Colonel Saito and Major Surgana, Japanese Anny Engineering Corps, were two builders of the most notorious railroad ever constructed under monstrous and primitive conditions. This 265 mile rail link ran through the jungles and mountains of Thailand, Bunna. The labor was supplied by 61,000 impressed allied prisoners of war and 250,000 Asian coolies. After two years, the death toll suffered by the laborers was astronomical. The final death toll was 16,000 allied prisoners and 90,000 Asians. They had perished from malnutrition, disease, and savage atrocities.
Colonel Saito held in his hand a message from Tokyo, ordering him to send 10,000 of his ablest Allied PO W’s to Japan. They were to work the mines and munitions factories.
From Camp Tamarkan on the River Kwai, the first segment of 2,250 men was selected. They were known as the Japan Party. Lt. Yamada, a Japanese officer, led them 900 miles south to Saigon.
When they arrived at Saigon, no ship’s captain would accept the responsibility of carrying such a large human cargo into harms way. Lt. Yamada spent two months trying to acquire passage for the prisoners but was unsuccessful. He and the prisoners were ordered back to Camp Tamarkan.
Two days after their arrival at Camp Tamarkan they were ordered to move south along the Malayan Peninsula. This time their destination was the island port of Singapore 1,400 miles away. Passage had been guaranteed on two passenger cargo ships.
The prisoners were packed into old, run down iron cattle cars. After two weeks of rail travel, under appalling conditions the Japan Party arrived at Singapore on September 4th. Thirty-two men had perished during the trip. The remaining 2,218 men were divided into two groups and placed in the ships cargo holds. The cargo holds offered no ventilation or proper sanitary facilities. The two Hell Ships as they were known, were part of a 16 ship convoy, plus destroyer escorts.
On the morning of September 5, 1944 the ships slipped their moorings and got underway. Seven days later, on September 12th two U.S. Submarines, USS PAMPANITO (SS383) and USS SEA LION II (SS3 l 5), torpedoed the two cargo ships.
The following stories were from interviews with survivors and recorded aboard the USS PAMPANITO. They related the prisoner atrocities during captivity and how it felt to be torpedoed and survive being in the water for five days.
At 0200 hours, September 12, 1944, the Japanese cargo ship, RAKUYO MARU, took torpedo hits to the how and her amidships. The survivors later recalled the torpedo hits sounded like dull thuds, causing the ship to violently shake and forcing the bow to plunge down. A large wave swept over the bow, washing many men overboard and injuring numerous others. POW’s Bill Cray and Harry Weigand said it was a frightening experience. They said the Japanese crew went completely berserk after being torpedoed. The Japanese took all lifeboats and rafts and kept the prisoners at bay threatening them with guns.
The prisoners began throwing overboard anything that would float. Loose lumber, furniture and heavy hatch planks were some of the items thrown overboard. The falling debris killed many men in the water.
About an hour after the attack the prisoners in the water ob-served the ship settling very slowly. In fact she took 12 hours to sink. Hundreds of men made their way back aboard the sinking ship. Prisoners Sam Whiley and Andy Nobbs said they went to the ship’s galley eating and drinking everything in sight. Many men filled their canteens with water and made packages of food.
Prisoners Arthur Wright and Frank Lawrence made it back aboard one hour before the ship sank. They found new dry clothes, cigarettes and assorted cans of fish. Prisoner Cliff Farlow described the RAKUYO MARU as sinking very slowly by the bow. He said the ship made a lot of hissing air noises with a lot of foaming bubbles. The dangerous suction that usually accompanies a sinking ship wasn’t that bad.
Inhumanity at Sea
POW Max Cambell related a heart-wrenching scene. He said just after the RAKUYO MARU sank a Japanese naval frigate and small freighter appeared. They proceeded to rescue only the Japanese survivors. The frigate’s seamen threatened the POW’s with small arms, keeping them away from the ships. Some were shot.
The POW’s had taken over the empty rafts and damaged life boats. They watched in shock and horror as the ships departed. No POW’s were known to have been rescued by the Japanese. Approximately 1, 100 were lost to the sea.
Approximately 150 miles away and twenty hours after the RAKYUO MARU sinking, USS PAMPANITO moved in to attack the convoy. At 2200 hours, 12 September 1944, PAMPANITO fired nine torpedoes at the convoy. Seven found their targets. Unknown to PAMPANITO’ s crew, one of the four ships struck was the KACHIDOKI MARU, a large ocean liner hell ship. She received three torpedo hits. Post war records revealed she sank within 20 minutes.
PAMPANITO evaded shellfire from the destroyer escorts, but received a damaging near miss from an aircraft bomb. By dawn, the following day, PAMPANITO had caught up to the remaining ships of convoy, approximately 150 miles from the first attack. She submerged ahead of the approaching ships. As the convoy came within range, PAMPANITO fired a spread of three torpedoes, timing one hit. Sonar reported hearing noises of a ship breaking up.
The entire day, PAMPANITO received a vicious and relent-less depth charge attack from the escorts. By night, she surfaced and continued to patrol south along the China coast. On the fifth day, she was back in the area where the RAKUYO MARU had been attacked.
It was late afternoon when PAMPANITO came upon a large crude oil debris field, littered with flotsam and human bodies. The lookouts spotted groups of men, covered with oil, floating on makeshift rafts. It soon became apparent these men were allied survivors from the sunken hell ship. Rescue operations immediately began. A radio broadcast was sent to any submarines, within range, to assist in the rescue.
Three submarines came to assist PAMPANITO, that day. 73 survivors were rescued by PAMPANITO and another 86 by assisting submarines. The rescued survivors were taken to Siapan. Seven died en route and were buried at sea. The remaining 152 were delivered to the Anny’s 1481h General Hospital, Siapan.
