By Robert Neff
On June 11, 1902, the Japanese steamship Kumagawa Maru weighed anchor and left Jemulpo bound for Mokpo, a recently opened port on the southwest coast of Korea, where it would load and unload passengers and cargo, and then proceed to Japan via Busan. It was not a large ship (only 558 gross tons) and offered only a couple of first class cabins on the main deck — the rest of the passengers were forced to find space in the cramped steerage (second class) berth.
There were only four first-class passengers — Rev. Henry G. Appenzeller, an American missionary; James F. Bowlby, an American gold miner, and two unknown Japanese. Appenzeller was only 44 years old but he looked much older. He was thin and haggard and apparently moved somewhat slowly — not because of his age but because of a brutal beating that he had received some weeks earlier by Japanese coolies working on the Seoul-Busan Railroad.
Bowlby hailed from Indiana and had come to Korea only the previous year to work at the American-owned gold mining concession in northern Korea. He was returning to the United States to accompany his wife back to Korea.
The reverend had with him a small Korean girl that he was escorting to Mokpo on behalf of Susan Doty, a school teacher in one of the mission schools in Seoul. He left her with some Koreans in the steerage berth and then proceeded to his own cabin where he stored his goods. Afterwards, he joined Bowlby on the main deck and spent the day talking with the miner.
At about 10 p.m., both men retired to their cabins for the night but shortly afterwards were awoken by a tremendous crash. Bowlby hurriedly dressed and called to Appenzeller to do the same.
Only a minute and a half had passed since the crash and the air was filled with the screams and yells of frightened passengers and crew calling out to one another in confusion. Already the ship was beginning to sink making it difficult to move.
Appenzeller led the way and together they raced to the deck only to find their situation critical. The entire forward deck was already submerged and the stern was high out of the dark sea — the Kumagawa was rapidly sinking bow first. In the near distance the shape of another steamship, the Kisogawa, could be seen and it became apparent to Bowlby that the ships had collided. Without a moment’s hesitation, the miner raced for the railing, but Appenzeller, still recovering from his injuries, “seemed to be laboring under great excitement, [and] apparently made no attempt to get away from the ship.”
It is often claimed that Appenzeller drowned while heroically trying to save the life of the young girl. This doesn’t appear to have been the case. Bowlby recalled that just before the ship sunk he looked back and saw the reverend, still rooted to the same spot and with water up to his waist, “groping vainly for something to take hold of.”
Only three minutes after the collision, the Kumagawa completely disappeared beneath the waves. Bowlby was lucky and survived — in fact, he was the only survivor. Appenzeller, four Japanese and fourteen Korean passengers along with eight crewmembers all perished. Not all of the dead were from the Kumagawa. When the ships collided, two passengers on the Kisogawa became so excited and confused that they climbed from their ship onto the Kumagawa and were lost.
Although you can visit a tombstone to mark Appenzeller’s grave at the Seoul Foreigners’ Cemetery, it is empty. Because of the depth of the water and the strong current, only one body was recovered — that of a Korean passenger.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.