Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Hell Ships (1944–1945)

Japanese ships used to transport U.S. and other Allied prisoners of war at the end of World War II. Although the Japanese had previously transferred prisoners by ship, in the fall of 1944 U.S. forces led by General Douglas MacArthur invaded the Philippine Islands, and the Japanese dispatched ships to remove the Allied prisoners of war (POWs) from the Philippines to concentration camps in Japan, Manchuria, Taiwan, and Korea. These prison ships, referred to later by the Americans as "hell ships," were examples of the inhumane conditions in which the Japanese kept Allied POWs during the war. In violation of the rules of war, Japanese troop and weapons-carrying vessels often were marked with a red cross to shield them from attack. The hell ships, which should have been so marked, carried no designation that they were transporting prisoners of war, and consequently several of them fell victim to Allied submarines and aircraft.

Conditions on these ships were indeed hellish. In many instances the Japanese packed as many as 1,000 prisoners into a ship that should have carried perhaps 250. The holds were so crowded that it was impossible to lie down, and there was insufficient fresh air, food, or water. The heat in the holds was often unbearable, and the small number of buckets allotted for human waste quickly overflowed, causing hundreds of cases of dysentery. In these circumstances, many prisoners suffocated or went insane. The Japanese often refused to allow the prisoners to bury their dead at sea.

Casualties on the hell ships were often horrendous, because the unmarked ships fell prey to Allied aircraft, surface vessels, and submarines. Only 8 men out of 1,782 survived the 24 October 1944 torpedo attack on the Arisan Maru. Prisoners attempting to swim away from the sinking ship were shot by their Japanese captors from above decks. On 18 September 1944, only 200 prisoners of 750 survived a British submarine torpedo attack on the Shinyo Maru. In the autumn of 1944, more than 4,000 Allied prisoners were killed or drowned aboard hell ships sunk by Allied submarines.

John Noonan


Further Reading
Giles, Donald T. Captive of the Rising Sun: The POW Memoirs of Rear Admiral Donald T. Giles, USN. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994.; Hubbard, Preston. Apocalypse Undone: My Survival of Japanese Imprisonment during World War II. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1990.; Kerr, Bartlett E. Surrender and Survival: The Experience of American POWs in the Pacific. New York: William Morrow, 1985.; Wright, John M. Captured on Corregidor: Diary of an American P.O.W. in World War II. London: McFarland, 1988.
 

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