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 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 (Chuuk), in­structed naval per­son­nel to not only sink enemy ships and cargoes but to com­pletely elimi­nate any sur­vi­vors. 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 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 tanker Brit­ish Chiv­alry after it had departed from Mel­bourne 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. 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 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 Leyte in the Philip­pines 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 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.

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

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.

Australian Hospital Ship "Centaur"Australian propaganda poster

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.

Patriotic Scenes of the Imperial Japanese Navy During World War II