Death of the Hellships: Prisoners at Sea in the Pacific War

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"Though the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war during World War II has been written about before, with this chronicle readers come to appreciate the true dimensions of the Allied POW experience at sea. It is a disturbing story; many believe the Bataan Death March pales by comparison. Survivors describe their ordeal in the Japanese hellships as the absolute worst experience of their captivity. Crammed by the thousands into the holds of the ships, moved from island to island and put to work, they endured all the horros of the prison camps
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"Though the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war during World War II has been written about before, with this chronicle readers come to appreciate the true dimensions of the Allied POW experience at sea. It is a disturbing story; many believe the Bataan Death March pales by comparison. Survivors describe their ordeal in the Japanese hellships as the absolute worst experience of their captivity. Crammed by the thousands into the holds of the ships, moved from island to island and put to work, they endured all the horros of the prison camps magnified tenfold." "Gregory Michno draws on American, British, Australian, and Dutch POW accounts as well as Japanese convoy histories, recently declassified radio intelligence reports, and a wealth of archival sources to present for the first time a detailed picture of what happened. More than 126,000 Allied prisoners were transported in the hellships with more than 21,000 fatalities. While beatings, starvation, and disease caused many of the deaths, the most, Michno reports, were caused by Allied bombs, bullets, and torpedoes. He further reports that this so-called friendly fire was not always accidental - at times high-level decisions were made to sink Japanese ships despite the presence of POWs. The statistics led Michno to conclude that it was more dangerous to be a prisoner on the Japanese hellships than a U.S. Marine fighting in the campaign. His careful examination of the role of U.S. submarines in the sinkings and rescue of POWs makes yet another significant contribution to the history of the Pacific war."--BOOK JACKET.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557504821
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2001
  • Pages: 366
  • Product dimensions: 6.18 (w) x 9.19 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



                               In the opening months of the war, the Imperial Japanese Navy and Army stormed through China, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and the western Pacific. They gobbled up millions of square miles and affected the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured Guam, Wake, and Hong Kong. They landed in the Philippines, Malaya, Borneo, and various islands of the Dutch East Indies. By February 1942, Singapore, Britain's supposedly impregnable bastion, had fallen. Sumatra and Java were attacked. In six months, the Japanese had extended their conquests to Burma, north to the Aleutians, and south to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, threatening the American lifeline to Australia.

    In the course of these conquests, the Japanese killed, wounded, or captured more than 300,000 Allied troops. The most significant surrenders were at Hong Kong, where nearly 14,000 Britons, Canadians, and Indians defended the island; on Java, with 25,000 Dutch and T000 British, Australian, and American troops; and in the Philippines, where 75,000 Americans and Filipinos surrendered. The worst single instance was the fall of Singapore, an event Prime Minister Winston Churchill called "the greatest disaster and capitulation in British history." In one swoop, 130,000 British, Australian, and Indian troops surrendered to fewer than thatnumber of Japanese soldiers. It was the greatest land victory in Japan's history.

    The Imperial Army was unprepared for this influx of prisoners. What would they do with them? After a time they released the native prisoners—Indonesians who fought with the Dutch and Filipinos who fought with the Americans—and instituted a marginally successful campaign to enlist the Indians against their former British masters. All these actions were logistically sensible and calculated to earn propaganda points for them as racial liberators of Asia. Yet this still left 140,000 or more white prisoners of war.


Before the Japanese could make long-term plans for housing POWs, prisoners would have to be moved out of the forward battle zones. The first such move occurred on Guam. On the morning of 10 December 1941, about six thousand men of the Japanese 144th Regiment came ashore, quickly over-running the island's pitifully small number of American defenders. Cdr. Donald T. Giles, vice governor of Guam and executive officer of its naval station, was bitterly disappointed at what he called a shameful sacrifice by the U.S. government. Facing the Japanese with only a few hundred men armed with pistols and Springfield rifles, the Americans resisted for only twenty minutes. Even so, seventeen men had been killed and thirty-eight wounded before they gave up.

