Commander Bill King, who lives in Oranmore castle at the top of Galway Bay, often says that if there is anything decent in him, it�s because he was reared by women. Both his father and uncle were killed in World War I and his mother �feminine and fragile� did her best with her �out-of-hand son.� He adored his grandmother who in her advanced old age threw aside the genteel occupations expected of Edwardian ladies at the time, and took up sailing with a vengeance. In her 80s, in sea boots and oil skins she sailed a 54-ft. yawl round the stormy west coast of Scotland. She would sit beaming at the tiller in all weathers, �looking like a jolly red seal in her sou�wester�. As she grew older and there were guests on board she would head out to sea, and if the sea got rough she would pretend not to hear their pleas to return to shore. She�d keep her hand on the tiller and do exactly what she wanted to do ignoring the wishes of everyone else.
At 12 years old King was sent to the Royal Naval training college Dartmouth where the day began at dawn to the sound of a bugle and the boys were kept pretty well on the run all day between lessons, the games field, practical training and beatings. At last King was posted to the HMS Resolution for a two year tour of the Mediterranean. " Such was our nursery," he wrote in his book The Stick and the Stars (published in 1958, and is regarded as a classic account of submarine warfare) " Between Gibraltar, Malta, Majorca, Alexandria, Athens, and Constantinople, the years of our youth fled, and we slipped tardily into manhood, moulded, simple fashion, by the stick and the stars."
At 28 years of age, at the outbreak of war, King was given his first command, the submarine HMS Snapper which saw some fierce action in the North Sea, and along the Norwegian coast. The midnight sun allowed him and his crew little respite from enemy aircraft. The Snapper was lost, probably in a mine field in the Baltic; but by chance Cmdr King was on sick leave.
His next command, the HMS Telemachus, saw action off the Malaysian and Sumatra coasts where, among other successes, his submarine sank the Japanese submarine the I-166. Understandably, the war exacted its toll; and although Cmdr King emerged highly decorated, but so stressed he found it difficult to settle back into civilian life. He had served 14 years in submarines, six of which were spent in almost continuous action, an individual record unequalled in the submarine branch of any navy during the war. It was only after some intense transatlantic racing, and a record breaking circumnavigation on board his Chinese rigged Galway Blazer II that he was he able to exorcise the terrors of submarine warfare that took the lives of so many of his friends, many of whom perished in horrific circumstances.
Distinguished war record
Cmdr King was fortunate to marry Anita Leslie, a cousin of Winston Churchill and a decedent of the Leslies of Monaghan, who like many of the old Irish aristocracy have with a fair sprinkling of cheerful crackpots among their ranks. But there was nothing whimsical about Anita, however. She enjoyed a brilliant career as a biographer, and like her husband had a distinguished war record. She joined the French Army as an ambulance driver and at times actually drove her ambulance behind enemy lines to rescue Frenchmen from the notorious prison camps. General de Gaulle personally awarded her two Croixes de Guerre. She met her husband during the war when both were on leave skiing in the Lebanon. Anita and her husband came to live in Oranmore in the early 1960s, and while she wrote her books, the Cmdr farmed, and sailed, and rode fearlessly with the Galway Blazers. They have two children, Tarka and Leonie.
Made all the difference
It must have come a quite of a surprise when out of the blue a request came from Akira Tsurukame to meet the Commander. Akira�s father was the chief engineer on board the Japanese submarine I-166 sunk by King in 1944. The thought did cross the commander�s mind that perhaps Akira was out for some kind of revenge and he wrote to the intermediary, who was trying to set up the meeting, expressing his concerns. By his brief note we get a picture of the kind of man Cmdr King is. He wrote that he had no problem meeting Mr Tsurukame, � however, as I killed his father, there is a risk that he may be secretly vengeful. For myself it matters not. I am 94. However, at Oranmore Castle I have a daughter and grandchildren. I would therefore be glad to meet this gentleman at any place of his own choosing in Galway. Drinks on me!�
Tsurukame and his wife Kay and their son flew to Galway in March of this year. They were joined by Katja Boonstra, whose father was killed by the submarine on which Tsurukame's father served. It was a strange group of people who had their first meeting in the kitchen of Oranmore castle. Tsurukame describes what happened:" It was almost a miracle encounter," he said. "We talked, ate and drank. We laughed and cried. Three families became one."
This weekend the families met up again, to plant a tree to commemorate their meeting, and to hope their children and grandchildren will never have to participate in a war. They first gathered in Phyllis and Michael McNamara's generous home the Grange, Oranmore, on Saturday evening. Mr Tsurukame, a deeply spiritual man, was endeavouring to explain to me why he began this 'journey' to find the man who killed his father in the heat of battle, and not to let it rest after 60 years. Mr Tsurukame talked about the richness he has found on his 'journey,' but the poet Mary O'Malley, who was also present, quoted the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken. It seemed to explain something of the mystical odyssey that Mr Tsurukame and Mrs Boonstra were experiencing. And they were pleased with the poem.