It’s inevitable that, in war, there will be tragedy, but few match the sheer heartlessness and unnecessary loss of life that occurred with the sinking of the Japanese cargo liner Lisbon Maru on October 1, 1942, resulting in the loss of 1,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs).
Allied prisoners of war at the Sham Shui Po Barracks
In late September 1942, the Japanese assembled 1,816 British and Canadian prisoners of war on the parade grounds of the Sham Shui Po Barracks in Hong Kong. They were being transported to Japan for use as slave labor in dockyards and ports.
The men had been captured during the fall of Hong Kong in 1941 and were hoping for early release. However, it quickly became apparent they would be prisoners for a long time. The news they were being sent to Japan didn’t fill them with enthusiasm, even though the conditions in the Sham Shui Po Barracks were appalling, with crowded quarters, poor food, nonexistent medical aid and rampant disease. As such, death was common.
The entire contingent of POWs, the majority of whom were with the Royal Scots, Middlesex Regiment and Royal Artillery, were under the command of Lt. Col. H.W.M. (Monkey) Stewart, the commanding officer of the Middlesex Regiment. He was assisted by a small number of fellow officers.
Packed into the Lisbon Maru like sardines
The prisoners of war were divided into groups of 50 and given a detailed, yet ineffective medical exam before being transported to the Lisbon Maru on September 27. Conditions aboard the freighter were unimaginably bad. All 1,816 were squeezed into three holds aboard the ship, which were divided by wooden dividers. The men were packed like sardines, with a mere 18 inches of space per person. Those on the lower levels were inundated with human waste, as illness and dysentery were rife.
Also aboard the vessel were 25 Japanese guards and 778 soldiers.
The food issued was good by POW standards, and there was fresh water for drinking. However, there were only life belts for half of the prisoners and far too few lifeboats. All four were reserved for the Japanese troops, along with four of the six life rafts. This left two life to cater to the near-2,000 POWs.
The Lisbon Maru sets sail for Japan
The Lisbon Maru sailed into good weather, and for four days the journey was uncomfortable and uneventful. The prisoners of war were allowed on deck for some fresh air and exercise, but this all changed on the morning of October 1, 1942.
On the evening of September 30, the USS Grouper (SS-214), a submarine attached to the US Pacific Fleet, sighted a group of nine sampans and a large freighter in the East China Sea, just south of Shanghai. The vessels were visible in the bright moonlight, but this also prevented Grouper‘s captain from immediately launching his attack.
He determined their course and moved ahead of the flotilla, intending to attack at daybreak. He had no idea the Lisbon Maru was carrying POWs – he could only see Japanese troops.
The USS Grouper (SS-214) attacks
At 6:30 AM on the morning of October 1, the duty officer started waking the prisoners of war for roll call. Some took advantage of the early start to visit the latrines on-deck, in an attempt to avoid the inevitable rush later on.
At daybreak, the USS Grouper wasn’t in a position to fire, but, by 7:00 AM, she’d fired four torpedoes. Of the four, one scored a direct hit. The submarine’s commander saw that the Lisbon Maru had changed course and was lying dead in the water. He then reported that the freighter raised a flag that looked like “Baker” and started firing at Grouper with a small-caliber weapon.
The POWs felt the explosion. The lights failed, leaving them completely in the dark. Those on-deck saw intense activity among the Japanese troops, before they were hustled down into the hold with no information about what had happened.
Shortly before 9:00 AM, Grouper fired another torpedo, which missed. Her crew had spotted a bomber in the air prior to firing, and, shortly after, three depth charges went off. The submarine came to periscope depth and saw the aircraft, but not the freighter and assumed, incorrectly, that the Lisbon Maru had sunk. She remained in the area during the day, but, at dusk, her commander decided they should leave while they could.
Deteriorating conditions aboard the Lisbon Maru
The Japanese soldiers on the Lisbon Maru calmed down, but became completely unresponsive to the prisoners of war. Requests for food, water, latrine breaks and receptacles were ignored, and the conditions in the hold deteriorated. The POWs could feel the freighter lying dead in the water and starting to list to one side. What they did not know, however, was that the destroyer Kuri had arrived and begun the transfer of the 778 Japanese troops onboard the Lisbon Maru.
While this transfer was taking place, the Toyokuni Maru arrived and a conference was held to discuss what was to be done with the freighter. The outcome was that the remaining soldiers would be transferred to the Toyokuni Maru, while Lisbon Maru‘s crew, along with the 25 Japanese guards, would remain onboard while the vessel was towed to shallow water.
Sub-Lt. Hideo Wada, the leader of the Japanese guards, insisted the hatches covering the holds be closed, as he didn’t think there was sufficient manpower to stop the POWs from escaping. The captain disagreed, as the risk would be too great if the Lisbon Maru sank. By 9:00 PM, Wada insisted the hatches be closed, as he was in-charge of the prisoners, not the captain. Reluctantly, the captain conceded.
This meant the POWs were in complete darkness. There was also no airflow, and the conditions below deck became impossible. Lt. Col. Stewart maintained order and kept morale high by insisting that the Japanese wouldn’t abandon ship.
Breaking out of the hold
During the night, conditions had deteriorated so badly that Lt. Col. Stewart decided to try and break out of the hold. One prisoner produced a butcher’s knife, and Lt. H.M. Howell climbed the ladder and tried to pry open the hatch. Unfortunately, he was too debilitated to succeed.
Eventually, the POWs got the hatches open, and there was a state of panic as everyone tried to climb the ladder. Officers managed to maintain order, and soon the men were climbing the ladder one-by-one, only to be met with machine gun fire as they exited the hatch – the Japanese guards were firing on them as they appeared.
After a while, the prisoners managed to subdue the fire, and 1,750 it off of the Lisbon Maru, into the water. They swam toward the Japanese boats that had come to the freighter’s aid, but were met with gunfire. Some made it onto the ships, but were shot and their bodies thrown back into the sea.
Others POWs were picked up and taken to Shanghai, while 338 were rescued by Chinese fishermen who defied the Japanese and sailed out to collect the swimmers. The fishermen never disclosed that they’d rescued the prisoners, who were cared for on Dongji Island until the following day, when the Japanese landed on the island and recaptured them.
A roll call showed that 846 POWs had died trying to escape the sinking of the Lisbon Maru. The remaining prisoners ended the the Second World War as forced laborers, but many died during the harsh Japanese winters.
At the end of the war, Lisbon Maru‘s captain was sentenced to seven years in prison, while Japanese interpreter Niimori Genichiro was sentenced to 15 years. Lt. Wada died before he could be brought to trial.
Remembering the sinking of the Lisbon Maru
The wreck of the Lisbon Maru has lain quietly at the bottom of the East China Sea, and was discovered four miles off the coast of Dongfushan Island during a search commissioned by Chinese businessman Fang Li. He’d wanted to raise the wreck and return the bodies of the dead to their families.
This, however, didn’t receive a warm reception from the families of the dead, nor those of the survivors, who feel the wreck should have a war grave status and remain undisturbed.
One of the survivors, 92-year-old Dennis Morley, remembered the fateful day. In an interview with The Times, he described the hellish experience he and the other POWs went through, and shared that he was thankful he went on a peace and reconciliation trip to Japan in 2007. He believed it brought him peace and put a stop to his nightmares, and shared that he believed the Lisbon Maru should be left where it lies.
The gallantry and bravery of the men aboard the Lisbon Maru, as well as the bravery and dedication of the officers who managed the evacuation, must stand proudly in the annals of maritime warfare.