Japanese relatives call to salvage sub found in Sydney Harbour
Reporter: Shane McLeod
HEATHER EWART: It was one of the enduring mysteries of World War II. What happened to the Japanese midget submarine that escaped from Sydney Harbour after the daring attack of 1942? The 64 year old mystery was solved last month with the discovery of the wreck of the sub just a few kilometres off Sydney's northern beaches. While the wreck has been declared a war grave, the brother of one of the Japanese sailors lost with the sub says he'd like to see it salvaged and any remains returned to Japan for burial. This report from ABC Tokyo correspondent Shane McLeod.
SHANE MCLEOD: In 1942, as Japanese forces pushed south, World War II reached Australia's mainland. But even after the air raids that devastated Darwin, few thought the enemy would be so bold as to attack the nation's largest city. But that's what happened late on the night of May 31. One after another, three Japanese midget submarines slipped into Sydney Harbour, intent on a deadly mission. On board one of the subs, the M24, were two young Japanese sailors, Katsuhisa Ban and Mamoru Ashibe.
ITSUO ASHIBE (TRANSLATION): When he was alive, he didn't tell our parents but he told me, it's a secret. But when the war breaks out, I'll be getting in a small two person submarine and I'll be the first to attack the enemy warships. I'll die a glorious death.
SHANE MCLEOD: Allied shipping was the subs' target but, of the three, only the M24 would go close to achieving that goal. It managed to evade capture and fire its torpedos. It missed the cruiser the USS 'Chicago' but managed to sink the Australian barracks ship the 'Kuttabul'. 21 allied sailors died. The M24 slipped out of the harbour undetected and wasn't seen again, until last month when a group of amateur divers ended a 64 year mystery. They found the wreck of the sub just a few kilometres off Sydney's northern beaches.
TIM SMITH, NSW HERITAGE OFFICE: It's amazing to see the M24 midget in its underwater setting, to have a submarine which is upright, largely intact, sitting on the sea floor just off the Sydney heads is quite an exciting discovery.
SHANE MCLEOD: Marine archaeologist Tim Smith says it's surprising the sub was found at all.
TIM SMITH: It's interesting that the submarine has actually been found by chance, by a group of divers who were out there recreationally on the weekend and just stumbled across it because there's a lot of water out there off Sydney but the community has shown great interest in looking after this wreck because of the special story it tells.
SHANE MCLEOD: The discovery of the M24 has activated special protection laws that enforce an exclusion zone around the wreck. Navy divers are involved in the process of investigating what's on board. The Federal and State Governments say they're consulting Japan's Embassy on what to do next.
ITSUO ASHIBE (TRANSLATION): As a bereaved family member, I strongly wish they'd salvage the whole submarine, but on the other hand I realise that it's a completely impossible wish.
SHANE MCLEOD: The discovery of what could be the grave of his brother Mamoru is especially significant for Itsuo Ashibe. He's the only one of five brothers to have survived World War II. He's aware of the fascination Australia's had with the story and, now the wreck has been found, he'd like to think it could be salvaged.
ITSUO ASHIBE (TRANSLATION): Senior people in the Navy tell me that because of the way he died, salvage really wouldn't be possible. So I've pretty much given up hope after more than 20 years, but I hear that it really has been discovered this time. It was announced in newspapers in Australia and Japan, so this time I believe there is no more remains, but I would like to take home an article left by my brother or even a broken piece of the top of the sub, then it would mean my brother came home.
SHANE MCLEOD: Some who've watched Japan's attitude to its wartime history aren't convinced it will do much at all. Based in Osaka, Koichi Tsubomoto is an underwater photographer who's dived on scores of Japanese war time wrecks. He says Japan's government is not interested in helping families of missing sailors.
KOICHI TSUBOMOTO (TRANSLATION): The Government does something only when there's demand and acts when the voice gets louder. If nobody raises their voice, it will end like it has been. Since I can't do anything by asking the government, I believe it's my job to take photos.
SHANE MCLEOD: The two other subs involved in the attack on Sydney are today a prime exhibit at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. They were recovered soon after the attack and the bodies of the four sailors on board given a military funeral. Their ashes were sent back to Japan.
MAJOR-GENERAL BILL CREWS, RSL NATIONAL PRESIDENT: I think it shows Australia's humanity and that we were indeed a noble enemy at the time. We respected the dead and we fight against the living and that's in fact the Australian tradition ever since the First World War. That's the way we've been regarded throughout the world.
SHANE MCLEOD: Itsuo Ashibe recognises that the costs involved mean the sub's wreck is unlikely to be salvaged, but he'd like to visit the site and pay his own tribute.
ITSUO ASHIBE (TRANSLATION): I'm not the age for surfing, so I want to go to the sea of Sydney and pour sake in the water and exchange cups of sake with my brother who liked to drink it. I would also like to go to the war museum in Canberra where they honour the Japanese soldiers.
HEATHER EWART: Shane McLeod with that report. And that's the program for tonight. We'll be back at the same time tomorrow but, for now, goodnight.