10 things you might not know about Japanese hell ships during WWII

Patricia Hului

When we look at how Prisoners-of-War (POWs) suffered in internment camps or death marches during World War II (WWII), little do most people know about the atrocities onboard Japanese hell ships.

‘Hell ship’ describes a ship with extremely inhumane living conditions or with reputation for cruelty among the crew.

The term was coined during the American Revolution when the British were shipping American prisoners of war. While the term was also used for German POWs transports, ‘hell ship’ now generally refers to the ships used by the Imperial Japanese Navy and Imperial Japanese Army to transport Allied POWs and romushas during WWII.

Romusha is a Japanese word for labourer. During WWII, it is a term to refer Asian (mainly Indonesians) forced slave labourers.

The Japanese began transferring POWs by sea in May 1942. On board these ships, there was no escape for these prisoners.

Plaque dedicated to the survivors of the P.O.W. Hell Ship Shinyo Maru, sunk by USS Paddle (SS-263) on 7 September 1944. Credit: Public Domain.

Here are ten things you should know about about Japanese hell ships during WWII:

1.Some survivors said Japanese hell ships were worse than the death marches

In 2012, American film producer Jan Thompson created a film documentary on the Japanese hell ships and POWs camps titled ‘Never the Same’.

She was inspired by her own father, who was one of the war veterans who survived the hell ships.

Thompson told Chicago Tribune in 2013, “Men who were on the Bataan Death March said the hell ships were worse and it’s a story that nobody knows.”

The Bataan Death March saw the transfer of 60,000-80,000 American and Filipino POWs from Bataan to Capas in the Philippines. The estimated casualties during the march range from 5,650 to 18,000 of POW deaths.

Thompson estimated 14,000 Allied POWs died on the Japanese hell ships. They either froze or starved to death. There was so little food that Thompson’s father resorted to eating undigested oats in horse manure in the ship’s hold.

Others suffocated when they were crammed in spaces that reached 120 degrees.

2.Not all Japanese hell ships were hellish

Not all POW-carrying Japanese ships were left under these cruel conditions. They may not have been five-star cruise ships either but they were somehow bearable.

One of them was Nagara Maru. On Aug 11, 1942, 179 American POWs departed Manila heading for Formosa (Taiwan).

The short voyage to Taiwan aboard Nagara Maru could not be strictly termed a hell ship voyage.

It was reported that the POWs were well-treated, well-fed and did not live in over-crowded conditions. Aboard the ship, there were two generals. They were given the same food as the Japanese officers. They slept on comfortable mats, had access to a clean bathroom and were allowed on deck at anytime.

The colonels and other POWs, however, found their stay aboard less satisfactory. There were 14 men forced to sleep toe-to-toe in each of the 13 foot deep berths.

Their meals consisted of rice with small pieces of fish, picked vegetables or fruits and seaweed.

Water and hot tea were provided. As for sanitation, there was a tub provided as well as access to deck and toilets.

Pacific Maru was another ‘bearable’ Japanese hell ship. On Dec 28, 1942, about 72 (perhaps 85) POWs were taken to Tanjung Priok, Java to Singapore.

According to witnesses aboard the ship, the journey was probably one of more bearable hell ship voyages, partly because there was a small number of POWs aboard and the short duration of three day journey.

3.Why many Japanese hell ships were sunk and bombed by Allied forces

Overall, more than 20,000 Allied POWs are estimated to have died at sea when the transport ships carrying them were attacked by Allied submarines and aircraft.

The Japanese could have identified the merchant vessels they used for prisoner transport by painting or putting a white cross on the ship, but they refused — violating the terms protecting POWs under the Geneva Convention.

They reportedly used transports bearing these Red Cross markings for their weapons while the ships carrying POWS were unmarked.

Due to this, the Japanese transports were often targeted by American carriers and submarines.

Nonetheless, it was believed that the Allied forces knew that some of these ships were carrying POWs after cracking shipping codes relayed among the Japanese.

So why did they bomb POW ships?

According to Greg Michno in Death on the Hellships, they opted to attack POW transport because to leave them untouched while sinking other Japanese shipping would have indicated to the Japanese that their codes had been compromised.

4.Even if POWs survived the sinking, many were not rescued

Many have said that the true character of a person is revealed in the time of crisis. What is the bigger crisis other than a sinking ship?