    One month later, on 10 January 1942, they received an unusually hearty breakfast of lunch meat, a cold potato, and a sip of coffee. They were told that they would be heading south by ship, so they only needed to take their tropical clothing. From Piti Navy Yard in Apra Harbor they boarded what Giles called a beautiful passenger ship, the Argentina Maru. A twenty-knot luxury liner of 12,755 tons, capable of accommodating eight hundred passengers, the ship had traveled the Far East-South America route prior to being recalled for use as a troop transport. There would be no first-class accommodations for the prisoners, however. On deck, the governor of Guam tried to explain to the Japanese commander why they had surrendered. The officer slapped him in the face.

    "You and your men are all cowards for surrendering," he snapped, "and we will treat you accordingly. We will give you all the punishment that the human body can withstand!" Thus the Americans quickly learned what the Japanese thought about prisoners. They were sent four decks down and crammed into six-tiered shelves, with eight men lying side by side. There was little space between one's face and the shelf above, and there was no ventilation or sanitation. As luxurious as the ship was, said Giles, she was never intended to carry prisoners: "Except for the lack of chains, we were there as galley slaves."

    As the prisoners speculated as to which "tropical" destination they were bound, the Argentina Maru sailed north, unescorted and without zigzagging, causing Giles to worry about submarine attack. The temperature grew colder. The food served was described as "buckets of slop," lowered on lines from the boat deck above. Marine private John B. Garrison complained about being forced to stay right above the engines and only being allowed on deck once a day for exercise. He thought there were about three hundred servicemen and four hundred civilians in the hold, all sleeping on steel shelves, side by side. Garrison weighed 140 pounds when he surrendered, only 110 by the time he got to Japan. Unaccustomed to the meager meals of rice spiced with daikons (pickled white radishes), he found it very hard to eat, even as hungry as he was. No one, said Commander Giles, who was ever a prisoner of the Japanese will ever complain about food again.

    On the morning of 15 January, as snow fell, the Argentina Maru sailed into the Inland Sea and anchored off Tadotsu on the island of Shikoku. The prisoners were ill prepared for the frigid cold. Giles remembered 420 of them being taken to Zentsuji Camp, about five miles southeast of Tadotsu. Zentsuji, the first POW camp established in Japan, was administered by reserve personnel, which perhaps worked in the prisoners' favor. The POWs' new home was a shock, yet all things considered, Zentsuji would prove to be one of the "better" Japanese POW camps in the empire.


Making a much better fight of it, the defenders of Wake Island actually repulsed the first Japanese invasion attempt on 11 December 1941. The small invasion force under Rear Adm. Kajioka Sadamichi, commanding Destroyer Squadron Six from the light cruiser Yubari, approached too close to the island and was surprised by still-operable shore batteries and planes. Down went the destroyer Hayate, the first Japanese warship to be lost in World War II, and the destroyer Kisaragi. Kajioka retreated. On 23 December he was back with reinforcements, but before surrender, the stubborn defenders inflicted nearly five hundred casualties on the attackers while losing only fourteen Marines and fourteen civilians. The Japanese had been roughly handled, and curses, kicks, and rifle butts emphasized their orders as they rounded up the Americans. Their valuables and clothes were stripped from them, and their hands were wired behind their backs with loops around their necks. "They stripped us down balls and ass naked and hog-tied us," complained one Yank. Then they were lined up and covered by three machine guns. As they waited to be shot, a landing craft rammed onto the beach and out stepped Rear Admiral Kajioka, resplendent in a spotless white uniform. He ordered the machine gunners to remove their ammunition belts, and the prisoners realized they had been saved—for the moment.

    Almost sixteen hundred Americans, counting servicemen and civilian employees, were taken to the airfield. Kajioka had won his argument with the commanding Army officer. The interpreter passed along the gist of the exchange: "The emperor has gracefully presented you with your lives." Out of the mass of hog-tied bodies, where civilian construction workers Oklahoma Atkinson and Harry Jeffries surveyed the scene, came the sarcastic response, "Well thank the son of a bitch."

    Eventually the prisoners were housed in the contractor's barracks. They stayed until 11 January, when all but 388 of them were ordered down to the beach. Word was that they were going to Japan. Before they were lightered out to the waiting ship, they were sprayed with what Cpl. George W. McDaniel called a "smelly insecticide," and the Japanese guards shook them down one more time. They clawed their way up rope ladders in heavy seas, and once aboard, new guards kicked and cursed them for being devoid of loot. After they were beaten with bamboo clubs while running through a gauntlet, all 1,187 of them were shoved into the forward cargo holds.

