Tsushima Maru Requiem

Japan’s Untold WWII Tragedy of “Titanic” Proportions


Survivor–heroine Tsuneko and doomed ship display.

On August 22, 1944, at the height of World War II in the Pacific, the Japanese tramp steamer Tsushima Maru sailed out of the port of Naha, Okinawa, a 1,000 miles south of Tokyo, with a precious cargo of non-combatant civilians bound for a “safe haven” in the heartland of Japan.

Throughout the South Pacific, fierce battles were raging on land and at sea…Guadalcanal, the Marianas and Iwo Jima. The Tojo-led Japanese military machine was in retreat, but determined to fight to the very last man with its indomitable, time-honored samurai spirit laced with classic kamikaze suicide fervor.

But then a mercy ship was dispatched by the Japanese authorities to evacuate the youngest and oldest members Okinawa’s native civilian population off their home island prior to the forthcoming U.S. invasion. The Battle for Okinawa would become the final and deadliest campaign of World War II.

More than 1,600 islanders were now aboard the 6,745-ton merchant ship on their voyage to safety. But just 28 hours later at sea, more than 1,500 aboard would descend into a watery mass grave in the dark of night within 12 minutes after being hit by three torpedoes from an American submarine, the USS Bowfin.

Thus the tragic toll of the Tsushima Maru was comparable to that of the famed SS Titanic known worldwide from best-selling books and Hollywood movies ever since it sank in 1912. The Titanic’s toll was 1,513 lost with more than 700 saved. The Tsushima Maru’s: more than 1,500 lost, just 177 saved.

The sunken vessel with its entombed victims now sits in such a forbiddingly deep ocean trench it can never be retrieved.  Whereas the world immediately learned of the Titanic tragedy, no one in Japan was aware of the Tsushima Maru catastrophe, for all mention of the incident was immediately suppressed by the Japanese wartime authorities.

Survivors including crew were prohibited from revealing the tragedy under threat of severe punishment. Besides, no official inquiry was ever launched and the fate of the passengers: dead or alive were never revealed to their families. It was only in the 1950s that the disaster was brought to light in Japan and the long sorrow of silence broken.

On the American side too, it took more than a decade for the crew of Bowfin submarine and the American public to learn of the Tsushima Maru’s horrific loss, especially of the 767 children aboard.

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Terror at sea for Tsushima Maru survivors.

Just 59 children did survive, less than one in ten. One of these was pretty, bright-eyed 13-year-old Tsuneko Maria Miyagi, but it took a high order of courage and heroism for her to make it through to rescue.

Blown overboard and wounded by the initial torpedo explosions, she would spend four nights and three days submersed in the ocean with only her head and shoulders above water clinging to debris from the doomed ship.

Initially she was one of about 25 survivors clinging to a large piece of floating debris. Tragically, by the time of her rescue only four had survived.

With bleeding wounds to her head and body, the teen’s heroics began early in her ordeal. She recalled in the wee hours of her first night adrift at sea, she felt something submerged brush her legs. She was terrified it was a shark for the waters were teeming with them; attacking and killing survivors at will.

However, Tsuneko took a chance and reached down to catch hold of the arm of a small child, not knowing if the youngster was dead or alive or even a whole being. But her courage paid off as she brought to the surface a four-year-old boy, waterlogged but still alive, and placed him atop the floating debris to which she was clinging.

Sixty years later, to the very day in 2004, Tsuneko and the boy she rescued, Hisashi Teruya, were reunited in Naha, Okinawa during the opening ceremonies of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum.


Extended family of child survivor Hisashi Teruya and 14 family members and Tsuneko.

Along with Hisashi were 14 members of his family spanning three generations.   A photo was arranged to be taken of his family along with Tsuneko. Later, I as the photographer pondered the group photo, it hit me that if it were not for the teenager’s heroism four decades earlier, the picture would just be a portrait of Tsuneko herself alone.

By Day Three of Tsuneko’s 1944 ordeal adrift at sea, hope was turning to despair for the dwindling numbers of her fellow survivors.  But as darkness fell, a vision of redemption and hope suddenly appeared through the lens of her Christian faith for the weary believer.  Walking on the water she saw a bright and shining figure approaching. “I couldn’t recognize exactly who,” she said, “Jesus or the Virgin Mary or God Almighty. But just the same I understood it was the promise of hope that God was still with us.”

By noon the next day, Tsuneko’s vision did come true as a Japanese patrol boat sighted and rescued the teen of faith and her four companion survivors.

However Tsuneko’s wartime ordeals were not yet over. After a month of rest and recuperation on the island of Kyushu, the original destination of the ill-fated vessel, she was sent in harm’s way again to labor in an aircraft factory near Tokyo where kamikaze suicide bombers were being built.

Both the factory and her residence were eventually destroyed in air raids, but again she rode out the wartime storm of adversity, this time on land: the ultimate survivor.


Tsuneko’s American husband addresses inaugural audience.

Prior to the opening of the Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum in Okinawa in 2004, she published a book of her ordeal at sea. A poem she composed, Tsushima Maru Requiem, was set to music and played during the opening ceremonies.

And a 1,000-voice choir sang her composition as well nationally on NHK, Japan’s national television and radio broadcasting network.

