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Japanese massacre surviving crew of SS Jean Nicolet

A Liberty ship similar to the SS Jean Nicolet with extra accommodation built on deck. Aerial photo of the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown outbound from the United States with a large deck cargo after her conversion into a "Limited Capacity Troopship."
A Liberty ship similar to the SS Jean Nicolet with extra accommodation built on deck. Aerial photo of the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown outbound from the United States with a large deck cargo after her conversion into a “Limited Capacity Troopship.”

The large Japanese submarine I-8 had been the only submarine to successfully complete the round the world trip to Germany and back in 1943. In 1944 she gained notoriety for her actions under the command of Tatsunosuke Ariizumi.

In March 1944 the surviving crew of the Dutch freighter SS Tjisalak were brought on to the deck of the I-8, and made to run a gauntlet of Japanese crew members who beat them and slashed at them with knives and bayonets, before being dumped in the water and left to die. On that occasion six men found a life raft and survived. There were no survivors from other ships sunk by I-8 during this period.

Then on 2nd July I-8 torpedoed the US Liberty ship the SS Jean Nicolet in the Indian Ocean. Amongst the 100 men on board was William Flury, an eighteen year old cook. After the torpedoing he managed to get into one of the ship’s boats. They were soon rowing away from the scene of the sinking:

The moon came up. A nice, big, yellow moon, you know, like you get in the tropics. It’s just like daylight. And we were manning the oars, and we heard a noise, which was the engines of the sub coming. And it was coming pretty fast, you know, and the mate says, “Put down your oars.” You know? And the sub glided up there. And there was an English-speaking Japanese on there, and they hollered at us to get aboard the submarine, you know? And no damned monkey-business, you know? And, so, I looked up there, and and there were machine guns trained on us, and pistols and everything. We didn’t have any weapons at all.

And I just I didn’t know what the hell to do, I felt really helpless, you know. You had to do what they said.

And so they took us, one at a time, and stripped our watches, shoes, and tied our hands with ropes and wires. And I noticed that they had already picked up some survivors. They were, back of the conning tower. Where we were on the boat was just about where the conning tower is, in the middle of the submarine, by then. And they were, took me, stripped me, took me and tied my hands behind my back, and set me up ahead of the conning tower, right under the deck guns on the sub. When they set us down on that deck, they told us to keep our heads bowed down. And, I looked up, kind-a, you know, to glance around, see what was going on. I didn’t notice that Japanese dude behind me. And he slammed me in the back of the head with something. And he grabbed me, by my front shirt, and started working on me with his right fist. And there was another that came over, and he started kicking me.

They had been taking men from up forward back behind the conning tower. Yelling and screaming, and all this.

And all of a sudden, I heard this hissing. You know, this air hissing. And, God, it dawned on me that they were going to submerge, you know? Which they did. And I started getting to my feet, which my legs were cramped, and I was having a time to, have, get up, and this big wall of water just come and hit me, and just slap me right against the back of the conning tower — or back of the front of the gun. And I kind of got hooked underneath that gun while it was going down, you know, the force of the water and everything. And finally, I kind of rolled to the side or something and got loose of whatever it was.

And then I kicked my way, I kicked my way up to the surface. This was a long ways, but I made it, and I got my nose up there, and, it seemed like a long ways, but I got up there. I had my hands tied behind me, still, and I was laying back, getting my nose up in the water and kicking, and trying not to inhale water. And I was treading water that way for quite some time. And it was pitch black at this time, and the only thing you could see was the ship, still floating and burning in the distance.

And I was trying to get my air, my breath, the best I could, and a fellow came up out of the dark. He heard me splashing, I guess, or something. Anyway, he came over and he asked me if I was untied. And I said, “No, I wasn’t,” and he untied me. So the both of us swam around, trying to find and release people. All that we could.

