HellshipsAs military success began to place greater demands on Japan's far-flung armed forces, the Japanese Prisoner of War Bureau, at the request of the Japanese industrialists, hastened the transfer of American and other Allied POW's to Japan and other areas to replenish their labor pool. Most of the Japanese ships transporting POW's were old and unseaworthy. The conditions were shocking and inhumane. At least 25 ships carrying Allied prisoners of war were sunk due to enemy action. On these ships there were a total of 18,901 prisoners of war being transported. Of this total, 10,853 were determined to have died because of submarine and air attacks--3,632 of them Americans. The number that died because of lack of food, sanitary conditions, medical supplies and attention, and brutal treatment by their Japanese captors has never been revealed. The death count of prisoners of war on these hellships was astounding. Japanese records disclose that these ships had the ultimate destination of Japanese industrialists to be used as slave labor.
A complete listing of hellship departures can be found on John Lewis webpages List of Hellship Voyages
The following schedule identifies the names of some of the ships, the number or prisoners of war transported, and the camp the men were assigned.
The information is part of war records of the Japanese Prisoner of War Information Bureau relating to prisoners of war from the Philippine Islands. Numbers vary on passengers on different listings.
Partial List of Hellship Voyages
|Year||Ship||Number of POWs||Camp|
|1942||Nagato Maru||1,500||Osaka Area|
|1942||Tottori Maru||1,992||Mukden, Tokyo|
|1944||Kenwa Maru||200||Hokodate, Tokyo,|
|1944||Nissyo Maru||1,539||Osaka, Fukuoaka|
|Ships Which were Sunk and Destroyed, Transporting POWs from the Philippines|
|Date Sunk||Ship||Number of POWs||Number of Survivors|
|September 7, 1944||Shinyo||750||200|
|October 24, 1944||Arisan||1,782||4* (9)|
|December 14-15 1944||Oryoku see below also||1,619||1,311|
|January 9, 1945||Enoura||1,311||619|
Note: Number of POWs differ in other accounts for example the survivors in Arisan Maru have been listed as 9
See Sinking of the Arisan Maru below.
Noto Maru hellshipThe Noto Maru was constructed somewhere between 1933 and 1935 was capable of a speed of 19 knots. The ship was 466 feet in length, 63.3 feet in breadth and range somewhere around 7,000 tons. The Noto Maru sailed from Manila on August 27, 1944 transporting 1.035 American POWs to Port Moji, Japan, arriving there on September 4, 1944.
On October 11, 1944, the Arisan Maru left Manila with about 1,800 POWs in the cargo holds. The ship turned south and anchored off Palawan until October 20, 1944, when it returned to Manila to join Convoy MATA-30, which was sailed on October 21, 1944. On October 23rd, when the convoy was about 2000 miles northwest of Luzon, two packs of U.S. submarines (total of nine submarines) began their attack on the convoy. About 5:30 PM on October 24, 1944, the USS Shark sent three torpedoes into the Arisan Maru. The ship broke into two sections which floated for a short time, however, the net result was the death for all except nine of the POWs. This was the largest loss of American lives in a single disaster at sea.
Sinking of the Arisan Maru
Arisan Maru Roster by Bill Bowen on POW Rosters Site at west-point.org
Picture of Arisan Maru
Oryoko Maru (includes information on the Enoura Maru and the Brazil Maru
Jim Erikson has the Oryoku Maru Roster on his POW Rosters Site--Oryoku Maru Roster
Oryoku Maru (sunk December 14-15, 1944) Read more about the Oryoku Maru, including Kenneth Day's Account "Forty Nine Days In Hell"
Note: For a copy of SS Oryoku Maru by POW Information Bureau, you can order here from AXPOW order sheet
On Dec. 13, 1944 the Japanese in charge on the Oryoku Maru took 1619 American and Allied prisoners of war on board for transport to Japan. They left from Pier #7 in Manila. Groups 1 of the prisoners, about 700 men, were loaded first and placed in the after hold. Group 2, about 600 men, entered the forward hold, which was about 60 by 100 feet. Men started fainting due to overcrowding and lack of ventilation. Group 3, approximately 300 men, were loaded in the hatch amid-ships.
