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Monday, March 12, 2001

USS Greeneville

Missing teacher:
‘I would never
escape before
the students’


By Leila Fujimori

Bullet Admiral: Sub right not helping
Bullet Missing teacher: Students first

It was to be high school teacher Jun Nakata's fifth voyage aboard the Ehime Maru, but before he left Japan, he sensed this time would be different, his father said.

While his father wrote in large letters "Ehime Maru" on the side of a big box packed by Nakata's sister, and with the whole family gathered around, Nakata told his father, Kazuo, "If something happens to the ship, Dad, I would let all the students go first. I would never escape before the students."

"I told him: 'It depends on the circumstances. Say you were rescued and the students weren't -- I don't think you would be blamed for that,'" said the 55-year-old father, pulling out a green plaid handkerchief as his eyes welled with tears. "But the kid's not the kind to let the students go before him."

Jun Nakata was lost at sea with eight others aboard the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fisheries training vessel, on Feb. 9 after the USS Greeneville, a U.S. Navy submarine, tore into the vessel's hull.

The 33-year-old teacher usually packed for these trips at his Uwajima home, but Nakata and wife Naoko, 5-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter were celebrating shogatsu, Japanese New Year, at Kazuo Nakata's home in nearby Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Nakata said his last words to his son were "Take care."

Kazuo Nakata related the story of his only son to the Star-Bulletin in a private interview Saturday.

Kazuo Nakata said through an interpreter that Jun's love of fishing prompted him to ask his father to attend a fisheries high school in Yamaguchi when he was in junior high school. Jun went on to study aquaculture at Miyazaki University.

He described his son as "very upright, very cheerful and very likable. Everybody loved him."

Kazuo Nakata and his wife, Mikie, arrived in Honolulu on March 3 and have been attending the Navy's court of inquiry at Pearl Harbor since last Monday.

Kazuo Nakata, who works for a construction company, was showing a house to clients the day of the accident.

He said he first heard a news flash on the car radio at about 10:50 a.m. saying the Ehime Maru had been hit by a submarine.

He thought there was no way the 499-ton ship would sink. Maybe it was dented by the impact. Maybe a few people were injured.

Then he heard a second news flash: "The Ehime Maru sank."

"Suddenly, when I heard that, my whole head went blank," Nakata said.

He does not remember how he got home, what streets he took. When he arrived, his family was watching the news on television.

They saw footage of the rescue and survivors being taken to the Coast Guard station. "One person was hurt -- lying down -- in the news footage, and it looked like my son, Jun, especially the shape of the head."

"That's my big brother," said Jun's only sibling, sister Kaori, 27.

The family's hopes were lifted.

They kept replaying a videotape of the newscast over and over to confirm it was Jun.

Kazuo Nakata was glued to the television, praying his son was alive.

Then, about two hours after they first heard the news, the list was announced.

"The names of the missing students were mentioned, along with two teachers, and they gave their names, too. One of the teachers' names was my son's," Nakata said.

Nakata decided he would go to Hawaii and, that day, drove four hours to the prefectural government office to obtain a passport.

As for his wife, Nakata said: "Since she was the one who bore the child, I can only assume the pain was much greater than mine. She couldn't express anything in words. She was totally despondent.

"My wife takes care of our son, and I take care of our daughter," Nakata said, describing his family. "There are very strong bonds between us."

"It is very likely that my wife might miss our son more than if she should lose me," Nakata said, adding that he must take care of his wife now.

Nakata went to Hawaii on his own but could get only limited information through the Japanese Consulate and foreign ministry while here. Upon his return, he found his wife had not eaten and had lost a lot of weight.

"Why couldn't you get more information?" she asked him in frustration. That was when they decided to return to Hawaii together.

Although it dredges up memories of the accident, Nakata and his wife attend the court of inquiry daily. Nakata often uses binoculars to get a good view of the technical graphics being displayed in the courtroom.

It is Nakata's desire to learn exactly what happened during the accident that moves him to attend each session of the inquiry. He looks forward to hearing the testimony of Hisao Onishi, the Ehime Maru captain, and other witnesses this week.

"At this point all I can do is guess," he said. "All I want to do is collect as much information as possible to satisfy myself."

He likened the accident to a pyramid in which many contributing elements built up to a point, peaking when the accident happened.

"At this point I don't think it is one person's responsibility alone," he said.

Nakata and the other families of the missing finally received a long-awaited personal apology from sub Cmdr. Scott Waddle on Thursday.

All the things Waddle expressed in a prior letter of apology were meaningless "until I came face to face with him. ... Then everything -- all the things he did -- became genuine," Nakata said. "Until then, I wasn't really sure if the things he did were just a gesture.

"I looked into his eyes and I heard his words, and I found out that the man has all the qualities and integrity to live as a human being," Nakata said.

The decision to salvage the Ehime Maru was expected to be announced today, something the families of the missing have strongly urged.

When asked his reaction if the answer is no, he said: "I would trust that the country would take responsibility for it. I absolutely believe they will raise the Ehime Maru. I had this belief from the beginning. It hasn't changed."

Nakata and his wife say they have been touched by the reaction of the people in Hawaii.

"There is such a thing as the aloha spirit here," he said.

"It really welcomes me in such a warm way," he said. "Sometimes when I'm feeling so down, it kind of lifts me up."

Despite all the attention from camera crews and reporters, Nakata and his wife credit the media for coming up with new information on the tragedy.

"I actually feel very thankful," he said. "Through you we can relay our feelings to the American and Japanese nations. But sometimes, because of all the sadness, there are ups and downs and it's hard to get by. But we still try to accommodate you and try to express our feelings so that you could let everybody know."

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