August 27, 2012

War comes to Samoa


David Ellis

ONE morning in January 1942 as Masaitchiro Shimasaki was enjoying his regular breakfast cigar on the beach off his comfortable little home in then-American Samoa, he noticed something unusual glittering off-shore in the early South Pacific sun.

These islands had long been used as a Naval base by the Americans after they had been ceded to them by the locals back in the late 1800s, and Masaitchiro was used to seeing American warships steaming through the channels off Tutuila, the largest and main island in the group and on which he lived.

But what he saw on this day was different. It was a submarine, but certainly unlike any American submarine he had seen on the Americans' newsreels.

As it drew closer to the reef off his little beach, Masaitchiro now saw the emblem of the Rising Sun on its conning tower. And worse still, as water sheeted down its still-rising hull, he realised that sailors were swinging a cannon in the direction of his island, and more to his horror, of he himself.

And in that moment, little would he have known that one of the most bizarre clangers in Japanese naval history was about to embroil him.

Masaitchiro had migrated to Samoa soon after the First World War, telling friends in the mid-1920s he feared more dark clouds were already looming on the horizon. So, he told them, he was selling his Tokyo hardware store, and heading to the peace, quiet and dollars he reckoned could be made in the wealthy American-controlled half of Samoa.

His decision appeared a well-founded one. He settled quickly into island life, even though he was the only Japanese person on all of Tutuila, opened a trade store in the capital Pago Pago, and was soon flourishing in his peaceful new environment.

And the more so when he found himself in love with the daughter of a local chief, a delightful lady who reciprocated his feelings and was a chief in her own right. They married and for the next 15 years ran a very successful trade store and trading business, raising along the way a hearty tribe of future chiefs.

But the wheels of peace had already fallen off in Europe and there were ominous signs on the Pacific horizon: Pearl Harbour was about to go into the history books, and after that many other islands of the Pacific as well, as the Japanese sought control of the whole of the South Seas.

And on this sunny Samoan morn, Masaitchiro Shimasaki, too, was about to go down in those history books.

He watched open-mouthed as the first shell from the submarine's bow canon whistled towards him, fortuitously falling short of its onshore target and doing little more than to stir-up a school of tuna fish frolicking in the lagoon inside the reef.

The second went too far and landed inland in a rainforest, creating mayhem amongst the local bird population. But the third, to Masaitchiro's horror, whistled straight overhead – to hit and totally demolish his home behind him. Fortunately it was empty at the time and no one was injured or killed.

The submarine then dived and disappeared… it was the only enemy action in America Samoa for the entire Pacific war, yet that one Japanese shell had hit the home of Tutuila's only son of Japan.

Masaitchiro was so hopping mad that he wrote a letter to the Japanese High Command, pointing out what they had done to one of their own, and demanding to know what were they going to do about compensation?

When he got no reply he became really stirred up, and launched a one-man protest by declaring that no member of his family – including himself – would ever again speak his native Japanese in their newly-rebuilt Tutuila home.

In the 1970s a group of Japanese business people visiting Pago Pago met Masaitchiro and he agreed with them that, yes, enough was enough and that he would end his lone protest over something that after 35 years should now be forgiven and forgotten.

And besides, as he told his visitors, he was now well into his 70s… and the war was so long ago that he and his family had now forgotten how to speak Japanese anyway.


[] IT was near this idyllic setting that all hell broke loose when Masaitchiro's house was hit by a Japanese submarine's shell.

[] AMERICA'S First Lady, Elanor Roosevelt inspects troops on Samoa during the Pacific War.

[] JAPANESE submarine similar to this shelled the home of the only Japanese living on Samoa's Tutuila Island.

[] PICTURESQUE and peaceful Samoa today.

(Images Samoan Tourism)

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