In this article we are going to take a look at both the Great War and Second World War starting with a humanitarian chartered ship used in an attempt to influence an armistice to those used to rescue innocent victims of war or transport prisoners and slave labour. At the same time, where known, we will look at some of the individuals concerned to see what motivated them. Regrettably many of the refugee ships sank, with huge loss of life, either by accident or deliberately and many, particularly in the Pacific zone, were known as “hell ships” transporting allied prisoners of war and slave labour under the most appalling unimaginable conditions.
Henry Ford and SS Oscar II – 1916
At the start of the Great War in Europe, Henry Ford, the wealthy American motor manufacturer, stood out as a critic of the conflict and openly supported the plans of the Woman's Peace Party to organize a peace conference at The Hague during April 1915. Following the interesting conference Ford was contacted by three of America's leading anti-war campaigners, who suggested that he might consider sponsoring an international conference in Stockholm. At this conference the intention was to discuss ways by which the war could be quickly brought to an end without further loss of life. Henry Ford suggested sending a ship of expert pacifists to Europe with the intention of negotiating an agreement that would bring the warring parties together and end the conflict. The ship chartered was the Oscar II, built in 1902 by Alexander Stephen & Sons Glasgow and she sailed from Hoboken, New Jersey on 4th December, 1915 with all costs and expenses paid by Henry Ford. The Ford Peace Ship with about 170 American delegates reached Stockholm in January, 1916, and a conference was organized with representatives from Denmark, Holland, Norway, Sweden and the United States. Prior to his departure Ford talked to President Thomas Woodrow Wilson about the mission but could gain no government support. Finding it impossible to persuade representatives from the warring nations to take part, the conference was unsuccessful and as a failure Ford left the ship immediately on its arrival in Sweden and the ship and delegates returned to the USA.
Henry Ford despite his pacifism during the early years of the Great War was an open racist and published anti-Semitic texts in his book “The International Jew.”
Not unexpectedly Ford opposed America's entry into World War II and continued to believe that international business could generate the wealth and employment that would prevent wars. Ford "insisted that war was the product of greedy financiers who sought profit in human destruction". During 1939 he even claimed that the torpedoing of neutral American merchant ships by German U-boats was caused by “conspiratorial activities undertaken by financier war-makers”. This was a code he had previously used for the Jews and he also accused Jews of having encouraged the Great War 1914-18. In the years leading up to the start of the Second World War in Europe and immediately following he stated that he would refuse to trade with the warring parties. In common with many other businessmen who had suffered in Great Depression era, he distrusted Franklin Roosevelt and thought that his policies would drag the USA into a European war. However, contrarily Ford was happy to do business with Nazi Germany, including the manufacture of products to support their savage war machine. In 1940 his German factory Ford-Werke requested the Nazis to supply 100-200 French prisoners of war to work as slave labour and this number expanded as the war progressed. This act contravened Article 31 of the 1929 Geneva Convention although it must be said America was not at war with Nazi Germany at this point but many patriotic and compassionate American companies refused to make “blood money” from the atrocities of the Nazi regime. When approached by Rolls-Royce to produce the Merlin engine in the USA (for use in Spitfires, Hurricanes and later Mustangs) he firstly agreed and later reneged. There was some unsubstantiated suspicion he did this to gain technical information regarding the superior engine which may have found its way to a “belligerent force”. In 1941 the Ford manufacturing empire supported the American war effort but his motives were often questionable. One needs to remember that in July 1938, before the outbreak of war in Europe, the German consul at Cleveland honoured Ford, by then 75, with the award of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest medal Nazi Germany could bestow on a foreigner. It is sad to note that James D. Mooney, vice-president of overseas operations for General Motors, received a similar medal, the Merit Cross of the German Eagle, First Class. It is disgraceful that both men accepted such an award.
Heinrich Himmler is recorded described Ford as "one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters." Ford was the only American national mentioned in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And he wrote, "only a single great man, Ford, [who], to [the Jews'] fury, still maintains full independence [from] the controlling masters of the producers in a nation of one hundred and twenty millions." It was known that Hitler kept a life size portrait of Henry Ford next to his desk.
Following a series of strokes his health faded considerably and he lost control of his empire and died in April 1947.
Captain Gustav Schröder - 1939 SS St. Louis
German Jews fleeing the vicious attacks and property theft perpetrated by the Nazis made their way to Hamburg and on 13th May 1939 boarded the liner SS St Louis. Arrangements had been made for 937 of them to obtained visas for Havana Cuba, leaving their previous lives and most of their possessions behind.
On arrival in Cuba they found that the authorities had reneged on the visas and in their place had introduced a series of regulation which was impossible for the refugees to meet. Captain Schroder, the ship’s captain, sailed from Havana with the intention of landing them in the United States but the US authorities also denied these refugees entry, followed by a ban from Canada, forcing the St. Louis to return to Europe on 6th June 1939.