The Japanese gave the men little water, inadequate latrines and the temperature inside the ship rose to 120 degrees. Men became deranged, and forty to fifty men died by the 14th.
For the next two days, American planes strafed the ship. For this, the Japanese punished the prisoners on board further by denying food and water. More of the confined men started acting crazy. On the 15th, an American bomb hit the aft hold killing around a hundred men.
After that, the Japanese released their passengers at Subic Bay. They then let out the POWs, and made them swim ashore, even if they did not know how to swim. Five men on a raft of floating debris were fired at, and three died. The prisoners assembled in an area next to a tennis court. Fifty percent of the men got some water, after waiting in line for four to six hours. The men were forced into the tennis courts and counts of rosters took place. The counts showed less than 1300 men remaining at this point.
For the next five days, the men received tablespoons of rice and little water. They were standing in the heat during the day, and in the cold at night with no protection from either. Six to seven died from wounds and exhaustion. One corporal had an arm that turned gangrenous, which had to be amputated with a mess kit knife. He survived a few days after the removal of his arm and then died due to lack of care.
On Dec. 20, 500 men went to San Fernando, Pampanga and a second group left on the 21st. Some men were placed in a jail, the others in a movie house. Fifteen of the sickest men were taken to a small cemetery outside of San Fernando and were coldly executed.
Next the men took a train to San Fernando, La Union on Christmas Eve. The boxcars proved hot and crowded. The next morning, Christmas, they marched to a schoolhouse and a group was told to dig for water, which they found after digging five feet down.
The men now had to march to the beach and stayed there for two days and two nights. Two hundred and thirty six men boarded the Brazil Maru, and the rest entered the Enoura Maru. Men had to jump from the pier onto barges, up to twenty feet below. Some men broke their legs, and one man died from hitting his head on a barge.
The men on the Brazil Maru headed to Takao, Formosa and the food they received amounted to hard moldy, bug infested rolls and teaspoons of rice. The Enoura Maru prisoners fared slightly better on food and water. Sixteen more deaths occurred during these trips, and those men were buried at sea.
Two hundred and thirty six men were moved from the Brazil Maru to the Enoura Maru on January 6, 1945. The men were given meager portions of food; when they found the Japanese had sugar on board, some took the risk of severe punishment to steal the sugar.
On January 9, Americans bombed the Enoura Maru, and with the bomb fragments and steel fragments an additional 300 prisoners died and a number of others sustained injuries. The Japanese allowed Mercurochrome to be put on men’s minor wounds, while those with serious injuries were ignored.
It wasn’t until Jan. 12th, that the Japanese allowed the dead to be removed from the ship. Because of the damage to the Enoura Maru, the prisoners transferred to the Brazil Maru, the next day. At this time, only 900 men were alive. The ship raveled to Moji, arriving Jan. 29, 1945. On the sixteen days of this passage, men died daily with fifteen dying the first night and up to a maximum of forty a day passing away towards the end. The call from the corpsman making rounds to “Roll Out your Dead” was a chilling shout. About half them men on board the Enoura Maru died. The men parading off the ship were walking skeletons, and in a short time, another 161 men perished. Of the original men who boarded the Oryoku Maru, approximately 87% of them died.
On October 1, 1942, 277 enlisted personnel from the 28th, 14th and 30th Bomb Squadron, and personnel from the 5th Air Base Group, left their prisoner of war camp at Malabalay, Mindanao and boarded a Japanese freighter named the Ama Maru for Manila. Upon arriving in Manila, they were quartered at Bilibid Prison for a short stay. Then on October 6th, this group along with 1615 others from prisoners of war camp number three on Luzon, boarded an old Japanese freighter named Tottori Maru, an proceeded to sail toward Japan.
