In World War II the Japanese treated captives with extreme cruelty, and never was this more evident than when prisoners of war (POWs) were moved around the Pacific in rust bucket steamers from one forced-labor assignment to another. In defiance of the Geneva Convention, these hellish transports carried no red cross to identify them as prison ships, so many were sunk by Allied aircraft or submarines. This resulted in thousands of prisoners dying by ‘friendly fire’.
No single disaster equaled that of Junyo Maru. The old single-stack steamer had been built before World War I and was just over 120 m (400 ft) long. In September 1944 she was sailing up the west coast of Java from Batavia (now Jakarta) to Padang, where her human cargo would work on the infamous Sumatra Railway, intended to transport coal from coast to coast. At least 6,500 unfortunate people had been packed aboard, comprising around 2,300 POWs – British, Dutch, Australian, Indonesian and American – together with 4,200 Javanese slave laborers. Conditions aboard were indescribably bad, with minimal latrine facilities and an acute shortage of water, compounded by sardine-like overcrowding.
The efforts of two escort ships were desultory. It was a serious omission. The British Triton-class submarine Tradewind was lurking and – with no idea what Junyo Maru was carrying – fired four torpedoes. Two struck home, causing pandemonium as packed prisoners fought to escape bamboo cages in the holds. Life rafts were tossed overboard but Junyo Maru settled quickly, the bow rose and she sank by the stern. As men in the water struggled to survive, the night filled with the desperate cries of dying men. When dawn broke and survivors were picked up, the extent of this terrible tragedy became apparent. More than 5,500 had gone down with the ship or died in the water.
When was the Junyo Maru Tragedy: September 18 1944
Where was the Junyo Maru Tragedy: Off Java, Pacific Ocean
What was the Junyo Maru Tragedy death toll: Around 1,500 POWs died, along with more than 4,000 Javanese and some Japanese guards and crew.
You should know: Survival didn’t mean relief. The few remaining Javanese romushas (slave laborers) were worked to death, and barely 100 of 700 POWs saved from the sea survived the brutal conditions and intense heat of the Sumatra Railway construction camps.