    The 17,163-ton Nitta Maru, built as a luxury liner in 1939, sailed for Yokohama on 12 January 1942. Capable of making twenty-two knots, it was the holder of a transpacific speed record. It could accommodate 278 passengers, but there was no luxury for its current guests. Down in the holds, the POWs were packed in, body upon body, and ordered to sit still. Anyone who moved was beaten. Corporal McDaniel said he wasn't allowed to stand up for fifteen days. Their toilets consisted of five-gallon pails. They were refused water, and some men tried to lick the condensation off the steel bulkheads. They were fed a thin rice gruel, so watery that many men went more than two weeks without a bowel movement. Others were plagued with dysentery. Civilians Jeffries and Atkinson said the gruel sometimes came with a few slivers of smelly pickled radish, other times with rotting fish heads or guts. Men couldn't even make it to the slop buckets to relieve themselves. Not in such dire straits was Capt. Bryghte D. Godbold. He and a small group of men were placed in what appeared to be a mail room. There were even a few bunks for the older officers, while the younger ones slept on deck mats. Godbold ate rice, soup, pickles, and tea a couple of times a day. It was not pleasant, but there was no brutality shown. It was about what you'd expect on a prisoner ship, he said. Not so for the great majority, who would describe their trip on the Nitta Maru as the worst time of their captivity.

    The Nitta Maru was heading north to a freezing Japanese midwinter. The prisoners were issued one thin cotton blanket each, but it was not nearly enough. On 18 January, the engines quit vibrating and Nitta Maru docked at Yokohama. To celebrate their homecoming, the guards pulled back the hatches and threw snowballs at the prisoners. The commanders at Wake, Maj. James P. S. Devereaux and Cdr. Winfield S. Cunningham, and a few other officers were ordered to clean up and report to an upper deck room, where they were photographed, smiling for propaganda purposes, their pictures later appearing in English-language magazines. As compensation for their cooperation, they were allowed to send radiograms to their next of kin. About twenty other men, including Maj. George H. Potter Jr., Maj. Paul A. Putnam, and Cdr. Campbell Keene, all involved in aviation or communications intelligence, were removed from the ship for in-depth interrogation. Later in the month, when the Japanese were finished with them, one dozen were sent to Zentsuji prison camp.

    When the voyage resumed on 20 January, the mistreatment turned deadly. A day or two out of Yokohama, five men were brought up from the holds. Seamen Theodore Franklin, John W. Lambert, and Roy J. Gonzales, and Sgts. Earl R. Hannum and Vincent W. Bailey, all with aviation backgrounds, probably thought they were going to be interrogated. Their comrades never saw them again. Blindfolded and bound, they did not know what was happening as they were brought up on deck and surrounded by about 150 guards and crewmen. Lt. Saito Toshio, commander of the guards, stood on a box to read the indictment: "You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed—for revenge. You are here as representatives of your American soldiers and will be killed. You can now pray to be happy in the next world—in heaven." One by one, each man was forced to kneel on the deck while sword-wielding guards stepped up behind them. A Japanese sailor described what happened: "The sword as brought down on the neck of the first victim made a swishing noise as it cut the air. As the blade hit and pierced the flesh it gave a resounding noise like a wet towel being flipped or shaken out. The body of the first victim lay quietly, half across a mat and half onto the wooden deck." Four more times the swords flashed while the Japanese applauded. Afterward, some took turns trying to cut the corpses in two with a single sword stroke, like samurais of old. Then Saito had them propped up against barrels for bayonet practice. Finally the crowd dispersed and the bodies were thrown into the ocean. That evening, Saito invited guests to his cabin to celebrate the occasion.

    On 23 January, the Nitta Maru made Shanghai, then traveled up the Whangpoo River to Woosung. The prisoners were marched five miles to their new camp—seven unheated, old wooden barracks surrounded by electric fences. Within a week they were joined by captured Marines from Peking and Tientsin, boosting their numbers to about fourteen hundred. Censored reports filtering back to America did not indicate that much was amiss. The wife of Dan Teeters, superintendent of the civilian construction workers on Wake, had a rosy picture painted for her. "We have no reason to think that the men have not received fairly decent treatment," she told William Bradford Huie, who was writing the story of the construction battalion. Red Cross packages were arriving at the camp, and although there was a lack of warm clothing, she reported, "there have been no atrocities."


