The Azusa Maru

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
What might have happened if Japan had had atomic weapons in WW2?

Submitted: January 08, 2008

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Submitted: January 08, 2008



The Azusa Maru

Benson Hallage was one of the post grads I supervise. He was doing research on Japanese Naval operations of 1945. He had spent several years in Japan as a highschool student, and then as an undergrad, while his father was a trade attaché there. His language skills were pretty good, but he did have a tendency to wander off the beaten path, academically speaking.

One afternoon in April a knock came on my office door.

“Come in,” I called out, and ‘Ben’ poked his head around the door.

“Dr. Bellingham, do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure, Ben, come on in. What is it?”

He sat, holding a manila folder. “Well, sir, I came across a couple references to an operation that totally unknown to me, and I wondered if you could shed some light on it?

“Fire away,” I said to glibly.

“I’ve come across a reference to an operation of an Armed Merchant Cruiser during 1945.”

“Oh, I thought all Japanese AMC’s had been withdrawn from combat service and converted back to normal shipping by 1944?”

“Rear-Admiral Moriyoshi Takeda had pushed to have one kept in reserve for special operations; the Azusa Maru.”

“Isn’t Azusa a town in California?”

“I don’t know about that, but it is the name of a river in Japan.”

“Oh, OK. Go on.”

The only time the Azusa Maru is mentioned in 1945 is in connection with an operation that can be translated “Lotus Flower Candle”.

“I’m sorry, Ben. What does that mean in simple English?”

“Ah… a small candle can be placed on a lotus flower, lit, and floated on a garden fish pond. Two or three give a very nice effect on a still summer evening. Very romantic.”

One of us had to be practical; and I knew which one was the romantic. “And what did this Operation Lotus Flower Candle seek to accomplish, that you are so excited about it? How does it fit into you thesis preparation?”

He puzzled over that for a moment. “Well Doc … First up, it was a one-way operation, the nature of which is not specified in the documents I’ve been able to access. Secondly, the trail of captured documents stops at the door of the Pentagon. They are still listed as ‘classified’. Even my FOI request was rejected out of hand.”

“And its relevance to your thesis?” I pushed.

The first available references for this operation were found among Imperial Japanese Navy files for project F-Go, headed by Prof. Bunsaku Arakatsu. The experiments were carried out in Japan, and northern Korea.”

“Which was?” I prompted.

“The Japanese Navy’s atomic weapons project.”

That was a very controversial topic, with all kinds of ramifications, even today. Ben continued… “and the second reference came from the records of Unit 731, and was part of the Anthrax studies at Riken in Hungnam, Korea.

“Atomic weapons research and biological warfare? Yes,” I said meditatively, “that would be one whopper of an operation! Hmmm…. Given US history as far as Unit 731 is concerned, its no wonder you can’t get through the red tape to access more documents.”

“There’s more, Doc.”


“The clincher. The Azusa Maru was based in Korea.”

I let that hang in the air for a while before responding. “What is it you wanted from me?”

“Ah… a push in the right direction?”

I looked at him long and hard. “You understand that this could, pardon the pun, blow up in your face? There has been a lot of pseudo-historical garbage and conspiracy theory trash written about both Japanese War crimes, and their atomic research. If you go down this path of research, and aren’t meticulously correct in all your facts and conclusions, your career is over before it ever starts. Understood?”


“Right. Come see me in a week.” I hoped that was enough time for him to cool off a bit.

After Ben left I dug in my brain and through my files and came up with four names. Three days of emails, phone calls and faxes later, I had the contacts and basic information I wanted to pass along to Ben. The ball was then in his court, and he would have to do all the research.

Ben took the information and contacts with glee and made an appointment to see me about it in two weeks.

When he entered my office he looked spooked. “What’s the matter, Ben?”

“I made contact with the list of people you gave me. Even did some interviews over the phone. I even got my father involved, as a former diplomat he had lots of inside contacts I could follow up on. Then, yesterday I had a visit from the FBI.”

I was astounded, though I shouldn’t have been. “The FBI?”

“Yeah. Lots of questions, and many veiled threats. You were right, this was going to blow up in my face.”

“What did they want you to do?

“They warned me not to proceed with the research. That it was still a matter of national security; that I didn’t have clearance, etc. They even dropped hints about my father’s career in the State Department.”

“Nasty. What are you going to do?