Those on board were divided among two large holds and part of a small one on the ship. Several hundred Japanese soldiers occupied the fourth and fifth holds. The American holds were filled to beyond capacity with very little room to lay down. The holds were divided horizontally by bare, wooden sleeping racks with little headroom. Latrines were primitive outhouses hung over the sides of the ship. With many of the troop suffering from diarrhea, long lines awaited those wanting to move their bowels. Some had to defecate on the deck area. Meals were scarce, a slim ration of crackers, rice and or watery soup. There was a minimum of water available for drinking purposes and none for bathing. During the trip approximately 20 POWS died with their remains buried at sea. On October 9, an American submarine (American SS Grendadier) fired two torpedoes at the Tottori Maru. Fortunately for those on board, the captain of the ship saw the torpedoes coming and turned the ship in the direction of the torpedoes, causing them to go down by the stern of the ship. However, pandemonium broke loose among the prisoners of war and the Japanese guards threatened to annihilate all those on board.
The Tottori Maru arrived at Formosa on October 11,1942. Everyone aboard was allowed to disembark and were given a bath by a fire hose spraying water on therm. The Americans boarded the ship once again and sailed to an area near an island where the Japanese maintained an air base. The ship had mechanical difficulties and was unable to sail for quite some time. After 19 days in this area, under horrendous conditions, the ship once again set sail on October 30th and headed northward.
On November 8, 1942 the Tottori Maru docked at Pusan, Korea and approximately 1200 of the prisoners of war disembarked. They along with some British and Canadians were then transported by train to a prisoner of war camp at Mukden.
From Pusan, the Tottori Maru continued to the port of Osaka, arriving there on November 12. A number of the troops were sent to camps near Osaka, with approximately 350 of the remaining going by train to Kawasaki, where they were interned in Tokyo Area Camp No. 2B.
Personal Account of Tottori Maru Voyage in Richard Winter's Biography starting on page 40.
Haro Maru also known as Hokusen or Benjo Maru
The Hokusen Maru was known by most POWs as the Benjo Maru or the Haro Maru. On October 1, 1944 approximately 1,100 American POWS boarded the Hokusen Maru at PIer 7 at the Manila dock area. They suffered in the cargo holds until October 3, 1944 before the ship joined a convoy and departed Manila. The convoy was attacked by submarines on two different occasions and the Hokusen Maru was one of only four ships left in the convoy to arrive at Hong Kong on October 11, 1944. The ship remained in the harbor where it was subjected to numerous air attacks by the Allied governments. On October 21st the ship departed for Formosa and arrived at Takao, Formosa on October 21, 1944. These POWS then boarded the Melbourne Maru and arrived at Port Moji, Kyushu, Japan on January 23, 1945.
The Nagato Maru departed Manila on November 7. 1942 with approximately 1,500 prisoners of war aboard. The ship arrived in Japan on November 25, 1942, Seven men died enroute. Another 150 were lined on the deck and were never seen again.
Ships of the clss of the Nagata Maru were identified as Kawasaki stock boats or standard steamers. The ship was built in the period 1917-20.
The ship had a gross tonnage of approximately 5,780 tons. It was 385 feet long and 51 feet at the beam.
Richard Gordon discusses his experience on the Nagato Maru on this PBS site.
In early 1944, 750 American prisoners of war were transported to Lasang near Mindanao to help that year. American forces were bombing the Lasang area rather heavily. The Japanese command then informed the Americans that they would be leaving the Lasang Area, and on August 20, 1944 they were loaded into the holds of the Tateishi Maru and transported to Zamboanga, Mindanoa. Then they were transferred to the Shinyo Maru. During the transfer to the Shinyo Maru, word was passed among the POWs that the Japanese intended to kill them if the ship was attacked by airplanes or submarines. The POWs were placed at the bottom of the lower compartment. An unusual feature of the ship was that there were two cargo platforms in the upper compartment on each side of the ship and one across the front bulkhead but none at the rear, with a small ladder marking the only way into and out of the hold. On September 5, 1944, in a convoy of five ships with two destroyer escorts, they proceeded to sail northward.