The capture of Guam and Wake were small operations compared to the invasions in the Philippines, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies. On the day they bombed Pearl Harbor, actually 8 December 1941 for the entire western Pacific, the Japanese also landed at Kota Bharu, on the east coast of the Malayan Peninsula. Throughout December and January they forced the British and Australian defenders back, as they moved inexorably south toward Singapore. The Japanese appeared unstoppable, and the Singapore area verged on chaos. At the same time that troop convoys were arriving in an attempt to shore up the rapidly deteriorating situation, thousands of people began to flee. Japanese planes and warships had field days. On 5 February 1942, dive bombers sank the arriving 16,909-ton transport Empress of Asia carrying units of the 18th Division. Between 13 and 17 February alone, about seventy ships, from small auxiliaries to gunboats, minelayers, and steamers, were lost while fleeing.

    One typical escape attempt had a disastrous dénouement. On 12 February, three days before the fall of Singapore, the small steamer Vyner Brooke was loaded with more than two hundred elderly men and women, children, and sixty-five Australian Army nursing sisters. Two days later on the north Sumatra coast the ship blundered into an area where a Japanese convoy was unloading under the protection of the carrier Ryujo. The Vyner Brooke was bombed and sunk. Survivors headed to the nearest land. One group, with twenty-two nurses and a number of wounded men, made it ashore on Bangka Island. They were joined by about twenty-five surviving men from another sunken vessel. All were intercepted by a party of Japanese soldiers, who separated them into two groups. The men were marched out of sight behind a headland. Rifle shots were heard, and shortly thereafter the soldiers returned, cleaning their rifles and bayonets. The twenty-two nurses and one civilian were ordered to walk waist deep into the sea, when the Japanese opened fire on them. Nurse Vivien Bullwinkel took a bullet through her back. She fell and floated with the waves for ten minutes before being washed ashore. The Japanese were gone. Bullwinkel, the only survivor, dragged herself across the beach and into the jungle to hide. Another group of nurses who made it to shore were also captured. Although not executed, eight of them would later die in prison camps. Both the military and civilian population were rapidly discovering what it was like to fall into Japanese hands.


On 15 February 1942, the same day Singapore surrendered, Japanese forces landed on Sumatra. On the nineteenth they landed on Bali, while Vice Adm. Kondo Nobutake led his carrier armada into the Timor Sea to launch an attack on the harbor of Darwin, Australia, damaging eleven ships and sinking nine, including the U.S. Army transport Meigs and destroyer Peary. On the twenty-seventh, an invasion force including fifty-six transports approached western Java, and a second force including forty-one transports neared eastern Java. The proximity of all those juicy transports was more than enough to entice the American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) fleet out from Surabaya to do battle. Rear Adm. Karel Doorman, in charge of the combined forces, charged out to fight but succeeded only in destroying his fleet. On 27 February, in the Battle of the Java Sea, he lost the Dutch destroyer Kortenaer, the British destroyers Electra and Jupiter, Dutch light cruisers Java and De Ruyter (his flagship), and his life. Meanwhile, south of Java, the seaplane tender Langley was sunk by aircraft. Damaged ships fled the scene, only to succumb on the bloody first of March. Destroyers Edsall and Pillsbury were caught south of Christmas Island by Kondo's carrier planes and sunk. The U.S. heavy cruiser Houston and Australian light cruiser Perth blundered into the western Java invasion force and were sunk in Sunda Strait after a hard fight. Trying to escape the Java Sea, which had become a ship trap, the British heavy cruiser Exeter, which had figured in the destruction of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee, the British destroyer Encounter, and the U.S. destroyer Pope, were all sent to the bottom by Japanese planes and surface ships.