“Well, I’ve got enough material to write an article; but not enough for any in-depth thesis. Secondly, their threats were real, if subtle. So I thought I’d write this up as fiction and publish it under a pseudonym on the Internet.”

I laughed aloud at his cheekiness. “It had better be a very good pseudonym, Ben!”

He handed me a manila folder containing a manuscript. “I’ve arranged for a classmate from highschool to post this fictionalised account on the Internet.”

“OK. Now, seriously, what are you going to do about your thesis, Ben?”

* * * *

Operation Azusa Maru

July 19, 1945. 0430 hours.

Captain Shizu Kaizuki lowered his binoculars, double checked his charts, and ordered a course correction. “Five degrees of port helm. New course 023.”

“Five degrees of port helm it is sir,” answered the helmsman, “new course 023.”

“Steady on the new course.”

“Steady sir.”

The aged-looking freighter lumbered along at nine and a half knots. In these northern latitudes ‘sunrise’ is still hours away. He expects fog or snow flurries by then. At least he hopes there will be fog or flurries, as he brings the freighter to an entirely new heading, and begins the long leg of their route. He licks his dry lips in anticipation of passing that long journey safely, unseen, undetected.

“Captain,” Lieutenant Miazawa salutes as he enters the bridge.

“Lieutenant,” the captain acknowledged the salute, and enquired. “How are our ‘guests’ coming along?”

“They anticipate no difficulties in the final assembly of the device. However, I think they are anxious to know that the submarine will be on station when we arrive.”

“Yes, quite. I don’t suspect they wish to be there at the delivery,” he observed dryly.

Miazawa bowed and said, “That will be our honour.”

The bridge dropped into routine silence after the change of watch. At precisely 0730 the Captain ordered, “Come to new course, 175.”

“Coming to new course, 175, sir.” The freighter swung slowly in the ice-rimed seas, and slipped into the expected flurries. Its new course will eventually bring it off Seattle. No common freighter this, nor common merchant-marine crew. This is Imperial Japan’s sole remaining Armed Merchant Cruiser. Armed with hidden 4-inch guns, light and heavy ack-ack, and four torpedo tubes, she is capable of fighting toe to toe with a light cruiser. Now she additionally carries a special device to be delivered by a skeleton crew, all seasoned Japanese Navy personnel. She is a Kamikaze ship.

Sailing under false colours, and re-named Maid of Skye, home port Plymouth, the Azusa Maru is sprinting now, her two powerful diesel engines capable of pushing her at 21 knots. Painted in the corporate livery of a British shipping line, artificial canvas screens changed her silhouette to match the desired configuration. In the main hold, the lethal product of Japan’s bio-chemical and atomic warfare facilities in occupied Korea was being fussed over by a team of Navy scientists and explosives experts.

Their course is taking them outside all normal shipping lanes. And hopefully away from US Navy patrols. Their corporate signals book, captured at Singapore, is out of date; but should permit the ship time to get lethally close to any enquirer. The captain feels that only two things could serious jeopardise the mission if observed; the freighter is riding somewhat high in the water, and, they are travelling alone outside the proper zones.

In six more days of sailing they will be ready to rendezvous with Japanese submarine I-97.

July 21, 1945. 0300 hours.

The USS Cuttlefish had been on station for over a week, picket boat, drift and scoot, in the most northerly approaches to the Hawaiian Islands. There was a heavy sea running, but the barometer was steady. The surfaced submarine rolled and pitched with the seas.

“Sir, I have a sonar contact,” Williams said over his right shoulder.

Captain Prescott leaned over as Williams dialled in a bearing. “How distant?”

“Probably four thousand yards, sir.”

“What do you make of her?

“Diesels, twin-screws, hauling ass eastward, sir.”

Captain Prescott turned to his radar operator. “What have you got, Mike?”

“Nothing yet, sir….No…wait…very intermittent contact now, sir… seas are making contact difficult. Could be riding low in the water. If she’s a sub, she’s a big ‘un, size of a destroyer. If it’s a destroyer, then she’s got precious little superstructure to throw an echo. My bet, Jap long distance sub.”

“Mr. Howard.”

“Sir?” The navigation officer replied.

“Give me course and speed for an underwater interception.”

“Eye , eye, sir.”

“Mr. Mogumber, take us down to periscope depth. Sound action stations. Ready tubes one and two.”

