Charles Toguchi

Living Through Three Wars

Hawaii Herald, 9/19/1986

Inasmuch as the horrors of a nuclear holocaust could well make war an uncommon thing, Charlie Toguchi, 68, may be the last of his kind: one who has fought in three.

Toguchi’s remarkable story includes fighting in two oceans over a span of a quarter of a century. It also includes such experiences as when Toguchi came to find himself swimming about in the North Atlantic Ocean when the freighter on which he was working, the SS KAIMOKU, was torpedoed by a German submarine on Aug. 8, 1942. For that unceremonious dumping, Toguchi probably could claim the title of being the first AJA seaman of World War II to have a ship torpedoed under him in the Atlantic. (The story of Hawaii’s “Torpedo Gang” was documented in the 6/20/86 issue of the Herald.)

Even before the torpedo action Toguchi came under gunfire when the freighter SS WEST NOTUS, enroute from Argentina to New York, was shelled by a German U-boat 300 miles off Cape Hatteras on June 1, 1942. “I was at the wheel when the fight began and although we had some machine guns, they were no match for the sub’s 20-mm cannons. Shells began hitting the wheelhouse and the captain’s cabin, but I was not hit. Soon the captain blew the whistle and gave the order to abandon ship and the crew got into two lifeboats.

Four crewmen were killed in the gun fight, including the master shortly after he had given the order to abandon ship. The remaining 36 members were picked up by passing freighters several days later. Toguchi was rescued by a Swiss freighter steaming northward, landing in New York on June 5.

In retrospect, Toguchi’s life seemed preordained for bouncing around. Because his mother had died soon after his birth in Kapaa, Kauai, he went to live with an adopted family at McBryde Plantation, on the other side of the island. There he grew up in a sugar plantation environment.

At 15, Toguchi moved to the Big Island to be with his older brother at Pepeekeo. Then, two years later, he moved to Honolulu to live with his sister. These years were the hard times following the Great Depression, and in his wandering about from job to job, he came to try his hand at stevedoring.

“In those days, unlike seamen, the stevedores were not well organized, and guys like Jack Kawano were trying to do something about that. Then on the advice of a sailor’s agent, I took out seamen’s papers and was put on six months probation. By 1938 I got a ‘full book,’ that is, a permanent status.”

So, at 20 years of age, Toguchi headed for the open seas and adventures the likes of which he could never have dreamed of- like trying to steer the rudderless WEST NORTUS as machine gun bullets and cannon shots from an enemy submarine burst about the wheelhouse, and watching the ship break up in two as he and 17 fellow crewmen pulled away from the sinking freighter in their lifeboat. Then there was the morning he was on the deck of the KAIMOKU and the next moment found himself flying through the air as a torpedo blasted into the side of his ship and dumped him into the mid-Atlantic drink.

Before war came to the United States on Dec. 7, 1941, the Lend- Lease Act “loaned” American ships, Especially freighters and destroyer escorts, to Britain to help keep the vital lifeline between the two nations open. That agreement in turn created a huge need for seamen to man the ships. “Yeah,” says Toguchi, “but few people know the story of the Merchant Marine, much less appreciate the fact that were it not for the ships and seamen plying the Atlantic and keeping the supply pipeline open, our world would have been lost.”

Upon America’s entry into the war, the Atlantic scene was dominated by huge freighter convoys headed for the British Isles. But enemy submarines prowling the Atlantic in wolf packs of up to three dozen or more subs created havoc in the shipping lanes, and the Atlantic Ocean became a vast graveyard for thousands of freighters. Toguchi’s time seemed to have come as he sailed right into this maelstrom in the critical two-year period from 1942 through 1944, during which he crisscrossed the Atlantic 20 times.

The KAIMOKU, for one, left New York Harbor headed for Liverpool. When it got to its initial rendezvous point in Nova Scotia, it joined a huge convoy of between 80 to 100 ships. The ship sank in four minutes when it was torpedoed in the middle of the Atlantic, but survivors were quickly picked up by a British warship. “That’s how I got to Scotland,” says Toguchi.