The inaugural ceremonies of the new Memorial Hall ended with the presentation of a Peace Poster created by American Sunday School children from a California church. It was Tsuneko’s church as well as her husband of 52 years, the author of this account.

Author’s Note: In 2000, fate brought Tsuneko together at sea with Junichiro Koizumi, one of Japan’s most popular postwar prime ministers during the final sail-over ceremonies of the ill-fated vessel with its victims still entombed at the bottom a deep, unreachable ocean trench.

Then on September 21, 2008, Tsuneko was invited to Tokyo for a private audience with the Emperor and Empress of Japan. What was originally scheduled as a 30-minute visit lasted one and a half hours.

Her connection with the Imperial Family goes back to the days when her uncle, Professor Eisho Miyagi was tutor to the then Crown Prince Akihito, now Japan’s Emperor. After WWII, another uncle, Seisaku Ota, served as governor of Okinawa.

With his deep interest in Okinawa, the Japanese Emperor composed a Japanese waka poem based on the Tsushima Maru tragedy for his annual Year-End Presentation to the Japanese people in 1997.


Japan’s Imperial Palace where Tsuneko was invited to meet the Emperor and Empress.

Then in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the WWII maritime tragedy, Tsuneko again met the Emperor and Empress of Japan in Okinawa to be honored as the oldest living survivor of the Tsushima Maru.




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My Most Cherished Christmas

Memories from the Korean Front 1956

US Army Unit Commander, Lt. Bartruff, 1956

US Army Unit Commander, Lt. Bartruff, 1956

“Dear Diary,” This is the first Christmas that I’ve ever spent away from home and my family in Chicago, Illinois. So far it has been peaceful, thankfully for now any way. There’s an armistice in effect on both sides along the DMZ which is not far from my unit’s compound and all combat has ceased.

The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that runs all along the 38th Parallel now separates two warring Koreas from one another under a shaky armistice: the Korean Republic in the south and its Communist aggressor in the north.

Now after three years of combat and the loss of over a million military and civilian lives, the United Nations has negotiated a ceasefire agreement ending the fighting. Just the same, tensions still remain high.

In the unit I command as its lone officer, directing some 30 communication specialists, last night’s Christmas Eve was not exactly a “Silent Night” since my unit works on a 24-hour-a-day, around-the-clock intelligence gathering mission.

It is a mission that “Never Sleeps” collecting information on the enemy’s communications and troop movements by sophisticated location-finding technology even during this fragile armistice.

But now, for the entire month of December, my men and I have been storing up food rations and assembling toys to be distributed to the hundreds of Korean youngsters who live in the neighboring village and surrounding countryside and who attend the local primary school; our next door neighbor.

Christmas Day village youngsters

Christmas Day village youngsters

It’s now early Christmas morning and we khaki-clad American “Santas” leave our compound to distribute gifts to the local children on the school playground.

On arrival, we are overwhelmed to find hundreds of the children already present and amassed in tight military-style formations that would make any U.S. Army drill sergeant proud.

To receive their Christmas presents, the children begin to parade in columns (on their own!) to the front steps of their school to stand patiently by. Then one by one, each receives their gifts from the smiling and spirit-filled GIs now serving as Santa’s happy helpers.

Gift-giving GI Santa

Gift-giving GI Santa

And Christmas has become a blessing to both provider and recipient alike. After the joyous schoolyard celebration, all we “Santas in Khaki” return to our compound, each to his own assigned duty station.

But I now must place all the accolades for the success of our unique Christmas gift-giving celebration into the hands of my beloved Korean houseboy: Kim Hyung Tae.

At age 44, Kim is twice my senior. Born in Karaebi, Kim was responsible for all the planning and implementation of our unit’s entire Christmas gift giving celebration.

Houseboy Kim unsung celebration director

Houseboy Kim unsung celebration director

Besides, being a devout Christian himself, Kim put his whole body, mind and soul into the celebration honoring the birth of his beloved Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Immediately upon my arrival in Karaebi months earlier, a close bond of fellowship was formed between Kim and me. And it continued to flourish long after my tour of duty ended and my return home to Chicago and back to civilian life once again.

But providentially, just six short months after returning to Chicago, I crossed the Pacific once again landing in Tokyo to begin work as the Far East Correspondent for the Army-Navy-Air Force Times publications.

In 1959, a press assignment took me back again to Korea. It afforded the miraculous opportunity to not only reunite with Kim in the Korean capital of Seoul, but return north with him to our beloved Karaebi.

This time I had the honor to visit his humble country family dwelling and meet his kin again face to face.

The years passed and I finally returned to the USA; this time to California. Still, for decades, Kim and I continued exchanging Christmas greetings until the last card I received from Korea was the announcement from his family of his passing.

In the true spirit of that first Christmas that brought Christ down to earth, I anxiously await a glorious reunion with Kim. This time, for all eternity in heaven above according to the faith we shared together long ago on Korea’s landmark DMZ.

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Naxi-style pagoda below Jade Dragon Mountain

Naxi-style pagoda below Jade Dragon Mountain

The True Shangri-la Discovered in Remote China

Story and photography by Dave Bartruff

“Very well, then, we’ll be off to Shangri-La. Wherever and whatever it is, we’ll try it.” – Lost Horizon by James Hilton 1933

Lijiang, China: Countless readers of the classic adventure novel by the British writer James Hilton have long been fascinated by the concept of some far off utopia of contentment; a paradise far removed from the cares and struggles of the real world of the here and now.