The boat came to life as the claxon rang, and orders were passed along and acted upon. In ten minutes the submarine was at periscope depth, interception speed and course were in hand, and the forward torpedo room crew were hard at work preparing two deadly fish.

The captain ordered ‘up periscope’, and rode the handles up out of the well. He aimed the periscope westward. “Up five,” he ordered, to cope with the swell.

“Up five it is, sir.” The chief of the boat responded.

“Forward torpedo room reports armed and ready, sir,” the Exec reported.

“Very well.” He remained glued to the eyepiece. “Sonar, bearing and speed?”

“Eleven knots sir, and she’s…”

“OK, got’er. Bearing, Mark.” The exec read off the numbers and activated the Is-Was machine. “Definite Jap sub.” In his mind he was going over his two options: shadow and see where and why this Jap sub was heading; or sink her, and put a quick end to whatever mission she was on. Not always a patient man, when targets were sitting ducks, he took another bearing. “Range and Mark”

The data was entered. Eventually, “Solution,” announced the Exec.

“Set and shoot.”


“Fire one!”

“One fired electrically.”

“Fire two.”

“Two fired electrically.”

“Running time?”

“Fifty-two seconds.”

“Down scope, surface. Prepare for surface action!”

The activity level jumped to high gear. Fifty-one seconds into the surfacing evolution the sound of an explosion reached them, and soon a pressure wave. Another three seconds later a second detonation followed. Smiles all around. The sub broke surface, and the lookouts and captain rapidly mounted the ladder to the bridge. Up the hatch came the reports, “Sonar reports engines stopped, sounds of flooding… breaking up sounds.”

“Very well, Chief.”

They didn’t see her final dive.

“Debris off the port bow,” called out a lookout.

“All ahead slow,” the captain ordered. “Deck crew to retrieve .”

The next ten minutes were spent grabbing bits of floating debris that surfaced on the spot where the sub had been. Because she had been running surfaced when hit, the twin explosions had ripped open the hull and scattered quite a bit of debris. The seamen kept some clothes, a few papers, and a book; and pulled two torn bodies aboard. Everything confirmed Japanese. An oil slick formed. The Cuttlefish radioed its report and sailed away, ordered by Comsubpac to folow the course the Jap sub had been steaming.


July 25, 1945. 0720 hours

The Exec had been watching the approaching freighter for five minutes, a Loyd’s register and a Janes reference book in his hands.

“Sir, I make her doing almost twenty knots,” informed the sonar operator.

“Something very not right here, Exec. Are you sure the silhouette is that of the Maid of Skye?

“That’s what Jane’s says, sir. But there’s no mention of her in Loyd’s after January, 1942. She was on the Bombay to Cairo run.”

“Makes no sense. Not that speed, not here, not this time of year, not on her course, and not alone. And, she looks like she’s riding empty, despite her load of deck cargo. I smell a rat. Make ready tubes 1 to 4. Down scope. Lets follow her for a while. Give us a course to follow, Sonar.”

“Eye, eye, sir.”

Two hours later the sonar operator said that the suspect ship was slowing.

“Gottcha”, smiled the captain. “Let’s catch up to this Flying Dutchman.”


Having reached the required coordinates for the rendezvous with the I-97, Captain Shizu Kaizuki ordered speed cut to bare steerageway. The scientists have armed the weapon, packed their bags, and are awaiting the sub and transfer away from the death ship. An hour passes.

“Lookouts report possible periscope off starboard quarter. Sonar reports sound of screws.”

The captain trained his glasses in the given direction; just in time to see the wake of three torpedoes.

“Emergency! Full speed ahead, Hard to port!” he cried in anger.

The Azusa Maru never finished her turn.


“Four fired sir. Running straight, hot and normal.”

“Down scope. Reload tubes one and two. Running time?”

“First fish should get there in one minute 34 seconds, sir.”

“Sonar, sir, I’m getting high engine revs and a change in aspect toward us.” He took off his headphones in expectation of the detonations.

At one minute 22 seconds the captain ordered the scope raised again.

“Yes,” he said as he focused, “she trying to turn into us. Not enough way on her, she shouldn’t complete the turn.”


No detonation.

“First fish missed.”


“Fish two.”


“Three.” Then there was an overwhelming detonation, so loud it sounded like it had gone off inside the sub.

Captain Prescott screamed, threw his head back from the scope and covered his eyes.

“Down to 100!” ordered the Exec as he grabbed for the collapsing captain. “Get the corpsman up here on the double!”

