WASHINGTON -- Shortly before midnight, April 1, 1945, the submarine USS Queenfish torpedoed and sank the Japanese freighter Awa Maru off China with the loss of 2,003 lives.
Although the Pacific war was still raging, the vessel had been guaranteed safe passage by the United States. Its sides and decks were clearly marked with floodlighted white crosses.
The sinking was a devastating blow to the Japanese because the ship was carrying vitally needed materials, VIP passengers and urgently needed technicians.
It was also a shock for the U.S. Navy, which had guaranteed safe passage, and which feared that vengeance would be taken out on American prisoners of war held by the Japanese.
Parts of the story of the Awa Maru have been told over the intervening years, with reports the freighter was carrying 40 tons of gold bullion, five cases of diamonds, 40 cases of mixed jewels, precious metals, priceless artifacts and even fossile remains of China's long-lost Peking man.
That excited post-war American treasure hunters, who by the 1970s estimated that with appreciation, there was booty down there worth up to $10 billion.
A definitive version of how it all began and what happened has now been published by Proceedings, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute, an unofficial but authoritative society based in Annapolis, Md.
The author, David D. Lowman, is a consultant for the top secret National Security Agency from which he retired in 1977. The NSA, which deals in codes, recently declassified certain intercepted and decoded Japanese wartime messages, including 122 referring to the Awa Maru. These heretofore secret communications form the basis of Lowman's story about the ill-fated freighter and the unfortunate commander of the U.S. submarine that sank it. He also details post-war salvage operations which finally revealed the Awa Maru carried cargo of only pig iron and coal when sunk.
As the war in the Pacific drew to a close, the United States became increasingly worried about American POWs held by the Japanese.
'With its merchant fleet swept away, Japan was having great difficulty supporting its own troops, much less the thousands of allied POWs still held in captivity,' Lowman wrote.
'Through neutral Switzerland, the United States proposed to supply 2,000 tons of relief supplies for these POWs with guaranteed safe passage to any Japanese ship that transported the goods.'
The Japanese quickly accepted the proposal, Lowman said, 'as a sure means of getting desperately needed supplies to hard-pressed troops in the south and to return key personnel to the homeland. It also presented a heaven-sent opportunity to transport any other cargo of particular concern -- gold bullion, for example.'
The United States delivered 2,000 tons of Red Cross packages to a Soviet Siberian port -- the Russians were not yet at war with Japan -- and two Japanese merchant ships were dispatched to pick up POW food.
The Japanese freighter Hoshu Maru safely transported 275 tons to Shanghai. The Awa Maru, carrying the rest, had a more complicated itinerary, taking it to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Saigon, Singapore, some Indonesian ports and then return to Japan.
The Awa Maru had a normal cargo capacity of 11,000 tons and could accommodate far more than the 1,725-ton Red Cross shipment it took on at the Siberian port.
Awa Maru's exact schedule was transmitted to the United States via the Swiss. The U.S. Navy dispatched a message to all submarines in the Pacific -- in plain language instead of code -- to allow the Japanese ship to pass unmolested.
Cmdr. Charles Elliott Loughlin was skipper of the the Queenfish and en route from Hawaii to Saipan when the first messages on the Awa Maru were transmitted in plain langage to all U.S. submarines in the Pacific.
'Atmospheric conditions during the three days the message was transmitted were so bad that the Queenfish never received a readable version,' Lowman said. Those messages specified the exact route and schedule of the Awa Maru.
The communications officer was not concerned at not being able to read the traffic, he said, 'because important messages were never sent without encipherment.'
When the Queenfish arrived at Saipan, however, the same message was again repeated three times a day for three days. 'For reasons never fully explained the message was filed and not shown to Loughlin,' according to Lowman.
But when at sea again on a wolfpack patrol with the USS Sea Fox, this enciphered message was received:
LET PASS SAFELY THE AWA MARU CARRYING PRISONER OF WAR SUPPLIES X SHE WILL BE PASSING THROUGH YOUR AREAS BETWEEN MARCH 30 AND APRIL 4 X SHE IS LIGHTED AT NIGHT AND PLASTERED WITH WHITE CROSSES.
'The skipper did see this message but unfortunately it was addressed to all submarines in the Pacific from Australia to the Aleutian Islands and did not stipulate the course of the Awa Maru,' Lowman wrote. 'The message made sense only if one had seen the previous messages on the subject. Loughlin had not.'
