Hilo Remembers the 17 Who Died and the Nine Survivors of the 1942 Torpedo Attack
Published with Permission
Editor’s note: Big Island native and recently retired Hawai‘i Public Radio reporter Wayne Yoshioka was invited to deliver the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ Post 3830 Memorial Day address at the East Hawai‘i Veterans Cemetery in Hilo on May 27. Yoshioka, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2005, decided to speak about the incident that probably resulted in the first AJA wartime casualties after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Herald thanks Wayne Yoshioka for sharing the text of his speech with our readers.
Mayor Kim, county and state officials, family and friends, ladies and gentlemen . . . good morning. I’d like to thank the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 3830 and Auxiliary, for hosting today’s Memorial Day ceremony. I especially want to thank VFW 3830 post commander Deb Lewis for inviting me to speak to you about my uncle, one of the soldiers who was aboard the Army transport ship, the Royal T. Frank.
My uncle, Susumu Yoshioka, was born in 1918, the oldest of six sons born to Bunichi and Chiyono Yoshioka of Pāpa’ikou. My father, Norio, was the fourth son. He passed away in 2015 — my mother, Tamayo, is here today. My other uncle, Roy Yoshito Yoshioka, operated Roy’s Gourmet for many years and was also a World War II veteran. He is interred here at the East Hawai‘i Veterans Cemetery. My favorite uncle, Fumio, is here today. He’s a graduate of the Fort Benning, Georgia, Army Officer Candidate School and served with 2nd Battalion, 299th Infantry, Hawai‘i Army National Guard. Fumio is the youngest and sole surviving brother. He’s here with his wife Yoshiko and son Ryan.
My Uncle Susumu, like many oldest sons in sugar plantation families, was taken out of school at a young age to work in the fields as a laborer. Susumu would leave home before dawn, carrying a bentō, or lunch tin, and a wire-handled tin can punched with nail holes with a lit candle inside to light his way in the darkness. He would return home in the evening after a full day in the fields and lift weights to strengthen his muscular 5-foot, 3-inch frame. His nickname in the sugar cane fields was “Machine.”
Susumu enlisted in the Army on November 12, 1941, less than a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
On January 27, 1942, following completion of basic training at Schofield Barracks, Susumu and 25 of his fellow Hawai‘i Island soldiers boarded the U.S. Army transport ship, the Royal T. Frank, in Honolulu. The 200-ton ship was towing an ammunition barge and was part of a convoy with a Navy destroyer.
According to a 1986 Hawai‘i Herald feature story by Karleen Chinen, the Royal T. Frank was off of the coast of Maui on January 28th. Someone onboard saw what appeared to be a torpedo whiz by in the water. The torpedo was fired from a Japanese submarine. Less than a minute later, a second torpedo was sighted, and it scraped the side of the transport. Shigeru Ushijima, a 23-year-old soldier on board, said in the story, that they all heard a “thud” as the torpedo grazed the ship’s hull.
A third torpedo was fired by the Japanese submarine. It was a direct hit to the stern of the Royal T. Frank . . . the rear section. According to official accounts, the ship sank in one minute. The soldiers and crew below deck — in the hold of the ship — never got out. The captain of the ship was killed, and the soldiers on the deck were thrown overboard or jumped off. The survivors, which included 27 crewmembers, held on to floating debris and waterproof mailbags for two or three hours before they were fished out by members on the ammo barge.
Of the 26 Hawai‘i Island soldiers, only nine survived the Japanese submarine attack that day. They came to be known as the “Torpedo Gang.” The survivors were: Shigeru Ushijima, George Taketa, Yoshio Ogomori, John Souza, Shizuo Toma, Mac Wakimoto, Haruo Yamashita, Tokimaru Takamoto and my uncle, Susumu Yoshioka.
The nine surviving soldiers and the ship’s crew were taken to the gymnasium in Hāna, Maui, which had been converted into a first aid station. The sunken transport ship and the remains of those killed were never recovered, and the survivors were ordered by military leaders not to discuss the incident with anyone. Family members of those who were killed were never told about the attack and the story of the Royal T. Frank was, and is still today, unknown to many. But, we have the Hawai‘i Herald, as well as many others, to thank for documenting and preserving the story of what happened that day in January 1942.
Uncle Susumu hurt his back that day during the Royal T. Frank’s sinking, but went on to serve in the “Purple Heart Battalion” 100th Infantry Battalion and the “Go For Broke” 442nd Regimental Combat Team. The unit was comprised of mostly second-generation, or Nisei, Americans of Japanese ancestry. The One-Puka-Puka, together with the 442nd RCT, would become the most decorated unit of its size and length of service in U.S. military history. The 100th soldiers trained at Camp McCoy and Camp Shelby. Susumu was with Able Company and deployed to North Africa and Rhineland and the Vosges.
