Kaohsiung, Japanese-Occupied Taiwan January 9, 1945

World War II in Asia began with Japan’s conquest of North­east China in 1931. Rogue ele­ments of the Kuan­tung Army (Japan’s army in China) created an inci­dent on a Japa­nese-owned rail­line near Mukden (now Shen­yang) and used it as an excuse for mili­tary opera­tions in the rest of Man­churia. That action, followed by Japan’s estab­lishment of its puppet sate of Manchu­kuo in Man­churia six month later, marked the beginning of the unof­ficial war between China and Japan. It morphed into the Second Sino-Japa­nese War, which saw the con­quest of the coastal city of Shang­hai and the Nation­alist Chi­nese capital of Nan­king (Nan­jing) in 1937, and it spilled over into the sur­prise Japa­nese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the invasion of European overseas territories in Southeast Asia at the end of 1941.

In the wake of Japan’s military whirlwind conquest and occu­pa­tion of South­east Asia, the Japa­nese Army interned tens of thou­sands of pri­soners of war in various POW camps in occupied Hong Kong, Singa­pore, Malay­sia, Burma, the Philip­pines, the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indo­nesia), and in Japan’s puppet state of Manchu­kuo in Man­churia. As early as May 1942 the Japa­nese began trans­ferring POWs by sea to new loca­tions, princi­pally Japan, where they were used as slave labor in dan­gerous mines or facto­ries under the most deplor­able condi­tions. (Angelina Jolie’s 2014 theatrical release, Unbroken, depicts the plight of Louis Zam­perini and other Allied POW slave laborers in Japan.) Known as “hell­ships,” these pri­soner trans­port ships—formerly mer­chant ves­sels once used for hauling cargo repur­posed into pens for human chattel—carried men crammed below decks with little air, food, or water for jour­neys that could last for weeks. Many trans­ported prisoners died due to asphyxia, starvation, or dysentery.

The Allies considered these unmarked prisoner trans­ports to be fair targets. As many as 19,000 of the esti­mated 21,000 Allied POWs who died at sea were killed by friendly fire when their trans­port ships were attacked by Allied sub­ma­rines and air­craft. On this date, Janu­ary 9, 1945, the Japa­nese hell­ship Enoura Maru was bombed and dis­abled by U.S. Navy F6F Hell­cat fighter-bombers while in Kaohsiung (Takao) harbor in south­western Taiwan, killing about 350 per­sons. The unlucky Enoura Maru pri­soners were part of a larger continent of 1,900 Japa­nese civil­ians and mili­tary person­nel who had left the Philippine capital of Manila on board another unmarked vessel, the Ōryoku Maru, on Decem­ber 13, 1944. Two days later the ship was sunk by U.S. carrier-based air­craft near a Japa­nese naval repair station in Subic Bay, which lies just north of the Bataan Penin­sula oppo­site Manila. The bombing of the Ōryoku Maru killed hun­dreds; many were shot dead in the water as they tried making their escape from the burning transport ship (see photo below).

About 1,000 of December’s survivors of the Ōryoku Maru’s bombing and sinking were loaded onto the Enoura Maru and the smaller Brazil Maru. Survivors of the Ōryoku Maru who were lucky enough to survive the U.S. Navy’s attack on the Enoura Maru in Taiwan’s Kao­hsiung harbor on Janu­ary 9, 1945, were hustled into the cramped holds of the Brazil Maru, which reached Moji (now part of Kita­kyūshū) on Japan’s Kyūshū Island, on January 29. Only 550 of the 900‑plus POWs who sailed from Kao­hsiung to Moji earlier in the month were still alive at the end Janu­ary 1945; 150 more men died in Japan, Taiwan, and Korea in the coming months, leaving only 403 sur­vivors of the original 1,620 who had left Manila aboard the Ōryoku Maru on Decem­ber 13, 1944, to be liberated from Japa­nese POW camps in Kyūshū, Korea, Manchuria, and Taiwan in August and September 1945.

Japanese Hellships: POW Transport Ships

Japanese hellship Ōryoku MaruJapanese hellship "Ōryoku Maru" under U.S. Navy attack, December 15, 1944

Left: The Ōryoku Maru was a 7,365‑ton Japa­nese pas­senger cargo liner, which was com­mis­sioned by the Imperial Japa­nese Navy during World War II as a troop trans­port and prisoner of war trans­port ship. Generally, hell­ships (there were over 200) were former pas­senger ships or old cargo ships into whose hulls the Japa­nese mili­tary crammed thou­sands of POWs under the most inhuman con­di­tions for trans­port to Japan or other Japa­nese-occupied terri­tories. On her last mission the Ōryoku Maru trans­ported 1,620 survi­vors of the 1942 Bataan Death March, Correg­idor (1942), and other battles. About 270 died aboard ship on its last voyage, vic­tims of suffo­ca­tion or dehy­dra­tion; victims of bomb and strafing attacks by U.S. carrier-based planes between Decem­ber 13 and 15, 1945; or drowning victims while escaping the sinking vessel.

Right: The Ōryoku Maru burning near the Japa­nese naval repair station at Olon­gapo in Subic Bay after the attack by U.S. carrier-based F6F Hell­cat fighter-bombers from the USS Hornet on the morning of Decem­ber 15, 1944. A direct hit on the aft hull killed over 250 Allied POWs. The ship caught fire and sank. Seen in this recon­nais­sance photo taken from a Hell­cat are the splashes created by sur­viving POWs swimming ashore from the burning Ōryoku Maru (labeled A); the loca­tion of the former tennis court (B) on which the POWs from the Ōryoku Maru sinking were held in unsani­tary condi­tions for six days with little food and drinking water before boarding the unmarked Enoura Maru and the Brazil Maru at San Fernando, La Union, in north­western Luzon for the peri­lous voyage to Kao­hsiung, Tai­wan; and the site of the Hell­ships Memo­rial (C). The memo­rial at the Subic Bay Histo­rical Cen­ter in the Philip­pines, 68 miles from Manila, honors the sacri­fice made by the thou­sands of Allied POWs of the Japanese who were lost on hellships.

Documentary About Thousands of British and Dutch POWs Trans­ported by Japanese Hellships to the Moluccas (Maluku Islands) to Build Japanese Airfields