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Sakuma Tsutomu and the Memory of Submarine No. 6 at the Library of Congress

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(The following post is by Cameron Penwell, Japanese Reference Librarian, Asian Division.)

Words of apology fail me for having sunk his Majesty’s Submarine No. 6.

This hastily scrawled sentence, jotted down just after ten o’clock on the morning of April 15, 1910, begins the final testament of Lieutenant Sakuma Tsutomu 佐久間勉 (1879-1910). Just under three hours later, at 12:40 p.m., Sakuma inscribed his final words into the same pocket notebook and, shortly thereafter, took his final breath.

A duplication of the surviving notebook, donated to the Library in 1911, now resides in the Japanese Rare Book Collection. On these small pages, Sakuma dutifully recorded his and his crew’s heroic, but doomed, efforts to save themselves following the sinking of their submarine. This post relates the story of Sakuma’s account and its reception in the United States, particularly at the Library of Congress.

Photos of a man and a book cover
An undated photograph of Sakuma Tsutomu, no later than 1910, and book cover from a biography on Sakuma. Both images from Narita Kōtarō, ed., “Junnan teichō Sakuma Taii” 殉難艇長佐久間大尉, 1910. Library of Congress Asian Division.

The morning of the accident, Sakuma and his crew had been conducting practice dives off the coast of Yamaguchi prefecture in southwestern Japan. When Sakuma sent the sub too low on one of these dives, water began to pour into the ventilation pipe, which normally remained above the surface. Crewmembers rushed to close an emergency valve to stop the flow of water, but the valve’s chain broke. By the time they closed it by hand, the ship had taken on so much water that it began to sink.

When it touched bottom it was at an angle of 134 degrees. The current submerged the electric generator, put out the light, and the electric wires were burned.

Map of Japan
Map of Japan with detailed portion indicating the location of Hiroshima Bay with a red circle. United States Central Intelligence Agency. “Japan Administrative Divisions,” 1996. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Sakuma and his 14-man crew were trapped some 50 feet below the waters of Hiroshima Bay. With a limited oxygen supply, engines spewing toxic gases, and no means of escape, they knew their hours were numbered. But they still worked furiously to pump out water.

The crew of a submarine should be selected from the bravest, the coolest, or they will be of little use in time of crisis—in such as we are now. My brave men are doing their best.

After losing electrical power, they desperately continued their work with hand pumps, but to no avail. From his position in the submarine’s conning tower, with limited light trailing down from the sea’s surface, Sakuma wrote frantically.

My subordinates are killed by my fault, but it is with pride that I inform you that the crew to a man have discharged their duties as sailors should with the utmost coolness until their dying moments.

Seeing the end was near, he pleaded for assistance for the surviving families of his crew.

A word to his Majesty the Emperor. It is my earnest hope that your Majesty will supply the means of living to the poor families of the crew. This is my only desire, and I am so anxious to have it fulfilled.

Sakuma also worried the accident might erode confidence in submarines, to which he had devoted much of his naval career. As part of the country’s effort to strengthen and modernize its navy, the Imperial Navy had invested significantly in this new technology since acquiring its first sub from the United States in 1904.

We now sacrifice our lives for the sake of our country, but my fear is that the disaster will affect the future development of submarines. It is therefore my hope that nothing will daunt your determination to study the submarine until it is a perfect machine, absolutely reliable. We can then die without regret.

Manuscript showing handwritten text.
The front cover (left) and first two pages (right) from the photographic duplication of Sakuma’s notebook donated by Hiraga Tokutarō, “Sakuma teichō yuigonsho utsushi” 佐久間艇長遺言書寫 (Reproduction of Lieutenant Sakuma’s final testament), produced by the company Suikōsha in 1910. The same publisher also reprinted the notebook under the title “Sakuma Kaigun Taii isho” 佐久間海軍大尉遺書 (Naval Lieutenant Sakuma’s Final Testament), 1910. Japanese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

Two days after the incident, when the submarine was salvaged, navy officials found the notebook in Sakuma’s chest pocket. The details of the accident, made even more dramatic by Sakuma’s first-hand account, created sensational headlines in newspapers across Japan. The Japanese reading public was deeply moved by the bravery and devotion to duty demonstrated by Sakuma and his crew in the face of impending death.

Newspaper article with headline "Heroic Message of Doomed Sakuma."
A newspaper article detailing Sakuma’s story for an American audience. The Richmond Virginian, July 07, 1910. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

As the story made its way into the foreign press, it likewise elicited admiration from non-Japanese readers. Articles appeared in major dailies like the New York Times as well as regional papers like The Richmond Virginian. They recounted the tragedy in detail, often reproducing the entirety of Sakuma’s notebook in English translation.

A male Japanese official.
Hiraga Tokutarō in a photo most likely taken during his service as naval attaché to the Embassy of Japan in Washington, D.C. from December 1908 to May 1912. “Hiraga, Tokutarō Commander.” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1911, just over a year after the incident, Japanese naval attaché Hiraga Tokutarō (1871-1919) presented a photographic duplication of Sakuma’s notebook to the Library of Congress. Following a conversation with Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam (1861-1955), Hiraga noted in a December 1911 letter to Putnam the he was sending one copy of the manuscript, which captured the “sad and tragic, yet heroic, record written by Lieutenant Sakuma while approaching death.” Included with the letter was an English version of the notebook’s contents, which has been quoted above. This translation, or variations of it, were widely reproduced in the English-language press.

Manuscript of a letter
A copy of a letter from Hiraga Tokutarō to Herbert Putnam, December 20, 1911. “Translation of a manuscript found in the pocket of Lieutenant Sakuma…” Japanese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.

