The Razor’s Edge: the Most Dangerous U-Boat of WWII

Posted by Rebekah
May 18 2015

May 8, 1945: Victory over Europe Day. The day the German military laid down their arms and surrendered to the closest assigned base, or port.

Eleven days later the final German submarine surrendered.

Rare color photo (the Navy actually took a number of color photos and film during WWII, but a lot has since gone missing.)

Rare color photo (the Navy actually took a number of color photos and film during WWII, but a lot has since gone missing.) of the U-234’s surrender.  US Navy Photo

 

She was the largest U-boat left in Germany’s arsenal, and carried a number of high-profile passengers. The media went crazy over the Luftwaffe officers processing down the gangplank in their smart leather overcoats and visible medals.  Unlike previous surrendered submarines, no one was permitted to speak with these Germans on pain of death.  Still, the images made for great newsreels, and this was the fourth U-boat in port anyway.  The media was more than happy to take photos and footage and leave the interrogating to the professionals.

That frenzy covered the truly deeper, more terrifying story of what the U-boat had been doing, and what she was carrying when Germany surrendered.

Yanagi: The Secret Submarine Highway

Unknown to many people then (and even now), Japan and Germany had a submarine highway between their two countries. U-Boats and Japanese submarines would transit between each country by rounding the Horn of Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean[1].

Before the war, exchanges took place openly using cargo vessels. Then, parties resorted to the Trans-Siberian railroad across technically-neutral Russia[2]. That ended after the Nazis invaded in June 1941 and discovered Russians were no pushovers. The final resort, submarines, began making the trek. Soon, blueprints for U-Boats, Jet Engines, Enigma Machines, blueprints for Japanese weapons, experts in a variety of fields, even critical rare supplies, slinked around Africa, back and forth.

Many of these long-haul trips ended in disaster, with the submarines more often than not getting sunk on either the German or Japanese ends of the voyage by Allied submarines. Still, the transport continued.

And this is where the U-234 comes in. Originally a large minelaying submarine, the 234 was refitted in late 1944 as a Japanese-transport submarine. Her mineshafts were refitted into cargo holds, and she was fitted with a snorkel so she would not have to surface as she crept past the British Isles and out to the open sea.

By the time U-234 sailed on April 15, 1945, Germany was in a desperate state. It’s likely that U-234 was Germany’s last gasp to assist the only remaining ally standing against the Allies.

Dangerous Cargo

Besides carrying 6-9 months of fuel and provisions, U-234’s cargo included

  • The jet aboard the U-234.  You can clearly see the Swastika on the tail.

    The jet aboard the U-234. You can clearly see the Swastika on the tail.

  • An Me262 plane, disassembled and crated.  (This was the world’s first operational jet, see at right.  By some accounts, there were two aboard.)
  • Components for the V-2 Rocket/Missile
  • A Henschel glide Bomb,
  • new electric torpedoes (that did not leave a wake or warning when fired)
  • 26 tons of Mercury
  • 7 tons of optical glass
  • 74 tons of lead
  • technical blueprints and plans of various weapons (according to some accounts, this was not just a few drawings, but 6,615 POUNDS worth of such drawings), [3]
  • Over 1 ton of mail for various German diplomats, technicians and experts already working in Japan.
  • and a number of sealed barrels, weighing in at 1,200 pounds.

 

The High-Profile Passenger List: Possibly even more dangerous than the cargo.

  • Lufwaffe General Ulrich Kessler, to be assigned to Tokyo as an Airforce Attache, helping the Japanese create and train a jet-squadron using the crated craft and drawings on 234.
  • Oberleutnant (1st) Erich Menzel of the Luftwaffe. Attache to Kessler, Menzel was a skilled navigator and bombardier, with combat experience against British, American and Russian troops. and Lietenant of the Luftwaffe.
  • Colonel Sandrattz von Sandrart, of the Luftwaffe. Anti-aircraft Specialist, who was assigned to boost Japan’s defense systems against the constant bomber attacks.
  • Colonel Kay Neishling of the Luftwaffe; Naval Judical and investigative officer was heading to Japan to evict spies out of the German diplomatic corps.
  • Fregattenkapitan (Lt. Cmdr.) Gerhard Falcke; fluent in Japanese, was an architect and construction engineer who was to oversee building the new factories for jets and ships.
  • Kptlt (Lt. Cmdr) Richard Bulla. A former crewmate to 234’s captain, Bulla’s expertise lay in new armaments and weapons, and the latest in carrier aviation
  • Oberleutnant (Lt.) Heinrich Hellendoorn, an artillery officer, was to serve as Germany’s observer
  • Franz Ruf, civilian, industrial machinery specialist tasked with designing aircraft complenets and other small devices.
  • August Bringinwald, civilian, who helped oversee the jet’s production, and was to do the same in Japan.
  • Heinz Schliege, civilian scientist: a Radar, Infared and countermeasures specialist, his mission was the help the Japan manufacture many of the smaller devices depicted in the blueprints. He was also the custodian of the blueprints, and ordered to destroy them then kill himself if 234 was captured

