West Wales Maritime Heritage Society: Hirano Maru Update

The Hirano Maru ,owned by the Nippon Yusen Kaisha (NYK) Line was torpedoed by the German UB 91 200 miles south of Ireland while on a voyage to Yokohama.

We are all aware of the unspeakable horrors and squalor of the trenches in France in this dreadful war. The Western Approaches to Britain, the triangular sea area extending from Cornwall to Ireland and Pembrokeshire was just as deadly , being the hunting ground of the German U boats .

On the fourth of October 1918, the  Hirano Maru was in this war zone , she  was a 7700 ton   merchant ship, built by the Mitsubishi Dockyard Nagasakin ( Nagasaki) in 1908. At the time of her sinking she was owned by the Nippon Yusen Kaisha ( NYK)  Line. She was sailing from Liverpool to Yokohama via South Africa with a mixed cargo of unknown nature together with 320 crew and passengers and a Scottish Captain ,Hector Fraser. She was in a convoy escorted by an American destroyer the USS Sterett to give protection against attack by submarines .

Japan at the time, was a staunch ally of Britain and the Imperial Japanese Navy defended the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

When she was 200 miles south of Ireland  she came into the sights of UB 91 a Class III German submarine, commanded by Capt Wolf Hans Hartwig .

A torpedo hit the Hirano Maru and she sank in seven minutes ,going down so quickly that her few undamaged lifeboats could not be launched . The  USS Sterett also came under attack and was thus prevented from rescuing the struggling survivors for some time.

Of the 320 souls on board Hiranu Maru , only 29 survived .  Among the passengers that perished was the London Branch Manager of the Yokohama Specie Bank ,S Ujie,  his wife and three sons as well as a  bank employee Takashi Aoki and his wife Sueko.


An Irish newspaper reported that nothing was known about the eight bodies that were washed ashore between 4 and 29 November and recorded in the burial register in Dale Parish Church. Local eye witnesses of the time remarked that some of the bodies looked Oriental.

Because of the uncertainty of their identity, the War Graves Commission were unable to maintain the graves. However the good people of Dale erected a memorial cross over the graves.

Other bodies were washed ashore at Freshwater west and were given a burial in Angle churchyard. Angle churchyard Register of Burials records that seven burials are from the Hirano Maru ,varying in age from about twenty four to forty years of age . All were male except for one female washed up at St Ishmaels. One body was identified as being Shiro Okoshi on 2nd November 1918. Other  burials of unidentified persons were carried out on 16th October 1918 ,and November 15th 1918, one unknown body was female.


Earlier this year David James wrote to the Nippon Yusen Kaisha Shipping Line head office in Tokyo to tell them of the Hirano Maru story and ask for financial help towards the cost of a memorial in Angel Cemetery over the grave of the 10 sailors buried there.

Their response was immediate,and so , Yuko Tsutsui san and Hideki Suzuki san , senior Directors of NYK office in Canary Wharf, London traveled to Pembrokeshire to see the grave site .

David James introduced them to the Angle Community Leaders and the Vicar. First they were shown the burial record confirming the nationality of those buried. Then they saw the grave site and laid a bouquet of flowers had a moment of   silent prayer.

They were surprised that Pembrokeshire people knew of this and more importantly we cared  .

Next they were then taken to the old Royal Dockyard in Pembroke Dock and shown a ginko tree  . This tree dates to 1877 when Lt. Togo of the Imperial Japanese Navy lived in the Dockyard while his ship ,the Hiei,( the first ship of the IJN) was being built in a private shipyard nearby. On completion Lt Togo sailed home and on arrival he sent a ginko tree back with  a message: “Please plant this tree in the garden of my lodging house in appreciation of the kindnesses shown me during my stay”

The tree still grows and the reaction of the Visitors was of great excitement . It seems that Lt Togo, became the founding Father of the Japanese navy and destroyed both the Russian and Chinese navies totally , thus saving Japan from possible invasion. Thus he is revered by the Japanese as we British revere Admiral Lord Nelson.

They told me that all Japan’s maritime heritage was destroyed in the bombing of WW2 and to find something like this was great news..

David was given a heartfelt request – please please take a cutting of this tree and send it back to Tokyo to be planted in a place of honour .

The National Botanic Gardens of Wales horticulturalists were given the task of taking several  cuttings  ,potting them on and , when sturdy enough to travel .one or more will be sent back to Japan.

NYK were also impressed that some funds have already been raised towards the cost of the memorial and said that they would pay the difference so that the project can be implemented.

The date for the unveiling of the memorial is to be on 4th October 2018 , being the Centenary of the sinking of the Hirano Maru. It is hoped that His Excellency the Ambassador of Japan will be present to perform the ceremony.

The Embassy of Japan is being kept informed of progress and is very interested in the whole affair


David James

West Wales Maritime Heritage Society

September 2017


One thought on “West Wales Maritime Heritage Society: Hirano Maru Update

  1. I wish I could have been in attendance at the memorial unveiling, but it is a little far for me to travel . I learned only in 2015 that my great grandmother’s brother was one of the casualties on the Hirano Maru. He was an engineer in Penang and was travelling to back to work following recuperation in Scotland for 6 months due to a broken leg. His name was David Jeffrey Robertson born 1887 in Dundee, died 4th October 1918, age 31.


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