▲ Seishin (modern Chongjin in North Korea) circa 1900-1920. Photo courtesy Robert Neff Collection
Hometown newspapers are a great source of interesting historical anecdotes that can be found nowhere else. Many of these articles were nothing more than letters home that the receivers elected to have published in their local newspapers. Naturally enough, many of these accounts were biased and often inaccurate but they do provide us with the initial information needed to do further research. One such article was by Reverend William Rufus Foote, a Canadian living in Wonsan during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).
In a letter home and reprinted in The Register (a Nova Scotian newspaper), Foote described the sinking of the Kinshiu Maru:
“As the Russian squadron steamed north to Vladivostok it passed between the Japanese battleships and cruisers lying outside, and a torpedo flotilla, lying near the coast for shelter, and in doing so met a Japanese transport with about three hundred on board. They notified the Japanese that they would capture or sink the transport and asked them to go on board one of their boats. The Japanese refused and the transport was struck with two torpedoes. Still the Japanese refused to surrender and continued to fire until the water was up to their waists on the ship deck. Some went down with the ship, some were taken by the Russians, others swam ashore, some of them saving even their rifles.”
Reading Foote’s simple account, one might believe he actually witnessed the sinking but, in fact, he didn’t. The encounter took place late at night, and occurred 16 miles at sea north of Wonsan – near Singpo. It is likely Foote based his account on the stories he read in the newspapers or heard from Japanese sailors.
The 3,596 ton Kinshiu (originally christened the Kintuck when it was built in 1891) was purchased by the Japanese government in 1894 and then transferred to the Nippon Yusen Kaisha in 1896 which used it as a steamer operating between various ports in the Far East and Seattle, Washington. For the most part its history (prior to the war) was uneventful – the only accident it was involved in was during the summer of 1901 when it ran aground on Jeju Island, but was able to free itself from the rocks with very little damage. When war broke out the ship was returned to the Japanese government to be used as a military transport.
On April 25, 1904, the Kinshiu was tasked with transporting part of the 37th infantry regiment to areas north of Wonsan to look for Russian soldiers. It was accompanied by a couple of Japanese torpedo boats. Unsuccessful in their attempt to find the enemy, it was decided the ship would return to Wonsan. Unfortunately, the weather soon turned bad and the warships were forced to seek shelter while the transport continued alone.
It was about 10 p.m. when the steamer encountered several large warships. Thinking they were Japanese warships, the steamer signaled that it had the warships’ coal. Immediately, one of the warships – Rossia, a Russian cruiser – trained its spotlights upon the transport and informed the Japanese that they had one hour to abandon their ship before it would be destroyed. Yagi, the steamer’s captain, accompanied by an interpreter and some sailors, made their way in a small boat to the Rossia in hopes of negotiating better terms but were seized by the Russians and detained.
After about an hour, a Russian boarding party was sent to the Kinshiu to verify that the ship had been abandoned. At first it seemed deserted but, according to the Russians, they found six officers locked inside their cabin below deck and some 130 Japanese soldiers hiding in the holds. The Japanese claim that a sentry informed the Russians that the Japanese soldiers had decided to share the fate of their ship and refused to surrender. Apparently the Japanese soldiers were part of a unit that had shown cowardice in battle several years earlier and were determined to change their unit’s reputation with their sacrifice.
The Russians informed the sentry that the non-combatants should be placed in a boat and sent to the Rossia as soon as possible. The Russians then proceeded back to their ship.
At 1:30 a.m., tired of the Japanese crew’s obstinacy, the Russians fired a torpedo into the steamer. The Japanese troops, assembled on deck with their small arms, returned fire. These badly exposed soldiers were vastly out-gunned by the Russians and a large number of Japanese soldiers fell under the relentless rain of Russian bullets. At 2 a.m., another torpedo was fired and this one struck the engine room causing the ship to split in two.
Many contemporary Japanese and Western newspapers reported that some of the soldiers, rather than be taken prisoners of war, committed hara-kiri. But it is the account of Herbert W. Wilson that we gain more insight into this final act of resistance:
“In full sight of his men Captain Shina cut open his bowels, after the ancient fashion of the Samurai. Lieutenant Terauda and Yokota, with most of the non-commissioned officers, followed his example; of the men, many shot each other, or slew themselves with their bayonets, first tearing off their shoulder straps so that the Russians should obtain no information as to the disposition of the Japanese forces.”
According to Reuters: “Seventeen officers, 85 of the vessel’s crew, 65 military coolies, and 28 soldiers were [saved and] taken on board the Rossia.” However, Japanese accounts claimed that the Russian warships left some of the survivors to “drown like dogs.” Some 46 men managed to make it to damaged lifeboats but at least one of them, determined to die, leapt back into the sea and deliberately drowned. Eventually they managed to make it back to Shinpo – five of the survivors even managed to do so with their rifles.
The fate of the Kinshiu was used as a tool of propaganda – an example of the Japanese soldiers’ willingness to fight to the end. With the passing of time, this incident has become a footnote in the wider context of the Russo-Japanese War. However by researching newspaper and wire reports of the ferocity of the exchange and the refusal of the Japanese crew to surrender, historians have gained a valuable insight into this period, a turning point in Japanese history.
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