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The hell of a Japanese prison ship

The Notu Maru, one of the Japanese freighters used as prison ships, otherwise known as the ‘Hell Ships’.
On the 29th October 1942 Arthur Titherington found himself somewhere in the South China Sea, destination unknown. He had been captured at Singapore and was now amongst the thousands of Prisoners of War who were being despatched to a variety of locations around the south east Asia to work for the Japanese.

On the 25th October, at the Singapore dockside, he and around a thousand other PoWs had been loaded aboard the England Maru, an old freighter with the most basic facilities. They were to spend most of the journey in the bare hold:

We were not allowed on deck until the ship was well out to sea, and then only for 15 minutes. This was the routine during the next few weeks, just a quarter of an hour each day in the fresh air, the rest of the day being spent consigned to the stinking holds below.

Part of this small but invaluable daily break on deck could be used to visit the very primitive toilets, nothing more than a large box arrangement with a hole in the base, the whole thing being suspended over the side ofthe ship. Without a doubt it was the most frightening method of going to the toilet imaginable; certainly nothing in my life had ever equipped me for such an experience.

The alternative facilities were buckets in each hold. When the bucket required emptying it had to be lifted out ofthe hold on the end of a rope. One unsteady pull meant, at best, that the contents were deposited on the floor of the hold. A panic-stricken spell in the box hanging over the side of the ship was preferable to a floor where we lived that was strewn with faeces.

For the next few days the ship battered its way through the South China Sea, pitching and rolling in a most alarming way. We listened to the ancient plates and timbers creaking around us and, at times, mused on the irony that this vessel in which we were travelling to an unknown destination had been built, many years before, on the banks of the Clyde.

At times the stench was almost overpowering, and to add to the general misery more and more men were going down with dysentery.

It was during this voyage I really learned to overcome any squeamishness I might still have had. With my shoulder against a bulkhead, and one leg braced against an upright to counter the rolling of the ship, I sat eating one of our twice daily portions of boiled rice, while at the same time watching a man who was obviously in the throes of dysentery.

With his backside on a latrine bucket he was vomiting from his other end into a container, and quite often missing it. With the next roll of the ship he pitched forward, spilling the contents of both containers, and went crashing down on the deck. I put down my rice, wiped up the spillage as best as I could, helped him back onto the bucket and returned to my meal. My sensibilities had been brought to a point of complete numbness.

The paucity of the rations took on a new dimension on board ship but in a sense the obsession over food began to lessen; there were now other problems to concern ourselves with: illness, sea sickness and the future.

I was, at the time, like other men to whom I spoke, prepared to accept the acute shortage of food as a temporary situation. There were, after all, over 1,000 prisoners on board plus a hundred japanese troops, and the ship’s crew. It was a small vessel and rations were bound to be scarce. The problem, I reasoned, would end when we arrived at our destination.

The one thing that never entered my head was that our future was to be one of sheer starvation, in far too many cases resulting in death.

See Arthur Titherington: Kinkaseki: One Day at a Time

Arthur Titherington died in 2010, see Telegraph obituary, having spent the greater part of his life trying to get some form of justice from the Japanese for their treatment of Prisoners of War.

In his memoir Titherington recalls that he was actually quite lucky on the England Maru. Many other Japanese prisoner transports, being unmarked enemy vessels, were torpedoed. The [permalink id=20697 text=”Montevideo Maru”] was the first but there were many others and Arthur Titherington wanted to ensure that these ships, sometimes known as the ‘Hell Ships’, were not forgotten:

Monteviedo Maru. Sunk by submarine 1 July 1942. Total number of prisoners on board 1,053.
No survivors.

Kachidoki Maru. Torpedoed by aircraft 12 September 1942. Total number of prisoners on board 950. Missing or dead 435.

Tyofuku Maru. Sunk by aircraft 21 September 1942. Total number of prisoners on board 1,287. Missing or dead 907.

Lisbon Maru. Sunk by submarine 2 October 1942. Total number of prisoners on board 1,816. Missing or dead 839.

Nichimei Maru. Sunk by submarine 15 January 1943. Total number of prisoners on board 548.
No survivors

Suez Maru. Sunk by torpedo 29 September 1943. Total number of prisoners on board 548.
No survivors.

Tamabuko Maru. Sunk by torpedo 24 June 1944. Total number of prisoners on board 772. Missing or dead 560.

Haragiku Maru. Sunk by torpedo 26 June 1944. Total number of prisoners on board 720, Missing or dead 177.

