(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.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.
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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