition, more mines, some depth charges, and scattered torpedoes….  How this wreck failed to detonate under such intense bombing is hard to imagine.  Equally as befuddling is the lack of other visible damage from the other reported bomb hits of the 2nd day’s attacks.


But exploring the 2nd half of this ship, where those five unfortunate souls who lost their hearts in San Francisco can be remembered as a shadowy dream, will have to wait for my return to Truk Lagoon.  Until then, stayed tuned for more “Traces of War” from this year’s adventures exploring this iconic battle site.

Okinawa’s Sobering Sick Wards: From Vengeance to Forgiveness

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”  ~John F. Kennedy

“The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.”  ~Leo Tolstoy

“War does not determine who is right – only who is left.”  ~Bertrand Russell

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”  ~Voltaire


“They fought dirty. It is what it is…,” a friend responded to my Facebook posting of pictures of Okinawa’s cave hospital from WWII and comment on how sobering it was to experience first-hand.  And if you want to skip all the drama below and read about that hospital, scroll down the page to find the discussion and see photos of this amazing battle site.

“A must see, even if we all fight dirty!!” came my response, trying to focus more on the historic and sobering aspects of visiting this place rather than some misplaced sense of vengeance.  Oh, and a hint that war itself is dirty business.  I had just visited just one of the 30 mountainside tunnels that served as the Imperial Japanese Army’s field hospital during the Battle of Okinawa.  You can look at all the pictures, still and moving, you want but you still never get the guttural sensations of just how bad conditions can be in war.  They were dreadful here on Okinawa.

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

Deep in Hospital Tunnel #20 with my Japanese Guide

But I quickly added, “BTW, I would wish no one’s son to die in a cave in conditions like this…,” which, is the honest truth.  Being a combat vet and having spent twenty years in military service, I felt I had some status and experience to comment maybe more appropriately.

“I have not forgotten what my father saw in the Battle of Luzon or how they fought in other battles.  He is the reason you have the freedom to walk in that cave.  I have no sympathy for the Japs of WWII,” my friend responded.

Now, for those of you that know me, I am not one to back down from such an extremist position.  One of my foremost rules of living a better life after participating in combat and being personally responsible for killing other human beings and after seeing firsthand the pain and suffering caused by armed conflict of any flavor is this:  nothing good comes from an extreme position.  Think about it; friendships, marriages, children and politics all involve moderation and compromise.  Extremism is perhaps the major problem with our seemingly across-the-board dysfunction in the same.

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“I try to steer away from absolutes,” I continue the discussion. “Like in most conflicts, when the rich and privileged wage war, it’s the poor, uneducated and ignorant that lose and die.  Many on Okinawa were conscripts; many more were civilian OKINAWANS (they are not Japanese, merely subjugated by them) who died here, many more than soldiers.  Remember too that I am a combat vet having served 20 years in uniform.  And my family was right there with your Father; he didn’t do it alone.  The truth is usually somewhere in the middle of what are 3-sided stories.  The battle for Okinawa just isn’t about the good United States versus imperialist, violent ‘Japs’.  There is a much larger story to be told and heard.  But you have to want to hear it…..  I stand by my sympathy for all those unwillingly and unwittingly caught up in other people’s wars….”

“I am sympathetic to my father, your father and all WWII vets.  I appreciate your service.  Japan is on their own,” she flatly concluded….

Wrongly, if I can say so.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I certainly do not give Japan a free hall pass for their attitude or behavior for World War II or the years leading up to that conflict (it started in China long before we got involved, but interestingly we chose not to get involved until cornered).  Japanese war crimes are well-documented, and thousands were tried as war criminals after the war, with almost 1,000 convicted being executed.  Their crimes are so horrific and pervasive that they cannot be escaped.  I have blogged extensively about some of my conflicted but realistic thoughts on Imperial Japanese brutality of WWII it:  see Nuking Japan:  They Deserved It?, and Should the Rising Sun Finally Set?  As an aside, the movie Flowers of War does more to visually depict Japan’s wanton and perverse ruthlessness than most any other treatment I’ve seen; it will make your blood boil that any people could be so vicious.

Japan does continue a habit of "overlooking" their culpability to their own....

Japan does continue a habit of “overlooking” their culpability to their own….

Indoctrination:  Bowing to an Alter of a portrait of the Emperor of Japan.

Indoctrination: Bowing to an Alter of a portrait of the Emperor of Japan.

