In May 1942 the Japanese began transferring POWs by sea. Similar to treatment on the Bataan Death March, prisoners were often crammed into cargo holds with little air, food or water for journeys that would last weeks. Many died due to asphyxia, starvation or dysentery. Some POWs became delirious and unresponsive in their environment of heat, humidity and lack of oxygen, food, and water. These unmarked prisoner transports were targeted as enemy ships by Allied submarines and aircraft.
More than 20,000 Allied POWs died at sea when the transport ships carrying them were attacked by Allied submarines and aircraft. Although Allied headquarters often knew of the presence of POWs through radio interception and code breaking, the ships were sunk because interdiction of critical strategic materials was more important than the deaths of prisoners-of-war.
There are too many ships to mention but below are a the stories of a few of them.
Lisbon Maru was carrying 2,000 British POWs from Hong Kong to Japan in appalling conditions when torpedoed by USS Grouper on 1 October 1942. 800 POWs died when the ship sank the following day.
Many were shot or otherwise killed by the ship’s Japanese guards.
Rakuyo Maru was torpedoed 12 September 1944 by USS Sealion which later realized the ship carried 1,317 Australian and British prisoners of war (POWs) from Singapore to Formosa (Taiwan).
A total of 1,159 POWs died, 350 in lifeboats which were bombarded by a Japanese navy vessel the next day when they were rowing towards land. On 15 September, three submarines returned to the area and rescued 63 surviving POWs who were on rafts. Four of them died before they could be landed at Tanapag Harbor, Saipan, in the Mariana Islands.
The 5,065-ton tramp steamer Junyo Maru sailed from Batavia (Tandjoeng Priok) on 16 September 1944 with about 4,200 romusha slave labourers and 2,300 POWs aboard. These Dutch POWs included 1,600 from the 10th Battalion camp and 700 from the Kampong Makassar camp. This 23rd transport of POWs from Java was called Java Party 23. Java Party 23 included about 6,500 men bound for Padang on the west coast of Sumatra to work on the Sumatra railway (Mid-Sumatra).
On 18 September 1944 the ship was 15 miles off the west coast of Sumatra near Benkoelen when HMS Tradewind hit her with two torpedoes, one in the bow and one in the stern.
About 4,000 romushas and 1,626 POWs died when the ship sank in 20 minutes. About 200 romushas and 674 POWs were rescued by Japanese ships and taken to the Prison in Padang, where eight prisoners died.
Oryoku Maru was a 7,363-ton passenger cargo liner transporting 1,620 survivors of the Bataan Death March, Corregidor, and other battles, mostly American and seven Czech, packed in the holds, and 1,900 Japanese civilians and military personnel in the cabins.She left Manila on 13 December 1944, and over the next two days was bombed and strafed by US planes. As she neared the naval base at Olongapo in Subic Bay, US Navy planes from the USS Hornet attacked the unmarked ship, causing it to sink on December 15.
About 270 died aboard ship. Some died from suffocation or dehydration. Others were killed in the attack, drowned or were shot while escaping the ship at it sunk in Subic Bay where the ‘Hell Ship Memorial’ is located. A colonel, in his official report, wrote:
- Many men lost their minds and crawled about in the absolute darkness armed with knives, attempting to kill people in order to drink their blood or armed with canteens filled with urine and swinging them in the dark. The hold was so crowded and everyone so interlocked with one another that the only movement possible was over the heads and bodies of others