In 1944, Allied aircraft began raids on the 'Spice Islands' - Huruku, Ambon, Celebes. Daylight raids scattered warning leaflets of the destruction that was to come. To escape the approaching Allies, the Japanese prepared to retreat, taking the POWs with them. No matter what the conditions were or the state of many very sick men, the Japanese had no intentions of leaving the prisoners behind to be rescued by the Allies. Even dying men on stretchers were hurried to the docks.
The 600 ton Dutch vessel, the 'Maros Maru' , was bound for Soerabaja, situated on the North Eastern coast of Java when parties of Japanese and 500 POWs boarded her at Ambon in the Moluccas on 17th September 1944 The POWs were both British and Dutch and over one hundred and fifty more were picked up along the journey. This small Dutch vessel had been quickly sunk at Batavia in 1942 before the capitulation of the Dutch East Indies, but refloated again by the Japanese in 1943. She was hardly sea worthy and had no facilities or space for the large number of men now packed in every conceivable corner.
During the journey, the ship suffered engine failure and called in for repairs at Macassar in South Celebes. She was in dock for 40 days during which time the POWs were not allowed to leave the ship and many died due to the horrific conditions they were forced to endure.
During the sixty days on board in blistering heat, with very little water and even less food, 325 men out of the 650 died.
The following extracts are taken from the book 'The Knights of Bushido' by Lord Russell of Liverpool
On board was Flight Lieutenant W. Blackwood, a senior officer in the RAF. The following account from him was produced at the War Crimes Trials after the war.
"On the morning of embarkation it rained for the first time for many days. My party marched barefoot, some had wooden sandals, in a glutinous sea of liquid mud which covered the sharp coral surface of the road. With guards harassing us to hurry, the beri-beri crippled being pushed and bullied, and the stretcher bearers being goaded into a shambling trot, we made the jetty in about half an hour. There the stretchers were laid in the mud, fully exposed to the pitiless rain, although there were some empty huts available close by. After everybody was soaked, a few straw mats were produced and draped over those who were most ill, and whose delirious groans fell without response upon the ears of our guards.
After a wait of nearly three hours, barges were brought alongside and we were ferried across the creek to where our transport lay at anchor. When we drew alongside I could scarcely believe that all five hundred of us were expected to get aboard. When I realised that the holds were full and battened down, and we were to travel as deck passengers, I was staggered.
First of all the baggage was dumped on the hatch covers and an attempt was made to distribute the fit men, walking patients, and stretcher cases in the gangways and narrow deck spaces. The effect was like a London tube train in the rush hour. No level space could be found for the stretchers, and the sick men were subjected to acute discomfort, and an ordeal which it was at once obvious they could not sustain for a long sea passage. After protest, the baggage was removed from the hatch covers, but settling into this terribly cramped space with sodden kit bags was almost impossible.
Worse was to come. Firewood for the cookhouse fires on the voyage was brought alongside. Picture a small ferry boat, with a maximum beam of not more than thirty feet, and a space of about forty-five feet from the after bulkhead of the forecastle to just abaft amidships, available for our whole party. The remainder of the deck, all the deck works and housings were out of bounds, so the measure of the overcrowding can be gauged. When the firewood had been brought on board and stacked, the deck space was full to the gunwale ... two wooden boxes slung over the ship's sides were all the latrine accom-modation provided. Into these boxes our palsied men had to drag themselves after climbing over piles of wood, a journey fraught with difficulty for a fit man, let alone one who was ill.
The first night after setting sail was a terrifying ordeal for the men, worse than any conceivable nightmare. The rained continued, the wind got up and the sea was rough and choppy. The ship was constantly swamped with high seas which swept across the deck with every roll of the vessel, throwing exposed stretcher cases around the water logged deck causing them to smash into solid objects which had broken free and were crashing around in the storm One man died before morning came.
Prior to their retreat from Ambon, they had worked long days in the heat, building roads and air strips for the Japanese transportation. With a poor diet and little medication, they were weak and ill from malnutrition and constant ill-treatment. Dysentery, beri-beri and many other tropical diseases had claimed many lives and now away from the island they were in a far worse state they could ever have imagined. The storms had abated and every day saw men grievously ill laying on the bare deck and on hatch covers, fully exposed to the pitiless sun, and although the senior British officer made frequent requests for some shade to be provided, it was not until thirty prisoners had died from thirst and exposure that an awning was erected.
