Christmas 1941, two submarines in the South China Sea.
On December 13th 1941 my mother went to the harbour of Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies to say goodbye to the man she had married three months earlier. They did not realize that it would be a farewell for ever. Before he left, my mother told him that she was expecting a baby. It must have been a very special moment for these two young people, she 21 and he 24. What was it like to be in love at that time? What could you hope for? What plans could you make in those days in 1941? My mother told me later that my father’s reaction to the news of the baby was; “Now I will live on forever!”
But twelve days later on Christmas morning 1941, my father’s submarine K-XVI was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-166 in the South China Sea some 60 miles off the coast of Borneo, and was lost with all hands. On board the I-166 was the chief engineer, Tsuruichi Tsurukame. A Japanese officer, whose son, Akira, I met 60 years later. On July 17th 1944, Akira’s father died on board the I-166 when it was torpedoed in the Straits of Malacca by the British submarine Telemachus, under the command of Commander William Leslie de Courcy King.
When my mother came to The Netherlands after the war, all her Jewish relatives had been deported and killed, so she also had to live through these nightmares, as so many other people had, but I never heard words of hatred from her. Every person was special for her, and worth to get special attention as a person, not as a representative of a country, race, religion, or community, but always as a special individual with their own personality and responsibility, independent of background or status. Everybody was always given a second chance even though she could be terribly stubborn if she knew she was right. The night before she died, she had a long and intense conversation with a young Japanese musician, and must have enjoyed the beautiful music that he played for her that last night. A coincidence, this last meeting? Maybe it had to be. Maybe my parents and the parents of Akira Tsurukame are together somewhere now.
It must be difficult when the government of your country, the country you love, orders you to leave your family, your home, everything that is dear to you to destroy an unknown enemy; someone who under other circumstances, might be your friend.
How did Akira’s father and mother feel when they kissed each other goodbye that last time? What did this war mean for Tsuruichi and Tami Tsurukame, Akira’s father and mother, who lost their seven year old daughter Yoshiko in this war? How was their last walk under the cherry blossom? What was life like for Akira, and his younger sister Mutsuko, after their father left?
I met Akira Tsurukame when he visited the Netherlands in 2003 and went to Den Helder to pay his respects to the Dutch submariners of Hr. Ms. K-XVI, my father’s boat. He asked the Netherlands Navy to be allowed to take flowers to the submariners’ monument to pray for the crew of the Dutch submarine that had been sunk by his father’s submarine so many years ago and, as he expressed it, “To say sorry for what my father had to do in the war”. The Navy informed me of his visit and I invited him and his wife to dinner. It was a very impressive night and the beginning of an intense friendship. Akira discovered later that the Commander of the Telemachus, William King, who in 1944 had torpedoed the I-166, was still alive, then 94 years old and that he was living in Ireland in his family home, Oranmore Castle. Akira and his wife Kay wanted to meet him and asked if I would come along. This meeting in 2004 was very moving and we decided to go to Ireland once more a few months later, this time with our children. So the children and grandchildren of the three former enemies met and became friends.
We planted a tree in the garden at Oranmore Castle as a symbol of reconciliation and hope for a future in peace. In 2005 Akira called me late at night and said, “Katja, I want to invite you to come to Japan and see the cherry blossom and plant another tree at the submarine monument in Sasebo”. So in April 2005 my husband and I and the daughter and granddaughter of Commander King went to Japan on a two-week trip. We met many Japanese people including the families of the I-166. We also met a survivor of the encounter in the Malacca Strait in 1944 who told us his story and we planted the second tree in Sasebo, the submarine base in Japan.
The third tree was planted in Den Helder in July 2006. Commander King and Akira came to the Netherlands. There was a ceremony in the garden of the Royal Naval Academy in Den Helder where young Dutch Navy men and women have their training. In 2008 the Japanese defence attaché in The Netherlands asked my consent to visit the tiny little tree at the Naval Academy in Den Helder with a delegation of the Japanese training Squadron during their visit to The Netherlands. I was very touched and it gives me faith in the capacity of new generations to build a future based on respect and confidence in each other.
This year I was in San Diego at the 46th International Submariners Convention where submariners who were once opponents, and maybe will be again in the future, meet as friends. I asked Akira and his wife Kay to join me at this convention, because I wanted very much to be there together with him, in the spirit of the congress. For my husband and me it was the second time that we had been to an international submariners’ convention. In 2008 I was invited to go to the ISA meeting in Poland, because I had been involved in a combined search by the Polish, British and Netherlands Navy for two submarines that were lost in the North Sea in 1940. The Polish Orzel and the Dutch O-13 probably perished in the same area. Both submarines had British observers on board, and in 2005 and 2006 the three Navies joined to try and locate the wrecks of the boats. Unfortunately without success.