Captain Schroder refused to return to Germany and pass the refugees into the hands of the Nazis and certain death or to hand them over without suitable visas to land in a friendly country. Difficult negotiations were initiated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, resulting in the ship being able to dock in Antwerp, Belgium. The compassionate governments of Belgium (took 214), Holland (took 181), France (took 224), and the United Kingdom (took 288) agreed to accept the refugees. However by 1940, all of the passengers, except those accepted by Britain, found themselves in the savage hands of the Nazis as they overran Europe.
Except for those accepted by Britain no-one knows for sure what happened to each of the 937 St. Louis passengers and it still remains an unsolved mystery. Between 1996 to 2006 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum researchers Sarah Ogilvie and Scott Miller worked to uncover the fates of all 937 refugees aboard the MS St. Louis. It is known that approximately 200 - 250 passengers from the St. Louis were murdered in Nazi concentration camps and sadly all could have been saved if America or Canada had granted them refugee status. The racist and anti-Semitic immigration law supported by most North American politicians, at that time, was the greatest contributing factor to their slaughter.
Captain Gustav Schröder treated the refugees with the upmost respect and offered the full free hospitality of his fine liner. His selfless action put a price on his head but saved the lives of some hundreds of his passengers and he is to be highly commended for that. In 1957, he was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal German Republic "for services to the people and the land in the rescue of refugees". On 11th March 1993, Yad Vashem decided to recognize Captain Gustav Schroeder (posthumously) as “Righteous Among the Nations”.
Gustav Schröder died in 1959 at the age of 74
M V Struma - 1941
The motor vessel “Struma” a 180 ton Romanian coastal vessel arrived at Istanbul on 20th December 1941 carrying approximately 760 Jewish refugees from Romania. The vessel was in very poor condition being built in 1867 and designed to carry only 100 passengers.
The refugees were fleeing the wholesale slaughter of Jews being carried out by the Nazis in Bucharest where reports were of the indiscriminate murder of people just because of their Jewish faith and whose bodies were hung and displayed on "butcher's hooks."
The Turkish government "was unwilling to permit these people to land in Turkey and enquired whether they would be admitted into Palestine." The initial reply from the British Government was “For security reasons a ban on the admission of persons from Axis and Axis-controlled territory was in force.” This was because there was some suspicion that the Nazis were planting spy’s in refugee columns. Therefore the Turkish Government was informed that the 'Struma' passengers would not be admitted to Palestine. Britain, at the time, was in the difficult situation of dealing with the Jews natural enemy, the Arabs, and to allow them into Palestine would have fermented a wholescale uprising by the mufti against Britain. Britain was fighting for its own survival in Europe and an uprising in the Middle East was the last thing it needed. However the British Consul was advised by London that although the security ban could not be lifted immediately he instructed the local British authorities to obtain a suitable vessel and take off from the “Struma” all children between the ages of 11 and 16 and transport them to Palestine and safety.
After 10 weeks in port the Palestine Administration looked at the ship and determined that she was unseaworthy and unless there was calm weather she could not be sent back to sea. Before all arrangement could be completed the “Struma” was forced to sail into the Black Sea by the Turkish Authorities and sank, due to an explosion, on the 24th February 1942 with the loss of at least 760 Jewish lives. Evidence from two survivors spoke of the “Struma” being boarded in Istanbul by up to 200 Turkish Police and fighting breaking out. Overpowered by the Turks the ship was taken 10km off-shore and the following morning the ship was torn apart by a huge explosion. They reported seeing the tracks of a torpedo but who fired it has never been determined. No aid was sent from the Turkish mainland even though the ship was clearly visible.
Directly and indirectly the British Government, even today, was blamed for this tragedy by certain Jewish organisations and London was aghast that its intentions had been misinterpreted when it clearly had planned to overcome the red tape and send them to the island of Mauritius. This complicated plan was to satisfy the Arab nations and to reassure the Palestinian Jews that the British would honour the Balfour Declaration and observe their legal obligations under the Mandate. However it was not to be.
SS Wilhelm Gustloff - 1945
The Wilhelm Gustloff was constructed by the Blohm & Voss shipyards. 25,484 gross register tons; and launched on 5th May 1937.
Her captain was Friederich Petersen, accompanied by Military Transport Director, Korvettenkapitän Wilhelm Zahn. She had been used as a hospital and accommodation ship for about 4 years although in 1940 she was repainted from hospital white with green stripe to standard naval grey.
On 30th January 1945 she was ordered to sail in convoy to Flensburg and Kiel. Aboard were her civilian crew (173), 918 naval U-Bootfahrer (U-Boat crew) and 373 female naval auxiliaries from Danzig. Further she received 162 severely wounded soldiers in her hospital, and 8,956 civilians, among them an unspecified number of pregnant women and estimated 4,000 children, giving a total of 10,582 passengers and crew. To increase room the lifeboats were removed and replaced with just floats.
