When a white Japanese patrol ship bearing the latest cargo of death pierced the leaden horizon and landed here at dawn today, it brought a measure of hope for Masakazu Kawana.
Kawana has been searching for some trace of his 20-year-old son, who was a passenger on the Korean airliner that was shot down by Soviet missiles and crashed in the Sea of Japan Sept. 1. Dredging operations have turned up hundreds of personal effects from the 269 victims, but none belonging to the young Kawana who was returning home after a summer-school course at Yale University.
The remains hauled in five wooden boxes to this scenic port in northern Japan, had certain promise, however.
Handed over to Japanese and U.S. officials Monday by brusque Soviet military men at the port of Nevelsk on Sakhalin Island, they were the first such offering by the Soviets, who have been hunting for the tragic flotsam alongside U.S. and Japanese boats.
Kawana surveyed a dozen clothing items stretched across the ship's narrow deck, looking in vain for the jacket his boy was said to have brought as a gift for him. Perhaps he would find the books his son packed or the Monet poster he cherished. But none of his son's possessions appeared in the grey boxes filled with twisted metal pieces, dented oxygen tanks and ripped passenger seats.
"It's difficult to hold a funeral because we have nothing to bury," said Kawana who came here as representative of the families now mourning 28 Japanese victims of the air tragedy. "We have nothing to put in their graves."
His disappointment was echoed by the seven U.S. and Japanese officials who sailed the solemn mission to Nevelsk aboard the ship Tsugaru stripped of its deck guns to avoid the appearance of provocation.
The team arrived at Nevelsk at 8 a.m. Monday and spent three uneasy hours negotiating with Soviet frontier guards across a long table topped by a dark green cloth and dishes of uneaten fruit. The delegation, headed by Minoru Tamba, the Japanese Foreign Ministry's top Soviet expert, received only silence when questioning its hosts about Soviet search operations.
"He didn't smile once," Tamba said of the leader of the Soviet delegation, Maj. Gen. A.I. Romanenko, commander of the Sakhalin and Kuril islands frontier guard.
"There were moments when we pressed pretty hard but got nowhere because the Soviets refused to answer," said a member of the three-man U.S. team led by Lynn Pascoe, a State Department official in charge of Soviet affairs.
Tamba and his team hoped to pry out details of the Soviet hunt for the prized "black box" in-flight data recorder, which is expected to contain clues to the Korean aircraft's downing. Soviet and U.S. ships are patrolling the Sea of Japan, racing for the vital evidence before the electronic beeper that is supposed to aid searchers exhausts its batteries about Oct. 1.
Japanese officials have been invited to board U.S. search vessels Tuesday, The Associated Press reported. Chief Cabinet Secretary Masaharu Gotoda said the U.S. invitation was made so that Japanese officials could be present during the recovery of the flight recorder. However, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said the invitation was issued last week, indicating it was not linked to the imminent recovery of the airliner's flight recorder or cockpit voice recorder.
"I used as many angles as I could to find out about it," Tamba said at a press conference after his ship landed about 6 a.m. today. "His response was, 'My mission is limited to delivery of these goods.' "
The items recovered from the Soviet port include technical instructions for flying the aircraft, newspapers and personal belongings. Officials believe they are only part of the debris Soviet patrols collected.
No suitcases were turned over, for example. Nor were there charred pieces of the aircraft that could be used to determine if it had been hit by cannon fire that Moscow claims was merely used to warn the pilot.
"The Soviets were trying to do it in a minimal kind of way to avoid emotional reactions," said a U.S. official aboard the ship.
The collection will be put on display in the city of Sopporo Oct. 1 for family members to view. The relatives are planning to build a memorial at the northern tip of Hokaido Island, and they hope to bury the victims' personal effects in a collective grave.
For the grieving relatives, the meager harvest that arrived today is expected to add to their dismay.
"I was hoping to see more," said Kensuke Nakazawa, 57, who brought his camera in hope of spotting some memento of his 25-year-old son, an art teacher who had been visiting the museums of New York before boarding the Korean flight. "I can't believe this is all," said Kawana. "I wish we had something worn by the victims, or passports or bodies."
Kawana said some families of the victims are satisfied that their loved ones are "sleeping calmly under the sea. It's too sad to get a fragment of the body." For others, the personal objects have a special meaning, symbolizing the return of the victim.
"I'm not here to pick up some things," said Kawana. "If no families came, it would be a pity for the victims. This is their coming home. Somebody should be here to receive them."
The meeting with the Soviet officials took place in a masonry port authority building about 300 yards inland. The building was surrounded by Soviet frontier guards and police so as to block curious onlookers.
The small port is enclosed by mountains, the slogan "Glory to the Fishermen" inscribed on one rocky slope.