During his wrestling career, Lord James Blears was known at various times as a snooty villain, a hero of the Hawaiian islands, a commentator, and President of the Pacific Wrestling Federation in Japan. But what he was first of all is a survivor.

Lord James Blears

Blears’ tale from World War II begins with him serving in the merchant marine and ends with him fighting his way off a Japanese submarine.

James Ranicar Blears, who had turned professional wrestler at age 17, was a British radio officer on the S.S. Tjisalak, a Dutch merchant marine ship during the Second World War. He’d been in the merchant marines for four years.

While sailing in the Indian Ocean, travelling from Australia to Ceylon, with flour, food and supplies on board, Japanese torpedoes from an I-8 submarine hit the Tjisalak and sunk it on March 26, 1944. One report had the boat sinking within six minutes.

The surviving sailors were pulled from the water. The boat had left shore with 77 crewmen and 27 passengers. One of the passengers was an American dancer and Red Cross worker, Mrs. Vera Gordon Brittam, wife of a British food company manager, who was a passenger on one of the torpedoed ships. (Not the famed Vera Brittam who wrote the 1933 memoir Testament of Youth about her experiences in World War I.)

Onboard, the captors started killing their prisoners.

“They were laughing,” Blears told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin 57 years later. “They’d just go up and hit a guy on the back and take him upfront, and then one of the guys with a sword would cut off his head. Zhunk! One guy, they cut his head halfway and let him flop around on the deck. The others I saw, they just lopped ’em off with one shot and threw ’em overboard. They were having fun, and there was a cameraman taking movies of the whole thing!”

Prisoners’ wrists were tied behind their backs and a few, including Blears, were tied to other captives.

A 1948 International military tribunal looked into the massacre on the Tjisalak and the S S. Jean Nicolet.

Jiro Nakahara, a Hawaiian nisei who was impressed into service in the Japanese Navy, was a witness at the tribunal. He recalled how prisoners were brought off the lifeboats, stripped of their lifebelts, watches and all possessions except for their clothes.

“The captain of the ship the radioman, the engineering’ officer and a woman passenger were taken below in the submarine,” Nakahara said. “As the prisoners stepped aboard the submarine, their hands were tied behind their backs. After most of the prisoners were seated, four members of the submarine crew went up and brought the prisoners back one-by-one and they were killed.”

Blears will never forget it.

“You’d hear them laughing and then bang-bang-bang — pistol shots — and rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat. … I tried to keep my wrists as wide apart as I could when they tied me, and when they were finished I knew I could get one hand free,” he told the Star-Bulletin. “Two Japanese officers were waiting for us, one with a sword and the other with a sledgehammer. … When these guys came at us, I kicked with my foot and pulled my hand out (of the rope) right away and stopped the guy and dived off the submarine and dragged Peter (Bronger) with me.”

An Olympic-calibre swimmer, Blears leapt overboard, diving deep as gunfire surrounded him.

“I stayed under as long as I could, and then I came up with my head just out of the water and — tat-tat-tat-tat — machine gun bullets were going all around. When I came up for my next breath, the submarine was quite a way away. … There were two officers in old-fashioned deck chairs firing with rifles. I kept diving until I saw that they weren’t firing at us anymore.”

The Sunday Times (London, England), Sunday, September 09, 1945

Bronger, tied to Blears, had died somewhere along the way; Blears suspects that it was a sword blow on the submarine that had been the cause.

Blears swam into the wreckage, was pulled into a lifeboat and waited — and waited — until a U.S. destroyer arrived three days later. Initially, the U.S.S. James A. Wilder shot at the lifeboat, mistakenly thinking that the sail was a submarine’s conning tower.

The Americans gave him a can of peaches, and every year, on the anniversary of his rescue on March 29, he opens another can of peaches.

Once the war was over, Blears’ story was an easy way to garner attention as he embarked on a successful career in professional wrestling — he’d already wrestled periodically while in the merchant marine.

“In those days, the publicity guy in the wrestling office used my story all the time because I was captured by the Japanese,” Blears told this writer in 2002.

Among his colleagues, however, it was a different story. “People wanted to forget about the war and get on with living,” he said. “You don’t forget about all that you’ve seen. You never forget the experiences, but you just move on.”

Now confined to a nursing home in Hawaii, the 91-year-old Blears — “Tallyho!” — said that he has a photo of Waikiki Beach in his room and a Union Jack flag.