On the night of sailing the weather was poor with snow and visibility down to almost zero. Against Wilhelm Zahn’s advice Captain Friederich Petersen turned on the ships position lights which attracted the attention of Russian submarine S-13. Captain Third Class Alexander U. Marinesko of the S-13 could not believe his luck with this huge ship appearing out of the snow storm in the Baltic. The submarine fired three torpedoes all of which struck the ship causing an immediate loss of power and list to port and down by the head. Within 40 minutes the Wilhelm Gustloff had rolled on her side and sank head first in icy cold water dotted with ice flows. Many were trapped inside the ship and those who jumped a great many could not cope with the freezing water. The following condensed information was recorded at the time: “Survivors were picked up by Torpedoboat LÖWE (472), Torpedoboat T-36, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Robert Hering rescued 564 people. The minesweeper M-387, commanded by Oberleutnant z.S. d.R. Karl Brinkmann rescued 98 persons. The minesweeper M-375, commanded by Oberleutnant z.S.d.R. Walter Weichel, picked up 43 people. The minesweeper M-341, commanded by Oberleutnant z.S. d.R. Henry Rickmers rescued 37 people. The freighter GÖTTINGEN commanded by Merchant Marine Captain Friedrich Segelken rescued 28 persons. The freighter GOTENLAND, commanded by Merchant Marine Captain Heinz Vollmers, picked up 2 people. The exercise torpedo catcher TF-19, commanded by Oberleutnant z.S. d.R. Walter Schick, picked up 7 people and the harbour patrol boat VP-1703, commanded by Kapitänleutnant d.R. Helmut Hanefeld, just one person.” In total these 9 vessels rescued 1,252 people who survived. Many of the others were picked up but died of exposure later.
From 3,250 children aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, only 100 survived after they were pulled from the freezing water as many died quickly from exposure.
SS Cap Arcona- 1945
Launched May 14th 1927 built Blohm & Voss Hamburg. Weight 27,560grt.
Between late 1944 and May 1945, German ships transported over two million East German refugees to the west in an attempt to save them from being slaughtered by the advancing Russian armies. Cap Arcona had already made three such runs across the Baltic Sea in 1945 rescuing a total of 26,000 refugees.
The Nazis operated Cap Arcona as a floating prison in the dying days of the war with 5,000 prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp plus 400 SS guards being transferred to the ship. As Allied forces closed in on the last remaining German held positions, an unmarked Cap Arcona was attacked by British Typhoon fighter bombers, by mistake, on 3rd May 1945 and sunk with the loss of almost all on board. It was reported that concentration camp survivors in the water, identified by their striped clothes, were gunned down by SS units on shore manning machine guns. Only those wearing SS uniforms were rescued.
British forces marched into the City of Neustadt the following day. The sad fact was had the troops arrived one day earlier; they would have taken control of the ship and freed the prisoners.
SS Thielbek – 1945
Built Orenstein-Koppel Und Lubecker Masch A/G, Lubeck. 1940. 2815grt
This was a passenger ship, falsely claimed to be flying a white flag and had been commandeered along with the Cap Arcona to take on board prisoners from the Neuengamme, Stutthof, and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps supposedly for transit to Sweden. It was later revealed by the head of the Hamburg Gestapo that all the prisoners were to be killed, and it has been suggested that it was planned to do this by scuttling the ships with the prisoners aboard. Between the two attacks on the Cap Arcona, nine Hawker Typhoon aircraft of No. 198 Squadron RAF stationed at Plantlünne attacked the Thielbek and the Deutschland, firing rockets at the Deutschland and at the Thielbek. The Thielbek was raked with cannon shells and left on fire with a 30° list to starboard, and sank 20 minutes after being attacked. There was nothing to suggest to the attacking aircraft that they held prisoners and indeed it suited the Gestapo. Of the 2,800 prisoners on board the Thielbek, only 50 survived the attack
Four years after her sinking the Thielbek was refloated and the human remains found on board laid to rest in the "Cap Arcona" cemetery in Neustadt. She was repaired and returned to service, having been renamed Reinbek.
SS Goya – 1945
The Goya was originally built as a freighter by the Akers Mekaniske Verksted shipyard in Oslo in 1940 with a capacity of 5,230grt. It has been suggested she was a hospital ship but this is untrue and she was unmarked and operating as an evacuation ship and Wehrmacht troop transport
On the 16th April 1945 she sailed from Hel Peninsula, across the Baltic Sea to western Germany carrying 7000 German refugees from Danzig and an unknown number of German soldiers. They were all fleeing from the approaching Russian army when the ship was spotted by the Russian submarine L-3 captained by Third Rank Vladimir K. Konovalov and torpedoed. The SS Goya sank quickly and only between 180-330 people survived while around 6,666 persons drowned in the Baltic (The figures are subject to confirmation according to which report you read).