On April 1, the Queenfish was alerted by the Sea Fox that she had attacked a small Japanese convoy. Lowman's account continues:
'Hoping to get in on some of the action, Loughlin sped through the fog toward the enemy. Shortly before midnight, the Queenfish picked up a radar blip at 17,000 yards, the distance at which Japanese destroyers were normally detected.
'Moreover, the target was moving at 16 knots -- not zig-zagging - and heading directly for the area in which the Sea Fox had made her attack.
'Loughlin approached to within 1,200 yards ... launched four torpedoes set at a depths of three feet with a 300-yard spread -- the kind of attack one would employ against a destroyer. Four distinct thuds told the Queenfish's crew the results of her attack.
'The Queenfish picked up only one man, a steward named Kantora Shimoda who gasped out to Loughlin that the Awa Maru was the ship that the submarine had destroyed,' Lowman said.
Loughlin, described by Lowman as 'one of the finest submarine captains in the Navy,' was ordered back to Hawaii for court-martial. He managed to convince the U.S. naval board that in view of the information he had, the attack was warranted. He was found guilty only of negligence and given a letter of admonition.
Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, U.S. Navy commander in the Pacific, was said to have been so enraged at the light sentence -- he feared Japanese reprisals against American POWs -- that he wrote the board members letters of reprimand which, author Lowman said, 'were far more serious punishment than Loughlin had received.'
In 1976, the San Diego Union reported that an American syndicate, including former astronaut Scott Carpenter and Charles A. Lindbergh's son, Jon, was attempting to obtain salvage rights to the Awa Maru from the People's Republic of China .
They believed persistent reports and rumors that the freighter was carrying a fortune in gold and other valuables plundered from areas the Japanese had conquered.
Instead of granting salvage rights, the Chinese secretly began efforts to salvage the Awa Maru's cargo.
In 1979, the Chinese Vice Minister for Communications told Japanese reporters the Awa Maru had been located in 1977 and salvage operations were continuing.
By January 1980, Peking was announcing that over a three-year period the Chinese had made 10,000 dives and cleared some 10,000 cubic meters of mud from around the Awa Maru, which was lying in 30 fathoms (180 feet) in the Taiwan Strait. Ten ships and more than 700 men, including 100 divers, were at the site.
But by September 1980, the Communications Ministry announced dejectedly that no treasure had been found. The Awa Maru was primarily carrying coal and pig iron.
'However,' Lowman reported, 'a special shipment ... was under the care of two policemen: six boxes of confiscated opium, 19 boxes of whiskey and 52 boxes of miscellaneous goods. The special handling accorded these goods, along with their police guard, undoubtedly added more grist for the rumor mills in later years.'
Bowman said World War II diplomatic and military messages sent by the Japanese, intercepted and recently declassified, show that the Japanese in early 1945 'were indeed shipping gold bullion, but not to Japan. It was going from Japan to the conquered territories in a last-ditch attempt to shore up their rapidly disintegratiung (economic) positions in these areas.'
'Thus, the two relief ships with their guaranteed safe passage were seized on to ship bullion. Fifteen tons of gold were loaded on the Hoshi Maru and an unknown quantity on the Awa Maru. In addition $15 million in currency were brought on board each vessel.'
The Hoshi Maru delivered her gold and the Red Cross parcels to Shanghai. The Awa Maru unloaded its parcels and gold at Singapore from where it was sent overland to Bangkok.
On March 18, 1945, U.S. intelligence intercepted a message from the Japanese ambassador in Bangkok to Tokyo:
FORTY BOXES OF GOLD BULLION ARRIVED ON 16TH AND WERE HANDED OVER TO THE BANK OF SIAM.
When Japan surrendered Aug. 14, the Japanese Foreign Ministry sent a message to the United States through Switzlerland demanding $52.5 million for the loss of lives and material aboard the Awa Maru. No gold was listed in the inventory. By 1949, the Japanese had dropped their demand.
'Commander Loughlin went on to a splendid naval career,' Lowman said. retiring as a rear admiral in 1968. Now 72 and living in Annapolis, Md., he is president and executive director of the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation Inc.
What happened to the only survivor of the Awa Maru? Loughlin believes he was repatriated to Japan. 'It was the third ship that went down under him,' said Loughlin.