Apr 11

Diplomatic Exchange with Japan — 1942

Thursday, April 11, 2019 1:50 AM

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MS Gripsholm carrying prisoners of war, loads Red Cross supplies in New York Harbor.

MS Gripsholm was a Swedish passenger ship contracted by the State Department for diplomatic exchange.
U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

While cataloguing photos for the Naval Institute’s digital image collection, one of our archivists brought this photo to my attention. I was intrigued, and started to search our content for the story behind the picture. It didn’t take me long to find the fascinating story related in a first person account by Captain Henri Harold Smith-Hutton, U.S. Navy (Retired) in his oral history transcript from interviews conducted by Captain Paul Ryan at Smith-Hutton’s home in Palo Alto, California in 1973.

Captain Smith-Hutton was serving as Naval Attaché in Japan at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In Captain Smith-Hutton’s account, he recalls life as he experienced it while being interned at the American Embassy compound in Japan for over six months from December 1941 through most of June, 1942. Initially, he expected that the diplomatic staff and their families would be released shortly after Christmas, but that was not to be the case. He and his wife and young daughter lived relatively comfortably in a spare bedroom at the Ambassador’s home during this period, but they did not learn about the plan for repatriation until the first week of May.

Captain Smith-Hutton goes into detail about the American community organizing themselves to get through this difficult time, creating a commissary, living in offices, and smoking coffee grinds when they ran out of cigarettes. Clothing was made from draperies during the cold winter and much of the limited allowance for fuel oil was used for hot water to wash clothes and bathe.

When the diplomatic exchange was announced by the Swiss Minister in May, it was revealed that Lourenco Marques in Portuguese West Africa had been chosen as the exchange point. The Japanese Foreign Office had proposed that the Asama Maru and the captured Italian liner, Conte Verde would carry Americans, Canadians, and South Americans from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Saigon, and Singapore to the exchange point. The State Department accepted the plan.

MS Osama Maru.
U.S. Naval Institute Postcard Collection

They left the Embassy in Tokyo on 17 June to board the Asama Maru in Yokohama, staying anchored in the harbor until 25 June when they finally sailed. Captain Smith-Hutton noted that some of the civilian passengers, notably newspapermen and oil company executives had been badly treated by the Japanese police at their internment camps while they were trying to get them to falsely confess to spying on Japan.

The Asama Maru finally arrived in the harbor of the picturesque town of Lourenco Marques (now Maputo, the capital of Mozambique) on July 23 after a long hot voyage across the Indian Ocean. A couple of hours later the Conte Verde arrived with more passengers. Late that afternoon, the Swedish ship MS Gripsholm arrived with the Japanese diplomats and citizens that had been residing in the Americas who were to be exchanged to complete the repatriation.

The exchange was finally conducted by the Swiss Foreign Office, the State Department, and the Japanese Foreign Office.

On board the Gripsholm at last, the Smith-Hutton family settled into a comfortable state room and enjoyed a beautiful Swedish smorgasbord on the main deck which was the best meal they’d had in months.

First class dining area aboard the MS Gripsholm.
U.S. Naval Institute Postcard Collection.

I was intrigued and charmed by numerous other details and personal anecdotes included in Captain Smith-Hutton’s oral history. I highly recommend reading the full text of his transcript.