SS Orion (Schiff 36) – 1945
The Orion was built in 1930 by Blohm & Voss in Hamburg as a freighter of 7021grt. She sailed as a neutral merchant ship, pretending to be Swedish, but was in fact a German auxiliary cruiser armed with six 155-mm (5.9-inch) guns and responsible for the sinking of 17 allied ships in combination with another German auxiliary cruiser MV Komet. Having been identified her use as a commerce raider was over and the ship was renamed SS Hektor in 1944 and used as gunnery training ship. In January 1945 she was renamed Orion again and used to transport East German refugees across the Baltic Sea to various ports in northern Germany and occupied Denmark. On her way to Copenhagen on 4th May 1945 the ship was bombed by Russian aircraft off Swinemünde and swiftly sank. Of more than 4,000 people on board all but 150 were rescued.
SS General von Steuben - 1945
Built AG Vulcan Stettin, Germany – 1922, 14660grt
This vessel had been converted from a liner to a hospital ship and was used to evacuate injured soldiers from the area of Courland, Latvia which was currently cut off by Russian troops. She sailed on 9th February 1945 from Pillau in the bay of Danzig for Swinemünde (now Świnoujście, Poland).Later the same day she was sunk, with 3000 German war wounded and refugees aboard off Stolpmunde by the Russian submarine S-13 which was the same that had sunk the Wilhelm Gustloff. On board, records show were: “ 2,800 wounded German soldiers; 800 civilians; 100 returning soldiers; 270 navy medical personnel (including doctors, nurses and auxiliaries); 12 nurses from Pillau; 64 crew for the ship's anti-aircraft guns, 61 naval personnel, radio operators, signal men, machine operators, and administrators, and 160 merchant navy crewmen: a total of 4,267 people”. Only 659 persons were rescued…..while 3,608 drowned in the Baltic Sea.
Russia never signed hospital ship exemption giving the ship immunity from attack. In addition true hospital ships should not be armed.
MS Rigel – 1944
Built by Burmeister & Wain, Copenhagen in August 1924 3828grt.
This Norwegian transporter, used by the Germans, was bombed bymistake on 27th November 1944 by the RN aircraft from the carrier HMS Implacable. This occurred between the islands of Rosøya and Tjøtta south of the port of Sandnessjøen in Nordland county. The total killed was 2571 people, mostly Russian, Polish andSerbian prisoners of war crammed into the cargo holds and 450 German soldiers. The ship was thought to be carrying only German troops and military equipment and there was no way the pilots could know otherwise. However there were unconfirmed reports that some of the lifeboats were fired on by the aircraft – a claim vigorously denied by the RN. There were 415 survivors primarily because the Norwegian captain beached the vessel before it sank completely.
The wreck remained partly submerged until 1969, when it was raised and scrapped with the human remains buried in the war cemetery on the island of Tjøtta. The cemetery was in memory of those killed on the SS Rigel. All are marked “known only unto God”, and a memorial stone in the form of a cross has been erected on the site.
SS Kiangya – 1948
Built by Harima Shipbuilding & Engineering Co., Harima. 1939 3731grt.
SS Kiangya was a Chinese passenger steamship packed with refugees from the Chinese Civil War fleeing the advancing Communist army when she sank. She blew up on the 4th December 1948 after hitting a mine remaining from the previous war, which destroyed her stern. The incident occurred in the mouth of the Huangpu River fifty miles south of Shanghai.
The exact death toll is unknown, 2,150 passengers were officially listed (her official capacity was 1,186), but she was sure to be carrying many more stowaways. A more accurate figure is probably between 2,750 and 3,920 died, with about 700 to 1,000 survivors being rescued by ships in the area.
SS Sinfra - 1943
The Sinfra was the French cargo ship SS Aveyron of 4470grt, confiscated by the Germans and renamed. On 20th October 1943, with 2,460 prisoners (2,389 Italians of 51st Siena Infantry Division, & 71 Greeks) jam-packed in the cargo hold and also 204 Germans in somewhat better accommodation, she set sail for the Greek mainland. At Suda Bay, Crete, the ship was attacked by combined aircraft comprising USAAF B-25s and RAF Beaufighters and sunk. All together 2,098 POW's and crew drowned. The ship carried no markings to indicate it was carrying prisoners.
RMS Laconia - 1942
Built by Swan Hunter, Tyne and Wear. 19,695grt. The liner Laconia was converted into an armed merchant cruiser and fitted with eight six-inch guns and two three-inch anti-aircraft guns.
On 12thSeptember 1942 she was torpedoed by U-156 without the submarine crew realizing the vessel was carrying 1,800 Italian prisoners of war, who at the time were their allies. Submarine U-156 surfaced and started to render assistance in rescuing the Italians assisted by U-506 and 507 who were in the area. During the rescue operations an American aircraft from the Ascension Islands saw the submarines and launched depth charges at the U-boats causing them to submerge to protect themselves. In total 1649 prisoners and crew were lost. As an armed merchant cruiser it is unlikely the ship carried any prison markings.
SS Oria - 1944
Built by Osbourne, Graham & Co., Ltd., Sunderland 1920 2127grt.
