THE SUEZ MARU
supplied to COFEPOW by Dennis Courant
Early 1942 In early 1942 Japanese Emperor Hirohito decrees the establishment of the Prisoners of War Bureau. One of its tasks is to record the death of Allied Prisoners of War and to adopt a policy to ensure that by the end of hostilities all Allied Prisoners of War and internees will be eliminated. Japanese Imperial Headquarters issues orders to all Pacific Commands that under no circumstances will Prisoners of War be allowed to fall into enemy hands.
Mid January 1943 With increasing frequency US planes launched from Australian bases attack targets in the Banda Sea. (The area in question stretches from the Moluccas Archipelago as a barrier to the North and the Eastern part of the Lesser Sunda Islands to the South). US planes are sighted as far as the Macassar Straits. The Japanese plans to invade Australian New Guinea have all but vanished. On January 15, 1943 after several months of heavy fighting, Guadacanal finally falls into the hands of US forces. After devastating Allied air raids around the Bismark Archipelago from 2 to 4 March 1943 the Japanese reinforcement shipping routes are severely restricted. Australia has become a major threat. The Japanese desperately need air coverage and to close the door to the Banda Sea. The construction of new airfields and the expansion of existing ones becomes a top priority and plans are finalised to use POWs as cheap labour.
April 1943 A large group of about 4000 British and Dutch POWs are shipped from Surabaya to the Island of Ambon (Camps: Liang, Ambon City, Rumah Tiga, Wyame and Laha), the Island of Ceram (Camp Amahei) and the Island of Haruku (Palao Camp) to be used as slave labour in the construction and expansion of airfields. Some 2000 more are shipped to the Island of Flores (Camps: Wulff, Reyers, Blom and Talibura). Smaller groups are shipped to the Islands of Buton (Camp Raha) and Timor (Camp Kupang).
The POWs came from different camps in Java and were divided into 3 groups, all with letter designations indicating their camp of origin. The larger groups were assigned capital letters A, B and C whilst the smaller sub-groups were indicated by lower case letters a, b and c.
A : for POWs from the Batavia (now Jakarta) and Tandjung Priok (Jakarta Harbour) area.
B : for POWs from Tjimahi area, a pre-war garrison town near the city of Bandung.
C : for POWs from the Surabaya area. All POWs are shipped from Tandjung Perak (Surabaya Harbour)
After the War ended in 1945 nothing was known about the true circumstances surrounding the death of some 548 of these slave labour POWs. Along with the other POWs on board the Suez Maru, they were simply listed as victims of an American Submarine attack which sank the ship until 1949, when a Japanese Officer Lieutenant Yoshio Masaji, in writing, discloses to Far East Command details about the sinking of the Suez Maru asking for an investigation into the massacre of Allied Prisoners of War at sea. His statements triggers an inquiry into his own actions, the actions of the captain of the Suez Maru and the commander of the escort Minesweeper W12.
Lieutenant Koshio Masaji was the officer in charge of the POWs and sick Japanese on board the Suez Maru. In early 1943 the Japanese liquidate their prison camps in the Surabaya area; the POWs are shipped to camps in Bandung and Tjimahi. As mentioned earlier, large groups of POWs from camps in the Batavia area and Tjimahi are subsequently transported back to Surabaya where they are to join the C group on 'stand by' for shipment to camps in Ambon, Haruku and Flores. The Japanese plan calls for about 6300 'labourers'.
November 1943 Ambon The task of building
the airfield(s) on the island of Ambon had been completed. The Japanese
High Command at Ambon decides that the POWs will be returned to Java.
Because of severe malnutrition and systematic starvation, they are too
weak to be of any value and in Java they will be able to 'recover' from
their illnesses (to mention a few: dysentery, beriberi, malaria, skin
diseases, diphtheria, ulcerated eyes or a combination of all of these).
November 24, 04:00. Haruku (Palao Camp) A group of about 776 POWs from Haruku's Palao Camp has to board a dirty 2000 ton Coal Barge with destination Ambon where they are to meet up with a second group of 500 POWs from Ambon's Liang Camp. Down in the holds the coal dust is about 2 inches thick. No ventilation and no air. In a small motor boat they are shuttled from the dilapidated dock in the harbour to the Coal Barge. Since there are a lot of patients on stretchers and the procedure is slow, Camp Commander Kurashima gets impatient and orders the construction of a hastily put together wooden platform mounted on 3 native proas. The patients on stretchers are to be transported on this makeshift raft. The situation is miserable. Due to unbalanced weight, the raft keeps tilting and the sick patients keep sliding into the water. Of a total of 30 who wind up in the water, 2 have to be sent back to the Camp Hospital of which 1 dies the next day.