At some point following Hiraga’s donation, the notebook and an accompanying English translation were put on display in a glass case on the Jefferson Building’s second floor, possibly in an area like this one. A February 1922 article in the Evening Star, a leading newspaper in DC at that time, reports how Japanese delegates to the Washington Naval Conference, some of whom had known Sakuma personally, traveled to the Library to view the display. The article relates how, following the 1910 accident, the US Navy had requested “five or six copies of the record,” which stood as an “example of fortitude and sailorly bearing… worthy of emulation by Americans.”

A plaque with typewritten text on paper.
The introductory text that once accompanied the public display of Sakuma’s notebook in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. Japanese Rare Book Collection, Library of Congress Asian Division.
Newspaper clipping in English, with B&W illustrations.
A 1922 article from a Washington, D.C. newspaper that revisited the story of Sakuma and his crew, published near the conclusion of the Washington Naval Conference. Evening Star, February 05, 1922. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

Despite this positive reception of Sakuma’s notebook during its first two decades at the Library, public perceptions underwent a sea change as US-Japan relations worsened during the 1930s. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, there were demands to pull the document from public display at the Library. Meanwhile, submarines quickly became a visible representation of Japanese aggression against the United States.

Two B&W photos with people in front of the Capitol Dome.
Two photographs of a captured Japanese submarine on display at the Capitol. April 3, 1943. “Captured Jap[anese] submarine displayed at Capitol to help sell war bonds,” left, and “People viewing a submarine…,” right. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
In April 1943, a captured two-man Japanese submarine was placed on display in front of the Capitol, just a few blocks from the Library. Colloquially referred to as a “midget sub,” the Type A Kō-hyōteki-class submarine had taken part in a failed suicide mission at Pearl Harbor. Having sustained significant damage, it was captured by the US Navy. The exhibition at the Capitol was part of a nationwide tour orchestrated by the Treasury Department to promote the sale of war bonds. The captured sub served as both an object of curiosity for the public and a potent symbol that could direct feelings of patriotism toward financial support for the war effort.

Despite facing negative public sentiment, the ninth Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), initially resisted calls to remove Sakuma’s notebook. Sanematsu Yuzuru 実松譲 (1902-1996), the naval attaché to the Japanese embassy in Washington at that time, later recalled that MacLeish had expressed the view that “cultural inheritances should not be affected by the current of the times” (Sanematsu, p. 517).

Perhaps related to MacLeish’s resolve were his concurrent attempts at tempering negative attitudes toward Japanese Americans. In October 1941, MacLeish had been appointed director of the War Department’s Office of Facts and Figures, in addition to his duties as Librarian. In that capacity, he argued against restrictions on press freedoms for Japanese-language publications and also tried—unsuccessfully—to influence White House decision makers against the idea of relocating citizens and residents of Japanese descent to internment camps.

Sakuma’s story had once inspired American audiences and even drawn praise from the US Navy, but war has a way of quickly changing perceptions. At some point, Sakuma’s notebook was removed from display, although it remains unclear exactly when. Was it during the war, in response to public opinion? Or did it take place after the war, as part of a general rearrangement of exhibition spaces at the Library? For now, the answer awaits further research.

While the duplicate of Sakuma’s notebook has yet to return to a public display case, it is now stored in the Japanese Rare Book Collection under the title “Sakuma teichō yuigonsho utsushi” 佐久間艇長遺言書寫 (Reproduction of Lieutenant Sakuma’s final testament), along with a copy of the English translation and letter originally supplied by Hiraga. Both are available for viewing by appointment in the Asian Reading Room.

For questions or additional information about materials related to Sakuma Tsutomu, or Japanese materials at the Library of Congress more generally, please contact reference librarians using the Asian Division’s Ask-a-Librarian service.

Learn More:

Adachi, Noriyuki. “Shisei tenmei: Sakuma Teichō no isho.” Tokyo: Uejji, 2011.

Baldwin, Hanson W. “Sea Fights and Shipwrecks: True Tales of the Seven Seas.” Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1955. The chapter titled “Number 6—1910” relates the story of Sakuma and his crew.

Donaldson, Scott. “Archibald MacLeish: An American Life.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Iijima, Eiichi. “Dairoku Sensuitei fujōsezu: Sōseki, Sakuma Teichō, Hirose Chūsa.” Tokyo: Sōzōsha, 1994.

Robinson, Greg. “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans.” Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Sanematsu, Yuzuru. Translator’s afterword in “Kaisen, kainan: nanatsu no umi no shinjitsu no monogatari.” Tokyo: Fuji Shuppansha, 1972. This book is the Japanese translation of Baldwin’s “Sea Fights and Shipwrecks.”


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Comments (3)

  1. I have seen this note in Etajima in the past. You are right, it was in the Library of Congress. Moreover, I learned for the first time that it was donated by a military officer stationed in the US. I think it is wonderful that you have researched and investigated this. I also learned for the first time that sadly a similar submarine was used for propaganda ”anti japan”. Fairness is necessary in looking at history, and I salute the researcher.

    • Thank you very much for reading and for the comment. I hope to learn more about the circumstances surrounding the display of materials related to Sakuma Tsutomu at the Library of Congress through additional research in the future.

  2. Thank you for posting this fascinating story. The Submarine No. 6 that sank with all hands was built in Japan from an American design. It was the first time a Japanese dockyard had built a submarine following a blueprint; prior to this, Japan had imported knock-down kits from America and merely assembled them. Naval honour is an interesting theme more broadly. After Japanese midget submarines attacked Sydney Harbour in 1942, the wreckage of two subs were recovered and the crews’ remains returned to Japan with full military honours. This in the midst of war. The Australian Government hoped by such a show of respect to encourage better treatment of Australian POWs who had fallen into Japanese hands. Sadly, it did not have the desired effect.

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