By 1941, the Rising Sun had become symbolic of the Japanese resolve that would stop at nothing to expand the empire. Whoever stood in the path of the Imperial Japanese Army had only three choices: subjugation, death, or imprisonment. Throughout Asia, men from America, Australia, Great Britain, and a dozen other nations moved along their own path – a path that would soon cross with Japan’s and end in one of the major and largely unknown tragedies of World War II – the Hellships.
As early as the spring of 1942, only a few months after the fall of Allied territories in the Far East, the Japanese began moving prisoners of war (POW) by sea out of the conquered areas and sending them to Thailand, Taiwan, Burma, China, Korea, and Japan itself, to be used as slave labor.
A thousand or more men were crammed into a cargo hold, often with only enough room to stand for a journey that could last weeks. The heat was stifling, the stench unbearable. Even the most basic sanitary and medical provisions were refused. Hundreds of men, already weak and suffering from disease after years in POW camps, succumbed. Hundreds more went out of their minds.
Added to these inhumane conditions was the extreme brutality of the Japanese guards. Those who survived the unimaginable nightmare of the Hellships describe their time aboard as the most horrific chapter of their wartime captivity.
There are many stories of the war to be told, but very few are as tragic as the story of the Hellships. According to Japanese figures, of the 50,000 POWs they shipped, 10,800 died at sea. Going by Allied figures, more Americans died in the sinking of one of the Hellships, the Arisan Maru, than died in the weeks of the death march out of Bataan, or in the months at Camp O’Donnell, which were the two worst sustained atrocities committed by the Japanese against POWs. More Dutchmen died in the sinking of the Junyo Maru than in a year on the Burma-Siam railroad. Of all POWs who died in the Pacific war, one in every three was killed on the water by friendly fire.
One of the most notorious Hellships of them all, the Oryoku Maru, was sunk in Subic Bay in December 1944 . Transporting Japanese soldiers, civilians, and 1,619 prisoners of war out of Manila, the unmarked ship suffered repeated attacks from American fighters who had no idea she was carrying POWs. The ship, heavily damaged and burning, limped into Subic Bay where the POWs were forced to swim ashore and held on an open tennis court for five days with almost no food or water. The survivors were then loaded on trucks and taken to San Fernando to continue their journey on the Enoura Maru and the Brazil Maru. The Enoura Maru was sunk but the Brazil Maru made port in Moji, Japan on January 29, 1945 with only 500 of the original 1,619 POWs who began the ordeal a month and a half earlier. Less than 300 of these men survived until the end of the war.
In August of 2003, the idea was conceived of a Memorial dedicated to the Hellships POWs and t he Hellships Memorial Project was created to formulate plans. I met with Leslie Ann Murray of the Filipino-American Memorial Endowment (FAME), a subcommittee of the American Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines , and formed a relationship with them. FAME is best known for placing and maintaining the kilometer markers along the Bataan Death March, and their good work on Corregidor and other good sites.
A Groundbreaking ceremony was held in January 2004. Then SBMA Chairman Felicito Payumo was an early-on supporter of the Memorial and the Chairman, along with Hell Ships survivors John Olson and Carlos Montoya, shared the ritual honor of turning shovels of earth to mark the symbolic beginning of the Project.
The Hellships Memorial is dedicated to all the POWs on all the Hellships. As the inscription on the Memorial says, these heroes came from different homelands, different backgrounds, and different circumstances – but all were courageous and patriotic men whose lives were drastically altered and, in many cases, ended during their terrible journeys on the Hellships. More than half a century later, many of these men lie beneath no headstone or other marker, their bodies impossible to recover from their watery graves. This is the only Memorial many of these men will ever have.