70th anniversary of the sinking of the Rakuyō Maru
Seventy years ago this week, on 12 September 1944, two Japanese ships transporting Australian and British prisoners of war from Singapore to Japan were sunk, resulting in the loss of 1,559 Australian and British lives.
The Japanese transported prisoners of war great distances across their empire. The worst and most dangerous period in a prisoner’s life was travelling in captivity. Over-crowding, sickness, disease and the dangers posed by Allied submarines caused much stress and anxiety. Conditions on board these ships were severe: over a 1,000 prisoners might be crammed into spaces suitable for a few hundred and given little food, fresh water, or adequate sanitation facilities. Some journeys lasted just a few days, but the longest was a voyage from Singapore to Japan which took 70 days (this was the Rashin Maru, known to prisoners as the “Byoke Maru”, or sick ship). The prisoners of war called these transports “hellships”.
The Rakuyō Maru (with 1,318 Australian and British prisoners of war aboard) and Kachidoki Maru (900 British prisoners of war) were part of a convoy carrying mostly raw materials that left Singapore for Japan on 6 September 1944. The prisoners were all survivors of the Burma-Thailand Railway who had only recently returned to Singapore.
On the morning of 12 September 1944 the convoy was attacked by American submarines in the South China Sea. Rakuyō Maru was sunk by USS Sealion II and Kachidoki Maru by USS Pampanito. Prisoners able to evacuate the ships spent the following days in life rafts or clinging to wreckage in open water. About 150 Australian and British survivors were rescued by American submarines. A further 500 were picked up by Japanese destroyers and continued the journey to Japan. Those not rescued perished at sea. A total of 1,559 Australian and British prisoners of war were killed in the incident, all missing at sea (1,159 from Rakuyō Maru, 400 from Kachidoki Maru). The total number of Australians killed was 543 (503 AIF, 33 RAN, 7 RAAF).
Among the dead was the senior Australian commander, Brigadier Arthur Varley. The survivors rescued by the American submarines were repatriated to Australia and provided some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the Burma-Thailand Railway.
The sinking of the Rakuyō Maru was just one of several incidents during the Second World War in which Japanese ships transporting Australian prisoners of war were sunk by Allied submarines. Others included the Montevideo Maru (1 July 1942), the Tamahoko Maru (24 June 1944), the Harugiku Maru (26 June 1944, also known as the Van Waerwijck). Over 2,000 Australian prisoners of war died in these various incidents.
In all, some 22,000 Allied prisoners of the Japanese died in “hellship” disasters, 19,000 of them as a result of “friendly fire” incidents. In fact, more Allied prisoners of war were lost on the hellships than died on the Burma-Thailand Railway. In the largest of these disasters, 6,520 prisoners, mostly Indonesian labourers, were killed when the Jun’yō Maru was sunk on 18 September 1944.
In honour of those who died following the sinking of the Rakuyō Maru and Kachidoki Maru, the Australian War Memorial’s Last Post Ceremony on 12 September 2014 will feature the story of Brigadier Arthur Varley.
Varley had been a veteran of the First World War, and had been awarded a Military Cross and Mentioned in Dispatches on the Western Front. In the Second World War he commanded the 2/18th Battalion in Malaya. During his captivity, Varley was given command of “A Force”, a work party that left Changi for Burma in May 1941. There Varley found himself in command of a prisoner of war workforce – some 9,000 strong – used by the Japanese to construct the Burma-Thailand Railway. He did the best he could in dismal circumstances to ensure better treatment of his men. Fellow officer Lieutenant Colonel Charles Anderson VC wrote of Varley’s “strong personality [and] his vigorous and fearless championship of the troops”. Varley’s eldest son, Jack, was also a distinguished soldier, who was awarded the Military Cross in Malaya. His youngest son, Robert, was killed in action in New Guinea in 1945.
Dr Lachlan Grant is a historian in the Military History Section of the Australian War Memorial. His forthcoming book, Australian Soldiers in Asia-Pacific in World War II, will published by NewSouth in November. He has also contributed a chapter on “hellships” for the publication Beyond surrender: Australian prisoners of war in the twentieth century, which will be published by Melbourne University Press in 2015.
Lachlan Grant, “They called them ‘Hellships’: prisoners at sea faced an uncertain future”, Wartime 63, July 2013, pp. 30–36.