Bell Shimada, The Man and The Ship

Sometimes I think, once a newspaper reporter, always a newspaper reporter (or, as my brother Peter would put it, once a nosy person, always a nosy person).  I may officially be a historian, but I still get hooked by stories about people. And one of the people I’ve been curious about for a long time was named Bell M. Shimada. If that names sounds vaguely familiar to you, it could be because NOAA has named one of the four research vessels it stationed in Newport, the Bell M. Shimada. But who was Bell Shimada?

I encountered his name about fifteen years ago when I was working on my masters’ thesis, which is about salmon hatcheries. The scientific literature was full of references to Japanese fisheries science, so I started chasing around, reading all the original documents I could find. In the pages of the 1946 editions of the Commercial Fisheries Review, a monthly publication from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I started to find translations of Japanese scientific documents.  Some were by Bell Shimada. There were several papers on tuna, as well as on salmon hatchery techniques.  Was Bell a man or a woman?  Japanese?  A biologist? I assumed he was part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Honolulu and that he probably worked with other scientists that I knew about during the 1940s. But I never found any further papers.

It turns out Bell was from Seattle, born to Japanese immigrant parents. He entered the University of Washington’s School of Fisheries in September 1939 and studied there until 1942, when he was “evacuated,” as were many other Japanese-Americans at the time. In May 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantryman and was selected for Japanese language and intelligence collection training. He wound up in Honolulu, then Tokyo, posted to the Natural Resources division of the Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP). I happen to know a lot about fisheries under SCAP, since I’ve done research in the SCAP files at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, MA.

As a victor, the U.S. was eager to take advantage of Japanese knowledge (it was the same with the publication of German science after the war). But at the same time, the American biologists stationed in Japan during the Occupation systematically disparaged the science done by their Japanese counterparts (this is all in my book, I contend this systematic disregard for Japanese fishery science is a root cause of the bitter differences between Japanese and Western scientists over what constitutes good science with regard to whales, I really should not digress…).

One of SCAP’s great achievements was the speed with which it oversaw the reconstruction of the Japanese fishing industry. General MacArthur saw fishing as playing a vital role in feeding the Japanese people.  But the industry had been over-capitalized before the war and it was rebuilt with stunning speed, the pre-war capacity was exceeded by early 1947. The U.S. restricted Japanese entry into heavy industry or anything with a military component. Fishing was one of the few outlets for expansion of the economy. With SCAP’s support, the Japanese fishing industry began exporting canned tuna to the U.S. in 1949. It was cheaper than American-canned tuna and these exports were part of the events that led to the destruction of the Southern California tuna industry.

Bell Shimada was killed in 1958. He was on his way to join another scientific expedition when his plane crashed. His fellow scientists named a seamount, southwest of Baja California, the “Shimada Seamount” in his honor. His son, Allen Shimada, is currently a fisheries scientist with NOAA.

For more details about Bell, here is a link:

And for some pictures of Newport’s newest ship, here is a link:

I knew there was a good story behind Bell Shimada and his translations of Japanese fishery documents. But this is far more interesting than I thought. History is like that; the truth is always more interesting than anything you can imagine. That’s a lesson that any reporter can tell you.


About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, History of Technology, Japanese fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Resources About Fishing, SCAP, World History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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