She was originally built for a Norwegian company Fearnley & Eger of Oslo and was interned in June 1940 by the Vichy French and renamed Sainte Julienne. In November 1942 she was handed to the Germans and named "Oria” again. After the Italians surrendered to Germany, the Oria was one of the vessels used to transport Italian prisoners. On the 11th February 1944 it was loaded with 4,046 Italian prisoners (43 officers, 118 non-commissioned officers and 3,885 soldiers) and 90 Germans together with the crew and set sail from Rhodes to Piraeus. The following day the ship foundered in a storm and was stranded on the Gaidaroneos Reef off Cape Sounion, broke up and sank. It was not until the following day that some tugs arriving but could only save 21 Italians, six Germans and a Greek. In all, an estimated total of 4,074 people lost their lives.
SS Petrella -1944
Builders: Ateliers & Chantiers De La Gironde, Bordeaux 1923 4785grt
Taken over by the Italians and then the Germans and used as a German Transport. On the 8th February 1944 the vessel was loaded with 3,173 Italian prisoners of war and their German guards. The ship was spotted North of Suda Bay, Crete and torpedoed by HMS Sportsman commanded by Lt R Gatehouse sinking with 2,670 prisoners trapped below. Reports later say the sadistic German guards, deliberately refused to open the hold doors to allow the prisoners to escape.
SS Deutschland - 1945
Blohm & Voss, Kommandit Ges auf Aktien, Hamburg, Germany, April 1923 weight 21046grt
In April 1945, she began conversion to a hospital ship. Reports suggest that an attempt was made to paint the vessel white, but there was only sufficient paint available to paint her funnels, and to paint a Red Cross on one side of one of her four funnels. On 3 May 1945, she capsized and sank in the Bay of Lübeck off Neustadt after a British air attack in which the Thielbek and Cap Arcona were also lost. Some reports claim a large loss of life and others that she only had some crew and dockyard workers aboard. This required further investigation.
The following are what have been recorded as Japanese “Hell Ships” due to their inhumane treatment of the prisoners and slave labour. The Japanese Government was signatory to the "Third Geneva Convention of 1929"- with respect to the treatment of POWs- but in the end fails ratify it.
As a concession, the Japanese government, in principal, agrees to enforce the "Rules and Regulations with respect to the treatment of POWs"- as laid down during the Prussian-Japanese War of 1904-1905. However they only take notice of the few sections that suit them.
In early 1942 Japanese Emperor Hirohito decrees the establishment of the Prisoners of War Bureau. One of its tasks is to record the death of Allied Prisoners of War and to adopt a policy to ensure that by the end of hostilities all Allied Prisoners of War and internees will be eliminated. Japanese Imperial Headquarters issues orders to all Pacific Commands that under no circumstances will Prisoners of War be allowed to fall into enemy hands.
Ships transporting POWs are required, by the Third Geneva Convention, to be marked. Japanese weapons transports typically bore false Red Cross markings while the ships carrying prisoners of war were left unmarked and therefore targeted by US/UK submarines.
My thanks to The Burma Star association for this information.
SS Tango Maru – 1944
Laid down in 1925 at Vulcan-Werke Hamburg und Stettin Actiengesellschaft as 6,200-ton cargo ship.
Torpedoed by submarine USS Rasher in the Straits of Makassar on 25th February 1944. She was an unmarked prisoner transport ship in a Japanese convoy carrying about 3,500 Javanese Romusha labourers and an unknown number of Allied prisoners-of-war, probably mostly Dutch Colonial (native) troops. Out of about 4000 labourers, POWs and crew only about 500 Javanese survived.
SS Ryusei Maru – 1944
Built by Tyne Iron Shipbuilding Co. Ltd., Willington (N. & S. Shields) in 1911 (4861grt).
She was in the same convoy as the SS Tango Maru but carrying Japanese troops and labourers and sank on 25th February 1944 hit by 3 torpedoes from submarine USS Rasher. The ship went down taking 4,998 troops, labourers and crewmen with her. These comprised four detachments of various Imperial Japanese Army units comprising a total of 1,244 Japanese nationals, 2,865 Indian soldiers (Indian National Army (those that were opposed to Britain)) and 2,559 Romusha (Javanese) labourers.
SS Junyo Maru - 1944
The ship was built in 1913 by Robert Duncan & Co. of Glasgow displacing 5,065 tons. In order to transport prisoners, the Japanese had the ship fitted out with extra decks constructed of bamboo subdivided into inhumane cages of the same material. In addition prisoners were kept in the blazing sun on deck although they were marginally better off than those in oven like conditions, with little or no water, below deck. She was an archetypal “hell ship”.
On 18th September 1944, she was spotted by HMS Tradewind (P329), a new British submarine commanded by Lt. Cmdr. S.L.C. Maydon. On this trip the Junyō Maru was packed full with 1,377 Dutch, 64 British and Australian, and 8 American prisoners of war together with 4,200 Javanese slave labourers (Romushas) destined to work on the railway line being built between Pakan Baru and Muaro in Sumatra. The huge death toll was almost certainly due to the men being imprisoned in the cages when she sank, with 5,620 dead. Only 680 survivors were rescued, after a night of floating among the wreckage and bodies, but found themselves working on another death railway where tragically few were to survive.