On September 7, at 4:37 p.m., the U.S. submarine Paddle fired four torpedoes at a tanker and two at the freighter, the Shinyo Maru. In the darkness below, the POWs heard a commotion on deck and weapons firing. Moments later the ship shook violently. Some felt two concussions, seconds apart. POWs from the holds climbed on deck to look around whereas the Japanese guards on board began to shoot them indiscriminately. Some of the Americans jumped overboard only to find they were being machine gunned by a nearby ship.
Murray Sneddon, one of the survivors of the Shinyo Maru and author of Zero Ward: A Survivor's Nightmare, relates the following about the treatment of those who failed to make it to shore:
"We later learned that Denver Rose, one of our survivors, was among the men picked up by the Japanese. They tied his hands behind his back in such a way that he was also attached to the fantail railing of the tanker. Twenty-nine other POWs were similarly tied. Then, starting at one end of the line, the Nips began to execute the recaptured prisoners. As each man was killed, they dumped his body overboard. Denver was the fourth man in line. As soon as the first prisoner was executed, he worked frantically to sever his rope by rubbing it against a rough, frayed part of the cable he was secured to. When his hands were free, he ran at top speed toward the front part of the ship. Because his escape was so unexpected, the Nips were caught by surprise. He got quite a head start on the soldiers who pursued him. When he reached the bow of the ship, he hid in a hole through which the anchor chain passed. When the soldiers reached his area, they thought he had jumped overboard. After searching the waters below without success, they gave up and returned to the fantail of the ship to continue the executions. When darkness settled over the area, Denver crawled down the anchor chain and made it to shore. He was the only survivor of the 30-man group."
A few (82) who jumped overboard managed to swim to shore and found Filipinos who escorted them to guerilla groups nearby. The Filipinos took the survivors to Sindangan by boat. A Japanese patrol plane flew overhead during this transport and the men hid under tatami mats to avoid being seen. When Sindangan was later bombed by Japanese sea planes, the men walked to Siari. Colonel McGee, who had been at Davao and escaped from one of the hellships, learned about the Sindangan POWs through an American-commanded guerrilla outpost, and using radio equipment from the Filipinos he contacted the American submarine Narwhal. The survivors for the Shinyo Maru were then taken by the submarine Narwhal to Biak, and then flown to Australia and then to the United States.
Records of the Japanese Prisoner of War Information Bureau recorded all 750 prisoners of war aboard the Shinyo Maru as deceased.
The Shinyo Maru was an antiquated freighter pressed into Japanese service after its capture in Shanghai in 1941. It was built as the CLAN McKay in Glasgow Scotland in the year 1894, and was much smaller than freighters. It was 312 feet long by 40.2 feet wide and grossed only 2600 tons.
Nissyo Maru (sunk Sept. 7, 1944)
On July, 1944, the Nissyo Maru sailed from Manila with about 1,600 American POWs from various POW camps on Luzon. After a harrowing time during an attack by an American submarine wolfpack, the Nissyo Maru arrived undamaged at Port Moji, Japan on August 16, 1944. The POWs aboard the ship descried their struggle for life aboard this ship. The POWs were then transported to Kamioka, Japan on the island of Honshu.
