The adventures of an Italian submariner in the Pacific Ocean

The incredible story of Raffaello Sanzio, a sailor from Bari assigned to the submarine Cappellini who, after September 8th, 1943 decided to keep fighting first along with the Germans, and then after May 8th, 1945 along with the Japanese.The story of Raffaello Sanzio, a sailor who from summer 1940 to summer 1943 was assigned to various Italian submarines based in Bordeaux (he served aboard the Bagnolini and Torelli), is incredible. He left Bordeaux in July 1943 aboard the submarine Cappellini for Penang in the Far East. This sailor from Bari – at the time slightly more than 20 years old – surely thought about facing the long and difficult mission (the Cappellini was transferring to Singapore several dozen tons of war material, quinine, and mercury for the Japanese and on the way back – if all had gone right – would have brought back to Bordeaux a certain quantity of rubber, tin, and rare metals for the Italian and German war industries), but he would never have dreamed to end up fighting under a different flag.

July 12th, 1943: The Cappellini in the Strait of Malacca

In September the Cappellini, along with the Giuliani and Torelli (also used in a similar mission), arrived in Singapore and barely had time to unload its cargo. A few days later, the events surrounding the Italian armistice placed the crew in serious hardship, as they were taken prisoners by the Japanese. Nevertheless, after a few weeks of hard imprisonment, disobeying the orders given by the officers, almost the entire crew (along with the men of the Giuliani and Torelli) decided to keep on fighting along with the former German and Japanese allies, thus joining the Italian Social Republic.

Raffaello Sanzio in 1944 wearing the uniform of the Kriegsmarine

For many years, due to political and ideological reasons, the story of these numerous sailors deployed (or better, abandoned) in the Far East who refused to follow the orders of the Badoglio government was placed in the “forget me” box to avoid creating problems. The first and perhaps the only one who spoke about it was the famous Italian journalist Arrigo Petacco who, in 1986, was able to interview the Italian sailor Raffaele Sanzio in Yokohama. Raffaele Sanzio, then 66, recounted the whole story of the sailors like him, who fought aboard the Italian submarines (captured by the German forces in Singapore and Sepang) along with crewmembers of the Kriegsmarine, and later along those of the Japanese Navy. Their efforts were not much appreciated by Italy. He had an opportunity to say that after Japan’s surrender (September 1st, 1945) the few surviving sailors were imprisoned by the Americans and treated like real traitors. On its part, the Navy of the Italian Republic (Marina Militare) issued a decree against these valorous survivors – guilty only of having wanted to defend Italy’s honor – stripping them of their rank and pension; a serious and sad event.

Raffaello Sanzio in 1986 during the interview with Arrigo Petacco

These days, he is still mortified by those events – he is 83 – still lives in Yokohama and cannot return to Italy. He married a Japanese woman and decided to settle in Japan for the rest of his life. “ It is not right to have been treated like that. I, along with my comrades, just did my duty, and well. Think that with the Cappellini (with a mixed Japanese-Italian crew) we fought in the Pacific Ocean against overwhelming forces. For the record, I can confirm that it was the 13.2 mm Breda machine guns of my submarine that, on August 22nd 1945, shot down the last American twin engine bomber. It happened in Kobe, and it was us Italians who shot it down.” When he was asked if he was homesick, Sanzio replied: “Those people condemned me without mercy. They took my rank away. They say I was a traitor, but they did not have the courage to tell me to my face. No, I just did my duty, but I don’t feel Italian any longer. So much that I wanted to change my last name”. Today, the old sailor goes by the name of Raffaello Kobayashi, the last name of his wife.

Translated by Cristiano D’Adamo