The Japanese prison ships refused to display the Red Cross as required by the Geneva Convention and consequently attacking aircraft or submarines had no way of knowing that the cargo was human refugees or POWs.
SS Arisan Maru - 1944
Built on 5th June 1944 Mitsui Shipyard, Japan. 6886grt
Japanese transporter loaded with American POWs sailing from Manila to Japan. At 1700hrs 24th October 1944 while in the Bashi Straits, South China Sea she was spotted by the American submarine USS Shark who torpedoed and sank her. As usual the transporter was displaying no flags or marking identifying her as a prison ship. The explosion split the ship in two and it sank rapidly. All 1792 American prisoners were drowned and the loss was doubly tragic as the men had already survived the 1942 death march from Bataan.
A short while later contact was lost with the submarine USS Shark and she was presumed lost with all hands.
SS Tsushima Maru - 1944
Builder: Russell & Company, Scotland. In service: December 1914. 6127grt.
This was a Japanese passenger/cargo ship loaded with evacuated civilians and hundreds of school children sailing from Okinawa to Kagoshima. On the 22nd August 1944 at 2200hrs she was sighted by the American submarine USS Bowfin. Again there were no flags or marks to identify her as carrying civilians and children and Bowfin torpedoed her causing her to sink close to the island of Akusekijima. In total 1,484 civilians, including 767 schoolchildren were killed with only 59 children survived the sinking.
SS Koshu Maru - 1944
Built by Uraga Drydock Co. Ltd., Uraga. 1937. 2612grt
This ship left Batavia on 29th July 1944 for Makassar, carrying 540 civilian passengers and 1513 Javanese labourers, to carry out repairs to the damaged airstrip at Makassar. The ship reached Kotabaru on 2nd August 1944 where she was last seen. She sailed the next day for Makassar, but on the 4th was sighted by the American submarine USS Ray who fired 3 torpedoes sinking her within minutes. The total loss was 1.239 labourers, 273 passengers and 28 crew.
SS Ukishima Maru -1945
She was originally built by Mitsui, Chiba in 1937 (4731grt.) as a passenger ship but was converted to a naval vessel after receiving heavy armament.
In the Aomori Prefecture, north Japan, around 5,000 Korean slave labourers had spent years digging a huge underground complex of tunnels and storage facilities. With the work finished and with the end of the war imminent, the labourers including an unknown number of Korean 'Comfort Women', were loaded onto the Ukishima Maru having been told they were going home. The route took it instead to the Maisaru Naval Base in Kyoto. On arrival the holds were securely sealed and the ship taken to sea again and scuttled using explosives detonated inside the hull. Within minutes the ship was gone leaving only 80 survivors. In August 2001, fifteen of the survivors won a lawsuit for compensation against the Japanese government. They were paid “peanuts.” which was disgraceful and held the Japanese nation to shame.
MV Awa Maru -1945
This ship was one of the Aki Maru class built by Mitsubishi, Nagasaki in 1942 11,249grt.
She was carrying several wounded soldiers, and 2,000 Japanese officials, diplomats, technicians and civilians and was the third ship tasked with collecting Red Cross parcels for the American and allied prisoners in Singapore. Under an agreement between Japan and the US Government safe passage to and from was guaranteed for such ships.
She was returning to Japan but on 1st April 1945 was seen by the American submarine USS Queenfish SS-393 about 14 miles off the Chinese Mainland displaying all the correct lights and marks for Red Cross cargo transport. However Queenfish´s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Charles E. Loughlin, claimed not to see them in the foggy weather and torpedoed her with massive loss of life. Loughlin was relieved of his command for the mistake, and was court-martialled.
SS Arisan Maru -1944
This large class of 2A Freighters amounted to about 130 ships built in 1944 and 1945, by Mitsui, Chiba and included three vessels that became notorious as Hell ships. They were Arisan Maru, Enoshima Maru and Enoura Maru.
On 24th October 1944 she was on her way from Manila to Japan when she was seen by American submarine USS Snook (SS-279 commanded by Lt.Cdr. G.H. Browne) in the South China Sea, 200 miles N.W. of Luzon Island, Philippines. At this time she was unmarked but carrying 1782 American prisoners of war and 100 civilians and was hit by 3 torpedoes sinking rapidly. A total of 1777 people were lost into the shark infested seas.
SS Enoshima Maru - 1945
Sister to the above and another class 2A Freighter built in 1944 and 1945, by Mitsui, Chiba.
It is alleged that on 25th January 1945 she made her final sailing from Keelung, Formosa to Moji, Japan carrying 564 prisoners of war and arriving 30th January 1945.
However, there is a record that this ship was sunk on 15th January 1945 by US Navy aircraft from Task Force 38 off Takeo Formosa, but this obviously conflicts with the details above and below.
