Japanese Naval Base, Truk Lagoon, South Pacific March 20, 1943

Although Japanese submarines attacked far fewer ships than the Allies or Germany did, they were involved in a dozen or so docu­mented atro­ci­ties—naval war crimes—against crew sur­vivors. On this date in 1943 Rear Admiral Takero Kouta, com­mander of the First Sub­marine Group at the large Japa­nese naval base at Truk (today known as Chuuk), instructed naval per­son­nel to not only sink enemy ships and cargoes but to com­pletely elim­i­nate any sur­vivors, reputedly in retal­i­ation for the alleged slaughter of Japanese merchant ship crews by Allied submarines.

On May 14, 1943, Hajime Naka­gawa, the most notori­ous Japa­nese sub­marine com­mander, ordered his I‑177 to sink the Aus­tra­lian hos­pital ship Centaur, which was steaming unarmed and unescorted 50 miles north­east of the port of Bris­bane, Queens­land. Only 64 of her 332 crew and medi­cal per­son­nel sur­vived. Com­manding the I‑37 on her third pa­trol at the start of 1944, Naka­gawa sank the 7,118‑ton armed tanker British Chivalry after it had departed from Mel­bourne, Australia, in Febru­ary 1944, machine-gunning 39 out of 59 crew­men in life­boats. He em­ployed the same tactics 12 days later when he ordered his crew to open fire on the sur­vivors of the 5,189‑ton British armed vessel Sutlej sailing unes­corted in the Ara­bian Sea en route to the West Austra­lian port of Fremantle. A total of 41 sailors and nine gun­ners were killed, while 21 sailors and two gunners, adrift in two sep­a­rate life­boats, sur­vived and were picked up over 40 days later by two British vessels.

On February 29, 1944, the I‑37 fired two tor­pe­does at the 7,005‑ton British armed cargo steamer Ascot. After scuttling the wreck by shell­fire, the I‑37 sank the steamer’s life­boat with its 52 occu­pants. Four sailors and three gun­ners were rescued four days later by a Dutch steamer. The I‑37 was respon­sible for the death of 118 sea­men in just three attacks before it was sunk by destroyer escorts USS Conklin and USS McCoy Reynolds off Palau in the Philip­pine Sea on Novem­ber 19, 1944, with a loss of all 113 hands. By then Naka­gawa had been replaced as com­mander. When sunk, the I‑37 was outfitted with four Kaiten, which were manned sui­cide torpe­does. At the post­war Tokyo war crime trials, Naka­gawa, who never faced trial for sinking the Centaur (inves­ti­ga­tors believed they could not make a defin­i­tive case), was sen­tenced to eight years’ hard labor at Sugamo Prison after pleading guilty to machine-gunning sur­vivors of British vessels he sank while commanding the I‑37. Naka­gawa was released on probation after six years following the end of the Allied occupation.

Lt. Cdr. Hajime Nakagawa of the Japanese Navy and the Sinking of the AHS Centaur off the Coast of Queens­land, May 14, 1943

Japanese naval war crime: I-176, a submarine of the same class as I-177

Above: I-176, a submarine of the same Kaidai VII class as I‑177. Com­manded by Lt. Cdr. Hajime Naka­gawa, I‑177 torpe­doed the AHS Centaur off the Aus­tra­lian east coast on May 14, 1943. The hos­pi­tal ship went down in shark-infested waters in three minutes for a loss of 268 per­sons. The Japa­nese govern­ment issued a state­ment denying respon­si­bility for sinking the Centaur, an act con­sidered a war crime, but in 1979 the Japa­nese Navy accepted owner­ship of the deed. A U.S. Navy destroyer escort sank I‑177 on October 3, 1944, with the loss of her entire crew of 101 sailors.

Japanese naval war crime: Australian Hospital Ship "Centaur"Japanese war crime: Australian propaganda poster depicting AHS "Centaur"’s sinking

Left: AHS Centaur following her conversion to a hospital ship. A 5‑ft‑high green band of paint encircled the white ship. Three Geneva Red Cross symbols can clearly be seen near her bow, middle, and stern. In the early morning hours of May 14, 1943, the day she was torpe­doed, the Centaur was brightly illumi­nated by elec­tric lights, including lights directed on the Red Crosses on her sides and the Inter­national Red Cross desig­nation “47” on her bows. After sinking the hospital ship, Lt. Cdr. Naka­gawa surfaced, maneuvered the I‑177 toward the survivors, then slid under the waves.

Right: A propaganda poster calling on Australians to avenge the deliberate sinking of the Aus­tralian hos­pital ship Centaur by a Japa­nese sub­marine. Allied sub­marines had inadver­tently sunk Japa­nese hos­pital ships because the Japa­nese did not clearly or pro­perly mark them in accor­dance with Inter­national Red Cross guide­lines. That was true of unmarked Japa­nese mer­chant ves­sels torpe­doed by Allied sub­marines, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Allied POWs in transit in the holds of so-called “hellships.”

Imperial Japanese Navy Submarine on Duty in Pacific Ocean During Early Part of World War II