Two Japanese Naval Officers,

  • Cmdr. Hidero Tomonaga, aviator turned submarine specialist who had come to Germany aboard the I-29 in 1943.
  • Cmdr. Genjo Shogi, and aircraft specialist who had spent years in Europe as a military attache in several countries.

 

The Japanese officers oversaw the loading of all the equipment for their military. The sealed barrels were of particular interest, and they painted “U-235” on them. The U-boat sailors laughed at this, believing the Japanese officers had already forgotten their proper hull number: 234. The officers had not forgotten-they were marking the barrels by periodic symbol. As in, this symbol:

 

Uranium Isotope 235 is fissionable, unlike most of Uranium's isotopes.

Uranium Isotope 235   (U-235) is fissionable, unlike most of Uranium’s isotopes.

The cargo manifest, known only to a few onboard, revealed these barrels contained 560 kilos of Uranium Oxide, aka “Yellow Cake Uranium”. To this day, there are debates about what this was meant for[4], but no matter what, its successful arrival could have meant the prolonging or even stalemate in the Pacific War.[5]

 

The Voyage

U-234 departed on her mission in April 15, 1945, commanded by Ly. Johann “Dynamite” Fehler[6], one of the top remaining U-boat commanders left in Germany. And yet, due to the high mortality of the U-boat service, this was Fehler’s first submarine combat mission.[7]

Despite the lofty goal of reaching Japan in three months time, many of the crew doubted they would succeed. As second watch officer Karl Ernst Phaff later said, “[We believed] ..the chances were fifty-fifty. In reality, they were much worse, but that we did not know. Because losses were never revealed.”

Another said, “It was clear that the war was lost, our morale was non-existent.”

Nonetheless, U-234 headed out, her bow for Japan. Fehler’s first order of business: use a different route than he’d been assigned, in case the Allies were listening and had set an ambush. It was a wise move, he avoided the first ambush by a British sub, and 234 made it to the Atlantic.

It was cold in the north Atlantic waters, unless you were in the engine rooms. The extra 12 people made a cramped situation even more so. Since 234 had to sneak around Britain, she ran deep most of the day, only coming close enough to the surface to expose her snorkel when she had to run her diesels. The air was typical submarine air: foul.

Still, many of the crew remember the initial part of the trip as working as well as it could. The Japanese lieutenants Tomonaga and Shogi were particularly remembered as being gracious and friendly, inviting many of the crew to visit their homes and families once the U-234 got to Japan.

 

Germany Collapses

Meanwhile, back in Germany, the two fronts from Russia in the east and the Allies in France, closed rapidly on Germany. On April 30, Hitler and his new wife Eva Braun committed suicide and their bodies were burnt by their comrades to keep them out of Allied hands. Many other Nazi High Command committed suicide or went into hiding (most of whom were captured, some were not.

May 8 was Victory in Europe day. All German military units were ordered to surrender. Millions of war survivors rejoiced.

VE Day celebrated in London, Imperial War Museum, Britain.

VE Day celebrated in London, Imperial War Museum, Britain.

Far out in the Atlantic, the U-234 missed the first announcement of Germany’s total surrender and continued on course for Japan. Two days later, Cpt. Fehler heard a shortwave radio transmission from Submarine Admiral Karl Donitz…”My U-Boat Men, six years of war lie behind us. You have fought like lions. An enemy with oppressive material advantage has contained us on our exceedingly small territory From this remaining base a continuation of our struggle is impossible. U-boat men, unbroken and immaculate, you must lay down your arms after a heroic fight. Long Live Germany. “

Fehler and his crew could not believe it. The tuned into foreign radio stations, including English-speaking ones. Each one announced Germany’s utter defeat.