I was one of those readers, but as most, dismissed the idea of actually ever finding any such place. It was, after all, just make-believe.

But then, the opportunity to travel to China presented itself. And I discovered one of my destinations was Lijiang, the ancient spiritual capital of its ethnic Naxi inhabitants. Located in remote Yunnan Provence in southwest China, it faces mystical Tibet in the foothills of the great Himalayan Mountains.

Again I read in the pages of Lost Horizon: “But it was to the head of the valley that his eyes were led irresistibly, for there, soaring into the gap, and magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth. It was so radiant, so serenely poised that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all.”

That, of course, was fiction but yet I still hoped to see if there wasn’t at least some glimmer of reality in the place that Hilton called, “ Shangri-La” when I reached remote Lijiang.

Centuries ago, nomadic Tibetan tribes settled here, and to this day have maintained their intrinsic customs, language and dress.

Arising before the sun my first morning in Lijiang, I witnessed dawn’s first light gently illuminate the jagged peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain one by one. As with the character in Hilton’s novel, my first glimpse of Lijiang proved that there was a real Shangri-La after all.

Lijiang was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 and its Old Town, or Dayan, dates back more than 500 years. It is a labyrinth of classic tile-roofed row houses, shops and cafes along narrow cobbled streets bereft of vehicular traffic. My exploration of the town first took me to the Dongba Research Institute. Here the Naxi religion (called Dongba) and its art crafts are displayed while artisans and crafts people work in age-old ways and dress.

From a brush painter copying classic Dongba scrolls, I learned that Naxi is the only remaining world language that is written in pictographs instead of alphabets or characters.

Further wandering took me to the Black Dragon Pool at the center of the town’s Jade Spring Park.   Here many exquisite antique Naxi-style architectural treasures take the form of pagodas and pavilions. While in the distance, adding further drama to the postcard scene: the backdrop of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.

Outside of town I explored the tranquil valley settlement of Nguluko. Here, long ago, another seeker of his own Shangri-La arrived from afar and settled in 1922. It was the eccentric Austrian-born linguist, anthropologist, botanist and photographer, Joseph Rock. Rock lived out his dream here and by the time he departed in 1949, he had compiled the first dictionary of the Naxi culture. And he led the first field expeditions into the Himalayas for the National Geographic Society that departed only after his own portable bathtub and gold dinner service and other eccentricities were fully accounted for and secured on the backs of his expedition porters.

My last day in the Valley of Dragon Snow Mountain concluded with a visit to Baisha Village, the old capital of the Naxi Kingdom until AD 1271. By no means did it look like a place of importance any more. Its narrow dusty lanes were nearly deserted. But under the branches of a weeping willow tree growing in front of a ubiquitous shop front, I spotted a hand-drawn sign that read in English, “The Most Admired Man.”

I slid open the entrance door and there to greet me with a handshake and a cheery “Welcome” in English was a slight, white-bearded Naxi elder. He apologized for his “poor English” (although I considered it quite refined). He said he learned it during WWII from American airmen of the famed “Flying Tigers” based in Lijiang when he was a teen.

He wore a black wool stocking cap like sailors do when out on deck on a stormy sea and a white lab coat. He introduced himself as Dr. Ho Shi-Xiu, age 85, a native of Lijiang and a physician. He said this was his Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medical Clinic.

The kindly Dr. Ho had tea served, and then spoke of his background: suffering from a complicated ailment after graduating from Nanjing University and finding no cure for it with Western medicine. Returning home he delved into the study of Chinese medicinal herbs. He not only cured himself, he said, but treated others with his natural remedies free of charge if need be.

Through the years, nearly a third of a million patients from more than 100 countries have sought his medical advice. Even famed medical institutions like the Mayo Clinic consult with him today about his successful treatment of leukemia using medicinal herbs.

As I was to depart, Dr. Ho took his calligraphy brush and with four bold strokes created a single Chinese character on parchment paper that he gave to me as a remembrance of our visit. I asked its meaning. With a warm smile, he said, “Kindness, my best prescription for good health.”

With Dr. Ho’s parting benediction I felt assured I had found exactly what I was searching for in the faraway “Shangri-La” of my dreams. Not perpetual youth nor profound wisdom, but a true sense of peace and a new commitment to being more of a blessing to others.

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Napping Weddell Seal:

Napping Weddell Seal: “face to face!”

Story and photography by Dave Bartruff

As I ventured out on deck of my expedition ship at the start of another exciting day at sea, I was nearly blinded by the brilliant blanket of snow that coated its deck from the tip of its bow to the helicopter pad at its stern. What a surprise: this was the middle of summer! Summer in Antarctica!

Though the opportunity to throw a snowball or two was tempting, I knew there was plenty of adventure ahead on shore, and I didn’t want to miss any of it.

I could tell by the sound of the engines, we had reached our offshore anchorage. The anchor was about to go down, as well as the four rubber Zodiacs stored on the platform aft. These swift 16-foot-long landing craft carry 10-12 adventurers. Their 60 horsepower outboard motors speed you to shore where you finally set foot on the fabled White Continent for the first time, and your Antarctic dream becomes reality!