And therein lays the problem.  People are vicious.  When they are allowed to be.  Imperial, militaristic Japan of the turn of last century used extensive propaganda, religion fanaticism (the Emperor was considered a deity), and their far-reaching educational system to indoctrinate whole generations to a certain disturbed mindset and point of view.  We can see the same thing in the Middle East today, and the West has been just as guilty in the not-too-distant past.  All it takes is the right timing and wrong circumstance…and a world community that looks the other way.  No one rushed to save China in the 1930s.

General Curtis LeMay, the “father” of America’s strategic bombing campaigns of WWII, knew this all too well.  His personal realization of the vicious nature of war is reflected in perhaps his most famous quote:  “Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time….  I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal….  Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing.  But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.”  Of course there is no excuse for the intended fire-bombing of civilian targets, like Tokyo in Japan or Hamburg in Germany, where up to 100,000 civilians were exterminated by fire in a single night.  Except that it’s equally unfair for us to judge decisions of the past without the proper historical context.



Similarly, much of the American South still hasn’t forgiven (or forgotten) General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” where he brought what then was a new and halting concept in conflict:  the idea of “Total War.”  He states, in justifying his plans to burn his way through the South in order to destroy their means of waging war, “You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out….”  Once again we see the idea of “they deserve it,” alongside the justification that the morality of actions in war are in some way relative.  In both cases of LeMay and Sherman, we would, today, never tolerate such actions, even in war-time.

What comes around goes around; karma operates on a cosmic scale.  History is full of “bad wars” and their inherent immorally shocking behaviors:  the Christian Crusades of 1,000 years ago, the American South in the Civil War fighting over the peculiar institution of slavery; the US Government’s violent diplomacy against the American Indians; Axis aggression in both WWI and WWII; purges in China, Russia, and Cambodia; Nazi Germany’s treatment of Russia and vice versa in WWII; the Korean “Police Action” and the Vietnam “War” (war was never declared); and more recently, the IRA, the PLO, and Hamas; rampant genocide in Africa, narco-terrorism in South and Central America, modern fanatical Islam-based terrorism, and finally the idea of obtrusive and unilateral régime change.  Without invoking the subjective emotion of the particular time and place, it’s rather hard to objectively defend these actions.  Some if not many (or most) involve horrific crimes against humanity…itself a rather modern invention…but an idea that has, in one form or another, existed through the ages.

Avenge_december_7Another element of WWII that often goes unconsidered, but which is clear in historical context, is this:  our greatest generation didn’t spill their blood for your freedom or mine; they instead literally saved the rest of the world.  Japan, when they orchestrated their sneak-attack on Pearl Harbor, had no fantasies of defeating and invading America.  The best they could hope for was a decisive blow that would push the Americans to sue for peace on terms beneficial to the Empire of Japan.  Admiral Yamamoto, the man behind Pearl Harbor who was educated in the United States, believed that Japan could not win a protracted war with the United States; he is quoted in Tora Tora Tora! (book and movie) as saying, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  The Japanese attack was muddled; politically, war was supposed to be formally declared prior to the morning of December 7th, but message coding and decoding delays lead to their aggression without warning, which did more to push American for vengeance that anything else.  It certainly was not about securing our freedom.

And although Hitler surely would have bombed America if he had the means available, the United States was in no danger of falling to Nazi fascism.  We in the States benefit immensely from being an island-nation, protected from warring factions of much of the rest of the world by massive oceans East and West, and a frozen wasteland to the north.  Germany couldn’t cross the English Channel let alone the Atlantic Ocean.  Once again, we rose to the occasion and freed Europe (but only part of it, hence, the rise of the Iron Curtain).  However, our Greatest Generation of warriors’ achievement is no less amazing, even in this characterization.


How can we harbor such hatred and a constant sense of vengeance if we don’t more critically examine our own actions in the world?  Ask the Vietnamese I spoke with during my visit there in 2008 (see my blog Good Morning, Vietnam!) about America’s use of chemical weapons (Agent Orange) in spraying villages and rice paddies – and all those working and living there….  Ask the American Indians how they were treated by the “White Man,” and it’s easy to find the same degeneration and dehumanization that the Japanese projected onto the West….  Degrading labels like “Gooks” or “Skinnies” (for those in Somalia) are much more recent and make killing much easier.  And what about the mess we have left (and the hundreds of thousands of dead) after our régime changes and failed democratic experiments in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Okinawa 2014, Japanese 32nd Army Field Hospital, religious monument WMI’ll tell you this:  the Okinawan/Japanese (they are different cultures) peace memorial to WWII here on Okinawa contains the names of over 230,000 Japanese and Okinawan lost during that conflict.  See my blog on the Typhoon of Steel for more about the magnitude of loss suffered by the Okinawans in 1945.  But the memorial also contains the names of all the allied soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors lost in the same battle.  To my knowledge, our war memorials do not include the names of the over 1.1 million Asian deaths related to the Vietnam War, or the 1.2 million deaths among the Chinese, North and South Koreans of the Korean Conflict.  The point is, the memorial on Okinawa is not about a specific war or the loss of a specific country; it is a “Peace Prayer Park” which focuses on the shared tragedy of war, but with hope for a more peaceful, conflict-free future….  It is much more than simply a place to mourn the dead.