Still Fehler refused to believe it. While this was his first U-boat command, he had been an officer aboard the infamous raider Atlantis, whose modus operandi was to disguise itself as a friendly merchant vessel to lure British ships within range before revealing her camouflaged guns. He knew all too well the power of a convincing radio message.

They managed to raise a fellow U-boat, the U-873, which had been en route to the Caribbean. 873’s commander was Friedrich Steinhoff, a dedicated (some said fanatical) Nazi. He confirmed the news: Germany was defeated, Hitler was dead (Donitz was, in fact, the leader of the German government, such as it was in these days), and all submarines were to surrender to the nearest Allied port. 873 herself was just 24 hours from Portsmouth New Hampshire, to join the already surrendered U-805, and the U-1228 was following the 873 by about 24 hours.

Now what? All German naval vessels currently at sea, were ordered to surrender as soon as possible. For the U-boats in the North Atlantic, they were to head to the closest of the four approved ports: Britain, Gibraltar, Canada, or the USA.

But U-234 was caught in a strange trap. She was nearly equidistant from them all, and with enough fuel and provisions to go…pretty much anywhere they wanted. No matter what they did, it would likely be days before they COULD surrender to anyone.

Some of the crew argued to go home. Others, to Argentina or the Caribbean. Whatever the decision, the crew had to decide where to go, surface and fly the black surrender flag before radioing their positions and course for Allied intercept. Anything else, and the 234 could be sunk as pirates.

All Fehler wanted to do was return home, and he reasoned that he might get home faster surrendering to the Americans.

Now for the final wrinkle: the two Japanese officers.

 

Surrender and Death

Japan and the Allies were still in open war. Once the U-234 was captured, these men would be taken as POWs, and high value ones at that, fully trained and versed in both German and Japanese technology, plans, and tactics.

Captain Fehler had to arrest the Japanese officers, as part of the surrender, and locked them in a cabin, but he wanted to reassure them and he wouldn’t just turn them over.

“ I informed the two Japanese about the situation. And I gave them my word that I would try my best not [to] let them fall into allied hands, but to try to put them ashore somewhere in neutral territory, as Spain, Portugal, Canary Islands or somewhere else. Apparently, they did not trust my word, or believed the idea was not feasible…” -Lettter from Capt. Fehler

But until they chose an option, they would have to remain confined to quarters, under guard.

Had this been a Japanese submarine, it is very likely the sub’s crew, would have scuttled the sub and gone down with her, rather than be captured with such valuable information. But this was not the German way[8].

So the Japanese officers took their own lives. According to Tomanaga’s widow, they chose to overdose on sleeping pills rather than any ritualized seppuku or bloodletting out of consideration for the boat and crew. They left behind a suicide note[9]. The also left behind wives and children in Japan who had not seen their fathers in years, and now, never would.

 

Funeral, then Surrender

Capt Fehler later remembered the next morning:

“When they were discovered on the next morning, nothing could be done for them anymore. We kept their bodies on board for 20 more hours until daybreak the next morning. I had them sewed up in canvas hammocks and they were given over board in the proper seaman’s way with prayer and covered by Japanese flags…We had to carry the bodies to the engine [room] as there we had sufficient space to sew them up in their canvas coffins.”-Letter from Capt. Fehler

It was May 13. , Germany has been defeated for a week. Occupation troops for Europe were being assigned. Calculations for Operation Downfall (the invasion of Japan) are being made. Non-occupation troops would be shipped to Japan as fast as possible to push the war’s end. [10]

In the western Atlantic, the race was on. Between Allied Intelligence before the surrender, and information gained after, both Canada and America knew the 234 was one of the most valuable submarines left at sea. Destroyers from both countries were out, intercepting and escorting enemy subs to Nova Scotia, Maine and Massachusetts. Whoever intercepted 234 first would gain her, her cargo, and her passengers. 234 radioed her position and course, with the orders to report in again within 24 hours.