Rakuyo Maru. Sunk by torpedo 12 September 1944. Total number of prisoners on board 1,214. Missing or dead 1,179.

Shinyu Maru. Sunk by submarine 17 September 1944. Total number of prisoners 750.
No survivors.

Unya Maru. Sunk by submarine 18 September 1944. Total number of prisoners on board 2,200. Missing or dead 1,477.

Arizan Maru. Sunk by torpedo 24 October 1944. Total number ofprisoners on board 1,782. Missing or dead 1,778.

Oryoku Maru; Enoura Maru; Brazil Maru. Torpedoed by aircraft 9 January 1945. Total number of prisoners on board the three ships 1,620. Missing or dead 1,060.

10 thoughts on “The hell of a Japanese prison ship”

  1. My father Percy Tuppen was on this ship and later transferred to Omine in Japan . I have the book that he was sent from an Australian who was also a P O W until the end of the war

  2. Hello,
    Does anyone have any information on my uncle- Edwin L. Christensen of Loma Montana who died on the sinking of the Shinyo Maru on 9-7-1944? He was also a prisoner of POW Camp #2-Davao, Mindanano. Please feel free to contact me.
    Bonnie Peterson

  3. I think that School children should be taught more American History and understand what our military endured for our freedom.
    I.m 80 years old and my family has been in some terrible battles and endured some horrific circumstances When I try to explain that my grandfather and his brother were imprisoned at Andersonville they have no idea what I mean. I had a cousin that endured the Oryok Maru voyage, No one ever heard of the hell ships.
    I was watching tv about Pearl harbor. They mentioned that Roosevelt called them Japs. It was politically incorrect I’m sure at the time that was a very mild thing to call them. .

  4. My step grandfather, Dick Leff, survived the Bataan death match only to die in one of those, sunk by an American ship because it was unmarked.
    His friend survived by swimming through the hole in the ship caused by the torpedo. He made it back home and went to Illinois to meet Dicks folks and tell them what happened in person. My dad listened to that conversation through the floor grate in his bedroom on the second floor.

  5. I am 80 years old born in 1937. At the end of the war, I was visiting my grandparents the day of a closed casket funeral of my Uncle Dick, a Jap POW who died after his Death Ship was torpedoed by a U.S. Sub. A fellow POW who knew my uncle sat in their living room telling my grandparents about their son. Uncle Dick’s friend had escaped by swimming out through the torpedo hole and was picked up by the sub.

  6. Some additional information about the Nichimei Maru on which my great-uncle was transported to Moulmein. 2 months after his arrival he died in Thanbyuzayat. On board Nichimei Maru were 1000 POW all Dutch. Because the POW suffered no direct hits and because all of them wore a life-vests, only 37 man were lost at sea in the Gulf of Martaban. Later on board of te Moji Maru and in Moulmein 11 man died of their injuries. The death toll on the Moji Maru was 6 man (5 Australians, 1 Dutch) making the total death count 54. You can find the list of names as an appendix in a story (in dutch) that is published on: https://oorlogsgravenstichting.nl/persoon/5873/jacob-den-bakker .

  7. this is an amazing fact and if this were to happen to me I wouldn’t know what to do next so really just imagen what they felt like o my gosh

  8. My genealogy research revealed that one of my ancestors was a US POW of the Japanese during WWII. He was on board a prisoner exchange ship and lost at sea when a Japanese submarine sank the exchange ship. Does anyone on this blog know which prisoner exchange ships were sunk by Japanese submarines?

  9. My father was taken aboard such a ship in september (18th or 19th) of 1944 after 10 days at an interrogation camp. Destination was Ofuna POW camp. He was an officer and therefore seperated from his crew. He was held for the four day journey alone in a cell in the hull of the ship. I am writing a book about his experiences and want to find info about the layout of such a freighter. How large was the hole in which he was held? The likely name of the ship, etc. came across this page and hoped someone here could lead me to the info I need. Thanks.

  10. Nichimei Maru was sunk by aircraft 15 January 1943 in the Andaman Sea. The aircraft were B24s operating out of India. There were 3 ships in a convoy taking Allied POWs to Moulmein, Burma for work on the “Death Railway.” My father was an American POW from the 2nd Bn, 131st F.A. captured on Java in March 1942. He was on deck of his Hell Ship, the “Moji Maru” when he spotted the planes. He saw the bomb go right down the smokestack, and it broke in half as it sank. There were some survivors – some Jap and a few Dutch POWs. I can provide more detail if interested. mark clark, son of A.B. Clark, USA.

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