    These appalling losses resulted in the Japanese reaping more prisoners from the sea. In the Indian Ocean south of Java, the Edsall, which had rescued 177 men from the Langley, transferred them to the tanker Pecos. Returning to Java, Edsall was sunk by Japanese heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma. Only 5 survivors reached land, all of whom later died as POWs. Meanwhile the Pecos, fleeing to Fremantle with 670 people on board, was sunk by aircraft from the carrier Soryu. This time the destroyer Whipple rescued 232 men and finally got them safely to Australia. In the same area on 2 March, the British destroyer Stronghold was intercepted by the heavy cruiser Maya. The battered DD went down, and 50 survivors were picked up by what appeared to be the Dutch steamer Duymaer van Twist. The ship, however, had been captured by the Japanese, and the luckless prisoners were transferred to the Maya.

    Floating survivors of the Java Sea battle met various fates, depending solely on where they happened to drift, and which, if any, ship's captain happened to discover them. The U.S. submarine S-38, under Lt. Henry G. Munson, was patrolling near Bawean Island, unaware of the great sea battle that was being fought. Late on the twenty-eighth, a call brought Munson to the bridge. The low, dark silhouette on the water could be either wreckage or sampans. Munson wasn't sure, so the gun crew came topside and S-38 sped in for a look. As she neared the object, a voice cried out in the darkness, "My God, they're not finished with us yet!"

    Astonished at hearing English, Munson hailed back, "Who are you?"

    Several voices called out, "We're men of His Majesty's Ship Electra!"

    S-38 hove to and began pulling aboard men from life rafts and floating debris. The job was rushed, for dawn was tinting the sky when the last man was picked up. There were fifty-four of them, thirsty, oily, and burned. Seventeen were badly wounded and one was dying, but they were all carried to safety. It was the first of many rescues to be accomplished by submarines. As an encore, S-37, under Lt. James C. Dempsey, rescued two American sailors who had been on the De Ruyter and left five days' worth of provisions for a boatload of the Dutch cruiser's survivors.

    The Japanese destroyer Amatsukaze had been prowling the same area. Cdr. Hara Tameichi's ship had been one of the escorts covering the eastern Java invasion force, when, on 26 February, he spotted a white-painted vessel. Halting it for inspection, he found it was the Dutch ship Op ten Noort, built in 1927 as a 6,076-ton passenger ship and recently converted to a hospital ship. Hara hustled the ship over to the care of his supply squadron commander, then sped back in time for the Java Sea fight. After the battle, low on fuel, the Amatsukaze was ordered to escort Op ten Noort to Borneo. Passing about sixty miles west of Bawean Island, Hara noticed more than a hundred Caucasians floating on wreckage, all with their hands held in the air and crying, "Water! Water!"

    "The sight was pitiable," said Hara. "I had no personal hatred for the drowning enemy. But what could I do? My small ship could take only forty or fifty of them, at most. How could I discriminate and pick only half of these survivors?" He radioed his superior about the drifting men. As they steamed close by, one of Hara's lieutenants, who spoke English, called out to them to hang on, for they would soon be rescued. After taking the hospital ship to Bandjarmasin and refueling, the Amatsukaze passed the scene once again. The drifting survivors were nowhere to be found.

    The Exeter, damaged in the Battle of the Java Sea and accompanied by Encounter and Pope, headed along the Borneo coast in an attempt to reach Ceylon. It was hopeless, for they were caught by the Japanese heavy cruisers Nachi, Haguro, Ashigara, and Myoko, accompanying destroyers, and aircraft. Exeter was the first to be smothered with shells, then Encounter.

    With the order to abandon the Exeter, Lt. R. Geoffrey Blain calmly removed his shoes, placed them at the rail, and stepped into the water. The cruisers moved away and Blain was left floating in his life vest with hundreds of others. That evening he noted how warm the sea was, though any exposed areas above the surface turned very cold. There were no sharks, but several men were bitten by sea snakes. The next morning two Japanese destroyers appeared. Blain later thought how ironic it was that they were so pleased at the time to climb up on a solid deck.

    The destroyer Inazuma, under Lt. Cdr. Takeuchi Hajime, picked up 376 survivors while Yamakaze, skippered by Lt. Cdr. Hamanaka Shuichi, rescued about 3oo British seamen. Said Blain, "The conduct of the Japanese sailors was exemplary, and it was the high point of Japanese behavior during my three and one-half years in captivity." As they headed for Bandjarmasin, they were cared for and given a meal of condensed milk and biscuits. "This standard of treatment," said Blain, "was not to last."

