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MV 'The Behar'

In 2002 The FEPOW Birmingham Newsletter announced the death of FEPOW Walter Griffiths who was a Royal Navy Petty Officer in charge of the 17 D.E.M.S. gunners and asdic operators on board the 7,8404 ton merchant ship the 'Behar'

Harry Hesp, Editor of the FEPOW Birmingham Newsletter has kindly given COFEPOW details of the history of this merchant ship.

During the Second World War there were two different ships named 'Behar' both belonging (although not at the same time) to the Hain Steamship Company Ltd of London, which was originally E. Hain & Co of St. Ives of Cornwall, established in 1878. In 1917 the company was acquired by the P & O to form part of their group. In this year of acquisition Hain's Head Office moved to London.

At the outbreak of World War II, the Hain Company had nineteen ships all earning a living tramping the globe and while fifteen of them were named with the prefix 'Tre' as befits a Cornish Company, four of them, for some reason, had Indian names, including the 'Behar'. These four were, more or less, sister ships of 6,100 tons built in 1928/9. During the war Hains lost fifteen of the original nineteen including the 'Behar' which hit a mine off Milford Haven on the 29th November 1940. It was later beached and became a total loss.

At the end of May 1943 at the Barclay Curle's yard on the Clyde, a new 'Behar' of 7,840 tons, built to replace the original one, was completed. Having loaded up her first cargo in Liverpool in the late summer of 1943 she set sailed for Australia, calling at ports in South Africa and India en route.

‍ ‍The Hain Steam Ship Co. cargo ship BEHAR, 7489 grt.completed by Barclay Curle & Co on the Clyde in August 1943and sunk by a Japanese cruiser in March 1944 (Picture P & O)

The 'Behar' left Melbourne, Australia on the 19th February 1944 bound for the UK with a part load of 796 tons of zinc. She was to call at Bombay and other Indian coast ports to complete her homeward loading, but fate intervened and made sure she would never make the journey. It was the 'Behar's' misfortune to be spotted on March 9th 1944 while en route for India, by the 12,000 ton Japanese cruiser 'Tone' which mercilessly shelled her until she sank and most of the survivors unwantonly slaughtered. Lifeboats were deliberately rammed, men machine-gunned in the water, and those picked up more often than not, either beheaded or bayoneted.

Four lifeboats crowded with 104 survivors including Petty Officer Griffiths managed to get away from the sinking ship. All were later rescued and taken on board the 'Tone'.

The prisoners, including two women, were relieved of most of their clothing, their arms were tied behind their backs with ropes around their necks. They were then made to sit on the deck in the hot sun for several hours, bound up, before being taken down below. Here they were beaten and kept in badly ventilated and poorly lit compartments for six days.

Meanwhile, Captain Mayazumi had informed his superior officer, Vice Admiral Sakonju, of the flagship 'Aoba' of his success in sinking the 'Behar' and that he had 108 prisoners. Sakonju was annoyed that the 'Behar' was not captured as stated in his orders and was furious that so many survivors had been taken on board. He reminded Mayazumi to follow orders of keeping only a few survivors. Captain Mayazumi asked what he was to do with the 'other prisoners'. The reply was "dispose of them".

On the sixth day the cruiser arrived at the Javanese port of Tandjong Priok, where despite the efforts of her Commander, Captain Mayazumi to land the prisoners, he was told by Vice-Admiral Sakonju that only 35 selected personnel would be taken POW, the remaining 69 crew and passengers were to be taken out to sea and executed. Sakonju's orders were carried out on the following day and the unfortunate 69 were first beaten and then beheaded.

P.O. Walter Griffiths was one of the 35 chosen to stay in Java as a POW, surviving imprisonment, and ending his days of captivity in Cycle Camp, Batavia.

Altogether, over 800 merchant seamen and civilians were murdered at sea by the Japanese.

After the War, at the Military Trials in Hong Kong, Vice Admiral Sakonju was sentenced to death and Captain Mayazumi to 7 years imprisonment.