Aug. 3, 2015, marked the 70th anniversary of the capture of the Japanese “hospital ship” Tachibana Maru, the only Japanese ship captured under sail by the U.S. Navy during World War II.
While quite a significant feat, the story of this capture went almost unnoticed by the media due to the bombing of Hiroshima shortly after. The care team at Hallmark Nursing Center in Denver, Colorado, had the privilege of meeting and caring for one of the unsung war heroes involved in the capture, Joseph Natale.
Back in 1945, Natale was stationed on the USS Charrette in the Banda Sea near Indonesia. On Aug. 1, 1945, a Royal Australian Air Force Liberator bombing plane sighted the Tachibana Maru leaving the Kai Islands, heading southwest. For precaution, the admiral ordered two destroyers into the Banda Sea to intercept the Tachibana. Upon closer inspection, the intercepting forces saw the Tachibana was a hospital ship marked by the internationally recognized white colors and red cross.
“The admiral radioed back and said, ‘There’s something suspicious about this,’” Natale recalled in a recent interview with Channel 9 news reporter Mary Rodriguez in Denver.
The destroyers approached the Tachibana and ordered it to cease movement. When the ship failed to acknowledge any commands or communications, the admiral radioed a second time. With no response from the Tachibana, the admiral threatened immediate action.
“The third time he radioed over he said, ‘You either stop, or we’re going to blow you out of the water,’” Natale said. “It stopped.”
Suspicions sparked further, the USS Charrette elected to send over a small boarding crew in order to inspect the ship. Only 22 at the time, Natale was one of that original crew of five men.
After boarding the ship, the Japanese officers, while not aggressive, were not willing to answer any questions. The crew inspected the ship, further expecting to find Japanese hospital patients.
Instead, the crew discovered more than 1,500 Japanese men who did not appear to be sick or in need of medical services.
Natale and the rest of the search party descended into the depths of the ship to explore further.
Below deck, Natale and the crew discovered numerous crates with the red cross insignia on them. Upon opening many of the crates, the crew was shocked by they found. They immediately phoned in the distress call “Mickey Finn” to the USS Charrette.
“Mickey Finn” is code for the discovery of arms.
The destroyers, engines running hot, honed in on the Tachibana in preparation to take the ship by force, if necessary. Natale and his crew had made a remarkable discovery: the Japanese were attempting to use the 279-foot Tachibana to smuggle 1,663 soldiers and 29 tons of arms and ammunition to the Japanese mainland.
Fortunately, the Japanese surrendered peacefully. The USS Charrette took control of the vessel, the largest enemy vessel captured by the Allies during World War II using the fewest number of men, and all without a single casualty.
“I have a deep love for the Japanese people,” Natale explained. “I really do love them, and I didn’t want to see any killing going on.”
Though the incident was immensely significant, the story went unheard because right as Natale and his men returned with the Tachibana in tow, the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The capture of the Tachibana Maru was left to the history books with a one-page incident report which greatly simplified the incident, stating that the ship “resembled a hospital ship, only in the respect that she was marked as one.” The event was minor in comparison to the Hiroshima bombing.
Natale, sharing his story with Channel 9 news on the 70th anniversary date of the capture, explained that all he wanted was for the story to be heard.
“There’s not too many of us World War II people around,” he said. “We ought to tell the story.”
Shortly after the original interview aired with Channel 9 News, Natale passed away. His family, though heartbroken, were immensely grateful he had an opportunity to share his story. They consider it a lasting legacy.