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Old Apr 11 2012, 01:00 PM   #1
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Default The Master Mariner

The Master Mariner

It is a mid-September afternoon in 1918. In a compartment of a Great Western steam train departing from Euston, sit an elderly sea-captain, Hector Fraser, and his wife. This morning they had left their home in Christchurch, Mrs Fraser had insisted on moving there from East London as she didn’t like being bombed, and they had journeyed by train up to London. Tonight they will dine with Captain Schofield, a port pilot in Liverpool, and his wife. They will spend the night together in Hunt’s Hotel. Tomorrow they will tenderly part as so often in the past, and his ship, the Hirano Maru, will raise steam and transfer from Liverpool Docks to Birkenhead to take on her passengers for the long trip around South Africa and up to India, then across to the Malay States and up to her home base in Yokohama.

Hector Fraser had been born in 1847 at Ryefield, where his father was the Inspector for the Poor. Not much is known about his boyhood and he next surfaces in 1862 as crew on a sailing ship, the “Murray”, which took him to Australia for the first time. It was a very slow voyage, taking some eighteen months.

Around 1869, probably at church near the docks, he meets the twelve year old Elizabeth Mary Fish and she falls for the young officer. She had been born around 1857 in London, probably around the Elephant and Castle and, according to oral history; she was to work as a typist in a shipping office. Oral history also says that he had been working on clippers for some of this period.

There is a possible sighting of him in 1871. A Hector Fraser, aged twenty-four, which is the right age for him, is noted in that year’s census as living in Tatamagouche, Newfoundland, and working as a skipper. Again, there is a long gap in our knowledge of his career until around 1883 when he married Elizabeth. At that time she would have been very lonely with him away for months on end. So, she continued to live with her parents who soon moved to Barnet where her father, a master boot and shoe maker, set up his own shop.

Over the next decade or so the couple had four children: two daughters, Ella and Sissie, and two sons, William and Donald. In 1918 both the girls are married and have started families. Of the boys, William is a Lieutenant-Engineer in the Royal Navy, but Donald, a Lieutenant in the Army, had been killed at Arras in January.

Then, in 1885, Captain Fraser joins the new Japanese shipping line, Nippon Yusen Kaisha which needs to hire some foreigners to offset their shortage of suitable Japanese candidates.

We don’t know which ships he skippered at first, the N.Y.K. archives have been destroyed but, in the war Japan had against China about Korea in 1894 – 5, he did something that won him a ‘Star of the Secret Mirror’; the highest award given by the Mikado. Fifty-nine of N.Y.K’s ships were requisitioned by the government and used as hospital ships, or to transport troops and material. It was the policy of the Japanese government at this time that ships were built as dual-purpose with this possibility in mind.

In 1896 N.Y.K. inaugurated a route to London and Antwerp using the Tosa Maru under Captain MacMillan, but there were five other ships employed on this route and Captain Fraser may well have been in charge of one of them.
In 1897 he took charge of the brand new Kasuga Maru, built by Napiers at Govan. At first she was used on the new Japan – Australia route. But, in 1902 the Australian government started limiting immigration by “Orientals” and the some of the ships on this run got reassigned.

In 1904 Japan went to war again: this time against Russia. Again the government requisitioned a lot of N.Y.K’s ships: ninety-seven this time. Again Captain Fraser got awarded a Star of the Secret Mirror. Family legend has it that he took a selection of the Imperial family into voluntary exile in Siam. This would have been to the court of King Rama 5th otherwise known as Chulalongkorn. He was a son of King Rama 4th (Mongkut: well known as the King in “The King and I”) and he had fathered an amazing total of seventy-seven children.

In 1908 Hector Fraser was assigned to another larger new ship, the Hirano Maru, built by Mitsubishi at their yard in Nagasaki. She was only used on the European run and has made twenty-four round trips in the ten years since her launch and has had her share of adventures and mishaps. Because Hector was coming into the London docks on a regular basis, the Frasers bought a house in Wanstead, an easy journey by public transport. Very often he would arrive bringing souvenirs with him: a number of Japanese porcelain tea-sets arrived over the years, and a collection of ornaments such as a set of “three wise monkeys” hand-carved in stone.

Outbound in April 1915, in her camouflage paint, she was steaming on her own round the north-west corner of Portugal, supposedly out of the danger zone. It was about 02.00 on the morning of the 4th and, in the clear moonlight her crew spotted a U-boat. Captain Fraser ordered all passengers and crew on deck and into life jackets, just in case, and rang down for full speed ahead. Zigzagging randomly, the Hirano Maru drew away. Her top speed was just under seventeen knots. When surfaced, a U-boat’s was around thirteen. After some three hours of the chase, the Hirano ran into a heavy downpour of rain which masked her movements and allowed her to disappear safely.