    As Exeter and Encounter succumbed, the old World War I four-stacker Pope seemed to have a chance to escape as she beat her way back to the east. But old age, as much as Japanese near-misses, caught up with her. Ammunition was exhausted. The brick walls of the number three boiler had caved in from repeated concussions. One underwater blast gashed the hull. The port propeller shaft went out of line and was shut down. Bomb blasts had opened up seams in the hull and water rapidly filled the compartments. The aft weather deck was awash before Lt. Cdr. Welford C. Blinn gave the order to abandon ship. Demolition charges were set and Pope was on her way to the bottom when a last shell hit her upturned bow, applying the coup de grâce.

    The cruisers pulled away, leaving 143 men floating on a whaleboat, rafts, and wreckage. Miraculously, only 1 had been killed. Blinn had them all roped together as they rationed their small supply of food and water. Hope was that they would be found by a friendly submarine. That night a red flare was fired, but it accomplished little except to briefly illuminate the lonely sea with an eerie glow. In the gray and drizzling morning they started the whaleboat's engine in the hope that the boat could tow them to Java. Near midnight they spotted four Japanese destroyers, but still hoping to be rescued by friends, they shut down the engine and remained silent. The DDs passed by at one thousand yards but did not spot them. On 3 March, the whaleboat's engine ran out of fuel. A low-flying Japanese seaplane hovered over them for a time, then flew off. Almost out of food and water, many began to think that it might be better to be captured than to die at sea. That night the last of the supplies were consumed and they waited. Bright moonlight rippled the wavelets in silver, and they were settling down for another lonely night when a black shape loomed. A signalman hoisted a waterproof battle lantern. The ship slowed and turned on its recognition lights. It was the Inazuma again, back in the area after dropping off Exeter's survivors. A voice called out in Japanese, and Lt. William R. Wilson, fluent in the language, quickly explained their predicament. The DD hove to, turning on her lights and dropping a Jacob's ladder over the side.

    Once on deck, Lt. (jg) John J. A. Michel was grabbed by two sailors while a third sprayed him with a carbolic acid mixture and a fourth rifled through his pockets and relieved him of his wallet and a rosary. Michel was taken to the forecastle, where the rest of the officers were assembled. Canvas screens and mats were rigged up, and they were motioned to sit. Michel was happy to comply, especially when given hardtack and a warm, sweet drink with a lemon flavor. They hungrily ate and lay down for a night's sleep.

    More prisoners were caught as Allied ships fled Java. The Japanese destroyer Ikazuchi spotted an escaping Dutch tanker and tried to capture it, but the crew scuttled the ship. If he could not seize the ship, Lt. Cdr. Kudo Shunsaku would bag the crew. Ikazuchi gathered them up and carried them to Bandjarmasin.

    Next to run afoul of the victorious Japanese was the U.S. submarine Perch. On 25 February off Celebes, Lt. Cdr. David A. Hurt was about to make a night surface attack on a lone merchant ship when its concealed deck gun put a shell through her conning tower fairwater. Perch pulled clear. Three nights later she received news of the Java Sea battle and was told to head for the scene. Early in the morning on 2 March, about 20 miles north of Surabaya, Perch was on the surface recharging batteries when she was spotted by Amatsukaze, once again combing the area. Hara spun his ship around and charged in, letting go several salvos and claiming a direct hit on the conning tower. Following behind, the Hatsukaze echoed Hara's moves. But Hurt had already gone to periscope depth and watched the charging destroyers. With a zero angle on the bow, Hurt decided to head for 200 feet. Unfortunately, the sea bottom was at 140. As Perch punched into the mud, Amatsukaze crossed over with a string of charges, blasting the sub. Hurt cut the motors while Hatsukaze dropped her charges, shaking the boat again. The Perch was badly damaged: the engine-room gauges were broken or jammed, air banks in the after battery were leaking and the hull had been pushed in, the batteries showed full ground, the hull exhaust duct in the control room was flooded, the conning tower was dented in, the number two periscope was frozen, the crew's toilets were shattered, and several hatches were leaking. The crew waited in silence.

