Saturday, December 7, 2013
By Bill Nemitz email@example.com
Late last week, as the horror of Japan's earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe was just beginning to unfold, Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement of condolence and prayer for the victims of that country's worst calamity since the end of World War II.
LePage also noted that Maine "has a sister-state relationship with the Prefecture of Aomori," about 150 miles north of the all-but-obliterated city of Sendai.
Sister state? When, some Mainers undoubtedly wondered, did that happen?
Well, it depends on how you look at it.
The formal relationship was struck by Gov. John McKernan in 1994.
But the story, as told in a 1997 speech in Aomori by a local resident, Kou Ootaka, goes back more than a century.
It was late October of 1889. The Chesebrough, a three-masted ship built by Arthur Sewall and Co. in Bath, had sailed from Maine to Japan with a shipment of case oil, refilled its hold with 2,300 tons of sulfur and was just getting under way on its long voyage back to the United States.
It had been a rough trip. A typhoon the previous month had heavily damaged the Chesebrough, forcing its 23-member crew to lay over in the port of Hokkaido for 34 days while the vessel was repaired.
Their luck would be no better as they finally set sail on Oct. 28. Another ferocious storm hit the Japan Sea the next day, toppling the ship's main mast and leaving Capt. Peter Erickson and his men helpless as the Chesebrough broke up and sank within sight of the Japanese village of Shariki.
Villagers came running to the shore and built bonfires. Fishermen boarded a rescue vessel and headed out to search for survivors.
They found only four.
"Are you Napoleon? Are you Bismarck? Are you Washington?" asked a policeman, trying to determine the sailors' nationality. At the mention of "Washington," they replied, "Yes! Yes!"
"They are Americans!" the policeman announced.
One of those pulled from the water, a man named Wilson, was unconscious and appeared to be near death. But something remarkable happened.
"At this time, one of the women who had brought food from the village, Mrs. Han Kudo, 45 years old and the wife of Mr. Yoshiemon Kudo, did not hesitate in public," Ootaka recalled. "She took off her clothes and hugged Mr. Wilson in the sleet to warm him up. People still say she looked like a heavenly maiden. Miraculously, Mr. Wilson was revived."
For days, even after the survivors recovered from their ordeal and departed for their long trip home, Japanese villagers found the bodies of other crew members washing up on their shore. All of them, including 40-year-old Capt. Erikson, received solemn burials.
And the Japanese never forgot.
At the top of a hill overlooking the village is a religious shrine. And near that is a stone commemorating the wreck of the ship from faraway Maine.
"Every year since the disaster, the people of Shariki hold a service for the sailors who lost their lives on that night in 1889," Ootaka said. And for 100 of those years, few if any Mainers even knew about it.
That changed in 1990, when the mayor of Shariki sent a letter to Bath City Hall to tell officials of the annual memorial service, and to lament the fact that in 100 years, no representative from Bath had visited the village.
That simple communication, and the visits between dignitaries from both communities that soon followed, led to the establishment of a vibrant sister-city relationship between Bath and Shariki in 1996. (The connection was expanded in 2006 to include the city of Tsugaru, which encompasses Shariki.)
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