Next year the ISA convention will be in Israel, and I am very much looking forward to this meeting and will do my utmost to attend. I have told many people about the enchanting trip to Japan, the meeting with Akira’s family and Commander King, and especially the International Submariners’ Conventions and what these conventions represent. For many people who still live with the nightmares of the war, these stories have had a healing effect.
Also, the fact that we are still looking for the lost submarines gives the relatives the confidence that their men have not been forgotten.
The search for K-XVI
The submarine K-XVI, on which my father served in 1941, had been ordered to protect an area in the South China Sea near the coast of Borneo. A convoy of some twelve Japanese warships and five submarines escorted the invasion troops that were on their way from Miri to invade the oilfields of Borneo. At 16.00 hrs on December 24th, headquarters received a telegram by the commander of K-XVI, Jarman. The content of the telegram was: “tonight after dark I will attack”. That night K-XVI sank the Sagiri, an Amagiri class destroyer, and attacked another ship, the Murakumo. It was a daring action, this lonely submarine against an overpowering supremacy, in shallow water that made it difficult to escape. The telegram in which the commander informed the headquarters about the result of the attack was the last contact.
For as long as I can remember, I attended the memorial services of the Dutch Submariners in Den Helder on May 4th where I met with other relatives of the lost crewmembers. One day one of my friends, Hans Besançon, who had found his father’s submarine in 1982, and had been instrumental in finding other submarine wrecks, told me that he had information about the possible location of K-XVI and asked if I would be interested in finding the wreck.
It took me a few moments before I could decide. Somehow my father had never actually died in my mind. There was a movie that was made at my parents’ wedding in 1941. I can see him laughing. I can see the way he looked at my mother.
Somewhere in the back of my mind he was still alive but then the realization came that he and so many others had had those terrible moments back then and that it was time to look for them, and locate their boats. Time to find out what happened and maybe get an answer to all those questions that we had asked ourselves for so long.
We then decided to look not only for K-XVI but for all three boats that were still missing since World War II. We formed the “Foundation Relatives Submarines 1940 – 1945” and started forming an expedition. Everything had to be done on a very low budget, and to begin with there was no money at all. But we were lucky to find Klaas Brouwer, the CEO of the IAHD, the International Association of Handicapped Divers, who told us that his men could do anything and that they were willing to help us. Handicapped, but extremely competent and determined divers, who were fascinated by the stories of what happened in those few weeks of the beginning of the war in Asia, and whose personal contributions made it financially possible for us to undertake this search. This resulted in the
finding of the wreck of Hr. Ms. O-20 near Malaysia on June 12th 2002. I was at the airport when they came back, and holding the deck telephone, that had been retrieved from the boat for identification of the discovered submarine, in my hands, was one of the most overpowering experiences in my life. All those men suddenly became my father, my husband, my son.
Finding the submarine O-20 opened other doors for us and made new expeditions possible. That year I learned to dive, and in May 2003 my daughters Claire and Jessica and I joined the diving crew for a fantastic adventure in the South China Sea on a small boat, the Mata Ikan, to try to find my father’s submarine K-XVI. My first dive ever outside a swimming pool was on that occasion. To give me an opportunity to practice, we dived on a known wreck. This was a Japanese ship that had been torpedoed by one of our submarines and I realized all too well that these men also had families that mourned for them.
A few days later one of the divers found something that looked like a conning tower covered in nets and an anchor. We were elated and phoned the Navy in the Netherlands with all kind of details. But the weather was very bad and became worse which made the diving difficult. We very much wanted to stay to continue the search but we lost our drinking water in the storm, the dingy got damaged, the anchor got damaged and the boat was moaning as if she were in pain. When we got a message that a large freighter had sunk and would we please look out for the crew in their lifeboat, the captain decided that it was time to go back.
Of course we went back later although the weather was still bad, for we only had a limited time before heading back to the Netherlands. A few days later my daughters did not surface at the appointed time, and one of the other divers got into trouble and was drifting away in the strong current. He could not be retrieved until much later, because of problems with the boat. And I wondered if the price of finding the submarine might not become too high!
Unfortunately, because of the extremely bad weather, we could not continue the survey at that time and although we hoped that we had found the wreck, further expeditions proved that this was not the case. With later expeditions we have also met with many other obstacles that we are now trying to overcome one by one.