Gliding through a photographer's paradise

Gliding through a photographer’s paradise

I was aboard the Antarctic Dream, a small 2,180-ton polar iceboat with a reinforced hull built for adventure. Featuring just 39 cabins, (four of which are suites) for 78 passengers, the ship had an elite, mostly Chilean crew of 36 commanded by the legendary Swedish captain, Peter Skog. His long career at sea spans more than four decades. The congenial Swede has been navigating in Antarctic waters on more than 100 voyages since 1974, longer than any other ship master currently sailing here. Skog is also a master linguist, fluent in English, Spanish, German and Swedish.

Today’s first landing was at Port Lockroy, a place with a checkered past: beginning as a whaling station from the late 1800s to the 1930s. During World War II, the site became Great Britain’s secret “Base A” for monitoring German shipping movements. Abandoned after the war, the original station building has now been restored and turned into an historical museum and gift shop, with its wartime decor and trappings of the 1940s still authentically preserved.

It also affords adventurers the unique opportunity to have their passports hand stamped to authenticate their Antarctic visit. Talk about a conversation piece when you go through passport control on your arrival home or when sharing your unique travel experience with friends and neighbors. Incidentally, Antarctica belongs to no nation, but has various national scientific stations on its soil according to international treaty agreements.

In the short November through February Antarctic tourist season, (which is summer in the Southern Hemisphere), nearly 10,000 adventurers venture here. Only 350 each day are allowed to land at Lockroy, just 60 at a time so not to endanger the fragile environment.

Woman in Zodiac films summer ice-flows

Woman in Zodiac films summer ice-flows

From Lockroy, another short Zodiac ride lands you amidst a vast Gentoo penguin rookery at Jougla Point. Some 800 pairs of adult Gentoo and their chicks nest here. You’re virtually up to your knees in the little creatures when you step on shore. By moving quietly among the inhabitants, you pose no threat to them as they go about their nesting, and grooming activities.

Indeed, by just sitting down on an available rock for 5-10 minutes you become an object of their curiosity; and the penguins may actually come to you. So it was with fellow shipmate, Johanna Chang, an elementary school teacher from Taichung, Taiwan. It was fascinating to watch as a curious (or hungry) young Gentoo used its little beak to probe Johanna’s every parka pocket and fanny pack zipper as she sat serenely by. An adorable little “pick pocket!”

On the shoreline of the rookery, I found a myriad of century-old whalebones now colored green by algae. Nearby, a completely reconstructed whale skeleton lay on the ground. It must have measured a good 20 yards in length.

But my closest, and most rewarding encounter with Antarctica’s wildlife was just around the corner. It was nearly time to board the last Zodiac back to the ship, when an out-of-breath fellow passenger told me of his great discovery in the neighboring cove. In a flash, I clambered as best I could along the rocky shoreline towards the prize.

Closeup of seal napping on tiny ice-flow

Closeup of seal napping on tiny ice-flow

At last I reached it: there stretched out on a patch of soft snow, was a sleepy nine-foot-long Weddell Seal. I approached him cautiously, but he was sound asleep. I got so close, I could have tickled his whiskers!   I didn’t though. There was just enough time to shoot some real close, close ups before racing back to the waiting Zodiac.

Several days earlier, we had made our first landing on the Antarctic Continent at Neko Harbor, at the head of a massive glacier and our first opportunity to meet and march amongst the penguins.

Five of the ten days on the Antarctic Dream’s expedition cruises are devoted to “boots on the ground” landings on the Antarctic Continent and its offshore islands via Zodiacs. Weather and safety play a big role in these landings. Up to three shore landings per day are scheduled during the long summer days. (One day the sun rose at 4:27 am set at 10:16 pm.) Altogether, we safely accomplished a total of eight landings without incident. Actually our whole first excursion day was lost due to high winds that prevented Zodiac movement. Instead, we went on whale chases rewarding us with many sightings and wonderful photo “Ops.”

What most amazed we first-time Antarctica adventurers were its intrepid penguins. “Imagine,” our expedition leader explained: “hatching out of an egg in mid-November and growing into a self-sufficient adult by March, when you then take off on your own to face the cruelest weather on the planet. Talk about real guts!”

The nearly 1,200 mile sailing aboard the Antarctic Dream included many other once-in-a-lifetime experiences like a zodiac excursion off Pleneau Island piloted through blue ice flows as tall as five and ten-story buildings. One floating marvel looked like a Greek temple with sculpted Corinthian columns, another like a transparent Oriental dragon. On flat snow flows that resembled floating tanning salons, we encountered up to a dozen seals at a time basking together in the brilliant Antarctic sunshine.

Another memorable moment was our entry into Deception Island, a spectacular caldera, remnant of a collapsed active volcano that last erupted in 1970. We sailed in through the caldera’s only entrance called, “Neptune’s Bellows,” a tricky, narrow passage, but one often negotiated by our own Captain Skog. Just a week earlier, however, a larger expedition vessel with 300 passengers aboard ran aground in these narrows. All aboard had to abandon ship and wait on shore for rescue. The incident attracted worldwide media coverage.