The rescued survivors reported there was another hell ship. Her name was the KACHIDOKI MARV. This was one of the ships sunk by PAMPANITO just before midnight, 12 September 1944. It was further learned the KACHADOKI MARU had approximately 1,000 allied POW’s and more than 1,000 civilians and wounded Japanese soldiers on board. The mystery was what happened to all those people?
Admiral Nimitz, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, later greeted the survivors at Pearl Harbor. He said the convoy attack was one of the war’s greatest sea disasters in history. He also said the hell ships could have received permission to sail unmolested. However, the Japanese greed to ship war material prevailed.
Information provided by POW’s proved beyond a doubt that atrocities were being committed. A warning was sent to Japan stating atrocities were a war crime and would be dealt with by the military courts. Unknown to military intelligence, the POW’s provided the locations of several large steel bridges crossing the River Kwai.
The mystery of the KACHIDOKI MARU is revealed
Five days after the hostilities ended an advanced Marine scouting party liberated emaciated allied prisoners at a prison camp in Northern Japan. The prisoners reported they were the survivors from the KACHIDOKI MARV, torpedoed in September 1944. They identified their group as the Japan Party.
The following post war statements were from the Prisoners of War themselves, thus clearing the mystery of the KACHIDOKI MARU’s sinking. Many of the prisoners recalled they couldn’t help notice the large brass ship’s bell, engraved with the name SS President Harrison, when they boarded her in Singapore. At that time, of course, these English and Australian prisoners had no way of knowing the KACHIDOKI MARU was a captured American vessel.
POW’s Ray Stack and Ralph Clifton, revealed what happened to the people on board the KACHIDOKI MARU after PAMPANITO sank her. They reported the KIBIBI MARU, a 20,000-ton whale factory ship, had taken aboard all the survivors from the convoy’s sunken ships. They verified three torpedoes had struck the KACHIDOKI MARU and she swiftly sank. They said, after the sinking, a small freighter and two CHIDORIS arrived the next morning from Hianan Island to begin rescue operations. A Chidori is a Japanese patrol boat that carries many depth charges. All the survivors were transferred to the whale ship. It took on more than one thousand civilians, three hundred Japanese naval personnel from the sunken destroyer and frigate, and 656 allied prisoners of war. It was estimated more than 350 POW’s, all the wounded Japanese soldiers, and hundreds of civilians, perished when the KACHIDOKI MARU sank. The whale ship left Sangi Harbor, located on the east coast of Hainan, with her human cargo, on September 15, 1944. It arrived safely in Japan on September 28, 1944.
When the 656 prisoners of war disembarked in Japan, they were disgracefully exhibited to the crowds that had lined the streets of Yokohoma. They were made to march in bare feet and rag like clothing. It took an entire day to reach their destination, a prison camp located outside Yokohoma known as Kawasaki.
Prisoners Roger Curtis and Henry Sherwood said they experienced more hardships during the winter of 1944. It was one of Japan’s coldest winters ever recorded. Twenty men of the Japan Party died from starvation and freezing cold. At night, temperatures decreased to agonizing numbers. The dead were laid in rows because the frozen earth prevented them from being buried. The need for extra clothing was critical. The dead were stripped and their clothing used by the surviving prisoners. The insensitivity to the dignity of the dead was unthinkable, but there was no other choice. Survival was the utmost of importance. The prisoners knew they had to keep from freezing. Every scrap of clothing helped them live on.
In January 1945, the Kawasaki Camp and nearby town were completely destroyed by incendiary bombs dropped from allied 829 bombers. The prisoners were moved to another prison camp, several hundred miles away, in the city of Aomori, located in Northern Honshu. They were put to work in a munitions factory adjacent to the camp.
One month before the hostilities ended the B29’s bombed Aomori and the munitions factory. The area was completely leveled. Unfortunately, the prison camp received several direct hits, resulting in the deaths of 30 more prisoners. The prison guards fled during the bombings and the prisoners were left to fend for themselves. They had nowhere to go, so they made makeshift shelters from the rubble.
On 7 September 1945, five days after the war with Japan ceased; the men heard motorized vehicles approaching their shelters. It was an advanced U.S. Marine scouting party. The Marines couldn’t believe the ragged skeleton-like men they had encountered. The prisoners infonned the Marines they were the 606 sole survivors of a group known as the Japan Party. The Marines gave the men rations and instructed them to stay put, because war had ended. Within hours, more food and medical supplies were air dropped. A few days later, the survivors were air lifted to the USS RESCUE, a hospital ship stationed off shore.
Of the original 2,250 Japan Party prisoners, only 758 sur-vived. This included 152 prisoners rescued by American submarines and 606 liberated by U.S. Marines.
Admiral Lockwood, Commander Submarine Force, Pacific Fleet, later said the submarine actions during September 1944 were the most successful coordinated submarine attacks of the Pacific War to date. Damage inflicted on the Japanese Merchant Marine was awesome. It involved the sinking of four tankers, five freighters, two ocean liners, four warships, and four probable. War ships sunk were the UNYO, an Escort Carrier, SHIKlNAMI, a new destroyer, HARADO, a minelayer, and an unknown frigate. Special accolades were given to PAMPANITO (SS383) and her crew, for the daring attacks and the unique rescue operations of allied prisoners of war.
The railroad bridge locations supplied by the POW’s aided in many being destroyed. The most important and largest bridge was #277. On 13 February 1945, two low level bombers, each armed with two radio controlled 800-pound bombs, destroyed the bridge’s four massive concrete support columns with surgical precision. The entire four span steel bridge collapsed into the River Kwai, denying use of the railroad.