“But before that, at the time of Pearl Harbor, I was in Chile serving on the SS POINT SAN PABLO. When the ship returned to San Pedro, the FBI and Naval Intelligence agents took me off the ship for interrogation, then put me in the San Pedro jail– strictly because of my Japanese name. But the country was in need of seamen so I was released from jail and advised by the FBI to go to the East Coast and report to the port agent in New York. So I caught a freighter, the SS CALIFORNIA, which went by way of the Panama Canal. This was in March 1942.

“It takes a ship eight hours to transit the three locks of the Panama Canal. Again, only because I was Japanese, I was ‘blindfolded’ while the ship passed through the locks. That is, I was forbidden to go topside and had to stay down in the hold. It was funny because I’ve passed through the Canal many, many times and I know the locks as well as any.

“We got to Wilmington and there I reported to Naval Intelligence headquarters on 50th Church Street. Then followed the WEST NOTUS and KAIMOKU sailings. After I returned to the states from Scotland, I stayed on the East Coast for awhile. Out on the West Coast, the FBI was picking up all the seamen who were Japanese, mostly Hawaiian AJAs, and about 300 of them were interned in the relocation centers. Seamen like me couldn’t sail there. But as I said, out there on the East Coast, the FBI was nice to me.

Toguchi’s life then took on a new turn. He had not sailed for a year and war’s end found him on the West Coast, where the draft caught up with him. Rather than wait for the inevitable, he volunteered for the Army and was sent to the Fort Ord Language School. Although he did not pass the Japanese language test, he nevertheless was assigned to Yokohama, reporting to the 347th Harbor Craft unit in April 1947.

Another turn came with the advent of the Korean War in June 1950. Though scheduled for discharge, his term was extended. In September he was assigned to Korea, to the Hawaii-based 24th Infantry Division, the first American division in Korea. The following April, in a battle at Wonsan, he was wounded in the leg and sent to Osaka for recuperation.

He had married a Japanese girl during his initial assignment in Yokohama but this was at a time when such marriages were forbidden by the military. With the subsequent improvement in the political climate between Japan and America, he got himself remarried in 1950 by the American Consul in the same city. The following year, with wife and two kids in tow, Toguchi returned to Hawaii. Away from war for a change, he was beginning to enjoy life so he decided to stay in the Army for a while longer.

But America’s entry into the Vietnam War in 1964 changed all that, more so when the Army again said “no” to his plans to retire the following year and instead sent him off to the port of Qui Nhon and Cam Ranh Bay where expert knowledge of port operations was a critical need.

Finally, in October 1966, when the Army had run out its string of reasons for keeping him in the service, this former Merchant Mariner who had risen to the ranks of sargent first class in the Army was given leave to retire. Toguchi had lived a “full book”- from merchant seaman in one war to Army dogface in two others.

As reminders, there is the Army’s Purple Heart Medal for wounds received in action in Wachon in April 1951 and the Combat Infantryman Badge. And his fistful of Merchant Marine awards tell of a service to country that not many can lay claim to: the Mariner’s Medal for injuries sustained in the torpedoing of the KAIMOKU; Defense and Combat Bars; Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific War Zone Bars; the Victory Medal.

Behind these medals lie a host of tales to tell, like the one-linked to the shelling of the WEST NORTUS. Why did the German submarine commander choose to shell instead of torpedo the ship? One can only speculate, but consider the fact that after the crew had taken to the lifeboats, the sub came alongside one and handed its occupants a bottle of Perrier mineral water and a piece of paper with directions on how to get to Cape Hatteras, written in English. As much as chivalry in wartime is rare, the sub commander demonstrated his with a flourish. In an earlier war, Admiral Farragut ran his boats under heavy gunfire to capture and destroy enemy ships between New Orleans and Mobile Bay, attacking forts and capturing cities. “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead,” he ordered, ignoring all dangers. That charge could well sum up Charlie Toguchi’s quarter century of service in the Merchant Marine and the Army.