Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


U.S. POWs and U.S. Submarines

The signs of impending invasion were ominous as U.S. carrier-based aircraft ranged over the Philippines in early October 1944. With Manila and its crowded harbor being subjected to repeated bombing attacks, the Japanese were in desperate haste to move everything useful but not essential to the immediate protection of the islands-ships, material, and personnel-to places of greater safety within the shrinking inner defense perimeter of the Empire. Among the least essential of these assets were the thousands of American and Allied prisoners of war still being held in work camps and hospitals throughout the Philippines. Although they would be an obvious impediment to the defense of the islands, the prisoners could still be of value to the Japanese war effort in Manchuria or the homeland, whether as laborers in mines and factories, on farms, or simply as hostages whose presence might deter American bombers or amphibious assaults.

On 10 and l 1 October 1, 782 prisoners were hurriedly rounded up from the camp at Cabanatuan and from Bilibid prison in Manila and marched or carried to Pier 7, where they boarded ARISAN MARU, a Japanese cargo ship of 6,886 tons. Five hundred ninety-nine of the men were from a draft ordered to be shipped to Manchuria for unspecified service with the Kwantung Army; the other 1, 183 were mainly sick or wounded inmates of the camp and hospital. 1 About 100 of the group were civilians, including a few British, Dutch, and other nationals. There were also some Navy and Marine Corps men, but most were U.S. Army personnel who had been captured on Bataan or Corregidor in 1942. (One of the officers, Royal Gulden, was the brother of my next-door neighbor, which gave me a personal interest in this particular ship.)

Guarded by a detachment of 40 soldiers under a 2DCt Lieutenant Yamaji, the prisoners were crowded into two of the ship’s holds. The forward hold had not been prepared to accommodate passengers and still had a layer of coal at the bottom; nevertheless, about 600 prisoners were forced to cram themselves into the filthy space. The men in the after hold were packed into a compartment with three tiers of rough bunks spaced about three feet apart. It was grossly overcrowded and soon became almost as foul as the forward hold. Like other ships used by the Japanese to transport prisoners of war, ARISAN MARU quickly earned the name and well deserved reputation of hell ship.

As soon as the ship was loaded, it got underway on 11 October, but instead of setting course northward toward Formosa, it sought to evade the American aircraft by hiding among the small islands to the south, ultimately dropping anchor somewhere off the coast of Palawan. There it remained, becoming increasingly hot under the tropical sun, until the prisoners could not bear to touch the sides of the holds. In a futile effort to escape the stifling heat and humidity, most soon stripped themselves almost naked. None were allowed on deck except for about ten who were detailed to cook the prisoners’ daily rations of about two handfuls of rice per man, served with a little water almost too filthy to drink. During this period four unnamed prisoners died of unspecified illnesses. On 15 October, Major Robert B. Lothrop made a desperate attempt to escape but was recaptured and summarily shot, apparently as an object lesson to the rest of the prisoners. The bodies of the deceased were simply thrown overboard.

On 20 October, even as General Douglas MacArthur was leading American invasion forces ashore on the island of Leyte, ARISAN MARU returned to Manila, took on additional supplies and apparently some Japanese passengers, and departed late that evening in a hastily assembled convoy consisting of 12 ill-assorted ships and five escorts. Officially designated as Manila-Takao convoy MATA-30, it was commonly known as the Harukal.e convoy after its leading escort, a destroyer of that name. The ships were loaded with various combinations of cargo and passengers, but as far as is known no others were carrying prisoners of war.

The makeup of the escort force is revealing of the extent to which the Jap~ Navy had been reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel. HARUKAZE, of 1,400 tons, commissioned in 1923, was a survivor of one of the oldest classes of Japanese destroyers. The veteran warship had enjoyed a charmed life so far in the war. On 16 November 1942 it hit a mine near Surabaya and had its bow blown off, but was able to return to Kure after temporary repairs. There it was refitted with a new bow of simplified design and returned to service in 1943. KURET AKE, a second class destroyer of 900 tons, was even older. The newest of the escorts was TAKE, a 1,530 ton ship of the Matsu class, a war built type similar to the U.S. destroyer escorts. The only other regular warship was the 460 ton submarine chaser CH 20. The fifth escort was KURASAKI, originally the commercial OHA MARU, that had been taken into the navy as a refrigerated store ship and obviously was ill-fitted to guard a convoy.

The weather was stormy, blowing almost a typhoon, when the ships put to sea, and motion sickness soon added to the misery of the prisoners. Although the convoy’s designated speed was eight knots, it was actually limited by ARISAN MARU, which was capable of making only six or seven knots. Early on 23 October, when the convoy was about 180 miles west of Cape Bojeador near the northern tip of Luzon, the escorts picked up radio signals from U.S. submarines and put the lookouts on special alert. It was planned that when the convoy entered Luzon Strait, between the Philippine Islands and Formosa, the five fastest ships would pull ahead at their maximum speed, leaving the rest to follow as best they could.

