The Hiranomaru, A Piece of Japan in Pembrokeshire.


We were delighted when David James, a local historian agreed to us using the following article

He tells us that the story you are about to read is only a fragment of an ongoing tale concerning .  the Japanese Liner Hiranomaru  which on 4th October 1918 ,was lost locally in Japans worst maritime disaster of WW1.

Since erecting the obelisk in Angle, David told us that he was  presented to His Excellency Koji Tsuruoka, Japans Ambassador to the UK . Later Theresa May PM gave him a Points of Light award for bringing Japan and the UK closer together..

“The Japanese people  have greatly appreciated my remembering their fallen countrymen ,they knew nothing of the local graves until I told them and so treat me with great respect.” He explained,

“In return I have been asked to see if there are any records of bodies from the Hiranomaru washed ashore and buried in North Pembrokeshire or Ceredigion.”

David told us ,”This whole thing started from a fleeting idea of mine ,the developments and feedback have been beyond my wildest expectations. I still cannot come to terms with the reaction of my ,now close, friends in both Japan and the UK.

I thought by erecting  memorials to Japanese sailors in Angle ( ten ) and St Ishmaels ( one) would be a fleeting thing ,but as they told me, my seemingly simple action was nothing of the sort to Japanese. They revere their ancestors and my action was doing exactly what they do for their ancestors.”

“On the 4th June last ,My wife and I were invited to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales to be present at the reopening of the Japanese garden there where I met the the Japanese Ambassador It was an honour to meet him .

Incidentally ,my searches regarding the UB91 ,whose Captain sank the Hiranomaru , are part of a project by the Royal Commission for the Historic and Ancient Monuments of Wales,who are researching all the Uboat actions off the Welsh coast in WW1.

There is also the interesting matter of an extremely famous ginko tree in Pembroke Dock ,the Japanese are so fond of it that cuttings have been taken from it and are being grown on in the NBGW .Once strong enough they will be flown to Japan and planted in at least ten Places of Honour ,therein lies another story”

David is hopeful that there may be people in Pembrokeshire who have information  about the Hiranomaru and it’s crew. His eventual aim is to write a book about this particular episode of Pembrokeshire’s history and he is seeking anyone with any information to contact him. on 01646 683764

The Sinking of the Hiranomaru

4 October 1918

         Early in 1915 with the land war bogged down in the unspeakable misery and horror of the trenches, Germany declared that the seas around the British Isles to be a war zone.

          Japan at the time, was a staunch ally of Britain and the Imperial Japanese Navy defended the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which also explains why Japanese merchant ships were  helping the British war effort .

     The German High Command hoped that by attacking merchant shipping, Britain’s imports of food and war materials could be drastically reduced , forcing Britain to negotiate a surrender . Initially , the German submarines would surface and declare an intention to attack , giving the crews and passengers the opportunity to take to the lifeboats and escape before their ship was sunk by gunfire. The British response to this was to arm merchant ships, called Q ships, so that when a submarine surfaced it was fired upon and sunk. 

  As a result of this policy any ship, naval or merchant ,  those flying flags of neutral nations, or even no flag at all, would be sunk without warning by prowling U boats.

    The flying of the flags of neutral nations by combatants had always been a ruse de guerre and thus such flags did nothing to encourage a U boat commander to hold his fire .

  Hiranomaru left Liverpool on the evening tide of October 1st 1918, bound for Yokohama via Durban. The following morning she joined the south bound convoy OE-23. She  was a 7936 ton   merchant ship, built by the Mitsubishi Dockyard Nagasakin ( Nagasaki) in 1908. By all accounts she was a fine ship, rated A1 at Lloyds , twin screws powered by triple expansion steam reciprocating engines giving her a service speed of 12.5knots

At the time of her sinking she was owned by the Nippon Yusen Kaisha ( NYK)  Line. She had  a mixed cargo of unknown nature together with 320 crew and passengers and a Scottish Captain ,Hector Frazer. Who  had worked for the NYK line for twenty five years and had been awarded the medal of the Rising Sun for his contribution to the Japanese people during the Sino- Japanese and Russo -Japanese wars .

     Hiranomaru and the rest of convoy OE23  was escorted by several warships , one of which was an American destroyer the USS Sterett commanded by Cdr A Farquar, USN ,to give protection against attack by submarines .USS Sterrett DD27 had been built at Fore River USA launched on May 10 1910. She was armed with three five inch guns , six triple torpedo mountings, depth charge launchers and rails . Propelled by twin screws giving her a top speed of 29.5knots  , crew of 86 , length overall 293feet , 887tons .

She had  sailed from Queenstown ( now Cobh) in southern Ireland to join the convoy.

     When the convoy was 200 miles south of Ireland it came into the sights of UB 91 a Class III German submarine, commanded by Capt Wolf Hans Hartwig . She was a coastal submarine with 34 crew,  built in the Vulcan yard in Hamburg in 1917, 656tons with diesel and electric motors giving her a surface speed of 10-12knots and a submerged speed of 6-8knots.Armed with four torpedo tubes forward , one aft and one 10.5 centimetre gun on the foredeck.

UB 91 sighted the convoy at  05.05hrs on the fourth of October . It was a very stormy night wind speed at force 6 to 7 with a heavy swell and a rough sea. As she was a large ship two  torpedos were fired ,  both hitting  the Hirano Maru which  sank in seven minutes, going down so quickly that her few undamaged lifeboats could not be launched .

At 07.05 the USS Sterrett hove to , picking  up survivors , which was a severe test of seamanship to launch boats in heavy seas from a ship so narrow- gutted that it was said she would roll on to her beam ends in a gale .During World War II, during the lease lend programme  these same four funnelled ships were disliked by British sailors who said they would “roll on wet grass”.

  During the rescue operation ,torpedo tracks were spotted and she immediately got under way  to attack UB91 and closed at high speed dropping depth charges in the area, however UB91 escaped damage by diving deep.   She tried to escape but in the heavy swell she surfaced momentarily and was again spotted by the USS Sterrett

which immediately attacked again forcing her to dive deep again.  Rising to periscope depth for the third time ,  their last torpedo was fired at the USS Sterrett , which saw the track and avoided it and once again depth charged the submarine causing minor damage . Having used all his torpedos , Captain Hartwig returned to his base in Heligoland by sailing up the west coast of Ireland and to the north of Scotland .

Thus some time had elapsed before USS Sterrett could return to pick up survivors . Most of those in the water had no time to put warm clothing on and this , plus the length of time they were in the rough water meant that most of them succumbed to hypothermia, which at the time was not fully understood and was described as death by exhaustion.

At 0758 the Steretts Captain bravely returned to the area of the sinking and it was reluctantly decided to recover the whaler and call off  the search for survivors.

  Of the 320 souls on board Hiranu Maru , only 29 survived .  Among the passengers that perished was the London Branch Manager of the Yokohama Specie Bank ,S Ujie, his wife and three sons as well as a  bank employee Takashi Aoki and his wife Sueko. 


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