    Above, the Amatsukaze's sonar could not pick up a target. The area smelled strongly of oil, and Hara was elated, certain that he had made his first definite kill. The destroyers steamed away. It was lucky for Perch that they did, for Hurt, also hearing nothing from above, started his motors and, after struggling for a while, broke free and rose to the surface at about 0300. He had missed the destroyers by minutes.

    In the predawn, the crew came topside to assess the damage. The antenna and blinker lights were down and the number one main engine was malfunctioning. Worse, Perch had only been up an hour when two more destroyers were seen heading her way, this time the Ushio and Sazanami. Hurt took her down to rest on the bottom, this time at two hundred feet, but the DDs had seen her and dropped several strings of depth charges. Main ballast tanks one and three ruptured. The engines' circulating water lines leaked. The bow planes were pushed in, and the rigging panel was burned. Torpedoes in number one and two tubes made hot runs. The hull over the officers' staterooms was dished in. The electric and telephone circuits went dead. After these attacks, the Japanese destroyers again steamed away, confident that they had made a kill. This time, however, Perch could not free herself from the muddy bottom. Before the crew could go full throttle and blow all remaining ballast in the hope of rising to the surface, they would have to wait until dark.

    For thirteen hours the crew suffered in silence, quietly making repairs to ready the boat. About 2000, Hurt gave the command for full power to both shafts. After several tries, full forward and full astern, Perch pulled loose. She popped to the surface once more at about 2100 on 2 March. The crew faced a seventeen-hundred-mile trip to Australia, uncertain if they could submerge with any hope of surfacing. The Perch crept along, heading east. An hour before sunrise on the third, Hurt decided to make a test dive to assess the boat's condition. It didn't work. They could flood down, but they could not blow out the water fast enough. By blowing all ballast, Perch barely clawed her way to the surface, but the water in the engine-room bilges was up to the generators. Only the pumps running at maximum could keep her afloat.

    As luck would have it, the breaking dawn also brought back the snooping destroyers, followed by cruisers Nachi and Haguro. It was over. Hurt ordered Perch scuttled and abandoned. Torpedoman Sam Simpson passed through the control room and got the word that they had better hurry because the sub was already sinking. He rushed out the conning tower hatch, then ran aft and sat down and took off his shoes. Classified material was given the deep-six, flood valves were opened, and nine officers and fifty-three men went over the side. Simpson floated in the sea while guns flashed and shells fountained up geysers of water. The Perch seemed to slip backward, then her bow rose and she slid below, stern first. Within the hour the Ushio, under Cdr. Uesugi Yoshitake, picked up the entire crew and headed toward Borneo.

    It was a veritable ABDA sailors' reunion in Bandjarmasin, although under the auspices of the Imperial Navy. Men from Exeter and Encounter were placed in the bowels of an old tanker, which contained four levels of wooden decks hastily constructed to carry Japanese troops to the beaches. "It was no consolation to us to know that we were being treated no worse than the Japanese soldiers," said Lieutenant Blain. The hatches were open, and Blain complained that the temperature was 90 degrees in the shade. But, he said, "there was no shade, and more important, there was no ventilation in the tanks."

    They sat in the sweltering heat for three days. The Japanese had water, but the POWs had no containers to drink from. As men collapsed from heatstroke, they were brought on deck a few at a time. After another day of heat, thirst, and interrogation, Op ten Noort pulled alongside. The Japanese minelayer (CM) Tsubame was in port, and its sailors helped load and guard the more than nine hundred prisoners who transferred to the hospital ship. It was cleaner and cooler than the tanker, said Blain, but the Dutch crew shunned them, refusing even to treat their wounded. "What do you expect?" said one of the doctors. "You are only prisoners of war." The British sailors were fed rice balls supplied by the Japanese, while the Dutch ate their own rations and made no secret of it.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2003

    The Inside Story

    Mr. Michno's book gives the reader a startling look on the sufferings of the patrotic prisoners of war who suffered untold agonies during the second world war on the Japanesse Prisoner of War Ships. The book related the intermost feelings of these true heros. And how they coped and survived unbelivable depravations. It is a must read for anyone who wants to understand about the true heros of World War II.

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