Oh, I heard screams all the time, throughout the night. The sharks were getting a lot of people. I swam for, oh, I don’t know, maybe an hour or so, and I run onto another guy, who is a navy personnel – an armed guard from the Nicolet. And we swam together, and he was getting cramps regularly through the night, and I would go over and hold him up and help him and drag him along, so he could rest a little bit, and things like that, throughout the night, all night long. Well, I personally didn’t get in contact with a shark, but a lot of the men did.

They took a heck of a toll. You could hear them screaming, screams all night. I thought about sharks. I still do. It’s a fear there, I’ll tell you, it’s a big one. You can’t see anything around you, and you know that they’re in the water with you. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent ‘em from taking you if they want ’em.

It was just pure luck that I got through, you know, the way I did. It was just absolute luck. I was all the time swimming towards the ship, it was burning in the distance, you know? It’s all I had — it’s all we had to swim for. I held this guy up when he had cramps, and we swam together through the night. And the sun came up, and the ship, the Jean Nicolet, was still burning. We were still swimming towards it, and later, I could see it going down. It went down bow first, and you could see the propeller. And it just went down. And it left me with a sense of loneliness and – way out there in the middle of the ocean.

When I’d get to the top of a swell, I would turn around and look around quick as I could, to see if I could see anything, you know? And I was doing that. And at one turn, like that, I thought I saw something, you know? So when the next swell lifted me up, I concentrated on that area over there, you know. And there was something over there. So I started, I changed course a little bit, and started swimming over towards this.

And as I got closer, every time, on the top of a swell, I finally saw that there was three, looked like three or four guys on a raft, You know, well, hey, man, this is good time! So I swam right over there and I told the navy guy there, you know, he’d seen it, too, and I said, “Well, looks like we got something over there.” And he just took right out, boy, like he was in a relay race all of a sudden, you know. I don’t know where the hell he got all his energy, you know, but he got it. I mean, he was — Anyway, I finally got to the raft, and it was, it was really neat.

I mean, it was a good sized raft. It was one that had barrels in it, with wooden top and bottom, so no matter which way it fell in the water, you could still get into the containers inside, see. And we had water in there, and food, and we even had some fishing gear – hook, and a, some pork rind for bait, and a canvas glove, you know, you could maybe use it for a hand-line, you know. Well, being on a, on a life raft after swimming all night is like a first rate hotel.

From the oral account of William Flury which can be heard at Smithsonian History, a full account of the whole incident can be found at Armed Guard. Around 23 men survived out of the 100 crew and passengers on the SS Jean Nicolet. The commander if I-8 Tatsunosuke Ariizumi was believed to have committed suicide at the end of the war, although some believe this incident was faked and he survived the post war years anonymously in Japan.

9 thoughts on “Japanese massacre surviving crew of SS Jean Nicolet”

  1. I agree with ccg. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese have never admitted their guilt.

  2. My grandfather was stationed aboard but got off the last time the ship stopped at shore. His brother was killed in a training accident, so he was given leave for the funeral.

  3. My uncle, Edward M. Sullivan was aboard the SS Jean Nicolet. He perished that day. I was born two years later and was named after him (my mother’s younger brother). The Japanese were ruthless cowards and received what they deserved in August of ’45.

  4. My friend, Robert Butler, was on, and survived the sinking of the Jean Nicolet.
    He is 97 at the time I write this, and lives in Shingletown CA.

  5. My mom’s cousin was on this ship. He left behind a wife and son. Thank you for shsring. A story not told enough.

  6. The vessel in the photo, SS JOHN W BROWN, was converted into a school ship for New York City after the war and thus survived the mass scrappings of the Maritime Administration in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. By then her historical importance was recognized, she was saved by enthusiasts, and still steams occasionally from Baltimore. A sister ship, SS JEREMIAH O’BRIEN, sails regularly in San Francisco Bay, and actually sailed to Normandy some years ago for the anniversary of D-Day.

  7. Unlike the Germans, the Japanese have never admitted their guilt.

  8. As I get older I understand more and more why my father, put to work on the Burma railroad, never bought anything japanese.

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