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For survivor of Tsushima Maru civilian transport attack, pain still fresh 75 years later

Shoshin Gishitomi prays for his late mother and siblings in front of the Kozakura-no-to cenotaph built for the victims of the torpedo attack on Tsushima Maru by the submarine USS Bowfin. (Mainichi/Takayasu Endo)
Tsushima Maru, which carried civilians escaping Okinawa, was sunk by the submarine USS Bowfin. (Mainichi)

NAHA -- This Aug. 22 marked the 75th anniversary of the torpedoing of the Tsushima Maru, a ship that was carrying some 1,500 civilians, many of them children, from Japan's southernmost prefecture of Okinawa to Kagoshima Prefecture on the southwestern island of Kyushu. The year was 1944, and the Pacific War was raging.

Eighty-six-year-old Shoshin Gishitomi, who was 11 years old when he boarded the Tsushima Maru, could be found at a memorial service in the Okinawa prefectural capital of Naha for those who perished in the attack. He himself was rescued after drifting in the ocean for some time, but his mother and five siblings were not as lucky.

"There are still times when I remember the attack and cry," he said. Still harboring a sadness that has not eased in those 75 years, he quietly pressed his palms together in prayer.

At the time, Gishitomi had been living in the then northern Okinawa Prefecture village of Kin, now a town. Having lost his father early, he and his siblings lived in a single-parent household. To escape the ravages of war in Okinawa, the family decided to rely on relatives on the mainland and take refuge there.

On the night of Aug. 21, 1944, the Tsushima Maru departed Naha Port. Gishitomi's mother and most of his siblings stayed in the cabin, but Gishitomi spent his time on deck with his 1-year-old brother tied to his back.

"I was a rambunctious kid," Gishitomi recalled. "I wanted to see the view outside and walked back and forth on the deck."

The following night, when the Tsushima Maru was torpedoed by the submarine USS Bowfin, Gishitomi was on deck. The ship was hit once, twice, and on the third impact it began listing severely, forcing Gishitomi to climb one of the masts all the way to the tip. There were many people still below him, but the ship soon sunk. With just an inflatable device on, he was thrown into the sea, where he climbed onto a raft. He didn't see his mother or his siblings.

Gishitomi believes he drifted for three days. Adults who were also on the raft found a barrel floating nearby and pulled it toward them, and they drank the soy sauce left inside it to sustain themselves. There were about 20 people, including those younger than Gishitomi, at the outset, but by the time he was rescued by the crew of a bonito fishing boat, the number had dwindled to around five.

"I thought my brother was still on my back, but what was left was just the sash that I'd used to tie him to me," Gishitomi said.

Having lost his entire family, Gishitomi arrived in Kumamoto, where he remained an evacuee until returning to Okinawa two years later. But his relatives were relentless. "Why did you alone come back alive?" they'd said. Feeling extremely hurt, Gishitomi left his home village. He drifted from job to job, working as a house boy for American soldiers, driving U.S. military trucks, or doing carpentry.

"I've tried as much as I can to not think about the Tsushima Maru," he said. Still, every year he has attended the memorial ceremony for the victims of the torpedo attack, and on a chest of drawers at home is a piece of paper with "August 22" written on it.

He and his 73-year-old wife Yoshiko have five children. The couple also has 15 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. "I've been blessed with family to make up for the ones I've lost," Gishitomi said. "There's nothing to worry about."

Seventy-five years after that fateful day, Gishitomi pressed his palms together in front of the Kozakura-no-to cenotaph built for the victims of the torpedo attack on Tsushima Maru, reported to his late family that he was well, and reached far back into his memory for his baby brother.

(Japanese original by Takayasu Endo, Naha Bureau)

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