Aboard the 234, Fehler, for whatever reason, jettisoned some of the cargo: acoustic torpedoes, Enigma machines, classified documents were thrown overboard. His choices of cargo to keep and cargo to retain was never explained, even by Fehler. The sealed containers marked U-235 remained in their hold.

May 14: The Canadians radioed 234 first, demanding she report her position, speed, and course again. Fehler radioed a position more northern than they were, and an 8 knot speed west, heading for Halifax. Canada sent ships to intercept, while Fehler, at almost 16 knots, fled SW to America.

In America, the destroyer SUTTON, escorting the U-1224 which had also surrendered, was re-routed back to sea to intercept the 234. The destroyer SCOTT remained with the 1224.

In an almost hysterical moment, SUTTON came upon Canadian ships WASKESIEU and LAUXON, in the search area based on 234’s initial report.  For over 11 hours the three ships co-operated in a search grid, until the Canadian Navy reported 234’s (supposed) position north.

The two Canadian ships departed, leaving SUTTON behind. Four hours later, SUTTON’s radar picked up the 234 running on surface. At 2241 (10:41 pm) the SUTTON overtook the 234. Once the ship and sub sized each other up, they discovered they were nearly the same size—if anything, the 234 was bigger.

U-234 pulls alongside the SUTTON.  US Navy Photo

U-234 pulls alongside the SUTTON. US Navy Photo

It would take five days to get back to the States, but the 234 was captured, along with her valuable cargo. 234’s Captain, officers, passengers, and most of the crew were transferred to SUTTON, and a skeleton crew was left to help the transferred American sailors sail the 234 back the States.

When the Canadians angrily radioed again demanding the 234 confirm her position and course and not slip away again , it was an American sailor who answered![11]

 

A Cruel Irony

The media went crazy over the high-ranking German personnel that disembarked. They were so top-secret that the Navy forbade the press to come within speaking distance of anyone. The Marines on guard duty were ordered to shoot anyone who tried. Nonetheless, the crew and passengers were paraded down the dock to the waiting bus in full sight of the cameras.

The Furor over the high-value prisoners, especially the Luftwaffe General, neatly hid the cargo within the boat. A cargo manifest that, after the war, mentioned the tech drawings, weapons, medical supplies, lead, mercury, steel…but no Uranium.

Truth was, at this time, no one knew how much Uranium would be needed to make an atomic bomb. Special units in Germany were collecting Uranium anywhere and everywhere it was abandoned in Germany’s unorganized retreat.   The U-234’s cargo was an incredible coup.

In the days following the surrender, Watch Officer Ernst Pfaff, in charge of the manifest, was ordered to oversee the opening of the sealed containers inn a closed room in front of a number of military and one civilian man. The civilian seemed to be in charge, or at least treated with great respect. Later, Pfaff learned this man’s name: Robert Oppenheimer. History calls him the Father of the Atomic Bomb.

While no one knows for certain, as the Uranium Oxide vanished, many historians believe it was purified into almost 16 pounds of weapons-grade uranium. And that 16 pounds could have become 10-15% of the warhead of “Little Boy”.

 

August 6, 1945.  Hiroshima's bomb, "Little Boy" had a Uranium core.

August 6, 1945. Hiroshima’s bomb, “Little Boy” had a Uranium core.

Thus, part of the cargo meant to help Japan win the war, became part of its destruction.

This watercolor painting by Naval Artist Standish Backus depicted scenes the Naval investigators found in Hiroshima a month after the blast.  From the Naval History and Heritage Collection.

This watercolor painting by Naval Artist Standish Backus depicted scenes the Naval investigators found in Hiroshima a month after the blast. From the Naval History and Heritage Collection.

Fallout and Epilogue

To this day, historians are divided about whether the cargo or the passengers of the 234 were more dangerous. Had 234 been sent to Japan in January, not April, and had she made it, it is possible the war could have concluded in a very different way.  The Japanese could either have had the components of a “dirty bomb” of their own to use, or even new jets and the ability to make fuel for them.

As had happened after WWI, all the captured U-Boats were thoroughly dismantled and inspected for new technologies. Not shockingly, German sub tech like Snorkels appeared within a few years aboard American diesel boats.

The U-234 was sunk as a target by the USS GREENFISH (SS-351) on 20 November 1947 off Cape Cod.