Waiting in the area known to U.S. submariners as Convoy College were two wolfpacks. Banister’s Beagles was headed by Alan B. Banister in SA WFISH (SS 276) together with ICEFISH (SS 367) under Richard W. Peterson, DRUM (SS 228) commanded by Maurice H. Rindskopf, and SNOOK (SS 279) under George H. Browne. Blakely’s Behemoths, led by Edward N. Blakely in SHARK (SS 314), included SEADRAGON (SS 194) under James H. Ashley, Jr. At 1730 on 23 October SAWFISH drew first blood in a periscope attack, putting one of five torpedoes into the port side of No. 7 hold of KIMIKA WA MARU, a 6,863 ton converted aircraft tender. Having been torpedoed on 8 October by BECUNA (SS 319), the damaged ship was unable to make full speed and was being returned to Japan for repairs, carrying a mixed cargo of crude oil, bauxite (aluminum ore), and aviation gasoline together with 300 Japanese passengers. “Abandon ship”, was immediately ordered and some lifeboats were lowered, but the ship went down in two and a half minutes, taking 24 crewmen and 81 passengers with it.

Shortly after midnight on the 24’h, ICEFISH in a submerged attack using sonar bearings fired six torpedoes at the 5,878 ton freighter SHINSEI MARU #1. Only one hit, a dud that failed to explode. However, it punched a hole in the ship’s side, requiring it to slow down to make emergency repairs and leaving it vulnerable to further attack later.

About ten minutes later the passenger-cargo ship KOKURYU MARU, 7,’369 tons, was struck on the starboard side in No. 2 hold and the engine room by two of five torpedoes fired by SNOOK in a surface attack. In about 30 minutes the stricken ship rolled over and sank. Of 1,357 passengers on board, apparently all Japanese nationals, 324 lost their lives along with 68 members of the crew. A few survivors reached shore on rafts and 47 others drifted in lifeboats for five days before being picked up by ships in another convoy.

The convoy now broke completely apart in confusion as the remaining ships scattered in various directions, but at about 0315 SNOOK, in another surface attack, fired three torpedoes at each of two ships, one of which was missed while the other became the submarine’s second victim. The first hit on KIKUSUI MARU, a smallish 3,887 ton oil tanker, was a dud but two more struck the starboard side in the bow and boiler room, causing the ship to catch fire and sink stern first with the loss of about 12 crewmen. The rest escaped in boats and were rescued five hours later.

Next to be hit was TENSHIN MARU, a 4,236 ton cargo ship loaded with 6,250 tons of bauxite, also torpedoed by SNOOK at 0605 in a twilight attack on the surface. Two hits on the port side in No. 2 hold caused the heavily laden freighter to break in two forward of the bridge and go under in two minutes, taking 52 of the crew to their deaths. Only ten were saved at the time, while a few others were picked up several days later.

At about 0800 the people on SHIKISAN MARU spotted five torpedo tracks coming in from the port side. Efforts to dodge the missiles were futile; three hit in No. 3 hold, under the bridge, and in No. 4 hold, completely smashing the 4,725 ton freighter, which was carrying a full load-3,300 tons of manganese ore, 3,000 tons of raw rubber, and 1,500 tons of general cargo. The ship went down in less than two minutes, with the loss of 15 men. The killer this time was DRUM, which fired four torpedoes in a periscope attack. The hapless HARUKAZE sighted a submarine heading in the opposite direction at this time, but was not able to make a counterattack.

Some three hours later, SEADRAGON, in a submerged periscope approach from starboard, fired four torpedoes at TAITEN MARU. Two missed ahead but the others hit at the engine room and No. 4 hold, causing an explosion and fire. The ship, a 4,642 ton naval auxiliary, started to sink and was quickly abandoned by all except five of the crew who were killed.

Shortly after noon the previously damaged SHINSEI MARU #1 was also caught by SEADRAGON and hit in No. 3 hold by one of four torpedoes fired. The freighter went down in approximately three minutes. Thirteen of the crew and about half of the passengers were killed; 100 or so survivors were picked up by EIKO MARU, but that unlikely vessel was soon hit in the port bow by another salvo from SEADRAGON. The ship, a smaJl freighter of 1,847 tons, stayed afloat for about ten minutes and onJy one crewman was lost. OnJy three ships of the ill-fated convoy-RYOFU MARU, TOYO MARU #3, and EIKAI MARU-escaped to reach Takao on 26 October.

But what of A.RISAN MARU? Lagging ever farther behind the rest of the convoy, the prison ship kept plodding along through the heavy swells. At about 1730 on 24 October the sky was starting to darken and the cooks delegated from among the prisoners were preparing rice for the evening meal when two or possibly three torpedoes struck the starboard side. One hit in No. 3 hold, which was empty, and another destroyed the steering gear. The stricken ship immediately stopped, appeared to buckle amidships, and began to settle by the stem. The Japanese closed the hatches over the prisoners and hastily abandoned ship, taking the only two lifeboats, which were inadequate to hold everyone. The rest went into the water and were picked up by the escorts. Japanese postwar accounts state that 27 passengers and 15 crew members lost their lives, while 347 (presumably their own people) were rescued by the destroyers and taken to Takao. These records make no mention of the prisoners and fail to explain what happened to them.

