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Taken from The Gorgon, Autumn, 1999

The Cherry Blossom Mystery

Arriving in Sasebo, Kyushu, Japan in September 1945, the submarine tender USS Euryale took over what was left of the Japanese submarines. There were about 130 miniature vessels that were often labeled "suicide subs" and other bigger ones including three of the I-400 class, the world's largest submarines. Two of them each carried three airplanes --- two assembled with wings folded and one crated. The I-402 carried four airplanes and word was that it was designed to attack the Panama Canal.

Each of these huge subs had a compressed air catapult on the bow to launch its planes, and a boom on the side to retrieve any planes that might return.

Of course, the general understanding was that once the planes took off on a mission, they would become "guided (human) missiles" or in the language of the times, Kamikazes. So when they left that catapult it was bye-bye, adios and Sayonara.

As a crew member aboard the Euryale and a bow hook on a motor whale boat, I occasionally had the opportunity to tie up to and board these ugly monstrosities. Fact is, they were in pretty bad shape by the time the war ended. There were skeleton crews of Japanese sailors on each of them to assist in the work our repair technicians had to do.

Included in the group was the I-58, the Japanese submarine that sunk the USS Indianapolis, but only after the American cruiser had unloaded an atomic bomb at Guam.

The story was that while a handful of subs, including big ones, would go on their own to Pearl Harbor or follow Euryale there, those remaining were to be used as target vessels on atom-bomb tests planned for the following year at Bikini Atoll in an operation designated "Cross Roads." While in Sasebo, Euryale was charged with the responsibility of maintaining and getting them ready to travel.

In January 1946, Euryale was relieved by USS Nereus (AS-17). As a short-timer, I was transferred from the Blue Beetle to the new and ultra-modern Nereus as Euryale departed for the States to let the reservists debark for the separation centers.

My duty on the Nereus was as an ETM striker assigned to the radar shop. We sometimes had to go to the Japanese boats to work on their radar. By March of 1946, the word was out that the boats would not be used in "Operation Cross Roads" after all. Then orders came that all of those Japanese submarines were to be sunk in an operation labeled "Roads' End." The Nereus was charged with carrying out that operation.

On April 1, 1946, all the boats that could get underway were headed out to the China Sea to a spot about 60 miles south of Sasebo, and were sunk by detonation charges planted by Nereus technicians.

There were 24 boats sunk that day, and we returned to Sasebo to tend to the remaining nine. These boats were unable to travel on their own power, and would have to be towed to the "Deep Six". A couple of days before the scheduled departure, the demolition charges were all placed and the skeleton crews were removed.

Some of those Japanese sailors were reluctant to leave,; , insisting they wanted to go down with their boats in the ,:tradition of Japanese honor. Nevertheless, they were removed to the decontamination center where the returning Japanese POW's from China were held. There had been an escape or two in the preceding month, so the Nereus brain trust thought it would be prudent to patrol the cove with a picket boat to ensure that none of the Japanese crewmen would try to return to their boats. The picket boat patrolled night and day. In addition, we had a spotlight and sentries on both the bow and the stern of the Nereus.

On the day we were to escort the tug boats, hauling the doomed submarines to their watery graves, we could not believe our eyes. There, in the glare of the morning sunlight, were the black hulks of all those submarines with fresh branches of cherry blossoms fluttering from their periscopes.

Obviously some Japanese, in the dark of night, had managed to elude the picket boat, the spotlights and the sentries, to place those cherry blossoms on their beloved boats. Would they be granted their ultimate wish -- to go down with their boats? Surely the U.S. Navy would tolerate none of that. But maybe, hiding in torpedo tubes or --- just maybe ...

At any rate, along the shores of Kyushu that morning, there must have been numerous pairs of eyes squinting into the sunlight, trying to focus on a slow procession of tugs and towlines and submarines adorned with cherry blossoms heading out over the horizon.

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