U-234's final moments.  The bow of the Greenfish is in the foreground.  USN Photo via navsource.org

U-234’s final moments. The bow of the Greenfish is in the foreground. USN Photo via navsource.org

 

 

 

For more Information:

A great article about U-234 with sketches done by men aboard the escorting ships.  https://www.uscg.mil/history/articles/authors/thiesen/SeaHistory142%20EliotWinslow1.pdf

 

Sources:

Hitler’s Last UBoat Documentary (2001)

http://www.i-52.com/index_files/Page1463.htm

http://www.combinedfleet.com/I-29.htm

http://www.combinedfleet.com/I-52.htm

Tales from the Atomic Age by Paul W. Frame. Originally published in the May 1997 issue of Health Physics Society Newsletter. Accessed May 14, 2015 from : https://www.orau.org/ptp/articlesstories/u234.htm

Lieuteant Eliot Winslow Kaitanleutenant Johann-Henirch Fehler and the Surrenser of the Nazi’s Top-Secret Submarine, U-234. Originally published on Sea History, 142, Spring 2013https://www.uscg.mil/history/articles/authors/thiesen/SeaHistory142%20EliotWinslow1.pdf

Letter from CApt Fehler, pg. 2. Accessed: http://greyfalcon.us/the%20U.htm

Wikipedia Entries on U-234; USS SUTTON; USS SCOTT; Karl Donitz

Scalia, Joseph M, Grmany’s Last Mission to Japan; The Failed Voyage of U-234. Naval Institute Press, 2000

War Diary of USS SUTTON (DE-771) 4/1/45 – 5/31/45. US Archives Via fold3.com

Billings, Richard N;  Battleground Atlantic: How the SInking of a Single Japanese Submarine Assured the Outcome of World War II Penguin Group 2006

Johann-Heinrich Fehler: http://www.sharkhunters.com/EPFehler.htm

 

Footnotes:

[1] In case this seems overly long, this was the only route that avoided the Suez Canal and the heavily-patrolled Straits of Gibraltar, two choke points where they would be seen.

[2] Russia and Germany signed the German-Soviet Nonagression Pact in 1939. Then Hitler decided to throw it aside.

[3] Among these drawings were plans for everything the U-234 carried, plus building plans for the needed factories, plans for the newest ships and submarines on the Germany side, bombsights, analog computers for bombsights, airplane mounted radars

[4] Hitler and the Nazis had an atomic program for an atomic bomb, so this could have been weapon-grade uranium to give to the Japanese to complete their project. On the other hand, it is also possible that it was a catalyst for a type of synthetic aviation fuel. As we saw with the Musashi post, Japan’s military was suffering for a number of reasons, but lack of fuel was one of the greatest problems, and this would have helped.

[5] By some accounts, this was not the first time Uranium had been shipped to Japan from Germany.

 

  • In April 1944, the I-29, by some accounts, was loaded with uranium bound back to Japan. She was sunk in the Balintang Channel, Luzon Strait, on 26 July 1944 by American submarine SAWFISH.

 

  • August 1, 1944, the I-52 was loaded with nearly 1,000 pounds of Uranium Oxide in Lorient, France, (part of the Nazi dominions.) Due to Allied advancements from Normandy, the I-52 is directed to finish her loading and provisions in Norway. She departs for Japan instead, and rendezvous with the U-530 on June 22, for a top off of fuel and provisions. The radio traffic between the two boats tipped Allied Intelligence to their location, and five destroyers were dispatched to attack. U-530 escaped, I-5 did not. In 1995, her wreck was located was in 17,000 feet of water 1,200 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands.

 

  • Some accounts say that the U-1224 (re-commissioned in the Japanese Navy as RO-501)and the U-862 (surrendered to the Japanese Navy at Singapore and was re-commissioned as the I-502) were also involved in shipping Uranium to the Far East, but these accounts have fewer records at this time. At any rate, U-234’s shipment was at least the third try, they were so desperate for the stuff.

 

[6] He had gained his nickname because no matter what his assignment, he tried to find some way to incorporate explosives—much to the chagrin of his commanding officers.

[7] By this time, 70% of U-boats and 75% of U-boat sailors had already been lost. And the Allies were not letting up.