Additionally there is a further “restricted”, but detailed, record showing that at 1520hrs on the 22nd January 1945 the crew of the USS Brevard (AK-164), an Alamosa-class cargo ship, rescued 4,296 Japanese civilian re-patriots from the ship Enoshima Maru as it sank near Shanghai. It is most likely that this report is the correct one as the Japanese had a habit of switching ship names at a moment’s notice and tripping over their own propaganda.
Oryoku Maru - 1944
One of the worst of the “Hell ships”. Built 1937 7363grt the Oryoku Maru sailed from Manila on 13th December 1944, with 1,620 prisoners-of-war, mostly American, stuffed into the holds, and 1,900 Japanese civilians and military personnel in better accommodation in the cabins. On the 15th December 1944 the unmarked vessel was attacked by American aircraft from the USS Hornet as she neared the Olongapo naval base. Nearly 200 prisoners were killed in the bombing or shot by Japanese guards while swimming away from the ship. The damaged ship limped into Subic Bay in the Philippines and run aground to prevent her sinking. The attack on the stranded ship continued over a period of two days in which 286 US soldiers were killed. Eventually 925 surviving prisoners were forced to swim ashore where they were loaded into trucks and then sent by train to San Fernando for imprisonment again on the SS Enoura Maru and SS Brazil Maru.
I should mention the appalling conditions under which the survivors were kept before being reloading in the above mentioned two ships. Already about 100 prisoners had died from suffocation or thirst during the 2 nights before the aircraft hit plus the others killed in the air attack. While waiting for the train in San Fernando, 15 wounded prisoners were taken by truck to Bilibid supposedly for medical treatment and never seen again. In the 1946 war crimes trial it was revealed that they were taken, in fact, to a close by cemetery, beheaded, and their bodies dumped into a mass grave.
SS Enoura Maru - 1945
Sister to the above two ships built by Mitsui, Chiba as a Class 2A Freighters. Sailed on 27th December 1944 to Takao, Formosa, arrived 31st December 1944 carrying 1070 prisoners of war that had survived the sinking of the Oryoku Maru. Bombed at Takao on the 9th January 1945 by US aircraft which killed 350 and the ship sank in harbour. The survivors of this were put aboard the Brazil Maru and they arrived in Moji, Japan on January 30, 1945
SS Brazil Maru - 1945
Built by Kawasaki Dockyard Co. Ltd., Kobe. 1919 5859grt
As mentioned above on 13th January 1945 all surviving POWs from Enoura Maru were reloaded onto the Brazil Maru and sailed for Japan on 14th January 1945. On this old filthy ship prisoners were dying at the rate of up to 50 per day. When the ship arrived at Moji, Kyushu, Japan and discharged the cargo of prisoners only about 425 were still alive - out of 1,619 POWs that began the trip on the Oryoku Maru.
Harugiku Maru - 1944
Built by Maatschappij Fijenoord N.V. - Fyenoord, Rotterdam in 1909 3040grt as a liner.
On 26th June 1944 the Harugiku Maru was sighted and torpedoed & sunk by HMS Truculent. She was carrying 730 prisoners from Balewan to Pakanbaroe in Sumatra, 177 were lost.
She was not marked as a prison transport and unknown to Truculent, Harugiku Maru was carrying 1190 allied prisoners of war destined for forced slave labour work at the Pakan Baroe railway. The majority of the survivors lived by clinging onto debris and lifeboats for hours before being picked up by a tanker. They were taken to Singapore where they remained for one month before being put to work at the railway. Mercifully only 198 of them perished.
Lisbon Maru - 1942
Built by Yokohama Dock Company, Yokohama in 1920. 7053grt
On 27th September 1942 the Lisbon Maru sailed from Hong Kong for Shanghai with 1816 British prisoners on board together with some Japanese personnel. She was sighted and torpedoed on 1st October by USS Grouper, 6 miles from Tung Fusham Island, off the China coast. Over 800 prisoners either drowned or were shot by the Japanese guards while trying to swim away from the sinking ship.
Again the ship was not carrying the correct markings for a prison vessel.
Rakuyo Maru and Kachidoki Maru - 1944
Convoy HI-72 sailed from Singapore and included these two ships that were carrying prisoners of war. The Rakuyo Maru carried 1317 prisoners (British and Australian) and the Kachidoki Maru a further 900 (all British).
On the 12th September the convoy was sighted by two US submarines and both these ships were hit. The Kachidoki Maru was torpedoed by the US submarine USS Pampanito (Lieutenant Commander Charles B. Jackson, Jr. in command) at 22:40 hours. The Rakuyo Maru was torpedoed by USS Sealion (Lieutenant J. K. Morrison Jr. in command) at 0500hrs.
Using the SS Kibitsu Maru the Japanese rescued some of the prisoners from these two ships and they continued their journey to Japan.
Three days later when the US Submarines (Pampanito, Sealion, Barb and Queenfish) realised that they had hit prison ships, they searched for survivors, picking up 73 from the Rakuyo Maru. Sadly 4 died soon after being rescued.
The overall death toll from Rakuyo Maru was 1159 prisoners drowned.
