Peril at sea

The ship was like a wreck; ragged, rusted gear, broken casting, bits of plating and junk, winch cylinders almost rusted through, great cankers of rust as if the ship had leprosy, the lagging of the steamlines rotted and gapped like ulcered limbs. Because of the crowding, some of the men had found billets among the heaps of coal ... they were quite exposed to the rain.

[Ray Parkin, The Sword and the Blossom, London: Hogarth Press, 1968, 75.]

Thousands of prisoners of war were transported by ship across Japan's newly conquered Asia–Pacific empire in 1942–45.Travelling on these 'hell ships' was acutely uncomfortable and very dangerous. During World War II perhaps 15 000 prisoners of war and civilian internees (of all combatants) died a result of being sunk at sea by their own side. Some 1515 Australian prisoners died at sea in the Pacific.

Voyages by sea were used by the Japanese either to concentrate prisoners after their capture or to transport them to work sites around South East and North Asia. Many of those captured in places like Singapore and Java, for example, were shipped in 1942–43 to Burma to construct the Burma-Thailand railway. More than 4000 Australians were also sent to work in Japan, while many others were transported to Japanese-held territories such as Formosa (now Taiwan), Korea and Borneo.

The ships used to transport prisoners were cramped, old, dirty and in poor repair. Many of them were cargo vessels, only roughly converted into troop transports. Prisoners were crammed into every available space in the holds, forced to sit and sleep on crudely constructed and small wooden bunks. With poor ventilation the atmosphere soon became stiflingly hot and putrid. While at times the prisoners were allowed to sit on deck, they were forced into the holds at night or, on some ships, not allowed to go on deck at all.

Latrines were little more than wooden structures suspended over the edge of the ship. These were inadequate for the needs of prisoners and dangerous in rough seas. Since many prisoners were suffering from dysentery, conditions in the holds themselves became foul.

The poor food aboard the ships also exacerbated the suffering of the prisoners who usually received only rice and watery stew.

Although the US offensive against Japanese shipping took some time to gather momentum, even voyages early in the Pacific War were subject to attack. In January 1943, for instance, a two-ship convoy carrying Dutch and Australian prisoners was attacked by Allied aircraft. Over 400 Dutch prisoners died when one ship was sunk and the other ship damaged. From 1943 on, as the Allies gained the initiative in the Pacific, increasing numbers of Japanese ships were sunk.

The loss of life among prisoners being transported by ship was attributable to the fact that, despite the efforts of the International Committee of the Red Cross, none of the belligerents in World War II agreed to mark ships carrying prisoners. They assumed that their enemies could not be trusted and would use prisoners as a cover for contraband goods. The United States also believed that its highest priority was to sink Japanese shipping, regardless of the risk to POWs, and thus bring the war to an end as quickly as possible.

The Japanese, in turn, did not provide life vests or rafts for the prisoners. Locked in the holds during an attack the prisoners were almost certainly doomed if their ship was hit.

Not surprisingly prisoners felt mixed emotions during these sea voyages. Some rejoiced at the sinking of Japanese ships and the superiority of the Allies that this represented. Others, having experienced the horrors of Burma and Thailand, approached the dangers of their voyages resignedly. Roy Whitecross, bound for Japan on the Awa Maru, remembered an attack by American submarines:

In the hold there was silence and a deep calm. No man deluded himself about his chances of escaping if a torpedo struck the ship. Five hundred men and one steel door, which would have to be opened anyway ... So this was it. No fuss, no shouting. Just quiet resignation.

[R. H. Whitecross, Slaves of the Son of Heaven, Sydney, Corgi, 1971, 161.]

In fact, Whitecross survived, but many others did not. In September 1944 when the Rokyo Maru was sunk by an American submarine 543 of the 649 Australians on board perished. The remainder were either rescued by Japanese ships or—in the case of some eighty of them—were picked up by the American vessel. It was from these men, exhausted and coated in oil, that the world first learned of the terrible experiences of Allied prisoners on the Burma-Thailand railway.

Similarly the loss of life was immense when the Montevideo Maru transporting more than a thousand POWs and civilians from New Britain to Hainan was sunk by the submarine USS Sturgeon on the morning of 1 July 1942. None of the Allied personnel on board survived.


Last updated: 21 January 2020

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Peril at sea, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 July 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/events/journeys/peril-sea
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