November 25, 06:00 Boarding is complete and the Japanese doctors are threatened with punishment if any of the departing prisoners dies within 2 days of leaving. The Palao Camp group stuffed in the 2 crammed holds of the Coal Barge finally leaves Haruku. The tightly packed ship which is immediately spattered with faeces reaches the Bay of Ambon during the course of the day. The conditions on board have steadily worsened; some men are dying and a few corpses have been dropped overboard. No burial ceremonies; just bagged and thrown over the side.
November 25, Noon time The Coal Barge arrives at the Port of Ambon where the Suez Maru, a (6,400 GRT) Japanese Army Cargo Ship designated PS 45 (Prison Ship # 45 of a total of 56 Japanese Prison Ships) lays anchored in the bay; the only ship available at the time on which these men could be transported to Java.
November 26 Early morning. About 350 sick
men from Liang Camp arrive at the Port of Ambon and are straight away
embarked on the Suez Maru. In the mean time the POWs on
the Coal Barge from Haruku are inspected by a Japanese doctor and a nurse.
They decide that about 2 dozen are too sick to travel and they are sent
to Liang Camp; then as the POWs from Haruku are finally embarking, barges
with wounded Japanese on board come cruising up. They are given immediate
priority for embarkation.
The Suez Maru has 4 holds. The No.1 and No.2 holds are already occupied by Japanese patients. At final count there are now about 548 sick POWs on board (422 Allied and 126 Dutch). They are located in the No.3 and No.4 holds. There is ample room down below and the dying patients are allowed to stay on deck near the No.3 and No.4 hatches so they don't have to be hauled up when the end finally comes. They just have to be wrapped up in gunny sacks and thrown overboard.
November 26, past noon time After the boarding is complete, the Suez Maru escorted by two Minesweepers (W11 and W 12) leaves the Port of Ambon steaming over the Banda Sea heading for Surabaya. There is an aircraft (E13A1 float plane) located on the fore deck of the ship. The aircraft has a fractured fuselage and is scheduled for repairs at the Repair Depot 102 in Surabaya. Tentative time of arrival is November 30th. There are reports of magnetic mines dropped by US in Surabaya harbour.
November 26 and 27 Minesweeper W11 peels off heading due West for Kendari Air and Naval Base (South East Celebes) and shows up at Kendari harbour on the 28th November. The Suez Maru is now only in convoy with Minesweeper W12 who is not "pinging" (sonar is not "on"). Neither ship is 'zigzagging', a naval procedure making ships a more difficult target for submarines. The small corvette encounters no problems.
November 28 night time For reasons unknown, on the night of the 28th the W 12 disappears. The Suez Maru is now sailing alone.
November 29, morning Position: near the Kangean Islands, a group of small islands located North of Bali and East of Madura. On the morning of the 29th the W 12 reappears on the horizon far to the rear, eventually catching up with the Suez Maru until she is sailing ahead of her at the same speed.
USS Bonefish locates Suez Maru. By March 1943 the US Submarine Command knew all the Japanese convoy routes and most Allied Submarines lay waiting adjacent to them. The Japanese Maru Code (JN14) had been broken and by knowing the departure time plus the noon position and the destination, they could fix a position.
Bonefish leaves Fremantle, Western Australia (her home
base) on November 22 heading for the Flores Sea. She is on her 4th patrol.
Destination: an area in the South China Sea. She has transited the Bali
Strait on the evening of November 28th. and her surface radar detects
a contact 17 miles (27 km) out at 19:27.
08:00 Bonefish fires torpedoes. Bonefish position now: Kangean Islands 6º 22' South by 116º 35' East. Bonefish's torpedo data: T4/2DUP -Translation: Fired 4 torpedoes of which 2 hit - Daylight - Under Water - Using Periscope. (Note: Actually only one torpedo inflicted damage on the Suez Maru; the second 'hit' must have been a 'Premature' and viewed as a 'hit' through Bonefish's periscope. The torpedoes were the old magnetic types prone to all kinds of malfunctions; 'Duds' or 'Pre matures'. Bonefish fired the 4 torpedoes at overlapping targets: Suez Maru/Minesweeper W12. Only the Suez Maru was hit.