Hofuku Maru - 1944
Built in 1918 by Kawasaki Dockyard Company, Kobe. 5857grt.
The Hofuku Maru left Singapore sailing to Miri, Borneo as part of a larger convoy SHIMI-05. This convoy of 10 ships included 5 carrying 5000 prisoners packed into stinking holds in the most appalling conditions. When the convoy reached Borneo, the Hofuku Maru left its protection with engine problems, and diverted to the Philippines, finally arriving on 19th July. She remained in dock at Manila until mid-September while the engines were repaired, with the prisoners remained on board for nearly two months suffering most terribly from disease, hunger, and thirst.
Eventually on 20th September 1944, the Hofuku Maru, still unmarked as a prison transport, joined 10 other ships in Convoy MATA-27, and sailed from Manila to Japan. The following day, the convoy was seen and attacked 80 miles north of Corregidor by over 40 torpedo planes from an American carrier. Every ship in the convoy was sunk and those on the Hofuku Maru, 1,047 of the 1,289 British and Dutch prisoners trapped in the holds, were drowned.
SS Suez Maru - 1943
Built by Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd. Uraga Shipyard, Japan 1919 6400grt.
She was designated PS 45 (Prison Ship # 45 of a total of 56 Japanese Prison Ships)
On the 25th November 1943 the Japanese decided to ship all sick and wounded to Java. A total of 640 prisoners plus a number of sick Japanese were loaded. Using 2 holds 422 sick British (incl.221 RAF crew) and 127 Dutch prisoners & 20 stretcher cases were crammed in. The remaining 2 holds were for the small number of Japanese patients. The dying patients are allowed to stay on deck near the No.3 and No.4 hatches so they don't have to be hauled up when the end finally comes. They just have to be wrapped up in gunny sacks and thrown overboard.
She set sail from Port Amboina accompanied by minesweeper W-12 but on 29th November 1943 was seen and attacked by USS Bonefish. The ship listed badly and sank rapidly with the sea entering the open holds and drowning hundreds. Many however managed to swim away and hold onto wreckage. The minesweeper W-12 circled around and picked up only Japanese survivors, beating others away and leaving 2-250 in the water. Under orders from Captain Kawano the minesweeper was rigged with rifles and a machine gun at the bow and systematically shot every survivor in the water. Only one escaped to tell the story, he was a British soldier, Kenneth Thomas who was picked up 24hrs later by the Australian minesweeper HMAS Ballarat.
Note: After the completion of the Japanese War Crimes Trials, no further action was taken to indict Kawano Usumu, Commander of Minesweeper No. 12, for the killing of Allied Prisoners of War or Lt. Koshio for carrying out the orders). In my opinion this ruling is both appalling and disgusting.
As a personal comment I cannot find words to describe the barbarous sick monsters that carried out these inhuman acts. In addition I have no time for the authorities that allowed many to escape justice.
I have enormous sympathy for those submariners and pilots who sank ships not knowing until afterwards that the cargo was civilians or prisoners. For a good man to cope with that guilt must be very difficult indeed.
It may be fanciful but I find ships an almost breathing living entity and can’t help feeling that many of these ships died of shame.
SS Richard Montgomery - massive explosion waiting to happen
- SS Richard Montgomery - Massive explosion waiting to happen
In 1944 the American Liberty ship Richard Montgomery ran aground, broke in half and sank while still containing between 1400 to 3600 tons of high explosives. Nearly 68 years later she still sits on the bottom only a mile from the town of Sheerness.
Gravesend Airfield - WW2 Fighter Station
- Gravesend Airfield and WW2 fighter base
In 1933 a tiny provincial airport was built at Gravesend. It grew gradually until WW2 was declared when it expanded rapidly into a front line fighter station. It was the home for many nationalities that flew as RAF. We look at a brief history of some
Russian Arctic Convoys
- The Russian Arctic Convoys
Following the treacherous invasion of Russia by the Nazis, convoys of vital goods were set up through some of the most dangerous waters in the world. Many ships and men were lost.
Spectres of the Burma Jungle - The Chindits
- Spectres of the Burma Jungle, Orde Charles Wingate and the Chindits
When Japan joined WW2 their advance through Burma had to be checked and the unusual approach of the Chindits proved to be successful.
Titanic or Olympic - truth or myth
- RMS Titanic or Olympic - truth or myth
In this probably the most famous of shipwrecks, the question is was it really the Titanic that sank or her sister the Olympic. Also we explore some other myths
Ships that tried for peace and those that carried hundreds of thousands to their miserable death
Does this give a reasonable view of the atrocities
© 2013 Peter Geekie
Peter Geekie (author) from Sittingbourne on May 29, 2013:
I'm sad to say that very few of the guilty parties were ever caught and punished.
There was more punishment metered out on the ground by soldiers that arrested the guilty than by the courts.
Kind regards Peter
Jane on May 29, 2013:
This is a really shocking hub, peace boats and refugee boats I can understand but Japanese and Nazi prison ships and the treatment of the prisoners is really horrible. Were they ever brought to justice