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Many Prisoners Die Under Appalling Conditions Afloat

BY ROHAN D. RIVETT, Formerly of “The Argus,” Who Was Sole British

War Correspondent Among the Prisoners in Burma and Siam, and Who Has Just Returned after 3½ Years in the Hands of the Japanese.

It is now known that in the waters stretching between the Bay of Bengal and the China Sea several thousands of Allied POW’s perished through the torpedoing or bombing of the Japanese supply ships and transports on which they were carried. Despite repeated appeals I have never heard of the Japanese marking a prisoners’ ship in a manner decreed by inter- national law. The Nippon attitude, as stated in my hearing by a respon- sible Japanese officer, was, “Enemy sink our ship—very bad. Sink own people too—not so bad.”

But apart from the hundreds who perished, trapped in the bowels of sinking ships, many more died in the  

holds or after leaving the ships as a result of conditions and treatment which made the Altmark seem like a pleasure cruiser.

Here is the story of my own experi- ence in three Japanese hell ships— none of them worse and some of them better than others of which I have heard first-hand accounts.

On October 8, 1942, 1,300 Austra- lians and 200 Americans were herded on board Japanese supply ship No 674—King Kong Maru—at Tanjong Pryok, the port of Batavia; 189 of us were packed into a small hold already full of Bren carriers.


In No 2 hold 744 men were crowded so that not all had sitting room and sleep was only possible lying, literally, one on top of the other; 567 more prisoners were packed into the smaller No 3 hold. In these steam- ing, unventilated holds, where men  

craved water, the total issue of liquid was 1½ pints of tea a man a day. No water for drinking or washing was allowed, although we were all sweat- ing constantly and were indescrib- ably filthy. Yet the Japanese on deck used to frolic and play under the deck hoses for hours on end through the worst hours of the day.

The men were only allowed on deck at dawn and for an hour before dark, except when going to the latrines. Latrines for 1,000 prisoners, many of whom were developing diarrhœa or dysentery, consisted of three small boxes on the starboard side of the ship, into which a tall man had to crawl like an animal.

The boat anchored off Singapore at  

last and at midday on the 12th, after 96 hours aboard, we went ashore and proceeded to Changi. Here we had a two-day respite.  

We were taken back to the docks with a number of Dutch on October 14, when 1,799 men went on board Japanese supply ship No 722, Maye- bassi Maru. All prisoners were packed into two holds forward and one aft. In our hold the top layers were occupied by a company of Jap- anese troops, who had first use of what little air filtered into the stifling hold; 650 prisoners were jammed into the well of the hold, at the bottom of a 40ft. ladder, in an area 75ft. by 48ft., which was already half-covered by piles of Jap- anese kit and stores. For 54 hours we lay in Keppel Harbour, Singa- pore. Being stationary we got no      

breath of air from the canvas vent, and, sitting motionless and virtually naked, the sweat poured from the body.


The nights were appalling. Ex- hausted men collapsed on top of    

each other in the breathless atmo- sphere, in which few managed to snatch more than an hour’s fitful  

sleep. The risk of infection and epi- demic was, of course, tremendous. Finally, most of the daily increasing dysentery cases were allowed up on deck to be near the latrines, which were in an appalling state and al- most unusable. The ration of two or three pints of water a day was later improved, but the meat through- out consisted of Australian mut- ton cases from the Singapore cold stores, bearing the dates 1935 and 1931. This meat might have been all right while frozen, but the ships had no freezer whatever, and the meat stank to high heaven.  

We finally drew out of Keppel Har- bour on the evening of the 16th, and   turning west and then north moved slowly up Malacca Strait.

The scanty medical supplies which had been brought by the party were liberally used by the crew and guards for the pettiest ailments. The senior   MO of the party was beaten up for re-  

fusing to allow a Japanese to fool with his microscope while he was using it. The Japanese indulged periodically in orgies of bashing, be- cause some of us tried to wash off

the worst of our filth in the leaks  

escaping from pipes on deck. Pri- soners were hustled down into their stinking inferno with blows of rifle butts, and on occasions, for hours on end, even the sick were not al- lowed access to the latrine.


