Legend of The 'Torpedo Gang'
By Karleen Chinen
Reprint of a Hawaii Herald article (Fri, June 20, 1986)
At I p.m. on Monday, Jan. 26, 1942, almost two months after Pearl Harbor,23-year-old Shigeru Ushijima gathered members of his draftee group at Schofield Barracks, where they had just completed basic training. "Eh, let's take a picture," he told them. In just a few hours they would be boarding the Royal T. Frank, a military transport boat that would take them back to Hilo. The 26 men (including their sergeant who did not join them on the trip, and excluding Ushijima, who was the photographer) squeezed together into two rows, and Ushijima snapped the picture. The photograph was to be the last visual record of them alive. Less than 48 hours later, only nine of them survived to tell the story of what happened to the other 17.
The 200-ton Royal T. Frank left Honolulu on the 27th with the 26 draftees and its crew on board. Traveling with it in a convoy were a destroyer and an ammunition boat, which the transport was towing to Hilo. By the next morning, the convoy was midway between Maui and the Big Island. A foggy and rainy morning greeted Ushijima and the others on the transport Wednesday morning, the 28th.
"Suddenly, someone said they seen something resembling a torpedo whiz by in the water. In less than a minute, another was seen gliding through the water seen something resembling a torpedo whiz by in the water. In less than a minute, another was seen gliding through the water. It scraped the side of the transport. "We could hear the `thud,"' recalled Ushijima, who says he never got a peek at the torpedoes. He guesses that the captain, realizing that torpedoes were being fired at his ship, began to zigzag the vessel through the water. The destroyer's crew had also seen them and began dropping depth charges in the ocean.
Less than a minute after the second torpedo was felt, a third had been fired. "That's the one that hit us direct. That's when I fell on my back," remembers Ushijima. "In less than a minute, the boat just went up like that," he gestures with his hands. "I remember I was in the ocean already, and then it went down, in no time at all.
"Ushijima had jumped overboard and was in the ocean a second after the torpedo hit. He remembers seeing a Caucasian crewman flailing about as he tried to keep from going under. "I knew he couldn’t swim. Islandboys . . . we all can swim." So he handed his life vest to the crewman, and grabbed on to a piece of debris.
Ushijima says his first thought after jumping overboard was to get as far away from the wreckage as possible. "I was afraid of the suction. I was almost 15 yards away and I could see the bow of the boat go up."
"All the people who were down in the hold . . . nobody came up. They all went down with the ship." He says they were the ones who had been shooting dice or playing cards the night before. Many of the severely seasick also had chosen to stay below. Ushijima himself had spent his first night at sea in the hold. "I'm a weak sailor. I get seasick," he confesses.
Only nine of the 26 Big Island men survived. They are: Ushijima, GeorgeTaketa, Yoshio Ogomori, John Souza, Shizuo Toma, Mac Wakimoto, Haruo Yamashita, Tokimaru Takamoto and Susumu Yoshioka.
He believes that he and the other eight survived because of where the torpedo hit. "If it was on the back, we would all have been blown to bits. The survivors of the torpedo attack were in the water for two or three hours, clinging to whatever they could to stay afloat, until the ammo boat they had been towing finally fished them out of the ocean. According to Ushijima, there was no fire; nothing burned. However, "When we came out , it must have been the oil . . . the slick was all over the ocean and our faces were all black. We couldn’t recognize anybody.
"With the survivors – nine draftees,who eventually came to be known as ‘the Torpedo Gang’ and 27 crewmen – safely on board, the ammo boat, named the "Kalae," headed for the nearest port - Hana, Maui. The Hana gymnasium had been converted into a first aid station. The men were cleaned off with gasoline and given fresh clothing. Several of them required medical attention and were sent to the nearby hospital/dispensary. Ushijima says they were questioned about the incident by military authorities, who ordered them not to talk about it with anyone.
They were then shipped off to Schofield Barracks and a short time later sent overseas. He remembers the men who went down with the Royal T. Frank. "As far as I know, I don't think any of their bodies were recovered," his face serious again. And, as far as he knows, no search was ever conducted for their remains. Ushijima believes the families of those killed in the attack were never notified of their sons' death until the end of the war. "That was a military secret, so we couldn't write anything about this," although he says rumors about, the attack had been circulating at Schofield.
"But as far as local people like our families, they were still in the dark." Most of those familiar with the events surrounding the incident believe the attack had been launched by a Japanese sub, although Ushijima says some have debated that question, "It must have been a Japanese torpedo because just about that time after the war had started they had shelling right in Hilo Bay. " He says Japanese subs had been lurking in Island waters as a means of harassing the military here.
Just as this story has eerie beginning, so does it end that way with an ironic twist, something that almost belongs in an episode of "The Twilight Zone." Just after. Ushijima had snapped his picture of the draftee group, a complete stranger -Ushijima doesn't even remember his name - approached him, saying he was returning to the Big Island and would take Ushijima's film back with him and process it. Ushijima never thought to ask why, he just gave him the film. He did, however, pack the camera in his bag which he took with him when he boarded the transport. When the torpedo hit, Ushijima's camera went down with the transport, but the last record of the 26 men together, survived. HH
The last visual record of Ushijima’s draftee group
Shigeru Ushijima says he never doubted
that the Torpedo Gang would be rescued.