He was captured by the German army in January 1944, probably during the assault on the Gustav Line, and was officially registered as a prisoner of war on the 22nd. He was sent to Stalag VII in Moosburg, Germany. My Uncle Fumio remembers his mother fainting when she was told by a plantation supervisor that Susumu was missing in action.
Susumu was liberated from the POW camp on July 25, 1945. He returned to Hawai‘i and was discharged. His back injury during the Royal T. Frank sinking in 1942 was classified as a service-related disability. As a disabled veteran, he was eligible for lifetime benefits, which also landed him a federal job as a shoe and canvas repairer at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. He never returned to work in the sugar cane fields and built a home in Pälama on O‘ahu, where he lived with his wife Kathleen and daughter Jennifer.
Uncle Susumu loved talking about the war and about the close calls he had . . . like relieving himself under a tree and walking back to his foxhole just as an artillery round exploded in the puddle he left behind; or jumping from foxhole to foxhole and having artillery shells hit the one he was just in. He told us, as we were growing up, that he knew which of his fellow soldiers he could count on in battle to fight and which ones would hide. He also told us how he could see the bullets spinning as they came toward him. And, when his wife and daughter were not around, he would tell us how the war was the high point of his life and how much he enjoyed it and missed it.
He officially changed his name to Clay Susumu Yoshioka in the 1970s. At our wedding reception, my Uncle Clay and my father-in-law, Robert Bentzien, traded war stories. Robert, or “Bob,” was a World War II paratrooper with the 17th Airborne Division in the Rhineland, near the area where the 100th Battalion was. We have a photograph of my Uncle Clay and my father-in-law — Bob’s arms are stretched overhead, as if in a parachute landing fall, and my Uncle Susumu is crouched down, listening intently. It’s a wonderful memento for our family: two soldiers from the so-called “Greatest Generation” — a second-generation Japanese American and a third-generation German American — who fought on the same side. My wife and best friend, Vicki Bentzien, is here. She misses and thinks about her dad, Bob, every day. He left us in 2008 due to congestive heart failure.
Uncle Clay also passed away in 2008 due to congestive heart failure. I remember bringing him sushi at the veterans home next to Tripler Army Medical Center. He would thank me with tears in his eyes. In his final days, my father and mother also spent a couple of weeks cooking all the foods Uncle Clay enjoyed. As a POW, Uncle Clay said the Germans treated him well and would give him extra food. I remember he would always close his eyes in appreciation before every meal. It was a practice he carried on throughout his life.
I never had the opportunity to ask my Uncle Clay why he was on the deck of the Royal T. Frank that day in 1942. There was a dice game going on below, in the hold of the ship. Uncle Clay wouldn’t be there because he was too careful with his money. He wouldn’t be one of the soldiers lying in a cot, either. But, he could have been enjoying a smoke on-deck. I’ll never know.
On this Memorial Day, we pay a special tribute to my Uncle Clay Susumu’s fellow soldiers — the 17 from Hawai‘i Island who were killed when the Royal T. Frank was torpedoed in 1942. Their names are inscribed on a granite plaque near the cemetery flagpole. Their names are: Iwao Nakamura, Yoshito Nii, Shoji Okido, Larry M. Oku, Reginald M. Osato, John Perreira, John S. Rodrigues, Raymond H. Shirakawa, Yeishum Soken, Shinichi Shiigi, Bushichi Tani, Pernal Torrijos, Alfred Veriato, Torao Yamamizu, Albert H. Yano, Yonezo Yonemura and Hook Yuen Young.
Listed as missing in action in November 1944 are Joseph Apana and Taichi Nagata.
We also honor all the service members who lost their lives in the line of duty — those who made the supreme sacrifice to preserve freedom for all of us.
Let us be inspired by them and humbled by their service and sacrifice. And may God bless all the Hawai‘i Island veterans who are interred here, and their families and loved ones, for answering the call to serve our community, state and nation in times of need.
Again, mahalo to VFW Post 3830 and the Auxiliary for hosting today’s Memorial Day ceremony and for preserving the story of the Royal T. Frank, the Hawai‘i Island soldiers who lost their lives that day and the “Torpedo Gang” who went on to fight in World War II.
And thank you all for attending today’s ceremony.
God bless the Big Island and the state of Hawai‘i and God bless the United States of America.