We finally entered the Irrawaddy and docked at Rangoon on October 22. We lay on the river all night, besieged by thousands of mosquitoes.

Next day we transferred to the Yinagata Maru and were placed in a hold full of gravel, the most com- fortable resting place I have yet found on a Japanese ship.

We sailed slowly across to the mouth of the Salween and up the river until Kipling’s celebrated pagoda came into view. (The exact site of   “the old Moulmein pagoda” men- tioned in “Mandalay” is controver- sial, but we preferred to believe it was the one immediately above and behind the Moulmein gaol, where we were quartered for the next four days.) We landed by ferry at Moul- mein at midnight on October 24, 16 days after leaving Batavia. Only one man actually died on the ship, but others only survived a few days and probably at least 200 men owed their deaths along the Burma-Thai

railway to the sapping of their re-   serves in this ordeal.      

Our medical officers on the ship considered that an infectious epi- demic, costing scores of lives, was averted by the greatest of luck. The fate of the 1,500 Dutch POW’s who left Batavia a week behind us sup- ported this to the hilt. These pri- soners never left the ship through 22 days and nights of hell from Batavia to Rangoon.


After taking 10 days to reach Penang, they lay stifling there for nine days following a submarine attack. Dysentery, already bad, now ravaged the ship, and by the time they reached Rangoon scores were dead or on the verge of death. A Japanese doctor made a cursory examination of the sick at Ran- goon, but did nothing, and all pris- oners were herded into the Ran- goon gaol, where on the first night the worst dysentery cases, in batches of 60, were locked in bare cells. They had nothing but a little straw on the floor, and were left all night without food, water, pans, buckets, or anything else. This was a death sentence for many. Within a few days more than half the total force was virtually incapacitated by dysen- tery.

Despite constant appeals by senior Dutch officers, nothing whatever was provided for the dying men in the gaol except tools for their com- rades to bury them, the Japanese being mortally afraid of an epidemic involving themselves if the corpses were not hastily shovelled under- ground.

Even at the cemetery crosses bear- ing the names of the dead were de- liberately changed around by the Japanese in a final attempt to in- sult those who had passed beyond   the reach of their spite and in- humanity.

Throughout the whole period at the gaol no milk or sustaining light food of any kind was given to even the worst cases, although the Jap- anese had plentiful supplies cap- tured after the British evacuation. The diet for all prisoners consisted of rice pap unimproved. Despite all pleas, only about 60 of the worst cases were taken from the gaol to a hospital, and then only when it was often too late to do anything for them. On December 20, when the strongest of this force left for Moulmein to work on the railway, they left behind 200 dead and 450 more incapable of moving. Even then they carried with them many who could not walk. In the grind- ing work along the railway line many of these succumbed, while in Rangoon itself the total of Dutch dead reached 260, or more than one sixth of the party.


The last prisoners brought up to Burma in hell ships were 2,000 Americans, Australians, and Dutch shipped from Singapore in January, 1943, in two ships, one of which was sunk and the other damaged in an attack by two Liberators. Main casualties in the ship sunk were 500 Japanese, who had exclusive possession of a hold in which a bomb exploded. But some 50 pris- oners were drowned or died as a result of the bombing. As one Aus- tralian said to me in describing his feelings as they crouched helplessly at the bottom of the hold, while their bombs whistled down, “We couldn’t hope that they would be shot down, but we did pray that the blighters would get hungry and go

home to tea.”

Such was the fate of the prisoners on the last four transports brought up the west coast of Malaya, but the death roll is far heavier among those who travelled by courtesy of Nippon in similar “Pullman” con- ditions in waters east of Singapore. Those of us who have survived these voyages will never forget the men who were cold-bloodedly murdered in these ships with a spitefulness and callousness which defy exag- geration.