21000 ALMOST FORGOTTEN HEROES – Hell Ships An Overview

Painting of the Oryoku Maru by Ueda
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Painting of the Oryoku Maru by Ueda

BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D.    As a result of an overwhelming positive response to my article last on Hell Ships, I am going to carry on this week telling the story and hopefully answering some of your questions concerning this great atrocity and war crime.



Of the dozens of positive responses I received there was only one negative one and ironically that was from a person I work with who felt I committed an ethical breach by not declaring that the opinions expressed were mine and not the agency I work for.  Problem solved, I have removed the reference to that agency in my byline and profile.


Let me begin by saying I am very proud of the reconciliation that has come about in a relatively short period of time. This only happened because good men and women from Japan and America came together to recognize the wrongs on both sides and to put them behind us.  They did not forget or deny them, they forgave them.  On a personal note I don’t know of anyone who has written more articles and stories praising our Nisei than myself.


Many letters and emails I have received in the last week were from grandchildren of someone who perished on a Hell Ship.  Many say it was not talked about in their families and wanted to know more about these “Hell Ships”.


This is a brief overview of these ships and what life was like aboard them.

While the nightmarish horrors of the Bataan Death March and Camp O’Donnell have captured popular notoriety, survivors of Japanese POW camps typically recount their time aboard POW transport ships, the “Hell Ships”, as being the most terrible experiences of their captivity. Hell Ships were Japanese cargo ships that carried Allied POWs to locations throughout the Japanese Empire to be employed as forced labor supporting the war efforts of the Japanese military and civilian corporations. Because the transports were unmarked, many were attacked and sunk by Allied submarines and aircraft with the result that over 21,000 Allied Prisoners of War and Asian forced laborers perished at sea. The Hell Ships remain one of the least known tragedies of the Pacific War.

Aboard the Hell Ships

Conditions aboard the transports were appalling. Hundreds or even thousands of men, wearing little more than rags, were packed, “like sardines in a can” into unlit, unventilated, cargo holds. In the tropical heat the holds were sweltering. In winter, traveling the icy seas to Japan, they were freezing. Food, and especially water, were in short supply for the POWs; but the crews and guards were not restricted in their use. If the men were lucky, water was rationed in canteen cups; if not, water was dispensed by the spoonful, or the POWs went with none at all. Food, when delivered, often consisted solely of small amounts rice, or on trips to Japan, millet, a hard grain particularly ill-suited for men suffering from diarrheal diseases. Sanitation was almost non-existent. Relatively healthy men could wait in long lines to climb the ladder to the deck to use primitive wooden “benjos” hung over the sides of the ship, but those sick with dysentery were unable to climb or wait. Often, the prisoners were denied access to the deck and were forced to use small overflowing waste buckets. Dysentery spread rapidly as waste flowed throughout the spaces where men ate, lay, and slept.

Illness and Disease–Part of the Toll

Starvation, dehydration and dysentery took an appalling toll. Some 20 Americans died during the voyage of Tottori Maru in October and November 1942, but the terrible conditions left the men so weakened that more than 180 succumbed during their first terrible winter in Korea and Manchuria. During October and November 1942, three ships, Tofuku, Singapore, and Dai-nichi Maru, carried more than 3,000 British and Allied POWs from Singapore. Nearly 200 died aboard the ships, but more than 300 others perished after arrival due to dysentery or pneumonia–diseases that could have been successfully treated with the Red Cross medicines withheld by the Japanese. Analysis of POW deaths in Japan that at least 40% of the 1100 plus American POWs who died in Japan, did so in large part due to depravations suffered aboard the Hell Ships.

Unmarked ships were a target for Allied aircraft and submarines

An even larger toll of POW lives was exacted by the Japanese failure to mark the POW transports. With nothing to distinguish ships carrying POWs from those carrying military cargos, many were attacked and sunk by Allied submarines and aircraft. In 1944, the allies controlled the seas around the Philippine Islands but the Japanese persisted in their attempts to bring forced labor to the homeland. In September, Shinyo Maru was torpedoed and sunk. Most of the 750 Americans aboard went down with the ship but the Japanese executed the POWs they fished from the water leaving only 82 survivors to reach the shore to be rescued by Filipino civilians and guerillas. In October, Arisan Maru was torpedoed between Formosa and the Philippines. The Japanese abandoned the ship leaving the Americans behind. Only 8 of 1800 POWs survived. It was the largest loss of American lives at sea in history. On December 13, 1944, Oryoku Maru departed Manila, her holds packed with 1622, mostly American, POWs. The rear hold of the ship, which in October 1944 had carried 260 senior Allied officers from Formosa to Japan under intolerable conditions, now contained almost 800 prisoners. Some 600 more were crammed into the smaller forward hold, while perversely, a larger middle hold held less than 250 POWs. The next day, the ship was bombed by carrier planes from USS Hornet and disabled. The following day it was attacked again and sunk. Some 170 POWs perished in the bombing and evacuation while perhaps 100 others died due to the unbearable conditions in the holds. The survivors were gathered and shipped to Takao, Formosa, where on January 9, 1945, they were again attacked by planes from the USS Hornet. One bomb hit and one near miss on Enoura Maru killed or wounded some 500 men. The damaged hulk was abandoned and about 900 American survivors were placed aboard Brazil Maru where 350 more perished from wounds, dysentery, pneumonia, and dehydration during the 2 weeks it took to reach Japan. 176 more would die in Japan leaving only 403 survivors of the 1622 to be liberated by Allied forces.

A Staggering Loss of Life

All told some 3,600 American POWs lost their lives aboard Hell Ships and some 700 others were so debilitated by the experience they quickly succumbed upon arrival at their destinations. Stated another way, 40% of the 10,500 Americans who perished as POWs died aboard the Hell ships or in their immediate aftermath. In total, more than 14,000 American, Australian, British, Dutch and Indian POWs perished aboard the Hell Ships, as did more than 7,000 “Romusha”, Indonesian civilians who had been forced into labor on jungle railroads and other projects by the Japanese.

I hope that this article has helped to answer the many questions that last week’s article raised.  And to the Byline Sheriffs, some of the thoughts in this article are the Author’s but many are from other writers and journalist who believe strongly in writing the truth.


The information in this article was sourced from a variety of sources both internal and external. Every effort was made to ensure that the information is current and correct. These articles are presented to honor the heroes they are written about.





  1. Thank you. This needs to be publicized more than this. That war was hell, but first I've ever heard of "hell ships" and our losses, and allied losses in them. Seems recognition of so many is still ongoing.

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