A Brief History
On September 18, 1944, the British submarine, HMS Tradewinds, torpedoed and sank the Jun’yo Maru, a Japanese cargo ship transformed to carry prisoners. Over 5000 people died in the tragedy, of which 1377 were Dutch prisoners of war, another 64 victims were British and Australian prisoners of war, and 8 were American prisoners of war. Most of the rest of the victims were Javanese slave laborers, around 4200 of them.
Obviously, the skipper of the Tradewinds did not know the targeted ship was carrying prisoners, as the Japanese did not mark POW ships in any special way. The Jun’yo Maru was built in Scotland in 1913 and displaced only 5100 tons, with a length of 405 feet and a beam of 53 feet. Never meant to carry more than a couple dozen crew members, the ship had been rigged with extra bamboo decks and cages to cram as many prisoners as possible onto the ship.
These “Hell Ships” were common as the Japanese tried to move around prisoners to keep them from being liberated by the advancing allies. The crowded and unsanitary conditions on these ships was aggravated by the cruelty of the Japanese, beating, torturing and starving the prisoners on a regular basis. It is estimated that over 20,000 Allied prisoners of war died on these ships during World War II.
Although over 600 prisoners survived the sinking, they ended up in slave labor camps where death was an all too common result of starvation, disease, and overwork. It is alleged that Allied planners knew of the ships carrying prisoners (see Wikipedia article, “Hell Ship”) but sank them anyway to deny the Japanese important cargo. Of course, other authors place the blame squarely on the Japanese for failing to mark such ships with a red cross.
The massive nature of this disaster was later eclipsed in the European theater as German ships such as the Wilhelm Gustloff and Goya were sunk with even greater loss of life. The term “Hell Ship” was indeed applied to German ships carrying Allied prisoners, but there was no real comparison with the miserable conditions on the Japanese vessels. The term “Hell Ship” was first used during the American Revolutionary War, especially regarding the HMS Jersey. British use of broken down ships as floating prisons resulted in the deaths of over 11,000 American prisoners of war.
Question for students (and subscribers): If indeed it is true that the Allies sank POW ships knowingly in order to deny their cargo to the Japanese, do you think that was the right thing to do or not? Please tell us what you believe the proper action or inaction should have been. Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Morris, Jack. HELL SHIPS-1. Amazon Digital Services LLC, 2011.
Pearson, Judith. Belly of the Beast: A POW’s Inspiring True Story of Faith, Courage, and Survival aboard the Infamous WWII Japanese Hell Ship Oryoku Maru. Audible Studios, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Walter Edwin Frost of Japanese cargo ship Jun’yō Maru, is in the public domain in the United States, because it was published in the United States between 1924 and 1977 without a copyright notice. See Commons:Hirtle chart for further explanation.