Submarine Duty in Japan

During my first visit to their country, it was in May 1963, I found the Japanese to be extraordinarily gracious. Even people on the street were extremely polite and those that I interacted with in two different shipyards were very helpful. I met only two exceptions.

The first was a fifty-something passenger during the train ride from Tokyo to Kobe. I was assigned a seat facing his across from a small table that was situated for us to share. He made no attempt to acknowledge my presence even after I greeted him in Japanese, “Ohayo-gozaimasu,” as I was taught by my buddy Commander Hal Tall.

Gregarious Hal, when visiting Japan in the 1950s as the skipper of a U.S. Navy ship, got involved in some civic activities and thus acquired a good understanding of the unique culture. Regarding hints on behavior Hal said, “In Japan, showing your teeth, such as when laughing and especially when using a toothpick, is impolite. Whenever you feel more than a smile coming on, place your hand over your mouth.”

When the sourpuss opposite me on the train to Kure finished his box lunch, he began to pick his teeth without putting his hand over his mouth. He was purposely being rude and thanks to Hal, I knew an easy way to deal with the situation. I simply picked up the toothpick provided in my box lunch, and covered my mouth when I used it.

Knowing then that I understood the significance of his boorish behavior, the passenger blushed and spent the remainder of the journey staring out of the window, even when there was nothing scenic to observe.

The second such event took place inside the Kobe shipyard managed by Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI). I was then a lieutenant commander and there in connection with my inspection responsibilities. The yard was building the midbodies that were needed for jumboizing (lengthening) two U.S. Navy oilers by Lockheed’s Puget Sound Bridge & Dry Co. of Seattle. The prospect of more such U.S. Navy work motivated KHI’s marketing people to extend every courtesy; they were particularly intent upon showing me their capabilities for naval-ship construction. The latter included an invitation to tour a recently launched submarine for the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force. The submarine was then in its final outfitting stage.


The ship superintendent was a submarine officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War II. As soon as I met him I sensed that he didn’t want any visitors in his boat, especially an American naval officer. He followed close behind me and showed his discontent by criticizing every workman that we encountered. The subdued workers actually saluted him as if all were in the naval service.

At first the obnoxious behavior was a distraction but it soon fueled my intent to prolong the tour and to observe things in more detail than I would have otherwise. Thus my inspection of the submarine proceeded with the unhappy ship superintendent breathing down my neck and the two marketing people trailing behind, that is, until something caught my special attention.

When I entered the tiny radio shack there was barely room for one other person; of course the ship superintendent jammed into it with me. His demeanor was that of a dog guarding a bone.

The various radio units were fitted on a vertical array of steel shelves with one black box per shelf. Each unit, like in naval ships elsewhere, had two handles on its front panel. When four screws were removed, the front panel with the inner contents attached could be pulled out like a drawer in order to facilitate maintenance. Also each black box was supported by four resilient mounts that I knew were there to absorb high-impact shock, such as could be caused by the nearby explosion of a depth charge. They in particular caught my eye because I had previously been assigned to a research section in the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ships where I was trained in shock-protection techniques.

Probably due to a design change after the various radio equipments were installed, four electric cables were routed between the top of one black box and the underside of the shelf above. A cable-support bracket was welded to the underside of the shelf so that there was very little clearance over the box below. I immediately recognized it as a problem because a basic shock-protection rule requires sufficient space around anything that could move when shock is experienced. Otherwise things smash into each other.

Forgetting for an instant where I was, I reverted instantly into my role as an inspection officer. I grabbed the two handles of the black box that I was concerned about and jerked it up hard enough for it to ram into the bracket with a loud thud. I then quickly turned to the stunned ship superintendent and, with my finger pointed two inches from his nose, I said, “If this boat was my responsibility, you would have known about this within a minute after the bracket was installed!”

I’m sure that he didn’t understand my words, but my meaning was crystal clear. The ship superintendent made a noise that sounded like he was suddenly in pain and the expression on his face was that of someone who had just been defeated. Red faced, he dashed off as if he was determined to find the irresponsible electrician.

Had my encounter with that ship superintendent been a sumo match, I could write that he had encountered a rikishi, that is, a stronger man who had just tossed him out of the ring.


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