A pressure wave shook the boat violently.

As the boat dropped to its new depth, and corpsman and crew ministered to the dazed captain, while roiling seas continued to pound the submarine. The sounds of the final explosion continued for many seconds.

“Damage control report,” the Exec ordered over the loudspeaker.

“What was she carrying,” questioned the Chief of the Boat, “munitions?”

While the Exec took command, the medic and three sailors carried the captain to his quarters and settled him into his bunk.
“Damage control reports superficial damage only, some leaks and a couple popped valves. One possible broken wrist. All under repair, sir.” The Chief reported.

“Very well chief. Bring us up to periscope depth,” the acting captain commanded.

“Periscope depth eye,” repeated the Chief of the boat. “60 feet under the keel and holding.”

The periscope rose and Lieutenant Commander Mogumber rode it up and unfolded the handles. After doing two complete sweeps, he ordered, “Surface, blow all tanks.”
The Cuttlefish broke surface with a rush. The Exec and the lookouts came up, and looked out on…. Almost Nothing.

No ship, no debris, no oil slick. Only the immediate sea was different, a strange smoky haze in a mile’s circumference covered a flat iridescent calm. The clouds above were boiling like a cauldron. An hour’s search brought no flotsam into their nets, or anything up-welling from below. The navigator took a sighting when the haze blew east, and recorded their position in the log. They sailed off, and the Exec went below to check on the captain.

The captain lay in his bunk, bandages on his eyes. “It was bizarre, Ted,” the captain began. “The first torpedo must have missed. When the second fish hit amidships there was an internal explosion, and then two rockets shot into the air from the deck. They travelled aimlessly for about a mile, and then exploded with what looked like confetti. The second fish to hit blew down some screens, exposing her guns. An AMC for sure. With the third detonation came the brightest explosion I have ever seen.”

“His eyes are burned, but I’ve put on ointment and given him a shot of morphine. We’ll keep the bandages on a few days, and then see how he’s doing,” advised the medic.

“I’ve radioed a report,” informed the Exec. “They’ve asked us to return to base.”


The Cuttlefish didn’t answer interrogation, hail or radio call, but drove on at flank speed the last two miles towards Pearl and ran aground at the harbour entrance. The guard boat on the scene found only pestilence and devastation on board. One man remained alive, an engineer, bleeding out on the bridge, and he soon died. The stench and crudescence below sent the first sailors aboard rushing back up on deck to puke out their guts. The sub was put under guard in quarantine, and a forensic medical team was called from the Naval hospital at Pearl.

They found that all the crew below were dead. Massive bleeding, burns, and pustulant sores. Vomit and faeces covered every inch of decking. The medicos took samples of tissue, blood, vomit, and faeces, anything that might help them identify the plaque that killed the crew. How had they contracted such disease at sea? Nothing like this had been reported among personnel in Pearl since the Cuttlefish left for patrol. Nothing like this was happening in the civilian population. Who or what had they come in contact with that killed with so much virulence? Perhaps the log would tell.
Quickly identified was Anthrax. But that only affected senior officers and lookouts. The rest of the crew had died of some other cause.

Because of the virulence and unknown nature of the agent, it was ordered that the sub be taken out to sea, her sea cocks opened and she be scuttled; a common grave for all aboard. And thus it was done; and half forgotten as the hardest year of the Pacific War progressed on till V-J Day.

V-J Day, but only after Atomic bombs had devastated two cities, terror bombing on a Herculean scale. And then the medicos and scientist swarmed over the nuclear sites, and found?

Found all the same symptoms of the crew of the Cuttlefish: radiation burns, radiation poisoning. Eventually a report reached Pearl, and a Geiger-counter was used on the ship’s log taken from the sub. It showed high traces of radioactivity. And then Naval Intelligence, that oxymoron extraordinaire, understood the awful truth….The Japanese had almost reached America with some sort of nuclear, and/or germ warfare, device. From President Truman on down, this information was classified, buried and forgotten. Except of course by the sailors and medicos who boarded her in 1945. And so it remains to this day: scuttlebutt, rumour, and urban legend.

And now we know, in retrospect, that the Azusa Maru carried pathogens mounted on rockets, and a nuclear ‘dirty-bomb’ to deliver to Seattle.

- End –

James Gagiikwe

© Copyright 2018 James Gagiikwe. All rights reserved.

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