There were different accounts from survivors of how these POWs dealt with the situation when they were drifted in the ocean waiting for rescue.

In the case of Tamahoko Maru, the sinking showed the best of humankind.

The survivors’ report stated, “Finding themselves in the water, most prisoners managed to gain these rafts or other wreckage and settled down with the Japanese survivors to wait for dawn, all nationalities helping each other.”

However, this beautiful moment did not last long as Japanese vessels returned only to pick up the Japanese, leaving the prisoners on the wreckage.

5.Some were rescued by the same vessels which sunk them

SS Rakuyo Maru was transporting 1,317 Australian and British POWs from Singapore to Formosa in Sept 1944. Another ship in the convoy was SS Kachidoki Maru with another 950 on board.

On Sept 12, the convoy was attacked in the Luzon Strait by three US submarines.

Both Japanese vessels were torpedoed and sunk, killing around 1,159 POWs. As some of the POW survivors tried to row their way towards land in lifeboats the next day, they were bombarded by a Japanese navy vessel.

On Sept 15, the three US submarines returned and rescued 149 surviving POWs who were on rafts. Four more died before they could make it on land.

One of SS Rakuyo Maru’s survivors Roydon Charles Cornford wrote his account of survival in 1982.

The survivors saw a lot of dead POWs floating around. They took life jackets off the dead Japanese and busted them open to use the kapok to wipe the oil out of their eyes and off their faces.

At one point, it started to rain with all of the prisoners looking up to the sky with open mouths to catch any water they could.

While drifting in the sea not knowing what happened to him, Cornford shared, “We never once talked about not surviving.”

When he was rescued, Cornford pleaded his rescuers not to grab his arms because they were just blisters and sores.

6.There were mixed reactions on board on these bombings.

So how did the POWs felt seeing their own countrymen bombing their ships?

Kelly E. Crager in Hell under the Rising Sun recorded the reactions of POWs aboard Dai Moji Maru when their ship was torpedoed by the US.

“The bombing raid was quite literally a near-death experience for the POWs, and they responded in different ways. Some expressed elation that the Americans were disrupting Japanese shipping at this stage of the war and in this part of the world.

“They reasoned that if the Americans were capable of this kind of action, the war would soon be over. Houston sailor Seldon Reese cheered the American bombers, shouting from the hold: ‘Hit the son-of-bitch! Sink the bastard! Others received a morale boost from the American bombing, although they admitted that they hoped their ship would emerge unscathed.

Lester Rasbury had mixed emotions about the bombing: ‘I was kind of hoping to take up for myself, if I could. But we were glad to see it, and we weren’t, either. We at least knew (the US Army Air Forces) were still doing something.’

Kelly Bob Bramlett described his reaction: ‘Well, you hate to get it from your own people, but you’re glad to see them out, too, you know’.

To Johnny Buck, the reaction was simple: ‘I guess I was partial toward the Americans, but I wasn’t caring about them hitting us’.

Wade Webb spoke for many others: ‘I guess I had to pull for the Japs, because I wanted to stay afloat. You know you can’t straddle the fence, so I had to go with the Japs on this one.’”

Oryoku burning after attack on 15 December 1944 about 11 AM. Photo by a Hellcat from USS Hornet shows POWs swimming in the water. Public Domaim

7.One Japanese hell ship executed all of its POWs (including throwing babies overboard alive)

While these POWs were alive to tell their tales, not all were lucky enough like them. One of the most gruesome scenes of WWII took places in one of these Japanese hell ships.

Akikaze was a Japanese destroyer and performed patrol as well as convoy escort duties during WWII.

After departing Rabaul, the Akikaze moved to Wewak from Mar 8, 1943 to deliver medicine and supplies, then to nearby Kairuru Island.

On Mar 15, 1943, Catholic missionaries including Bishop Joseph Loerks, six priests, 14 brothers, 18 nuns and one Chinese woman with her two infants were loaded onto Akikaze.

At first, the passengers were treated with dignity, even given a rear cabin and tea, water and bread. Their sea sickness were even treated by the ship’s doctor.

The destroyer proceeded northward and anchored off Lorengau on Manus Island overnight.

Then on Mar 17, 1943 twenty more civilians were brought aboard from Manus. The POWs included German missionaries, one Hungarian missionary and Chinese civilians including six woman. Now there were a total of sixty prisoners aboard the ship.

