Thursday 11 September 2014 by Lachlan Grant. 3 comments
Opinion, views and commentary, Second World War, Rakuyō Maru, Kachidoki Maru, Prisoners of war

Former Australian prisoners of war are rescued by the crew of USN submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383). These men survived the sinking of two Japanese troop transports, the Kachidoki Maru and the Rakuyo Maru by Pampanito and USS Sealion II (SS-315) on 12 September 1944 respectively. Former Australian prisoners of war are rescued by the crew of USN submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383). These men survived the sinking of two Japanese troop transports, the Kachidoki Maru and the Rakuyo Maru by Pampanito and USS Sealion II (SS-315) on 12 September 1944 respectively. P03651.005

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).

Two survivors of the sinking of two Japanese prisoner of war transports, are rescued from the sea by crew members probably of the USN submarine USS Sealion II (SS-315). Covered in oil and clinging to a makeshift raft, they drifted in the sea for several days after the sinking of the Kachidoki Maru and the Rakuyo Maru on 12 September 1944 by the US Navy submarines USS Pampanito (SS-383) and the USS Sealion II (SS-315) respectively. These two men joined the other Australian and British survivors rescued by USN submarines who were all eventually landed at Saipan in late September 1944 and then repatriated to Australia. Two survivors of the sinking of two Japanese prisoner of war transports, are rescued from the sea by crew members probably of the USN submarine USS Sealion II (SS-315). Covered in oil and clinging to a makeshift raft, they drifted in the sea for several days after the sinking of the Kachidoki Maru and the Rakuyo Maru on 12 September 1944 by the US Navy submarines USS Pampanito (SS-383) and the USS Sealion II (SS-315) respectively. These two men joined the other Australian and British survivors rescued by USN submarines who were all eventually landed at Saipan in late September 1944 and then repatriated to Australia. P02018.326

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.

Former Australian prisoners of war are rescued by the crew of USN submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383). These men survived the sinking of two Japanese troop transports, the Kachidoki Maru and the Rakuyo Maru by Pampanito and USS Sealion II (SS-315) on 12 September 1944 respectively. Former Australian prisoners of war are rescued by the crew of USN submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383). These men survived the sinking of two Japanese troop transports, the Kachidoki Maru and the Rakuyo Maru by Pampanito and USS Sealion II (SS-315) on 12 September 1944 respectively. P03651.006

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.

SYDNEY, NSW. 5 FEBRUARY 1941. LIEUTENANT COLONEL A. L. VARLEY, OFFICER COMMANDING 2/18TH INFANTRY BATTALION, WAITING TO BE FERRIED TO HIS ASSIGNED SHIP, WHICH WILL TRANSPORT HIM AND HIS TROOPS TO MALAYA. SYDNEY, NSW. 5 FEBRUARY 1941. LIEUTENANT COLONEL A. L. VARLEY, OFFICER COMMANDING 2/18TH INFANTRY BATTALION, WAITING TO BE FERRIED TO HIS ASSIGNED SHIP, WHICH WILL TRANSPORT HIM AND HIS TROOPS TO MALAYA. 005515

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.

Further reading:

Lachlan Grant, “They called them ‘Hellships’: prisoners at sea faced an uncertain future”, Wartime 63, July 2013, pp. 30–36.

Comments

Patricia Varley

Australia lost a 'man of the people' : a leader who cared for his men. The Brig, gave his men spirit and hope. His strength was passed onto his son Jack (my father) who despite his torments went to his grave fighting for recognition for the POW's; his words: "we were soldiers before we were POWs...but we remain known as POWs!". Rest in peace.

Indrajeet Ghosh

I am looking for details of my grandfather Major Sushil Kumar Ghosh of the British Indian Army (trained at Sandhurst) who escaped a Japanese POW camp (after the Fall of Singapore 1942) and reportedly got on to a ship along with other British POWs travelling to the East Indies , but en route a Japanese torpedo sunk the ship but there were reports of him swimming to an island, but the family never got any further traces of him.

Peter Scott

This is a note of thanks to Lachlan Grant for his coverage of the hellships. I am almost finished writing the story of my Dad and his mates from the 2/6th Field Company RAE, POW in Java, Roberts Hospital Barracks Changi, Burma, Thailand, Saigon and Japan (Omuta Camp 17 near Nagasaki). They were on their way to Burma on the Moji Maru which, together with the Nichimei Maru, was bombed by the UASF with loss of life. His last voyage Singapore to Japan was on the Awa Maru. The AWM does great work in honouring the service of our men and women who served during wartime, and I am particularly grateful for coverage given to the suffering of the POWs. "Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it." Pericles 495-429 BC