Once ashore by Zodiac ourselves inside the caldera, we hiked up to the top of its 1,500-foot-high outer rim for a panoramic view of the whole two-mile-wide volcanic remnant. Before our departure, we made a second Zodiac landing where a number of our group (male and female) stripped down to their bathing suits and dug themselves into the warm volcanic sands and waters that came to the surface. Then the heartiest of the hearty, including even women, finished off their Antarctic spa experience by dashing headfirst into the caldera’s icy waters to “cool down!”

By day’s end, our final shore landing took place in Maxwell Bay on King George Island, one of the South Shetland Islands. There at anchor lay the empty vessel disabled at Deception Island. On shore we visited both the Chilean and Russian scientific bases that are among eight nations located here year round.

Our return voyage ended in spectacular fashion as we approached Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, where our voyage had begun just 11 days earlier. As we nudged into port in a light rain shower, suddenly the sun broke through and a rainbow covered the whole harbor with its brilliant halo. Truly we’d found our “pot of gold”… on board the Antarctic Dream, where dreams really do come true.

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Pittsburgh Prays!

A Pilgrimage of Faith

Story & photos by Dave Bartruff


Moses at prayer: Jewish Temple Rodef Shalom

“I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the LORD!” Psalm 122:1

It was pitch-dark and raining hard as my flight from California touched down on the runway at the once-legendary “Steel City” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Inside the terminal it was after hours and dark and void of activity with closed shops and airline counters.

Outside at the curb however, there was a single cab whose driver who would miraculously turn the dreary nighttime arrival into a blessed welcome for me!

“Odi” was my cabby’s name.

Born in Jerusalem, the son of a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother 46 years ago, Odi was also a man of the world having resided in Europe and now for the past 14 years in Pittsburgh.

On assignment myself to explore Pittsburgh’s deep spiritual roots of faith, Odi, was a Biblical scholar and a true Godsend for the half-hour drive to my hotel located in the heart of Pittsburgh’s ethnic “Deutschtown” German neighborhood.

Built in 1888 as a Benedictine monastery, today The Priory is Pittsburgh’s only European-style boutique hotel with 42 handsome guest rooms. Adjoining it across a delightful courtyard is the former St. Mary’s Church. Today it now serves as the hotel’s Grand Banquet Hall with its walls and ceiling a stunning display of stained glass.

Pittsburgh, itself, is located along a “Golden Triangle” where the Alleghany and Monongahela Rivers merge to form the serene Ohio River. The city’s development is a true “American Success Story,” and one of faith as well.

Founded by the British in 1758, the small town was visited even earlier in 1753 by a 21-year-old major in the fledgling Continental Army by the name of George Washington! And in time Pittsburgh grew from a wilderness outpost into “America’s Gateway to the West.”

Later the city would develop into America’s industrial giant driven by the names of Carnegie, Heinz and Westinghouse.

But now it is a new day and the start in my quest for the city’s rich religious heritage. Surprisingly, the pilgrimage begins out of doors in the Biblical Botanical Garden of the Jewish Temple Rodef Shalom. The temple itself dates to 1855.


Lincoln window, Smithfield United Church of Christ

I was greeted by Dr. Walter Jacob the retired Rabbi Emeritus of the temple he served since 1966. Dr. Jacob described how he and his wife, Irene, established its unique Biblical garden on the park-like grounds of the synagogue in 1986. All of the garden’s plantings, trees and flowers are indigenous to the Holy Land, the only such garden found outside Israel.

Later we entered the gorgeous temple itself. Opened in 1907, its sanctuary accommodates 1,200 worshipers. Just two years later, by invitation, Wm. Howard Taft became the first sitting U.S. President to address a Jewish congregation in its sanctuary during Sabbath services.

Across town and over one of Pittsburgh’s many bridges, it is a climb to Troy Hill overlooking the Allegheny River on the city’s North Side. My destination is the world-renowned Roman Catholic St. Anthony’s Chapel, proudly designated a Pittsburgh Historical landmark.

On display within the church is its fabled collection of more than 5,000 holy relics, second in number only to the Vatican in Rome.

Also adorning both sides of the sanctuary is an exquisite collection of life-size wooden carvings representing the 12 Stations of the Cross crafted by renowned German artisans centuries ago.

Next, into the heart of downtown Pittsburgh itself, I find it is possible to go on foot to visit an entire collection of historic churches located just a few blocks apart.

Certainly they paint a true picture of a city built on faith.

My first discovery begins beneath the splendid 170-foot spire atop the First Lutheran Church dating to 1888. Within its sanctuary is also one of Pittsburgh’s earliest stained glass masterpieces, an exquisite “Good Shepherd” window covering over 500 square feet of opalescent glass by Tiffany designer Frederick Wilson.

Just a few blocks away I enter Smithfield United Church. Its unique aluminum spire is illuminated throughout the night.

The church, designed for its German Evangelical Protestant congregation, was acquired and built on land donated by the heirs of William Penn in 1787.

Smithfield is also the oldest organized church in the city. Its gorgeous Rose Window at the front of the sanctuary is a breathtaking 19 feet in diameter. Other outstanding windows depict the three Biblical aspects of Faith, Hope and Love in the narthex.

Twelve tall double windows enlighten the house of worship itself, six on either side occupying over 60 per cent of the sanctuary’s walls.