Some of you may read this and thin-slice me as a bleeding heart liberal, and a few of you might even characterize me as an unpatriotic turncoat.  On the former, it is hard not to see the world with more compassion and empathy when you come face to face with the pain and suffering of a mother who has suffered the loss of her child, no matter the circumstance or country.  Grief, like anger, is universally shared.  On the latter point, remember, unchecked Nationalism is easily transcribed into Fascism, an infectious attitude promises much but offers no good outcome.  Trust me, you want your men and women in uniform to have an education and intellect that allows for critical thinking and moral analysis of their actions.  It is, in fact, one of the central elements of our military that make us so strong.


The world will never become a better, and more peaceful place if we hold onto animosity and continue to harbor ill-will, especially if it is directed at a country, culture, or generation long-gone.  When we transfer these hurtful emotions onto the descendants of the original and responsible wrong-doers, all that results is a continuation of hostilities.  Look at the West Bank and Gaza today.  Look at the warring factions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or the Balkans.  How can anything there be resolved if people first don’t let go of their hatred?


For those that have made it this far, and who want to read about the WWII battle site that caused all this controversy, please read on below about one of the more sobering traces of war that I’ve ever visited.


Okinawa Army Hospital

The Okinawa Army Hospital Unit 18803 was organized within the 32nd Imperial Japanese Army forces in Kumamoto in 1944.  Although medical activities started in Naha in June of that year, allied aircraft carrier attacks of 10/10 (as they are known to history) destroyed the hospital facilities, which forced a move of the hospital to the Haebaru National Elementary School building.  Soon thereafter, under guidance of the 32nd Army’s Engineering Unit, approximately 30 cave tunnels were dug into Aza Kyan and Aza Kanegusuku.

Buried Meds:  many medicines were found deeply buried and intentionally hidden.

Buried Meds: many medicines were found deeply buried and intentionally hidden.

In late March 1945, allied naval bombardment forced the abandonment of all the regular facilities, and the entire operation was moved into the cave system.  The hospital was staffed by approximately 350 surgeons, nurses and hospitalmen, who were augmented by 222 female high school students from the First Prefectural Girl’s High School (Himeyuri Gakuto), who trained and served as nursing aids under the guidance of 18 of their teachers.  The director of the hospital was Hiroike Bunkichi.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Patient items recovered in the cave.

Although initially organized into three departments of Infectious Diseases, Surgery, and Internal Medicine, after allied forces landed on the first of April, 1945, the hospital reorganized all the wards into the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Surgical Departments due to the sharp increase in battle-related injuries requiring emergency intervention.

Charred Support Beams:  Charring is thought to be from the use of US flamethrowers, a common weapon used to clear and destroy tunnels.

Charred Support Beams: Charring is thought to be from the use of US flamethrowers, a common weapon used to clear and destroy tunnels.

By the end of May, allied forces had pushed the Japanese far to the south of Okinawa, and the decision was made for all Japanese forces to retreat to the Mabuni area to make a last, protracted stand.  The order was sent to the hospital to disband and move all ambulatory patients by foot.  Those that could not travel were given potassium cyanide in their milk, and, as the museum’s brochure in English states, “…and compulsion of self-determination was carried out on this occasion.”  The Japanese killed all their seriously ill patients, and I’m not sure if this was out of compassion to end their suffering, or simply an act of murder so that they would not fall into US hands where they could provide military intelligence.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

An American M4 Tank Turret recovered in the area.

A visit to this sit starts in the Haebaru Town Museum, just west and across a ridge from the tunnel’s entrance.  This museum houses a terrific reproduction of the hospital bunker complex, and is designed to give visitors a feel of the conditions at the time.  It features replicas of bunk beds (which you can try out), and an operating table as well as artifacts from the original tunnel.  Realistic replicas of an Imperial Portrait Shrine and a War Dead Memorial bring visitors to the time of Japanese militarization, begun decades prior to the Battle of Okinawa.

