The Tachibana Maru was the only Japanese ship captured under sail by the U.S. Navy during World War II.
Harry Allcroft was aboard the destroyer that helped capture her 57 years ago. The 78-year old Port Charlotte man was a 2nd class motor machinist mate aboard the USS Conner, DD-582.
Early in the morning of Aug. 1, 1945, the 279-foot hospital ship smuggling 29 tons of weapons and ammunition and 1,663 Japanese soldiers bandaged to look like injured troops, was straddled by the Conner and the USS Charrette, DD-581, in the Banda Sea in the Southwest Pacific.
“The Navy had received reports from coast watchers that the Japanese were taking soldiers and equipment back to Japan in hospital ships. The soldiers were to be reassigned. The equipment would be refurbished and sent to the front again,” Allcroft said.
The two-destroyer task force was given general coordinates where the Tachibana was operating. Lt. Cmdr. Ernest Peterson, skipper of the Charrette and the man in charge of the operation, headed his ships toward a rendezvous with the Tachibana.
“We first spotted the ship on radar at 10 p.m. the night before. The skipper wanted to board her during daylight, so we stayed below the horizon, just out of sight,” Allcroft said. “the Japanese didn’t have radar, so they didn’t know we were there.”
Running at flank speed, the Conner and the Charrette pulled up on either side of the Tachibana. All guns on both destroyers were trained her way, as well as all 10 torpedo tubes aboard ship, according to Allcroft.
“The ship was flying a huge red cross painted on a sheet of aluminum that flew above the upper deck for all to see,” he said. “We signaled the Tachibana to stop because we were going to board her.
“The Japanese skipper wouldn’t stop, so we fired a warning shot across her bow. He stopped,” Allcroft recalled.
A boarding party consisting of a couple of officers with sidearms and a bunch of sailors was sent over in a whale boat to have a look at the contents of the Tachibana and her passengers. Among those in the first boat was Lt. Louis Cartell, a doctor aboard the Conner.
It had been prearranged that if the men from the Conner ran into trouble, they would radio back the code words “Mickey Finn.” That meant they needed help immediately.
“Mickey Finn” came over the destroyers’ radios. Three more whale boats with 75 additional sailors were on their way to the Tachibana which was wallowing motionless in the sea 1,000 feet away.
“I was armed with a seven-shot automatic shotgun with buckshot. Some of the other guys had sub-machine guns,” Allcroft said. “We’d practiced this boarding drill on the way to intercept the Japanese ship. We knew exactly where we were going once we got on board.
“I was headed for the engine room. When we got there, the Japanese engineers were milling around. Six of us pushed them away from the controls so they couldn’t damage anything. We were all armed,” he said.
Their interpreter showed up in the engine room 30 minutes later. It quickly became obvious that the three officers in charge of running the engines would not cooperate.
They were taken up on deck and moved, with most of the rest of the hospital ship’s officers, to one of the destroyers for safe-keeping. Once they were gone, the sailors who worked in the engine room cooperated.
“There were no problems after that. We had 80 of our sailors, armed and aboard ship,” Allcroft said.
Our doctor started checking the “injuries” of the bandaged enemy soldiers. He discovered they weren’t hurt. It was all a ruse to transport healthy front line soldiers from one point to another in a hospital ship.
This was against international law.
“We had a contingent of 16 Marines who took control of hundreds of Japanese prisoners. The Marines held them above deck. They put barbed wire around the windows and doors of one big room where they kept them under guard at all times. They did a great job.”
They were packed in the room like sardines. The enemy prisoners slept on the floor or lay on palm-covered crates marked with red crosses — presumably full of medical supplies.
The Banda Sea was ringed by a number of Japanese inhabited islands. The crew of the two destroyers had to shepherd the enemy ship past these islands and on farther west to Morica Island, where the U.S. Navy operated a prisoner-of-war camp.
“We were nervous as hell to start with – with all these Japanese prisoners on board,” he said. “But everything worked out OK.”
Allcroft and the sailors aboard the two destroyers reached port on Aug. 6, 1945. Although they didn’t know it at the time, that was the day Col. Paul Tibbets, who was at the controls of a B-29 bomber called the Enola Gay, dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
“We didn’t’ start opening the boxes aboard the Tachibana Maru until the prisoners were disposed of ashore. We didn’t know what was in those boxes and neither did the prisoners who were sleeping on them.”
When the American sailors opened the crates, they found thousands of rounds of ammunition. In addition there were hundreds of rifles and semiautomatic rifles. Allcroft and his buddies were shocked at their discovery.
Why didn’t their Japanese prisoners examine the contents of the boxes before they made port and make a bid to recapture the ship?
Allcroft believes one reason is because the Japanese officers had been separated from their men shortly after the Tachibana was boarded by U.S. Forces. Without their leaders, they were confused.
“If the Japanese had figured out was was in those boxes and had someone to lead them, they would have wiped us out.”
Allcroft and his wife, Vera Mae, have been married 57 years and live in Heritage Oak Park in Port Charlotte. They moved here 13 years ago from Wyckoff,N.J.
This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Aug. 6, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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