On board the Suez Maru. The lookout spots white traces
in the water heading towards the ship and starts yelling: 'Torpedo, torpedo'!
What happened to the anti-submarine precautions? Why no warning from W12;
what happened to the air coverage? The ship is frantically trying to dodge
the incoming torpedo by making a big turn at full speed. The evasive action
is successful and the first torpedo misses. Bonefish fires
2, 3 and 4. (Note: The torpedo firing sequence probably went something
like this: Bonefish fires 1 and 2 but both miss the overlapping
target; she then she fires 3 and 4. Three is a 'premature' but 4 is a
direct hit at the stern of the Suez Maru - back of the ship
into the No.4 hold). Panic and mass confusion on board. There are a considerable
number of victims in the No. 4 hold; few men are moving. The majority
of POWs are coming out of the No.3 hatch some with their life jackets
on. They are ordered to go back down below into the No.4 hold to rescue
the injured. The ship is dead in the water; the shaft is broken and the
engines ceased to function; she slowly begins to sink. Since the POWs
are too weak to do any heavy lifting, the Korean guards are instructed
to throw the heavy life rafts into the sea and now everybody is jumping
overboard. The W12 reports 'heavy loss of life' and calls
for assistance, but none arrives.
09:40 The Suez Maru finally disappears below the surface at 09:40 taking down with her the dead and seriously wounded who were unable to make it above deck. By this time the surviving POWs, between 200 and 250 of them, are floating in the sea, clinging to the rafts, pieces of wood and debris while slowly drifting in the currents. Minesweeper W 12 who has managed to dodge Bonefish's torpedoes has come back cruising around in a large circle only picking up Japanese and Korean survivors.
14:00 After the last Japanese survivor is
taken out of the sea around 14:00. Captain Kawano of the
W 12 confronts Lt. Koshio - who is one of the last
ones to be picked up - with the following: The small Minesweeper is full
and he cannot accommodate any more survivors; he is afraid the boat will
capsize. He wants to know what should be done with the Allied survivors
in the sea who are now floating in a long line. There is great animosity
towards the enemy amongst his Officers and men and after a short discussion
Captain Kawano, as senior officer, orders the shooting of
all allied survivors. The standing orders of the Army have to be carried
out: 'Under no circumstances shall any allied survivor fall into enemy
hands', especially with the enemy Submarine probably still nearby. Since
Lt. Koshio is officially still in charge of the POWs, he gets the
order to supervise the killing. He takes charge of the rifle unit on W
12. A machine gun is readied at the bow of the boat and 12 men
armed with rifles are deployed,
14:15 The massacre begins. Minesweeper W 12 begins cruising at slow speed within 50 meters of the POWs, the left side of the ship facing them. The firing with the machine gun and rifles begins and continues until the sea around turns red with blood. Some brave POWs knowing they are going to be shot, stand up on the debris they are clinging to and present themselves as targets for the bullets. No POW's survived.
16:30. More than two hours have gone by but sporadic shooting continues and finally seems to come to an end around 16:30. The W 12 having accomplished her gruesome task is gradually moving away from the scene. Her destination has changed and instead of continuing on her journey to Surabaya, she is now heading for Batavia because magnetic mines had been dropped by US planes at the entrance to Surabaya harbour.
(Note: After the completion of the Japanese War Crimes Trials, no further action was taken to indict Kawano Usumu, Commander of Minesweeper No. 12, for the killing of Allied Prisoners of War or Lt. Koshio for carrying out the orders)
The amount of Japanese and Korean survivors is unknown. One of the Japanese survivors shows up at Liang Camp and mentions 7 Japanese/Korean survivors. The Japanese did not like to leave paper trails, but estimates are that there must have been between 200 to 250 Japanese/Korean survivors.
There were no markings on the ship during transportation of the POWs as required by the Third Geneva Convention. Japanese weapons transports typically bore Red Cross markings while the ships carrying Prisoners of War - including the Suez Maru - were unmarked and therefore targeted by US submarines.
The Suez Maru was constructed for the Japanese Mitsui Line
but taken over by the Army.
This account was compiled by Dennis Courant