Yokosuka proposes memorial to 1870 sea tragedy
Stars and Stripes August 16, 2006
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — The granite tablet is cracked and crumbling, the English words gradually fading back into smooth stone at the Honmonji Temple near Tokyo.
The metal plate detailing the story of the USS Oneida — once affixed to the tablet — was pried off in World War II for shell casings.
No one knows how many U.S. Navy sailors are buried below it — their ashes are in a common grave — but their fate caught the attention of the chief petty officers at Yokosuka Naval Base. They want to exhume the story of the USS Oneida — the most decorated Navy ship in history — which sank in Yokohama Bay, just a few miles from the base.
“We want a constant reminder — a way to honor the dead and acknowledge the Oneida’s significant contributions … she definitely had a interesting past,” said base chaplain Cmdr. Bob Freiberg.
Freiberg and the chiefs’ mess want to raise between $35,000 and $55,000 to construct an Oneida memorial in the base’s Kosano Park. And they’d like to give the unnamed sailors a proper burial, he said.
“We want to bury them with military honors,” Freiberg said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
Freiberg has made what he terms an “exhaustive” study on the ship, reading historic documents and cajoling his Japanese assistant into translating old kanji.
“It’s fascinating reading,” he said. Here’s what he found out.
The USS Oneida was there when Capt. David Farragut issued the famous Civil War order: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” That was in the 1864 Battle of Mobile Bay, where the Oneida won eight separate Medals of Honor, becoming the most decorated Navy ship in history, he said. The warship was a screw sloop, which had both sails and steam power, but it lost its boilers to the South’s cannonballs in the fight. It was then lashed to the USS Galena, which provided the momentum as the Oneida provided firepower. The combination won the North the battle.
In 1867, the Oneida forward-deployed to Japan for three years. It was entering Yokohama Bay on Jan. 24, 1870, en route back to America, when Britain’s City of Bombay steamer crashed into it.
This is where the story gets “suspicious,” Freiberg said.
The City of Bombay kept moving, leaving the ship to sink, Freiberg said. Japanese fishermen managed to save 61 sailors, but the captain opted to go down with the ship, following 115 men to their watery grave. Russian, Japanese and other U.S. ships later joined the search for survivors, but it was too late and the winter water was too cold.
“If the Brits would have stayed, they probably could have saved everyone except maybe one or two people,” Freiberg said.
The British captain of the City of Bombay was suspended and the ship and its shipping line were banned from U.S. ports.
The bodies of four high-ranking officers were recovered and buried in the “Foreigners’ Cemetery” in Yokohama — now a destination for Yokosuka sailors’ community-service projects. Japanese pearl divers recovered the other bodies and gave them to the Buddhist monks at Honmonji Temple. They cremated the bodies and created a memorial on temple grounds that still stands today.
The Japanese recovery and care for the Navy sailors largely inspired the proposed Kosano Park memorial’s design, which incorporates many Japanese elements, Freiberg said. Architect Michelle Bryan used Japan’s ancient “magatama” symbols (Americans recognize the symbol as pieces of the “yin and yang”), a fountain and a cross. It will sit across from the park’s gazebos and serve as both a spot for quiet contemplation and a “cool place to hang out,” Freiberg said.
“The two magatamas represent both worlds, Japan and the U.S., and the cross ties them together,” Freiberg said. “It also ties us to our past.”
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or send mail to: CFAY Chapel of Hope, PSC 473 Box 10, FPO, AP 96349-0100.
Oneida at a glance
The USS Oneida was a screw sloop warship that could steam on her own when the sails were down. She was launched just in time to partake in the Atlantic fleet’s naval operations against the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Commissioned: Feb. 28, 1862
Complement: 186 officers and enlisted personnel
Armament: 3-32 pound shells and other smaller guns.
Post-war timeline: Decommissioned in 1865, sat in New York harbor. Recommissioned and arrived in Tokyo as one of the mainstays of the American Asiatic fleet in 1867. Left for home on Jan. 24, 1870, but was hit by British steamer The City of Bombay and cut in half as it was entering Tokyo Bay.
Adapted from an article by chaplain Cmdr. Bob Freiberg, Yokosuka Naval Base