(Personal story of Robert Dow) below
On July 17, 1944 all of the POWs from the Manila Port Area detail, with the exception of the officers and most of the winchmen, were marched from their quarters across from Pier 7 to Pier 1. Waiting for them to board, was an old worn out looking freighter, the Nissyo Maru. There were many other POWs there, some already boarded the ship and some, like us were willing to board. In all, there were 1500 of us. The sight we looked upon as we entered the hold of the ship was truly horrifying. Those in the hold were obviously very frightened as they were being crammed into the hold. As more and more of us were forced into the hold, many of the men passed out and were trampled by others. We were required to throw everything we had, except the clothes we wore, through an opening in the hatch boards, into the lower part of the hold. That was the last we saw of them. Soon, the hatch opening was covered as more men were forced into the hold. It became almost impossible to breathe and panic reigned. Men were screaming, fainting and dying. Shortly after I entered the hold, someone was holding a canteen cup over his head and told me to drink some and pass it on. He said it would keep us from fainting. I took the cup and as a big swallow and just for a second I was angry because I thought then, and I still think, it was urine. The man next to me grabbed the cup and drank from it too. My anger was quickly forgotten as fear took over. Perhaps that drink really did what I was told it would, as I did not pass out. We were one big mass, standing with our arms pinned to our sides. It got to the point that even those who passed out could not sink to the deck. Finally, the Japs woke up to the fact that that the hold was not big enough to accommodate all of us and they sent some 900 of us to another hold up forward. I don't think anyone knows how many of our people died in a short period of time, but there were many. As we transferred to the second hold, we could see a lot of them lying on the topside deck. I know we left some dead behind in the hold we just left. The second hold was somewhat larger or so it seemed. We could not lie down and we could not all sit at one time. Some would sit while others took turns standing. When we sat, it was in a very cramped position. Each man had to sit with his knees bent in an upright position and with knees spread open. The man in front o him sat the same way with his back against the stomach and chest of the man behind him. The heat was unbearable. We had no water and we were like crazed men, pushing, screaming and swearing at each other. The only toilet facilities we had were a few five gallon cans and since so many of us had dysentery they were overflowing. When we were all aboard , the ship began to move and we felt some relief as being under way.
The sense of relief was short lived, as we soon anchored for seven days. That first week, five men had to be bound and gagged when they went mad for lack of water. Rice was lowered twice a day in a wooden bucket, but what we needed more than anything was water. Water was lowered once a day and was supposed to be enough for each man to have one cup per day, but if you weren't lucky enough to be in the general area of the bucket being lowered, you sometimes got much less than a cup and sometimes none at all,
When we entered the China Sea, we came into rough waters, and many of the men became violently sea sick. Their vomit added to the human excretia in the cans and became flowing all over the deck and those on the deck. The deck was covered with feces, urine, blood and vomit. When we hit stormy weather, the pitch and the roll of the ship made matters worse, and everyone became fouled with waster. The heat was as unbearable as our thirst. Whenever it rained we would hold our mess kits up to capture some of that precious water. I had been in the infantry prior to enlisting in the air corps and had been trained to conserve water. When we first entered the hold I had a full canteen full of water and I thought I was in pretty good shape. Not thinking of what happened on the Death March, I actually believed the Japs would us with water on the way to Japan. Either the first or second night aboard the ship and while we were still in the bay, the guy sitting behind me, informed my my canteen was pushing against him and requested that I move it more to my side. Sometime during the night, someone managed to get my canteen out of the holder, drank the water and urinated in it. When I woke up, I reached for the canteen and took a small sip, I realized then what had happened. I wanted to the guy who did it. I struggled to stand up so I could get at the guy behind me. He vehemently denied doing it and at the same time, I felt my strength go out of me and sat back down. Words can never actually describe what went on in the hold of that ship. One man that I know of went so mad with thirst tht he cut his own wrist and sucked his own blood until he died. The dead would be passed to the other part of the hold where the Japs would let them lay until enough accumulated, and only then were they allowed to be passed to the top deck, where they were dumped over the side into the China Sea. The lower portion of our hold was empty and some of my buddies from the port area detail, along with some others, managed to get below by lifting a small trap door and go down a ladder which was directly beneath it. Men were sitting on this door and they had to be willing to move in order for the hatch to be lifted. Not many went below because there was a great risk of being caught by the Japs.