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The upper portion of each window illustrates the life and teachings of Jesus; the lower portion, the people and places of the church’s German Protestant heritage such as Martin Luther at Wittenberg during the 16th Century Reformation and Abraham Lincoln at Pittsburgh in 1861.

Nearby, Trinity Cathedral dating to 1872, retains much of its Mid-Victorian character. In honor of Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary in 2008, 130 years of soot and grime were removed from its sandstone exterior as well as the restoration of its burial ground that contains some of the oldest graves in the city.

Near neighbor to Trinity is the First Presbyterian Church also erected on former William Penn property.

Its breathtaking sanctuary has a narthex nearly the length of a football field. Separating it from the congregation’s pews are two great doors of solid oak and each 30 feet high, and weighing two tons a piece.

Perfectly balanced and operating on a track in the floor, a church deacon shows me how he can easily open and close each of the giant doors with just a single finger!

Flags of many nations decorate the sanctuary to represent the mission work that the church supports in the city of Pittsburgh, the United States and worldwide.

Fourteen beautiful stain-glass windows grace the length of each wall of the sanctuary. Thirteen were designed and installed by Tiffany and the 14th, the product of Charles and Frederick Lamb.

A large five-panel stained glass window at the end of the chapel known as the “Stem of Jesse” designed in England, trace the lineage of Jesus back to the father of King David and also portray highlights of Christ’s ministry on earth.

But now, my pilgrimage to Pittsburgh’s pillars of faith is about to end. Only one final landmark remains.

Just beyond the city limits lies the tiny hilly hamlet of Millvale overlooking the waters of the Alleghany. It became home to a Croatian population from Europe who immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In all, some 50,000 Croatians arrived with many of the men finding work in Pittsburgh’s bourgeoning steel mills.


Chancel of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church

Devoid at first of the new language and culture, the newcomers found their comfort and hope in their families and church life in the sanctuary of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, built and dedicated in 1900.

Over the years, however, damaged by fire and in debt, the sanctuary needed a lift. It finally came about in 1937 when its dynamic new pastor Father Albert Zagar commissioned an unknown but talented Croatian artist Maxo Vanka to decorate the walls and ceiling of the sanctuary with murals.

The talented Vanka completed eleven mammoth ceiling murals within eight weeks in 1937 and returned in 1941 to paint more. Finally, in 1950 he added artistic Croatian folk designs to the walls of the choir loft.

Docent-led tours of the Vanka Murals are given each Saturday at 11 am and 12 noon and    1 pm.

Visit: docentmanager@vankamurals.org    www.vankamurals.org
Also contact:  Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation  www.phlf.org
The Pittsburgh Visitors Bureau:  VisitPITTSBURGH.com  
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“Stranger in Paradise!”

A California Teen Discovers His Okinawan Connection

“Hi family here’s our California Derek-san!”

Anticipation was high and the Okinawan banquet hall filled with excitement as fifty-some relatives of all ages rose as one from the room’s traditional tatami floor to welcome their distant teenage kin from California for the first time.

Never before in his life had the 16-year-old Derek been lavished with so much attention: especially being welcomed and adorned with a gorgeous garland of tropical flowers from the island paradise.

Derek, or “Dee” had first experienced the island’s gracious hospitality at the airport on his arrival, but nothing like this with all eyes of his family focused on him.

Living and nurtured by his Okinawan grandmother in California since childhood, Dee grew up learning much about his distant Okinawan clan.

Gigantic Whale Shark encounter.

Gigantic Whale Shark encounter.

Following the dinner and welcoming words by family elders, the whole room’s islander spirit let go as relatives, young and old, began singing and dancing shoeless en mass on the banquet room’s tatami floor.

Of course, Dee was invited to join in the dancing. And after a rough start, he soon kept up with the joyous clan.

Attired as Okinawan entertainer..


A week of visits to various island landmarks followed Dee’s welcoming banquet. These included an up island exploration of Nago and its world-famous Okinawan Churaumi Aquarium and Nago Historical Museum.

Also a visit to the Nakagusuku Castle Ruins, a World Heritage Site on the return from Nago .

Next day in the Okinawa capital of Naha, the chief curator of the Okinawa Prefectural and Art Museum personally gave Dee and grandmother Maria a guided tour. In the museum’s special Touch and Experience Room Dee was donned in a traditional kimono and given a classic three-stringed Shinsan banjo with a decorative snakeskin body to be photographed with.

Dee along with Grandma Maria also visited Naha’s acclaimed Tsushima Maru Memorial Hall and Museum dedicated to the WWII sea tragedy which took the lives of more than 1,500 children and the elderly: more than the Titanic disaster. Miraculously, Dee’s own grandma Maria at his side was aboard as a 13-year-old in 1944 and today is the oldest living survivor.

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A stranger in paradise no more, Dee departed for California totally fulfilled and proud of his amazing Okinawan connection.

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Ryukyu King and Queen for a Day!

A couple from California was touring Okinawa, “The Hawaii of Japan” and enjoying its beautiful beaches and culture vastly unique from the main islands of Japan to the north.

We'll wow them in California!

We’ll wow them in California!

A tropical chain of 120 coral islands resting in the emerald waters of the Pacific, Okinawa was first mentioned in the annals of its neighbor China in 605 AD. Then it was known as the Ryukyus.

