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Sōya (icebreaker)
The Sōya at the Museum of Maritime Science, Tokyo
The Sōya at the Museum of Maritime Science, Tokyo
Career (Japan) Japanese Ensign
Name: Sōya
Owner: USSR/Tatsunan Kisen Co/IJN/Department of Finance/Allied Repatriation Service/Maritime Safety Agency/Museum of Maritime Science
Ordered: 1936
Builder: Koyagi/Kawaminami/Matsuo
Launched: 16th February 1938
Maiden voyage: possibly 1939
Nickname: “Santa Claus of the Sea”.
Fate: Museum ship
General characteristics
Type: Icebreaker / Research Vessel
Displacement: 3,800t(1944)/4,100t(1978)
Length: 77.5m(1944)/83.3m(1978)
Beam: 12.8m (1944)/13.5m(1978)
Propulsion: VTE steam engine, 2 boilers, 1 shaft. / Diesel engines
Speed: 12.4 knots

The Sōya (宗谷?) is a Japanese icebreaker that serves as a museum ship in Tokyo after a long and storied service spanning some of the 20th Century's headlines of history. Her roles included military and fuel transport for Japan during the Second World War, post-war repatriation from Japan's former colonies, evacuation of civilians from Soviet Sakhalin island, and latterly as an Antarctic expedition ship.


The vessel was built as the Volochaevets, commissioned by the Soviets in 1936 from the Matsuo shipyard, on Nagaskai's Koyagi Island, as part-payment for Japan's construction of the South Manchuria Railway (also known as the Chinese Eastern Railway). Two other ice-strengthened cargo ships were ordered at the same time, the Bolshevik and Komsomolets. All three were built but, owing to the then state of Japan-Soviet relations, the ships were never delivered. The Volochaevets was launched from the now renamed Kawaminami Shipyard in February 1938. She was completed as an ice-breaking cargo freighter for the Tatsunan Kisen Co. and was renamed the Chiryō Maru. The Bolshevik and Komsomolets were renamed Minryo Maru and Tenryo Maru.[1][2]

War role

In November 1939 the Imperial Japanese Navy requisitioned the Chiryo Maru for national service. In February 1940 she was renamed the Soya, a name previously held by the former Varyag, an armoured cruiser seized from Imperial Russia but which Japan returned in 1916. The icebreaker Soya was assigned duties as an auxiliary ammunition supply and survey vessel. She survived the Second World War, albeit with multiple close calls. In January 1943 the Soya was attacked by the USS Greenling. The torpedoes either missed or proved to be duds: Soya's crew hoisted one undetonated torpedo onto the deck in celebration. In February 1944 aircraft from TF58 attacked the Japanese anchorage at Truk, sinking 41 Japanese vessels. The Soya escaped but ran aground as she did so. Ten crewmembers were killed.[2] On 26 June 1945 the USS Parche attacked a convoy escorting Soya and other transport ships from Yokohama to Hakodate, sinking an escort vessel and disabling one transport ship. And on 9 August 1945 Soya was at anchor in Onagawa Bay as part of a flotilla with other vessels when British bombers attacked from the air, sinking at least two of them.[2]


After the war, with Japan in defeat and needing to repatriate millions of individuals from its former colonies, the Soya was removed from the navy list and was assigned duties with the nation's repatriation fleet. Modifications at this time included removal of her guns and the installation of facilities for passengers such as toilets in what fomerly were her large forward and aft cargo holds. Spacious wooden accommodation was also built on deck. She undertook numerous missions embarking troops and passengers, including calls at Shanghai, Tinian and Guam. In light of her ice-breaking ability, she was also assigned northerly missions and by 1948 had made 14 voyages to and from Sakhalin island, the former Karafuto, evacuating citizens by agreement with the new authorities from what was now the Soviet Union[3] (The Soya should not be confused during this period with the Soya Maru, one of three ice-strengthened passenger ferries that operated on the Japan National Railways maritime Chihaku Line between Odomari, the present-day town in Sakhalin, and Wakkanai in Hokkaido from 1923 to August 1945.[4]) In 1949, her repatriation duties ceased and the Soya was transferred to the Maritime Safety Agency, the precursor to the Japan Coast Guard. In a new role supplying remote lighthouses she is reputed to have become known in some circles as the 'Santa Claus of the Sea'.[2]

Antarctic research vessel

The voyage of the Soya to Antarctica

In 1950 the ship received a comprehensive refit in preparation for service as Japan's first dedicated Antarctic research ship. In 1956 further modifications included the replacement of her steam engine with twin diesel engines and the installation of a helicopter deck with the ability to store light helicopters for voyage. In 1957 her forward gunwale was built up and 1958 a further refit added a second, larger helicopter deck above the earlier one, which became a vast new storage space. Between 1956 to 1962 the Soya undertook missions to the Antarctic. Her second voyage, in 1958, made headlines worldwide when she rescued personnel stranded at the Showa Station (Antarctica) research station in the face of approaching winter. The evacuation did not extend to the mission's dogs, and 15 Karafuto-ken huskies were abandoned to fend for themselves on the ice. The following spring the ship returned to find two dogs still alive. The mutts, named Taro and Jiro, became bywords in Japan for fortitude. The story travelled worldwide thanks in part to two movies: Nankyoku Monogatari (lit. "South Pole Story"; released in the U.S. as "Antarctica") and a treatment by Disney in the Hollywood film Eight Below.[2] The Soya herself experienced hardship during her time in the Antarctic, including becoming stuck in the ice and needing assistance from the nearby Russian icebreaker Ob'.[5]

Icebreaking rescue vessel

When retired from Antarctic duties, the Soya became an ice-breaking rescue ship for Japan's Maritime Safety Agency. The Sōya was based during this period in Hokkaido.[2]

Museum ship

The Soya was fully decommissioned in 1978. Her last mission was a farewell tour to communities she had served, including the port of Hakodate, and photographs exist from this period of wellwishers swarming the ship before her departure. In 1979 the Soya was moored alongside at the Museum of Maritime Science, Tokyo, and remains open to the public as a museum ship, open daily and generally closed only when typhoons threaten Tokyo. She remains in largely original condition. Her propellers have been removed and placed on deck but her interior is largely intact from Antarctic exploration days. However, as a result of modifications made in the 1950s her superstructure has changed considerably from her appearance during World War Two. Gone are the tall funnel and aft crane assembly, while the addition of a helicopter landing deck and higher forward gunwales give her a beefier appearance than the cargo ship she set out in life as.[1][2][6]

Notes and references

  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Hackett, Bob; Kingsepp, Sander and Cundall, Peter (2007). "IJN Soya: Tabular Record of Movement". Retrieved 2009-02-13.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "comb" defined multiple times with different content
  3. Soya, Historic Ships Study Guide #3, published by Museum of Maritime Science, Tokyo, 2003
  5. Information from a video display at the Funenokagakukan museum in Tokyo.

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