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The story of Eiji Sawamura, the Japan baseball ace lost in sunk WWII transport ship

Japanese team pitcher Eiji Sawamura is seen throwing against a team of U.S. star players who came to Japan. (Mainichi)
Eiji Sawamura is seen in Hubei province, China, during the war in 1939, in this provided photo.

TOKYO -- Japan's Eiji Sawamura Award, given annually to the top starting pitcher in the Nippon Professional Baseball league, owes its name to a brilliant hurler who had legends, including America's famous player Babe Ruth, swinging at air during a U.S. team visit to Japan before World War II.

    But even with his talents, Eiji Sawamura (1917-1944) was conscripted three times, serving in the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. He lost his life when a transport ship he was aboard was sunk by U.S. submarines. The Mainichi Shimbun looks back at his life and the circumstances that led to his death in the war.

    Born in what is now the western Japan city of Ise, Mie Prefecture, Sawamura entered Kyoto Shogyo High School (now the Kyoto University of Advanced Science Senior High School) as a baseball ace admired for his far superior throwing speed and curveballs. At the Kyoto Prefecture qualifying rounds for the Koshien Japanese High School Baseball Championship, Sawamura struck out 97 batters over 48 innings.

    At the time Sawamura was attracting attention from key figures in the baseball world, just as moves were being made to set up baseball as an occupation with the Nippon Professional Baseball league. Then, the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League for university teams was the most popular in the sport; to be part of it, Sawamura intended to go on to study at Keio University.

    But Sawamura is believed to have changed his mind after Yomiuri Shimbun Group President Matsutaro Shoriki, who made great efforts to establish the professional league, promised him that he would "take care of him for life." Sawamura dropped out of high school to join an all-Japan team playing against a selection of America's best.

    On Nov. 20, 1934, at Shizuoka Prefecture's Kusanagi Stadium, 17-year-old Sawamura pitched against legendary U.S. players Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and others. He performed well, striking out nine batters, while giving up just one run. Apparently, the U.S. team's coach said he wanted to take Sawamura back to America with them.

    After that, Sawamura became a star during Japan's early pro baseball era. In the long professional history of the sport in this country, he is one of just two pitchers, the other being 1960s and 70s Hiroshima player Yoshiro Sotokoba, to achieve three no-hit, no-run games.

    Sawamura was first called up to military service in 1938, when he fought on the front lines and was shot in his left arm. He was discharged in 1940, and he returned to play with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. But perhaps due to his injuries or his long time out of the game, he didn't reach the pitching speeds he had previously.

    He was called up for military duty a second time in October 1941, and sent to the Philippines. In December the same year the war with the U.S. began, and the Philippines became the site of fierce fighting. But Sawamura survived, returning to Japan in 1943. He went back to the Yomiuri Giants again, but he couldn't pitch like he did at his peak.

    A book with a title roughly translating to "a 50-year history of Tokyo Yomiuri Giants players" says on Sawamura: "Due to his two excursions, there was no trace of the speedy pitching Sawamura of old, and his hurling form had changed to the point that they almost all looked like submarine pitches." The Yomiuri Giants fired him; a detail not included in the book.

    The private passenger ship Chichibu Maru, which was used by the Imperial Japanese Navy as a transport vessel, is seen in this image taken in September, 1934. At the time it was completed, the Chichibu Maru was Japan's largest passenger ship. In August, 1941, after being requisitioned by the navy, it began service as a transport vessel. On April 28, 1943, it was sunk in a U.S. submarine attack. (Mainichi)

    In the autumn of 1944, he was called up for duty a third time. He left behind his wife and daughter, just born in July that year, and went to the Philippines on a transport vessel. On Dec. 2, the ship was sunk in the East China Sea by an American submarine. He was 27.

    It's thought that between 300,000 and 350,000 Japanese people died at sea during World War II. Although some lost their lives in battle with enemy vessels and aircraft, many are believed to have drowned after ships they were on sunk. As a proportion, 350,000 is over 10% of the 3.1 million Japanese people estimated by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to have died during the war. The success of U.S. submarine tactics played a large part in so many dying at sea. But there were also circumstances on the Japanese side that helped it come to pass.

    Many of the vessels that transported Japanese soldiers and other personnel were private cargo ships. They weren't constructed with the expectation they would sustain damage from torpedoes and other explosives, and compared to military craft their defensive provisions and other preparations were paltry.

    The Imperial Japanese Navy's "decisive battle doctrine" strategy also contributed. On May 27, 1905, in the middle of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan's combined fleet defeated the Baltic Fleet in the Battle of Tsushima. The fighting involved exchanges of gun fire from both sides, and in which Japanese forces sustained minor damage. It was a landmark comprehensive victory in the history of naval warfare. For the Japanese navy, it was a hugely successful experience.

    Even over 30 years after the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese navy was still fixated on battles between battleships and other vessels. The battleships Yamato and Musashi, the former of which was hailed as the world's largest and strongest, are emblematic of this thinking; each of them cost about 6 trillion yen (some $55.1 billion) in today's money to build.

    But in World War II, the fleet-to-fleet battles the Japanese navy envisaged it would be waging with the U.S. navy did not materialize. Instead, the main role in the fighting had transferred from vessels to aircraft; the Yamato and Musashi were both sunk by U.S. planes. America focused on creating aircraft carriers, a powerful force in the new age of warfare, and overwhelmed the Japanese side.

    One indication of the Japanese navy's fixation on anachronistic tactical ideas was the way in which it took lightly the use of transport vessels and other craft on supply routes. Had it been done properly, the navy would have deployed defense vessels with enough mobility to suppress the threat from enemy submarines, but its focus on battleship-to-battleship conflicts meant it didn't.

    It was already too late once Japan had realized the importance of the fleet escort force, and the development of sonar to track the submarines underwater was also slow. As a result, many of Japan's troops drowned when the transport ships they were on sunk before they could reach the battlefield.

    In Japan in 2016, the Japan war dead remains collection promotion act was established via cross-party legislation. Recovery of the remains of war dead is defined in the legislation as a responsibility of the national government, a landmark decision. But it doesn't include clear instructions on how to go about collecting the remains of those who died at sea. The location of Sawamura's body and remains are still unknown.

    (Japanese original by Toshio Kurihara, Cultural News Department)

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