By Pierre Kosmidis
In May 1942 Japan began transferring POWs by sea in ships that were rightfully called “Hell Ships”, due to the fact that prisoners were not being treated as humans, receiving no respect whatsoever by the Japanese and were often crammed into cargo holds with little air, food or water for journeys that would last weeks.
Many died due to asphyxia, starvation or dysentery. Some POWs became delirious and unresponsive in their environment of heat, humidity and lack of oxygen, food, and water.
These unmarked prisoner transports were targeted as enemy ships by Allied submarines and aircraft.
More than 20,000 Allied POWs died at sea when the transport ships carrying them were attacked by Allied submarines and aircraft.
Although Allied headquarters often knew of the presence of POWs through radio interception and code breaking, the ships were sunk because interdiction of critical strategic materials was more important than the deaths of prisoners-of-war.
One such “Hell Ship” out of many that were employed by Japan, with several of them sunk by the Allies, was a former Greek cargo ship, the 2,634-ton “Panayis”.
The Greek shipowner E. Yannoulatos had a company called China Hellenic Line Ltd. which transported goods. His ship, the “Panayis” was seized by the Japanese in Shanghai in 1941, when the Imperial Forces of the Rising Sun invaded and conquered China.
Renamed Shinyō Maru, the Japanese then used this ship as a troop and cargo transport and by 1944 it was turned into a “Hell Ship”, transporting American POWs from the Philippines to other parts of Asia, still controlled by Japan, to be used as forced labour.
The Allies intercepted a message about the Shinyō Maru and, thinking it was carrying enemy soldiers, the US Submarine Paddle attacked it on September 7, 1944, off the coast of Mindanao.
There were 750 American prisoners of war aboard. Some Japanese guards shot prisoners as they struggled from the holds or were in the water; 688 died when the ship sank, leaving only 82 survivors; 47 of 52 Japanese guards died.
According to the US National Archives Winter 2003, Vol.35, No. 4, “there was a terrific explosion, followed by a second one. Heavy obstacles came crashing down from above. Dust filled the air and bleeding men lay all over each other in mangled positions, arms, legs, and bodies broken. The deck was strewn with mangled bodies.
Japanese soldiers fired at Americans swimming in the water or shot at those struggling up from the holds. A terrific cracking sound was heard. The boat seemed to bend up in the middle and was finally swallowed up by the water.”
The local Filipinos and members of the “Volunteer Guards” risked their lives to assist the eighty-three men who made it to shore. One of the eighty-three died the next day. After nursing the survivors back to health, they, then, assisted the survivors in returning to the United States.
The death of Shinyo Maru was duly noted by a Japanese cipher clerk at 1650 hours on September 7, the victim of a “torpedo attack.” An intercept of September 10 reported 150 Japanese army casualties. Lt. Commander Nowell later reported that ‘this is probably the attack in which U.S. POWs were sunk, and swam ashore.’”