[8] Some people wonder why the Europeans and Japanese had such a different views to surrender and POW treatment in wars. While much has been made of the Samurai code of “bushido” which lionized death before surrender and the shame, not much has been written about the history of Europeans that shaped the opposite point of view, probably because to a European or American, not shame in surrender makes intrinsic sense. But the concept of surrender to POW status has a long history.

There were a few forces shaping attitudes to battle and warfare in Europe and the Christian ethic of a “Just War”, where you are trying to force your will on your opponent, but that, once that happens, killing and destruction for the sake of killing and destruction was horrific, and a warrior could not be honorable if he reveled in such a thing.   So if someone, or an army, or town surrendered to you, you had won the ‘Just War” as far as they were concerned, and no futher killing was necessary. Besides, there was money to be made at this point.

RANSOM!

What you really wanted to do was capture as many people of status as you could.  You may not have killed them, but you had them, and if their families, towns, duchys, country wanted them back, they were going to have to pay a hefty fee.  (you might settle for a POW exchange if they had a bunch of yours they were trying to ransom to you, but really, everyone just wanted the ransom money.)

This ransom, depending on who they had captured, could ruin a family, a town, a county, or an entire country’s economy, which was kind of the point.  You’d be ridiculously wealthy, and they’d be too poor to engage in war with you again for a number of years, which maintains the peace you’d imposed on them anyway.

 

A famous example: when King Richard Lionheart was captured 1192, his captor, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI of Germany, demanded 65,000 pounds of silver in ransom. That was, at the time, three times England’s annual GDP. Everyone in England (plus the Aquitaine region of France which was part of England at that time), from the nobility, to the serfs, to the formerly-exempt clergy, was heavily taxed to raise these funds, and it was up to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (Richard’s mother) and Prince John Lackland (Richard’s brother and legal regent of England) to enforce these taxes…plus invent new ones, plus confiscate Church treasures, plus sell properties… to raise these funds. (And now you know where the high taxes in the Robin Hood tales come from. In those stories, Prince John wasn’t evil for levying those taxes so much as he was for levying the taxes and seriously considering paying Henry VI a discounted rate if he KEPT Richard…which actually happened!)  It took two years to finally raise enough funds.  Holding a high-ranking prisoner could be a lucrative business.

And of course while you’re holding the King of England (or Earl, Duke, Count, or all the men of a certain town,) you had to treat them relatively well so they survive to the payment of the ransom. To be captured was not shameful in Europe, it was part of the “business” of war in a way.

Did the murder of POWs happen in Europe?  It did.  One has to look no farther than Henry V of England killing POWs after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 for an example.  He spared the highest nobles he had (for the ransom).  (Keep in mind, that at this point in time, while the English army is made up of English noble men -at-arms (knights in armor) the bulk of the army was peasant longbowmen.  On the French side, the peasants should never be trusted with any sort of weaponry, so the whole army was, in fact, feuding noble armies who were as busy fighting each other as the English.  This means where there were few hig-value POWs to be taken in the English army, EVERYONE in the French army was literally, worth taking…unless you are in a tight spot. )

In this particular case, however, Henry V had more French POWs than he had English Military under his command, and it was feared the POWs would figure this out, re-arm themselves and fight their way free, leaving the English, already deep in French territory, vulnerable or dead.  In addition, there were still free French troops in reserve in the area.  If the POWs started a fight, these reserves could also join in, killing the English.  and the Free French were making rallying calls nearby.

This was an unusual practice, and while Henry’s decision is highly criticized now, there appear to be few contemporary chroniclers, even French, who called him out at that time for any excessive brutality for this massacre.  That being said,  the English knights refused, point blank, to take part in the slaughter, which they viewed as un-chivalric , indicating that this was against some understood morals of the time.  The prisoners were therefore killed by English archers, who were peasants. By some accounts, after the free French troops fled, the killing appears to have stopped, so this tactic may have been a form of psychological warfare in a tight spot.  Records show that Henry V ended up shipping  hundreds of POWs home to wait for ransom, which proves the rule: in Europe, battle was meant to take prisoners and bankroll their release, not kill for the sake of killing.

It was this kind of battle, and this type of battle “ethic” (of a sort) that lead to the high proportion of POWs in European battles relative to Japanese.  Thus most of the German military (many of the enlisted of whom were Nazi in name only) were not fanatical enough to want to commit suicide—they’d be returning home, and there was no shame in that.