Another encounter didn’t have such a happy outcome. Before dawn in mid-January 1918, heading across the Irish Sea to Birkenhead, in a convoy escorted by H.M.S. Ambuscade, the Hirano Maru had collided with the Hildena, a collier travelling laden with coal from Partington to Waterford. Just north of the Skerries the convoy, by prior arrangement, turned east for the last lap. Although the Hildena was showing lights, the convoy’s turn put her right in their path. Certainly the Hirano was running without lights. Neither ship made any change of course, although the Hirano did start to slow down it was far too late. The Hildena foundered with the loss of all hands two to three miles roughly north of the Skerries. As far as I can ascertain, only one of her crew has a memorial: Robert Jones, whose name appears on the war memorial at Holyhead.

The Hirano Maru duly moved across to Birkenhead on Wednesday 18th and commenced loading. She was due to sail on the 27th, but on that day various members of her officers and crew were making depositions to the Admiralty Court in Liverpool about the Hildena affair. The signed transcripts were submitted on October 1st. Judgement was not given until June 1919 (against N.Y.K.)

On board for this voyage they had some fairly important passengers. There were at least three members of the Union House of Assembly in South Africa. There were two fairly highly placed officers of the Yokohama Specie Bank, together with their wives and children. Among the rest there were nurses, missionaries, mine and factory managers, and a number of service personnel discharged due to war wounds. There were also two young Siamese men; one an Oxford graduate, the other an undergrad also at Oxford.

The early morning of October 4th saw the Hirano hanging around the St George’s Channel. The weather was lousy, with high seas and driving rain. Some say that she was waiting for a convoy to form up, but with all his experience of warfare, Captain Fraser should have known better than to wait in unprotected waters.

Also hanging around those waters that morning was the UB-91. Built at the Vulcan works in Hamburg, she had only been commissioned that year and was on her second patrol under Kapitänleutnant Wolf Hans Hertwig. Her first trip had been disappointing: her only action had been an inconclusive gun fight with some armed trawlers. This second trip had been more successful. The crew were shaking down and performing efficiently. Leaving Heligoland on the 14th September and now, lurking off St. George’s Channel, she had sunk the S.S. Hebburn on the 25th; the U.S.S. Tampa, an ex-Coastguard cutter, on the 26th with the loss of all hands; and the S.S. Baldersley on the 28th.

Now she had a new target. One at least twice the size of anything she had already tackled.

At 05.15, without warning, the first torpedo hit the Hirano Maru in the starboard side of her number two hold. The captain was probably on the bridge: dawn and dusk were the two most dangerous times. People ran panicking on deck, mainly in their night things, struggling into their life jackets and whatever extra clothing they had managed to grab.
In the wireless office behind the bridge, 19 year old Alan Lee, an R.N.V.R. Signalman, started broadcasting the S.O.S.

Three or four minutes later a second torpedo exploded in the starboard engine room sending large quantities of debris sailing into the air and into the sea. Whole doors were reported as floating like rafts. This was lucky since there was no time to launch the lifeboats. Those who were not swept into the sea by the waves, jumped in. Before long there were around two hundred people of all ages swimming desperately to anything that floated.
The Hirano Maru sank in seven minutes from the time when the first torpedo struck. Alan Lee had stuck to his job till it was too late for him to escape, but his signals had alerted the U.S.S. Skerrett, a Paulding class destroyer.

The Skerrett was part of the American squadron based in Queenstown, which has now reverted to its original name, Cobh. She was out on routine patrol and she arrived on the scene as soon as she could, around 05.40. She was about to start rescuing those in the water when the U-boat attacked her also. The two torpedoes missed, but she had to take evasive action. She depth-charged the general location of the U-boat and chased her away, probably damaged to some degree, but not fatally. There are records that the UB-91 had to spend some time off the coast of Cornwall repairing an engine. By the time the Skerrett returned to her humanitarian task, the cold water, and the concussive shockwaves from the depth-charges had drastically reduced the number of survivors. Of her ninety-seven passengers, just eleven still lived: of the hundred and forty-three crew, only nineteen. And one of those, the third officer, died before the Skerrett could land them back at Cobh.

A few days later a few bodies were washed up on the Pembroke coast. One was an English child: his family claimed his body for burial in London. The rest were identified simply as Japanese crew and were buried locally, eight at Dale and one at Angle. Signalman Lee’s body was washed up and buried at Milford Haven.