Not until 1437 AD did all the islands become unified under a single ruler. That first Ryukyu king was named Sho Hashi and his reign is today still regarded as the kingdom’s most glorious ever.

In the course of the California couple’s stay there was an occasion when the wife needed to visit a beauty salon before she was to attend an important event.

The owners and staff of the Bridal Palace, a renowned beauty salon in the island capital of Naha were able to fulfill her every desire. That included dressing her in formal kimono for her appointment with none other than the Emperor and Empress of Japan who were also in Naha on an Imperial visit.

Looking more queenly

Looking more queenly

The day following the audience with the Imperial family, the California couple received a telephone call from the beauty salon executive Mrs. Hideko Yagi, inviting them to join her again at her salon that also has a banquet hall.

Robed king ready to meet his queen

Robed king ready to meet his queen

Instead of joining Mrs. Yagi and her son Satoshi, the general manager of the salon for lunch, the California couple was hustled off to wardrobe rooms and attired as King Sho Tai, the last of Ryukyuan monarchy whose reign ended in 1872 along with his devoted queen.

And after a session in the salon’s elaborate photo studio, the couple had an album of photographs they could take back home to enjoy for a lifetime.

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“The perfect ending”

If ever you want to become a “Ryukyu King for a Day” along with your wife as your Ryukyu Queen, contact:

The Bridal Palace, Naha, Okinawa




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Faith of Our Fathers

Gloucester Cathedral memorial to British composer of American National Anthem John Stafford Smith

Momentarily lost in thought, time and place, I wandered through England’s Gloucester Cathedral, a magnificent edifice where construction began at the behest of William the Conqueror in A.D. 1089.  My reverie was suddenly broken as I gazed above me.  There, hanging side by side, were two familiar flags unfurled: the Union Jack of England and my own beloved Stars and Stripes.

Beneath the companion banners was a memorial tablet to one John Stafford-Smith (1750-1836).  It read: “Born in this city, a composer of great distinction.  He will long be remembered as composer of the tune of the National Anthem of the United States of America.”

“Hip hip hooray!” I whispered to myself in the silent sanctuary.  This was the first of many Anglo-American discoveries I hoped to make in the days ahead.

The Faith of Whitefield and Wesley

George Whitefield

George Whitefield sparked America's First Great Awakening

A short stroll from the cathedral, I attended a public lecture about yet another Gloucester-born giant.  George Whitefield helped seed the moral landscape of New World America when it was still a British colony.  A famed pulpit orator, Whitefield crossed the Atlantic seven times, beginning in 1739.  He was influential in sparking America’s Great Awakening.

Long before Whitefield set foot on American sod, however, the Pilgrim Fathers, Englishmen William Brewster and William Bradford sailed to America on board the Mayflower  in 1620 to found the Plymouth Colony.

Probably no other Englishman ever got a better feel for the grass roots of early America than John Wesley.  On horseback, the itinerant evangelist crisscrossed the countryside before and after the War of Independence.  In his lifetime, Wesley rode an estimated 250,000 miles (equivalent to ten times around the globe!), preaching 42,000 sermons over a span of 53 years in the New World and Great Britain.

Window-Evangelist Points the Way

In central London, within the historic Bunhill Fields Cemetery, I found a virtual Hall of Fame of those whose ideals and endeavors sowed the seeds for the new nation.  Resting here are Susanna Wesley, mother of nineteen children, all of whom she home-schooled, including sons John (founder of Methodism) and Charles (composer of 6,000 hymns); John Bunyan, author of the Pilgrim’s Progress and Isaac Watts, the prolific writer of such hymns as Joy to the World.

Contributing much to contemporary American life was the talented C.S. Lewis; especially to children for his classics like Chronicles of Narnia.  I visited his home “The Kilns” and kneeled by his simple grave nearby.

Amazing Faith, Amazing Grace

Perhaps my most poignant encounter for my quest for the British beginnings of American faith occurred in the quaint town of Olney, known for its bonds to John Newton.

Former slave trader, he was miraculously “born again” and worked to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire.  Upon leaving the town church he pastored later in life, I heard a traditional American melody being sung in the church’s burial ground.  The words were familiar, too: “Amazing Grace” written by Newton himself to celebrate his redemption from a life of cruelty and sin.

So my final discovery, as with my first, confirmed many of the moral moorings that guide me through life today in the USA, were firmly planted long ago, deep down in good British sod.


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Mission Accomplished! Junipero Serra’s Roots

Statue of Junipero Serra in Mallorca, Spain

“As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” John 20: 21 Statue of Junipero Serra

Ever since the founding of these United States, our passion as Christians has been to send missionaries abroad to the far reaches of the world to proclaim Jesus’ wondrous love and salvation: be it to New Guinea, the Congo or China.

Prior to our nation’s birth, the North American Continent was the distant mission field of Christian missionaries from the Old World of Europe.  From England and France soul seekers braved the raging waters of the North Atlantic to reach their colonial settlements in New England and Eastern Canada.

Even earlier, Spanish missionaries stepped ashore further south and west into the Americas along with Spain’s conquistadors who were commissioned by the Spanish Crown to claim the distant land for “New Spain.”

Junipero SerraParamount among these Spanish evangelists, and revered for the fruits of his labors still evident today is the “Apostle to California,” Father Junipero Serra.

