Definition – What is a Japanese Hellship from WW2?
The term Hellship now refers to the ships used by the Imperial Japanese Navy to transport allied POWs and Asian slaves. A Hellship is a ship with atrocious living conditions or with a reputation for cruelty among the crew. Prisoners were often crammed into cargo holds for journeys that could last weeks. Many died due to asphyxia, starvation or dysentery in their environment of heat, humidity and a lack of oxygen, food and water. Hellships’ names often contain the word ‘Maru’ as a Japanese word for ship or journey.
Definition – How did World War Two start?In September 1939, Germany and Russia invaded Poland. In May 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands, Belgium and France, which officially started WWII. In December 1941 the Japanese surprised the world by declaring war on the USA with an unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor
Definition – How did the allied forces respond in Asia in World War Two?
The allied forces in Asia were unprepared and inadequately armed. The Japanese quickly invaded and captured countries in Asia. After capitulation (surrendering), the Japanese rounded up the ‘whites’ in the Indonesian island and put them in prisoner camps as ‘detained citizens’. The detained citizens in the camps were mainly Dutch, American, British, and Australian, wither in the army or civilians.
Definition – Why did the Japanese use Hellships in World War Two?
As war progressed, the Japanese decided to use these detained citizens as POWs for manual, slave labour, to improve their war efforts. They wanted the prisoners to work in coal mines or to build railway lines to improve the transportation of coal and other industrial tools of war. Coal was a valuable commodity at the time, used to power the Japanese factories. In order to set the men to work on the railway lines or coals mines, the POWs were transported away from the relative shelter of prison camps, together with romushas, and taken to work camps. In May 1942 the Japanese began transferring POWs by sea, to labor camps in Japan, Taiwan, Manchuria, Korea, the Moluccas, Sumatra, Burma and Siam.
Definition – Why did the Japanese use romushas in World War Two?
In order to boost the number of people the Japanese could use for slave labor, they recruited and captured a high number of Asian laborers, whom they called romushas. Romusha was originally the Japanese word for laborer. The romushas were men and boys, who were treated much worse than the POWs by the Japanese. It’s right to say their treatment was often inhumane. They were normally segregated from the POWs.
Source: Nicola Meinders – Survivor. Junyo Maru, Pakan Baroe
Definition – How many people travelled and how many were killed on Hellships in World War Two?
The exact number is not known, but more than 100,000 people were transported in Hellships. Some of them may have had to undertake more than one crossing. There were around 350 crossings on board 182 Hellships. In total more than 22,000 people died on board the Japanese Hellships between 1942 and 1945 in South-East Asia. The largest loss of life on a Hellship was on the Junyo Maru – the ship that Willem Punt was on, and is the focal point of the book Survivor.
Source: Nicola Meinders – Survivor. Junyo Maru, Pakan Baroe
Definition – How did the 22,000 killed on the Japanese Hellships die?
As mentioned above, the conditions on board were so dire, and many died of starvation, asphyxiation, dehydration and dysentery. Many were also drowned, as the massive freight ships used didn’t have the Red Cross Flag on display (as the Japanese saw it as a sign of weakness). They were therefore targeted by the allied submarines. Many of the prisoners on board were killed by the explosions of the torpedoes, but if they survived, they were often left to drown, or even shot. On the Suez Maru for example, the Japanese show POWs who tried to abandon the sinking ship.
Definition – Were there some Japanese Hellships journeys when all POWs died?
Yes, in the Suez Maru for example, the Japanese shot POWs who tried to abandon the sinking ship. Minesweeper W.12 picked up the Japanese survivors, but machine-gunned every single POW who has survived the sinking (at least 250 men), whilst they were in the water. There were obviously no POW survivors.
The Prologue to the book: Survivor. Junyo Maru Pakan Baroe. Contains more examples from other Hellships such as Shinyo Maru, attacked by the USS Paddle, The Maros Maru near Makassar. The Buyo Maru attacked by the USS Wahoo, and the Arisan Maru.
Definition – Where is the Pekanbaru or Pakanbaru POW railway?
The Pekanbaru (English spelling) or Pakan Baroe (Dutch spelling) railway line was built on the island of Sumatra in the former Dutch East Indies. This is now known as the island of Sumatra, as part of Indonesia.
The POW railway line would join the existing railway line Padang to Muara Enim (spelt Moeara in Dutch).
Definition – Why were the POW railways built?
The POWs railways were built to support the Japanese war efforts. This could be to transport troops, coal and weapons. In the example of the Pekanbaru or Pakan Baroe railway, this was built to transport coal from the west coast to the east coast.
They wanted to transport it over land, rather than sail all the way around the narrow, but long island, especially with enemy submarines in the sea surrounding it. It would be safer to go over a land they had captured, rather than risk torpedoes at sea.
The POW railway line would join the existing railway line Padang to Muara Enim. From Padang, the Japanese would take the coal and materials by Ship to Singapore, which they had captured and used as their main war harbor, located strategically between the seas and frequented by their own warships.
Definition – How long was the POW railway?
The POWs railway in Sumatra was 220km. It was built straight through the tropical jungle. Dutch colonials had considered the idea before, but decided not the build it, as it was too difficult to build for too little gain. It’s a shame the Japanese thought differently. Sadly the Dutch were right on both counts.
Firstly, in that it was extremely difficult to construct. They broke many conventions and laws by allowing appalling conditions for the POWs , with malnourished and sick men dying in high numbers.
Secondly, there is very little of the railway that can be traced. The railway track was used one, and that was it. It was never used commercially, and no one benefitted from this immense work.
Definition – How many people died on the POW railway?
In total 120,000 Javanese slaves and 5,000 POWs were sent to Sumatra to work on the railway. Most people were sent to work on the Pekanbaru / Pakan Baroe railway line. A small minority were also sent to camps on other pars of the island, such as Medan and Bukittingi.
The main nationalities of the POWs on the Sumatran railway were Dutch, British, Australian, American and New Zealanders. The vast majority of the allied prisoners were Dutch (possibly up to 4,000). There were roughly 1,000 British prisoners and 300 prisoners from the remaining countries.
The chance of survival in these salve camps were low. An estimated 23,000 romushas are thought to have survived their two and a half years working on the railway. This is what all the estimates of romusha numbers agree on:: there was around a 20% survival rat. This is compared to the estimated 85% survival rate of the allied prisoners.
However, the survival rate of those who arrived from the Junyo Maru, was only 15%!
Of the 680 allied POWs who survived the journey to Sumatra on the Junyo Maru only 100 men survived. These Hellship survivors were in a dreadful state when they landed on Sumatra, often having been stranded at sea for 48 hours or more. When they were taken to Padang, there was no medical care and very little food or drink. Around 30 men died in Padang, due to lack of food, water and care.
After Padang they were taken to work in camps 3 and 4. These were in swampy areas near the river and many died of malaria in this mosquito infested area. All their possessions (spare clothes, medicines, mosquito nets) has been lost at sea and wouldn’t be replaced.
In total, an absolutely staggering 82,500 people died on this 240km railway alone.
It’s amazing that Wim survived the odds and lived to tell his tale…