At 9:40 PM on February 15, 1898, five tons of powder charges exploded in the forward section of the battleship USS Maine as she lay at anchor in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. The explosion obliterated that part of the ship where the enlisted crew had their quarters and were retiring for the night. Of the 355-member crew (26 officers, 290 enlisted seamen and 39 Marines), 261 men died or were declared missing and presumed dead. Ninety-four men survived and, of this number, 16 were not injured. Though largely American, the crew also included citizens of Canada, Great Britain, Russia, Japan, China, and the Philippines.
Of the USS Maine’s 261 known or missing/presumed dead, 231 have gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery and 27 at the USS Maine Plot in the Key West, Florida, City Cemetery. The remains of three men were returned to their families. The identities of 63 men interred in Arlington National Cemetery are known and 168 gravesites are dedicated to those whose bodies were never found and who were declared missing/presumed dead. The USS Maine Plot, dedicated on December 11, 1898, and administered by the City of Key West and the U.S. Navy, contains nine gravesites of identified crewmen and 18 dedicated to those missing/presumed dead.
Nine Japanese nationals were serving as U.S. Navy seamen aboard the USS Maine when it was destroyed. One had completed 14 years of sea duty; three had completed their first three-year enlistments and were on their second three-year enlistments; and five were in their first three-year enlistment. Two of the nine men survived; one was wounded, the other uninjured. Kashitara Suzuki’s body was recovered from the Maine on March 24, 1898, one week before recovery activity stopped with 75 bodies still in the vessel. His tombstone is at Spot 47 in the USS Maine Plot of the Key West City Cemetery.
It is likely that the unidentified remains of the six Japanese seamen declared missing/presumed dead are also interred in the City Cemetery. In Key West their graves are marked by individual tombstones bearing the inscription, “One Unknown. U.S. Battleship Maine. Killed in Havana Harbor, February 15, 1898.” It is not known how many of the Asian nationals risked their lives to gain U.S. citizenship that was not otherwise possible as the U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790 prohibited Asians from becoming U.S. citizens.
Referring to the Issei on the USS Maine in 1898, retired Army historian Dr. James McNaughton, author of Nisei Linguists: Japanese Americans in the Military Intelligence Service During WW II, commented: "When thousands of Nisei joined the U.S. Army in World War II, few of them knew that they followed in the footsteps of some ancestors that history nearly forgot. In the nineteenth century, many Japanese men signed up to serve on U.S. Navy warships, often as cooks or mess attendants. When the USS Maine exploded, seven men tragically became the first known persons of Japanese origin to die under the flag of the United States. These men may be silent in the historical record but are not forgotten. Over time their footsteps were but the first of many on the long path of proud service in the armed forces of the United States that continues to this day."
JRT Comment. As Dr. McNaughton noted, Japanese nationals also served on other U.S. war ships. One such person is a Nisei, Nobuteru Harry Sumida, born in New York City in 1872 of a Japanese father and Caucasian mother. He enlisted in 1891 and served as a gunner on the USS Indiana in the Battle of Santiago, Cuba, where he received a shrapnel wound in his right leg. During WW II he was forcibly incarcerated at the Manzanar incarceration camp. During the early phase of our research we could not find any published data on the nine Japanese nationals. The JAVA Research Team hopes this article sparks an interest in a researcher, probably collaborating with a Japanese scholar, to write a more comprehensive paper.
While the content and presentation is ours, our appreciation for collecting and assisting in the various phases of our research is gratefully extended to Dean DeRosa, Arlington National Cemetery; Russell Brittain, City Cemetery, Key West; Ambassador (Admiral, USN Retired) Harry Harris, JAVA Member; RADM Samuel Cox, USN Retired, and Mark Mollan, Naval History and Heritage Command; Ellen Nakashima, JAVA member; Theresa Fitzgerald and David Hardin, National Personnel Records Center; Adebo Adetono, NARA; William Elsbury, Library of Congress; Erika Moritsugu, Esq, JAVA member; US Senator Tammy Duckworth and Benjamin Rhodeside; Douglas Haynes, US Census Bureau; John Tobe, JAVA Member; Edson Mori; Dr. Thomas and Catherine Yoshikawa (financial); Jeffrey and Yoko Morita, JRT researchers; and Dr. James McIlwain, Professor Emeritus, Neuroscience, Brown University, JRT editor.