After a grueling voyage lasting 99 days across the Atlantic he arrived in 1749 in port at Vera Cruz, Mexico.  From there he continued on foot inland for 200 miles to begin his work building missions northward.

Finally, in 1769, at age 56, Serra crossed over into Alta California, (which in 1850 became America’s 31st state).  Until his death in 1784, he laid the foundations of Christianity in this uncharted territory beginning with his first baptism of an Indian infant.   In one mission alone, San Carlos Borromeo, a total of 1,041 Indian baptisms had been performed by the time of his passing.

Today his statue stands in the United States Capitol in Washington, DC to represent the State of California, the only non-American so honored.  He is recognized as the Founder of California itself, because of the communities and major cities that grew up from around the missions he planted: in particular, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Junipero Serra Before California

I was privileged to join four other American journalists on a press trip to his birthplace in the village of Petra on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca. Our visit was planned to launch the 300th anniversary celebration of Father Serra’s birth in 2013.   (Our group photo even ran in three island newspapers during our stay.)

The year-long festivities call for pilgrimage groups from Spain to visit Serra’s California missions while Californian Christians journey to Mallorca to pay homage at the birthplace of the founder and builder of their treasured mission landmarks.

We were escorted through Petra by Bartolome Bestard Bone, President of the Association of the Friends of Father Junipero Serra.  A devote Christian and born on Mallorca, he served as the island’s US Consul for 45 years, though not a US citizen himself, a first for the State Department.

Highlights included touring the museum established in Serra’s honor and the three-room adobe abode of his childhood: a candle-lit family room and two bedrooms, the largest serving as the stable for the family burro!

From these humble beginnings, Serra, at age 36, answered the Holy Spirit’s call taking him from the life style he earned with great effort to become a university theology professor to joining the mission field from which he would never return.

His utmost goal was the winning of new souls for Christ in the Americas among the native Indian population.  In so doing, he built missions to attract and to better the lives of his new flock through worship, education and agriculture.

May we like the saintly Serra, answer God’s calling for our lives in service to others and some day hear His words, “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of your Lord.” Matthew 25:21

– by Dave Bartruff

A brief version of this story appeared in the Christian Bee July 2011 edition

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Colorful Ethiopian Epiphany

Timkat in Lalibela

Priests remove the tabots from St. George's.

Priests remove the tabots from St. George's.

Ethiopia is home to some of the most ancient traditions of Christendom. Its Christian roots reach back nearly twenty centuries to the time when, according to the Book of Acts, the Apostle Philip baptized a royal Ethiopian eunuch in the Palestinian desert. The court official carried the gospel back to his homeland.

Clergy and spectators stand

Clergy and spectators stand before the baptismal pool in which the tabots will be anointed.

Ten centuries earlier, the Queen of Sheba on her visit to Jerusalem and its fabulous temple had embraced the faith of King Solomon before her return to Ethiopia. Therefore, today, many of the Christian worship traditions of Ethiopia carry a strong Old Testament character. This is best observed during Timkat, the feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, which is the highlight of the Ethiopian holy year. The finale of the Christmas season, Timkat supposedly marks the time when the Wise Men began their return home from Bethlehem, carrying with them the news of the birth of Jesus Christ.

According to the ancient Ethiopian calendar – which is made up of 13 months – Christmas is celebrated January 7. Timkat falls on January 19. The celebration is actually a three-day affair. It begins when Ethiopian Orthodox clergy enter their churches’ holy of holies to remove the sacred tabot Scriptures and tablets (which emulate the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments that Moses received from God atop Mount Sinai). These are then rededicated in a ritual baptism.

An Orthodox Deacon

An Orthodox Deacon

As many as forty million people participate in Timkat celebrations, in both cities and the countryside. Spectacular processions are led by priests resplendent in crowns and satin and velvet robes. The clergy carry great ceremonial crosses and are shaded by sequined velvet umbrellas. Their congregations follow, dressed in dazzling white shaama robes.

The first day of Timkat is dedicated to removing all the tablets from their various sanctuaries to one common tabernacle. An all-night vigil of prayer, fasting, and chanting is held there. Early the next morning, the tablets are brought to a river or pool and ritually anointed. This is followed by another day long procession to return the blessed tabots to their respective churches. Each procession is accompanied by great singing and shouting to the beat of drums, sistrums, and prayer staffs. Congregations fill their churches to overflowing. Many believers are relegated to attendance outside the buildings, so great are the crowds.

Drummers in the Timkat procession.

Drummers in the Timkat procession.

One place in particular is special to the Timkat celebrations. It is Lalibela, perched some seven thousand feet high amid wild mountain peaks and vast mesas. Now an isolated mountain habitation of six thousand souls, it was once the capital of all Ethiopia. Within this desolate setting lie renowned architectural treasures: eleven large churches fashioned out of the mountain. Hewn out of the solid rock below ground level, and ringed by deep trenches and subterranean entryways and courtyards. Each church is as tall as a modern four-story building. Exteriors and interiors are equally exquisite, carved from a single mountain monolith. During Timkat, when Lalibela’s churches are surrounded by the wondrous sight of colorful clergy and congregations at the height of religious fervor, the majesty of the ancient city is revived.

– Photo feature  by Dave Bartruff

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