Their story first came to light when five survivors-Captain Don E. Meyer, Lieutenant Robert S. Overbeck, Sergeant Calvin R. Graef, Sergeant Avery E. Wilbur, and Corporal Anton E. Cichi-were recovered and brought back to the United States in December 1944 and their harrowing tale was published a few weeks later. 5 Before abandoning ship, the guards cut the ropes leading into the forward hold, thus depriving those captives of their only means of escape. The trapped men started to panic, but were calmed down by several chaplains who were among the prisoners. After about 30 minutes, prisoners in the after hold saw that the guards had left. Forcing the hatches open, they made their way up to the deck and threw the ropes back down to the men who were trapped forward. Some of the prisoners found life jackets and immediately jumped into the water despite the ten foot swells, expecting to be picked up by the nearby destroyers. Instead, the Japanese crews beat off those who tried to climb aboard and pushed others away from the ships’ sides. Seeing that rescue was hopeless, many of the swimmers gave up and drifted off. Other prisoners seized the opportunity to ransack the galley and storerooms for food, water, and cigarettes. Several hundred simply settled down and resigned themselves to go down with the ship.

Lieutenant Overbeck was one of those who tried to climb aboard a destroyer only to be clubbed and driven back into the water. Along with about 35 other men he started to swim toward one of the partially swamped lifeboats, which the Japanese had abandoned after throwing its oars, sails, and emergency provisions overboard. The wind kept blowing the drifting boat out of reach of the prisoners until only Overbeck, an unusually strong swimmer, was able to catch up to it. During the night a floating box happened to drift alongside that miraculously contained a boat’s sail, which Overbeck seized before the box was carried away again. Still later Wilbur and then Cichi drifted by on bits of wreckage and were pulled into the boat. Early the next morning they picked up Meyer and Graef. The exhausted men played dead to avoid the attentions of a searching Japanese destroyer, then rigged up the lifeboat’s mast and headed toward the Chinese coast. After two days they encountered some friendly fishermen, who fed them and brought them to a port that was not occupied by the enemy. From there they were smuggled through the Japanese lines to Free China and eventually returned to the United States.

Two other survivors added their bits to the story after the war. Philip Brodsky, a sergeant in the Medical Corps, and Glen Oliver encountered each other while clinging to floating wreckage. Later they found some rafts, on which they drifted for four days before being picked up by a passing convoy and taken to Takao. Until these men were repatriated following the Japanese surrender, it was believed that only five prisoners had survived from ARISAN MARU.

It is not clear whether any prisoners were killed when the torpedoes hit; several of the survivors were sure that no one in either hold died in the initiaJ explosion. Although abandoned by the Japanese, the ship remained afloat for over two hours, during which time many prisoners are known to have gotten into the water. Except for the seven known survivors, the rest of the prisoners must have drowned, succumbed to exposure and exhaustion, or gone down with the ship.

What is certain from the reports of the survivors is that there was no struggling or fighting among the prisoners. Many were too tired and weak to care what happened to them. Others were resigned to death and viewed it as relief from many months of misery. Two of the survivors had been on the Bataan Death March and said that the voyage on the prison ship was even worse than that ordeal. The prayers and caJming presence of the chaplains undoubtedly brought a measure of peace to many as they faced their end bravely and quietly.

There is a poignant sequel to the tragedy of the Hell ship ARISAN MARU. Late on the afternoon of 24 October SEADRAGON received a radio m~age from Commander Blakely of SHARK reporting that he had radar contact on a single freighter and was going in for the attack. Nothing further was heard, repeated efforts to contact the boat were futile, and in due course SHARK and her crew of 87 were given up for lost. Based on the limited information available at the time, the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee credited SNOOK as probably responsible for sinking the prison ship. After the war it was reveaJed that the Japanese destroyers HARUKAZE and TAKE had depth charged a submerged submarine on 24 October and brought up “bubbles, and heavy oil, clothes, cork, etc.”6 This was accepted as the most likely explanation for the loss of SHARK, but it appeared that the fatal attack had taken place well before ARISAN MARU was torpedoed. More recent records indicate that HARUKAZE made two attacks on 24 October, dropping 17 depth charges each time. The second attack was made at 1742, shortly after ARISAN MARU was torpedoed. None of the other submarines present fired torpedoes at that time, so credit must go to SHARK. Some analysts have speculated that Commander Blakely may have recognized that American prisoners were among the men in the water, and risked exposing the submarine’s presence to the Japanese destroyers in the hope of rescuing some of them. Like the lost prisoners of ARISAN MARU, SHARK and her gallant. Crew are at rest somewhere under the South China Sea, but the exact circumstances of their deaths will always remain a mystery.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League