The allowance of drinking water was less than half a pint a day, and to add insult to injury the prisoners who were suffering the pangs of thirst had, on several occasions, to lie helpless on deck while their Korean guards bathed in the drums of drinking water. One day a prisoner, weakened by hunger, was climbing over the ship's rail to visit one of the latrine boxes when he fell overboard. The ship put about and the man was picked up, whereupon all the officers were paraded and lashed with a rope's end by one of the guards as a punishment for not keeping their men under proper control.
By this time the prisoners were dying like flies and their bodies were thrown overboard after sandbags had been tied to their legs by the Japanese to ensure their sinking. On 21st September the 'Maros Maru' arrived at Raha Moena on the island of Celebes. A Japanese junk then came alongside and about another one hundred and fifty prisoners, British and Dutch, under the command of Captain van der Loot, came aboard. These men were the sole survivors from another Japanese transport which had been attacked by a Liberator, set on fire and sunk. Almost all the members of this party were stark naked, and paralysed from beri-beri
The 'Maros Maru' was already full and overflowing and the arrival of these extra prisoners caused utter chaos. There was previously no room for all to lie down, now there was scarcely room for a man to sit down properly, but somehow they were squeezed on board.
Flight-Lieutenant Blackwood described the gruesome scene as follows:-
"All the men lay spread out on the uneven bundles of firewood blistering horribly in the tropical sun. Tongues began to blacken, raw shirtless shoulders began to bleed and all vestige of sanity deserted many. The night air was filled with the yells and screams of the dying, the curses of the worn-out trying to get some sleep, and the chronic hiccoughing that afflicts a man about to die of beri-beri
Scenes of indescribable horror became common place. Picking their way through the tangled mass of humanity lying about on the narrow ship, orderlies carried the naked wasted bodies of the dead to the ship's side where, unheard except by those on the spot, the burial service for those who die at sea was read before casting the body with its sandbag overboard. One youngster, delirious with sunstroke, shouted the thoughts of his disordered mind for thirty hours before he became too weak to utter another word. Just before he died he grabbed a full tin, that was being used as a bed-pan, and drank the contents greedily, thinking it was water, before he could be prevented.
When the ship reached the northern end of the Gulf of Boni the engines, which were very old and almost unservice-able, broke down. As neither the Japanese nor the Javanese crew had much mechanical knowledge or experience, the Japanese lieutenant in charge of the prisoners, Lieutenant Kurishima, appealed to the prisoners of war to carry out repairs. At this time the death rate had reached a total of eight a day, and it became obvious that the longer the voyage lasted the higher the death rate would become. Petty Officer Platt, of the Royal Navy, and two other prisoners volun-teered, therefore, to repair the engines and to maintain them and supervise their running for the remainder of the voyage.
When the 'Maros Maru' reached Macassar any prisoners who were still fit enough were used to unload her cargo and some of the ammunition. This made it possible for some of the men to go below, and although there was still no room to move they were able to get out of the sun.The ship remained at anchor in Macassar harbour for more than forty days, and although some coconuts, cucumbers, mangoes and local sugar were brought on board the prisoners continued to die in large numbers. During the time the 'Maros Maru' remained at Macassar one hundred and fifty nine prisoners died.
A sigh of relief went up from the prisoners when at last, after replenishing stores, the ship again set sail, the end of this nightmare voyage seemed a little nearer. But there was disappointment in store, the 'Maros Maru' then stood off a small island near Macassar, and by the time she set sail on the last leg of the voyage the total number of deaths had reached two hundred and fifty.
The Japanese commander, Lieutenant Kurishima, his senior NCO Sergeant Mori, and the interpreter did nothing to improve the conditions on board. On the contrary, they treated the prisoners with consistent brutality.
One incident has been described by Flight-Lieutenant Blackwood:-
"One night, as a sick Dutchman lay dying he began hiccoughing loudly at regular intervals. Sergeant Mori appeared on the bridge and threatened to beat all the sick unless the dying man was given an injection to keep him quiet. This was done but within half an hour he was awake again and hiccoughing as before. Sergeant Mori repeated his threat and another injection was given. Yet a third time the hic oughing started. The Japanese Sergeant came back on to the bridge and, yelling at the top of his voice, threatened to come down and lay about him with a stick among the stretcher cases. A third injection was given but the Dutchman was never heard again for he died.
Eventually, sixty-seven days after she had sailed from Ambon, the 'Maros Maru' reached Sourabaya in Java. Of the six hundred and thirty prisoners who had been on board, only three hundred and twenty five were still alive, or almost alive, for most of them were mere ghosts of their former selves, half-starved, half-demented wrecks of humanity, diseased, dirty and crawling with vermin.