The apparent intention was to carry them to internment in Rabaul.

However, it was reported, “between Manus and Rabaul each of the adults was strung up by the hands on a gallows in the stern of the vessel, shot dead by rifle or machine-gun fire, and thrown overboard. The two Chinese infants and the European baby were thrown over alive.”

8.Journeying on these ships weaken the POWs

Even if these POWs were safely arrived at their destinations, their hellish experiences did not end on hell ships.

Suffering from diseases and malnutrition, these POWs continued to suffer even when they arrived at the POWs camps.

On Nov 6, 1943, 1230 Dutch POWs departed Singapore for Japan aboard Hawaii Maru.

They were provided with little amount of food consisted of a rice porridge and vegetable of food.

On Nov 27, their convoy was attacked near northern Taiwan. Another large transport (Hakone Maru) was sinking and an escort vessel (Tomodzuru) had been damaged.

The Hawaii Maru stopped up to rescue about 900 survivors, cramping the already crowded ship.

According to reports, Hawaii Maru arrived Moji, Japan on Dec 3, 1943. The prisoners were then moved to camps in Fukuoka, Kokura, Moji and Miyata. Some were sent to Shimonoski and Osaka.

At first, all POWs appeared to survive the journey to Japan. However, six died in the first two weeks after their arrival due to the deprivations of the journey.

Death records of camps in Fukuoka and Osaka showed there were slower effects of these voyages. The victims of hell ships that arrived in Japan typically died within 1 to 2 months due to diarrhea and malnutrition. At least another 70 passengers of Hawaii Maru died of pneumonia in the following months.

While it is impossible to tell if these deaths were caused by their journey, the high death rates among the passengers suggest that the month-long journey aboard Hawaii Maru left many men so weak that they were easily infected by diseases.

9.Those who were found guilty of war crimes because of what happened on board Japanese hell ships

Not all who were responsible of the deaths of POWS on board of these hell ships were convicted of war crimes after the war ended.

Well, it was hard to convict them as some of these Japanese armies gone down together with the sunken ships.

However, justice was served in some cases. The Tofuku Maru was transporting 1200 POWs and 600 Japanese Army troops between Singapore and Moji, Japan.

The voyage took place between Oct 27 and Nov 27, 1942. Altogether 27 POWs died during the journey, another 130 were carried off the ship on stretchers. As many as 100 died later.

Ship’s Master Shiro Otsu and Sergeant Major Eiji Yoshinari were tried for war crimes that led to deaths of the prisoners on the voyage during a Singapore War Crimes trial.

It was found that the POWs, who was a mix of American, Dutch, British and Australian were crammed into two holding areas with an average of 5 men per 6 square foot.

To make matter worse, there not enough toiletry facilities and foods for the prisoners.

On June 11, 1947, Otsu was found guilty while Yoshinari was acquitted.

10.Should these Japanese hell ships be raised from their seabed graves?

The Japanese hell ships that were sunk are still lying in the ocean bed. Now, some people opined that they should be raised.

One of them is Chinese fimmaker, Fang Li who wanted to raise Lisbon Maru that was sunk in 1942.

On her final voyage, she was transporting 1816 POWs between Hong Kong and Japan when torpedoed on Oct 1, 1942.

When the ship started to sink, the POWs tried to save their own lives.

Survivors reported that the Japanese guards first fired on the POWs who reached the deck and that other Japanese ships used machine guns to fire POWs who were in the water.

Some of the victims’ families agreed with the idea. However, one of the survivors of Lisbon Maru disagreed.

Dennis Morley, who thought to be the last survivor alive in Britain told BBC in 2018, “Oh God, how many hundred went under? Could be 1,000 odd. I don’t know. It’s no good getting them out. They’re all dead. They are probably bleached bones now. It’s wartime and a lot of horrible things happened during the war. They’re in peace. Leave them in peace. It is a war grave and should be left as a war grave.”

As for Fang Li, he had his own argument for wanting to raise Lisbon Maru as he considered it to be a jail.

He argued, “All those boys were detained there against their will, that’s why I feel so sad today- they are still detained on the sea floor. In my personal opinion they are on the Chinese sea floor in a Japanese jail. Shouldn’t we free them and send them home?”