These two books by the son of a submarine veteran contain much of interest to readers of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW. By venue of extensive research in archival records, accounts of former POW s, and interviews with survivors, Michno has compiled an appalling history of Japan’s mistreatment of prisoners of war on the notorious hell ships that transposed thousands of them throughout the Pacific. Of some 126,000 captives who sailed on these ships (all that can be verified from incomplete records), over 21,000 died. Of these deaths, about 93 percent were caused by friendly fire, i.e., U.S . and Allied submarine and air attacks.
The author was drawn into this area of study because his father, Frank B. Michno, served as a Motor Machinist’s Mate on PAMPANITO (SS 383) during the war. What started as a memoir of his father’s career expanded into a history of the submarine and its crew, and ultimately into the broader subject of the Japanese POW transports. To Michno, what most distinguished PAMPANITO from other wartime boats was the fact that it “rescued more men at sea than any other American submarine.” These men were prisoners of war who had been incarcerated on RAKUYO MARU, one of the victims of an attack on convoy HI-72 by a wolf pack consisting of PAMPANITO, GROWLER (SS 215), and SEALION (SS 315), during which hundreds of less fortunate POW s met their deaths.
Michno notes that a few U.S . intelligence personnel often were aware from decrypted Japanese messages exactly which ships in the convoys were carrying POWs but for security reasons were forbidden to pass such information to the submarines on patrol. Even if skippers had been made aware that their own countrymen were in jeopardy, the author acknowledges that it would have been impossible for them to single out these ships and avoid torpedoing them without letting entire convoys escape untouched.
Although survivors almost unanimously described the hell ships as ancient rust-buckets or worse, the prisoner transports actually seem to have been typical examples of the Japanese wartime merchant fleet. In fact, the crowded holds filled with makeshift tiers of wooden shelves were probably the same accommodations normally provided for Japanese soldiers and refugees, who often occupied other compartments on the same ships as the POWs. However, the already weakened and sick prisoners were clearly the victims of terrible neglect, denied access to fresh air or sanitary facilities, provided with wretched food and insufficient or polluted water, and too often subjected to sadistic abuse from their captors. Under the circumstances, it was remarkable that any prisoners at all were able to survive the sinkings long enough to be rescued by our submarines.
The book will sell for $75. The Submarine Force Library and Museum Association is planning to offer an early release copy of the book/or a charitable donation of $100 or more. In addition to the book and a substantial tax deduction, the donor will receive a one-year membership in the Association. Among other benefits, Association members receive a JO percent discount on Museum Store purchases. Donation orders will be taken once the book is printed, probably in March of 2002. You will be kept informed.