To be captured in Japan was to be shamed before your family, your community, and your nation.

In Japan, this disdain for POWs was a relatively new phenomenon in some ways.  The Japanese had participated in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905) and in WWI (1914-1918 when the Japanese fought with the Allies to keep the Pacific clear against the German Imperial Navy) .  They took prisoners and were taken prisoner in turn.  These early 20th century POWs were treated with respect, and most were repatriated.

Under traditional Bushido (“The Way of the Warrior” ), surrender was apparently allowable, but death in battle was lionized.  Suicide after was permitted as a way to gain honor, especially if you were one of the few survivors.  Thus you could join your dead brothers-in-arms in a way, both in memory and legend.  Samurai and their families who performed ritualized suicide to join their masters were highly honored in Japanese society.

But as surrender was allowable, though not as honorable as death or suicide, POWs were treated with some respect, hence the better-treatment of the Russian/WWI POWs.

In the aftermath of WWI, Bushido apparently developed to be 1.) something all people could attain through the right behavior, allowing even the lowest-born Japanese person the ability to be honored like a Samurai if they followed Bushido closely enough 2.) the “new” Bushido was much more harsh.  Under the new Bushido, surrender was not something that was “less-honorable” but instead, “dishonorable”.  If you were captured, suicide was the only way to restore lost honor.  A surrendered person under this new bushido, was essentially selfish. It meant your own life was more valuable to you than protecting these people and communities. Therefore, many Japanese military people (and civilians, as the Allies advanced) preferred death to capture or surrender.  They were, in a sense, less than human.

Which is why, in a reflection of this philosophy, Allied POWs and captured civilians were treated so poorly.  (and no, I’m not excusing this treatment, just revealing some of the reasons behind it)

And why the Japanese officers aboard the U-234 chose to commit suicide, rather than surrender.

 

[9] Text of the Suicide Note Left by Lts. Tomanaga and Syozi according to Paul Tidwell and Richard Billings, authors of, The Secret of I-52”

 It was a great pleasure for us to be able to be together at all times with you and your boat, whether in life or death.

                  But because of fate, about which we can do nothing, it has become a necessity for us to separate ourselves from you and your boat.

                  We thank you for your constant companionship and request the following of you:

  1. Let us die quietly.  Put the corpses in the high sea.
  2. Divide our private possessions among your crew and please take the largest part yourself also.
  3. Inform Japan of the following as soon as possible:

“Cmdr (Freg. Kapt) Genzo Syozi

 ”     ”      ”   Hideo Tomonaga

committed suicide on     May 1945 on board U-234.”

                  In closing we express our gratitude for the friendliness of you and your crew and we hope that everything will go well for the Commanding Officer and all of you.

                                             (signed) Genzo Syozi

                                             (signed) Hideo Tomonaga”

 

[10] Italy surrendered to the Allies back on September 8, 1943, and Germany on May 8, 1945.   As recently as February 1945, at the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill talked about 1947 being the year to end the war with victory over Japan. At that time, they figured that they would have to transport every capable man, vessel and weapon to Japan and fight the Japanese (likely civilians as well as military) inch by inch across the home islands. At this time, while multiple countries were pursuing what would become the atomic weapons, no one had yet gotten to a point where it could be used.

[11] Even though the Germans gave up peaceably, not everything went according to plan. While collecting small arms from the Germans aboard the U-234, Radioman 3c Monroe Konemann was shot in the small of the back when “a German pistol went off in the hand of an American sailor,”. U-boat doctor Franz Walter treated Konemann, but quickly saw he needed surgery (no room on a U-boat) and another doctor’s assistance. Walter and Konemann were transferred to the hastily called Frigate FORSYTH, which had joined SUTTON during the boarding of U-234.   FORSYTH’s doctor, Ralph Samson of Columbus Ohio, and Waltar worked on Konemann, who was soon stable enough to be transferred to a hospital. FORSYTH was detached from the U-234’s escort, and transferred Konemann to a hospital in New Foundland. Sadly, Konemann died of internal hemorrhaging ten days later. Still, Waltar’s efforts to save Konemann were well noted by both the SUTTON and FORSYTH crews.

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