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BY DUANE ALLEN VACHON, PH.D. Later this month we will be the 70th anniversary of the signing of the unconditional surrender by the Japanese on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor. I thought it would be interesting to recall some of the events and the price that was paid to achieve the surrender.

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 Hellships
Conditions aboard the transports were appalling. Hundred or event 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 were 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 Oct and Nov 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 attached 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 Sept., 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 Oct., 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 13 Dec 1944, Oryoku Maru departed Manila, her holds packed with 1622, mostly American, POWs. The rear hold of the ship, which in Oct 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 9 Jan 1945, they were again attacked by planes from the 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 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.






  1. Duane you have done a great job by providing the respect to those 21000 forgotten heroes. This is irony that we forget those who deserve a lot. I will surely share it with my readers of freedom apk so that more and more people can know about this.

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