On the 9th of October the Frasers’ daughter, Sissie, wrote to Mrs Schofield:

“... My mother, Mrs Fraser, has asked me just to write to you, as doubtless you have heard that the ‘Hirano Maru’ has been torpedoed and sunk. Knowing that your husband piloted her from Liverpool, mother wondered when Mr. Schofield left the ship and if Father had sent any message for her by him.
“Father has gone down in the vessel, and naturally we are very anxious to get all the news we can of him after he left Liverpool. I feel sure you will not mind our writing to ask you. It is a great grief to Mother and us all; the whole event is very tragic and sad.”

Obviously the Pilot replied: because a few days later, on the 15th, Mrs Fraser writes to Captain Schofield:

“... Thank you so much for telling me all you knew of the last of my dear husband and ship we loved so much.
“I knew instinctively when I heard the Hirano was torpedoed that he would not be among the rescued unless all had been saved.
“I had the last three letters he wrote after I left Liverpool. They will be among my most treasured possessions. It seems impossible my darling husband has been taken so cruelly from me. We were so happy in Liverpool. We have been all in all to each other and I knew my husband ever since I was a child of twelve so you know he has been part of life.
“... We spent such a pleasant evening at your house & all the time in Liverpool.
“It is hopeless now to think of him being rescued & I must just bear the burden until we meet again in the Great Beyond ...”

The captain’s name appears on four memorials: the war memorial at Conan Bridge, a family memorial at Struy old burial ground, an N.Y.K. memorial in the grounds of the Cherry Blossom Temple in Shojiji, and on his wife’s grave in Barnet.

The UB-91 surrendered at Harwich on the 21st of November and was broken up in Pembroke Dock. Her deck gun is a war memorial in Chepstow. The Sterrett was decommissioned 19th December 1919 and sold for breaking-up in June 1935.

If the Hirano had left Birkenhead on time would she have met the UB-91? We’ll never know, but Wolf Hans Hertwig and his submarine had been hanging around that area for a couple of weeks. After Captain Fraser’s death some papers suggested that, as a distinguished merchant captain, the Germans might well have had a price on his head like they had had on Captain Fryatt who had rammed and sunk a U-boat with his unarmed merchant ship the previous year. Fryatt had been commended by their Lordships of the Admiralty, and presented with an engraved gold watch. German intelligence had kept an eye on him and, eventually, his ship was ambushed. They captured him and put him on trial claiming that sinking the U-boat made him a combatant, but since he wasn’t wearing naval uniform he must be a spy. They therefore took him out and shot him.


Captain Hector Fraser



Elizabeth Mary Fraser (née Fish)

I never knew the old sea-captain, although I do remember his wife. She taught me to build card houses when I was around four. Her daughters were my grandmother and great-aunt.

For some years in the twenties and thirties, the Vicar at Angle received anonymous donations to pay for flowers for the grave of the anonymous seaman. Who was it? We’ll never know, but I like to think that it was my Great-grandmother Fraser.
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Old May 6 2012, 11:13 AM   #2
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I read with interest this article called “Master Mariner” about Hector Fraser, especially where you describe a collision between the Hirano Maru and the SS Hildena in January 1918. I am interested in this as as I am the Great Grandson of Evan Baird, the master of the SS Hildena, and have spent some time investigating this incident. As with all incidents of this kind, even in war, there was an enquiry, and I have found these records in the UK National Archives. (I have the references should you ask, but they are easily found on the National Archive website and searching using “Hildena”) There are several places where your account of the collision is not accurate:

Firstly the weather on the morning of the collision was “Fine and Clear” though it was dark, being about 6:00 am on 15th of January

The Hirano Maru was in a convoy, heading up the Irish Sea, past Holyhead and Anglesey to Liverpool escorted by HMS Ambuscade. She was initially heading in a NE direction and was travelling at full speed without lights.

The SS Hildena had left the Manchester Ship Canal heading for Ireland on 14th January 1918 and was moving in a South Easterly direction, North of Skerries Rock, but was showing lights, and she was first seen by the Hirano Maru about 4 to 5 miles distant towards the East.

North of Skerries Rock the Hirano Maru turned East, (this was planned by the convoy the day before) and this turn brought her onto a heading towards the SS Hildena, who was now crossing from left to right in front of the Hirano Maru, but still 3 miles distant.

The Hildena did not alter course or speed and made no sign of having seen the Hirano Maru, until the collision.

The Hirano Maru slowed engines when she realized that a collision was possible, but was still almost at full speed when the collision occurred, and she made no course change. She ended up striking the Hildena amidships, almost splitting her in half. The SS Hildena sank quickly before either the Hirano Maru or her escort, HMS Ambuscade, could offer help.

The evidence of Captain Fraser (who was on the bridge the whole time) is that he did display a light 3 minutes before the collision, when still about a mile apart, however this did not match with records in either of the 2 logs, and was disputed by the court examiner.