During the night of July 24, the ship was rocked by a terrific explosion. This was followed by depth charges being dropped. The ship was shaking and I could picture the bulkhead giving way and the sea pouring in on us. In desperation, we all started up the ladder. The man who climbed up first was pounding on the hatch above and we were all yelling for someone to open it. I was thankful to God that someone finally did open it. Fortunately the Japs were so busy up topside that we all got back in the upper hold quickly and without being seen. We thought our ship had been hit. We discovered that a large oil tanker just off our starboard side had been torpedoed. Through the narrow hatch opening above, we could see the sky was flaming red. The guards surrounded the hold with their machine guns and with hand grenades around their necks. Men were screaming, some were crying, and some myself included, were praying out loud. We did not know it then, but the greatest danger at that moment in time was being killed by the Japs if we tried to go topside. A Catholic chaplain, Father Stanley Reilly, probably saved our lives, as many of us were about to attempt just that. We did not want to die like a bunch of pack rats in a trap. One of the things the priest said was that surely the Americans knew we were on board for this ship and they would not hit our ship. He then asked us to pray with him, and then he recited the "Hail Mary." As he repeated it, many joined him. As he went on, his voice became less and less vocal. Soon it was so quiet in the hold that the noise of the depth charges were clearly heard, but our fear had subsided.
On August 6, 1944 we finally arrived in Japan. The dock at Port Moji on the Island of Kyushu. Many from the Port Area detail were assigned to Kamioka, Japan on the Island of Honshu, where we worked in an underground mine.
This is a personal story of Robert Dow, Albuquerque NM who was with the 27th Bomb Group, 17th Bomb Squadron describing very lifelike, what it was like to transported in one of the "Hell Ships" from Manila to Japan.
The Sehiiko Maru was formerly known as the Canadian Inventor. It transported a combination of 1,024 Allied prisoners of war. The ship departed Takao, Formosa on July 16, 1944. The ship had a number of mechanical breakdowns thereby arriving at Port Moji, Japan on September 1, 1944.
The Nagara Maru sailed from Manila on August 12, 1942, carrying mostly senior officers including Generals Wainwright and General King. It arrived at Takao, Formosa on August 14, 1942. The senior officers were held in a prisoner of war camp on Formosa for a short period of time prior to being transferred to a prisoner of war camp at Mukden, Manchuria.
The 6.780 gross ton hellship was built in the year 1919. It was 425 feet long and was capable of 13,2 knots of speed. Two hundred seven American prisoners of war on Mindanao boarded the Tamahoko Maru on October 3, 1942, and after three days at sea entered Manila harbor. The POWS were marched through the streets to Bilibid Prison to await transportation to Japan. The Tamahoka Maru made a second voyage carrying POWs. That voyage began at Takao, Formosa on June 18, 1944 with approximately 772 POWs, including 267 Australian, 190 British, 266 Dutch, and 18 Americans. On the night of June 24, 1944, the USS Tang torpedoed the Tamahoko Maru, sinking it near Nagasaki, Japan with the loss of 560 out of the 772 POWs on board.
After the POWs began entering Japan, the country realized that to help cure the sick prisoners they would need to supply the men with doctors and and medical personnel. They drafted doctors from Cabanatuan and Bilibid to go to Japan. The men prepared by bartering and buying warmer clothes and food. Forty medical doctors, ten dentists and 150 enlisted men left Cabanatuan and went to Bilibid. The Japanese supplied these men with more food than usual in the form of bananas, peanuts, fish and coconuts. On March 6, 1944 the men boarded and went down a ladder to a quadrangle lined with bays.
The freighter rode high in the water causing seasickness for the men. Men feared submarine attacks. On the way to Formosa a submarine alarm sounded, but the Japanese indicated it was only a drill. Some men helped treat Japanese children aboard.
The Kenwa Maru transported bags of sugar which the men loaded into their socks, pockets and mess kits. They only took small amounts from the corners of the bags and thus avoided detection. Lieutenant Smith nicknamed the vessel, the "sugar ship."
After one week the men arrived in Takao and resumed their voyage on March 15. The ship docked in Moji, Japan on March 22, 1944.
From: Death on the Hellships, by Gregory Michno.