Medical supplies recovered in the tunnels.

Medical supplies recovered in the tunnels.

I visited the tunnel during what turned out to be a tropical storm, and I’m happy I did.  I think it provided a more realistic experience.  To get to the tunnel, you walk along the trace of the old footpath that leads to and from the kitchen area and well which supplied the entire tunnel complex.  It has been improved with a modern set of stairs, and thankfully so; moving up and over a substantial ridge would have been otherwise a challenge in the driving wind, rain, and slippery mud-soaked surfaces.

The school-girl nursing aids bringing in the tunnel's food supply for the day.

The school-girl nursing aids bringing in the tunnel’s food supply for the day.

Tunnel #20, the only one reinforced enough to be open to the public, is a man-made tunnel completely dug by hand, measuring roughly 70 meters in length (230 feet) and about 1.8 meters in height and width (a smidgen under 5’11”).  It was the main tunnel used by the 2nd Surgical Department, where the eastern half of the tunnel accommodated patients; the central “T” intersection with another tunnel was where most surgeries were performed; and where the western half quartered the staff which worked there.

Tunnel reproduction in the Haebaru Town Museum.

Tunnel reproduction in the Haebaru Town Museum.

My guide open the doors to the tunnel, and a river of water greeted us as it was freed to seek itself further down the hill.  The cave tunnel was much smaller than I expected and that reproduced in the museum, and I found myself having to at least nod my head downwards, otherwise my hard-hat would be riding along the tunnel’s ceiling.  Lighting was originally provided by candles spaced quite far apart, today the only light comes from the small flashlights provided with your admission fee, and the passage is at once imposingly dank and dark.  The tunnel was leaking everywhere, and water pooled in various depressions along the earthen floor.  While some areas have been reinforced with modern construction techniques and materials, much of the tunnel remains bare rock.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Crossing tunnels which have collapsed.

Most artifacts have been moved down into the town museum, but there are still some left in place, which are pointed out by the guide.  All the remains have been removed and reburied.  The one thing missing from the actual tunnel is the missing bunk beds which billeted patients.  These “beds” were bare wood planking, just over 35 inches in width.  Keep in mind our standard twin size bed is 39 inches…and even kids’ narrow beds are generally 36 inches wide!  Each patient got a canteen for water, a small dish for food (which consisted only of rice balls, the size of Ping-Pong balls by the end of the war), and a pot in which to relieve themselves.  No light, no padding, no sheets, and probably not a lot of hope.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

Doctor and Nurse ready a surgical table.

And after leaving the site, that was the overwhelming emotion with which I was left:  hopelessness.  While Japan did bring the war on themselves, and there is absolutely no doubt that many Japanese regulars were violent and vicious actors playing their parts in a morally bankrupt Imperial Japan, I stand by my claim that I wish no one’s son (or daughter) die in conditions or place like this.  Do me a favor:  if you visit, divorce yourself from whatever prejudice you may hold from your own conditioning, education, and exposure to World War II.  Remember, at our cores, there is not much that separates us in our shared human condition.  Death is death, and loss is loss, no matter.  War is tragedy, and immoral by most any definition.

Exploring Tunnel #20 by Flashlight

Exploring Tunnel #20 by Flashlight

For more pictures of the hospital tunnels and the adjoining Haebaru Town Museum, please see my Flickr set here:  Okinawa Battle Sites.

The town of Haebaru opened the 1st Surgery Tunnel #20 in 2007 as an important cultural asset that serves to educate the public about the misery and tragedy of war, and to protect this history for future generations to learn from.  The Hospital Tunnel is open from 0900-1700 by reservation only, and is closed on Wednesdays, and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3).  Admission is 200 Yen.  Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru-cho, Okinawa 901-1113.

The Haebaru Town Museum is open from 0900-1800, and is closed on Wednesdays and across the Japanese New Year holidays (Dec 29-Jan 3).  Admission is 300 Yen.  Phone 098-889-7399; Address 257 Kyan, Haebaru Town, Okinawa; Email bunka-c@town.haebaru.okinawa.jp.

Memorial to those lost at the 32nd Army Field Hospital in Haebaru, Okinawa.

Memorial to those lost at the 32nd Army Field Hospital in Haebaru, Okinawa.