The judgment of the hearing (made in June 1919) was in favour of the SS Hildena, and the owners of the Hirano Maru had to pay compensation to the owners of the Hildena for loss of the vessel and cargo and their legal costs, laying the blame for the incident on “Master Mariner” Hector Fraser.

Finally you say that the Hirano Maru was delayed before leaving on her last journey until October 1st 1918, but you didn’t know the reason. I can say, from the records, that Hector Fraser and members of the crew were giving their statements to the Admiralty Court in Liverpool on the 27th September 1918, and that the signed transcripts were submitted to the court on 1st of October.

The men lost on the Hildena were
• Evan Baird 38 Born Connahs Quay - Master
• Fred Hughes 49 Born Connahs Quay - Mate
• Fred Hughes(jr) 17 Born Connahs Quay - Sailor
• John Hughes 69 Born Amlwch - Sailor
• Thomas Jones 49 Born Bagilt - Engineer
• Rob. Jones 56 Born Holyhead - 2nd Engineer
• D McDonnell 22 Born Waterford, Ireland

You are right that there is no memorial to these men, but I hope to remedy that before January 15th 2018.
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Old May 8 2012, 11:33 AM   #3
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Thankyou for all that: I'll correct my script.

I only came across the 'Hildena' when researching various strands of family tree and googling 'Hirano Maru'. Until now the family haven't known about this.

The Hirano Maru was one of six sister ships built 1908 - 9. All six sank in war time.

The Miyazaki Maru: torpedoed by UB-88 1917,
The Hirano Maru: torpedoed by UB-91 1918,
The Kamo Maru: torpedoed by U.S.S. Tinosa 1941,
The Atsuta Maru: torpedoed by U.S.S. Pompano 1942,
The Kitano Maru: blown up by a mine (Japanese!) 1942,
The Mishima Maru: torpedoed by U.S.A.F. 1943.
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Old May 9 2012, 12:46 AM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by P'ter View Post
Thankyou for all that: I'll correct my script.

I only came across the 'Hildena' when researching various strands of family tree and googling 'Hirano Maru'. Until now the family haven't known about this.

The Hirano Maru was one of six sister ships built 1908 - 9. All six sank in war time.

The Miyazaki Maru: torpedoed by UB-88 1917,
The Hirano Maru: torpedoed by UB-91 1918,
The Kamo Maru: torpedoed by U.S.S. Tinosa 1941,
The Atsuta Maru: torpedoed by U.S.S. Pompano 1942,
The Kitano Maru: blown up by a mine (Japanese!) 1942,
The Mishima Maru: torpedoed by U.S.A.F. 1943.
The last line isn't quite historically correct. As a past member of the United States Air Force (U.S.A.F.), I was taught that it wasn't given that designation until September, 1947. Prior to that it was either the U.S. Army Air Forces (U.S.A.A.F.), or the U.S. Army Air Corps (U.S.A.A.C.), . Just a minor difference, but since the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps had (and have) their own air arm, it's rather historically significant.
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Old May 9 2012, 07:46 AM   #5
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Thank you for that. I hadn't realised the splits involved (typical Brit!) The report I read said that she'd been sunk by a torpoedo in an American air raid.

Come to think of it: that probably means a US Navy plane?

To confuse matters totally: I've found that N.Y.K. say that they scrapped her in 1934!

I haven't been able to trace any other Japanese line using the same name, so perhaps she was taken out of mothballs for WW2.

A Mishima Maru was a troop ship at the invasion of Manus (08/Apr/1942) and was being used as a guard ship at Rabaul when sunk in an air-raid (12/Oct/1943).

She's mentioned a few times in a book: 'The Most Dangerous Man in Australia'.

MAIN TEXT AMENDED!
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Old May 9 2012, 08:36 AM   #6
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Come to think of it: that probably means a US Navy plane?

MAIN TEXT AMENDED!
You said she was torpedoed by a plane, so yes, most likely a Navy torpedo bomber. I don't think any branch besides the Navy operated them. The Marines usually operated air combat and ground support planes, while torpedo bombers were usually Navy.
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Old May 10 2012, 12:05 PM   #7
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An account of the air raid gives the following:

Quote:
12 October 1943: American Air Raid on Rabaul:
LtGen(later General) George C. Kenney's 5th Air Force hits Rabaul with the biggest raid made up to this time in the Pacific war. 349 aircraft, including 87 Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” and B-24 “Liberator” heavy bombers, 114 North American B-25 “Mitchell” strafers, 12 RAAF Bristol "Beaufighters" and 125 Lockheed P-38 "Lightning" fighters and others from New Guinea and Australia hit Rabaul's town, airfields and Simpson harbor.
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