It is extraordinary how often you come across information to do with the Second World War that you were previously totally unaware of. When it concerns a small paragraph in some major event then you might be forgiven for either never having heard of, or forgetting about it. But when it is about a major incident such as a huge loss of life at sea, especially when it involved what many regard as one of the most awful war-crimes, then it can come as a bit of a shock to hear about it after all this time.
One such incident was that of the sinking of the Lisbon Maru in October 1942, a Japanese cargo liner built at Yokohama in 1920. In WW2 she was an armed troop-transport, carrying some 700 Japanese troops as well as 1,816 British and Canadian POWs who were being moved to Japan after the fall of Hong Kong in late 1941.
The POWs were kept below in a number of holds, although some were on deck to use the heads, or were kept there in medical isolation. The conditions below were said to be atrocious with prisoners sleeping on tiered bunks consisting of wire frames and not much more. Many of them were desperately ill with dysentery and all the other usual suspects contracted when people are kept in poor conditions with inadequate food and sanitation. As a result, many were covered in filth of various sorts, a factor which contributed to their problems after the Lisbon Maru was torpedoed.
The USS Grouper, an American submarine operating with the Pacific Submarine Force, set out on her second operational patrol on the 28th August 1942. After spotting the Lisbon Maru early on the morning of 1st October, the Skipper decided to moved ahead to try to ambush the ship at daylight. In the light he could see no sign of the ship being a POW-transport and fired three torpedoes which all missed. He then fired another tube and this hit, stopping the engines and cutting all electrical power.
The Grouper came to periscope depth at which point her commander logged “Target meanwhile hoisted flag resembling ‘Baker’, and was firing at us with what sounded like small-caliber gun. Sharp explosions all round us”. After missing with further torpedoes, Grouper passed the ship so that her stern-tube could engage and this “fish” hit the ship, although it seems not to have been noticed by the POWs who were now seriously concerned about their fate amidst the din of guns and depth charges being dropped by a Japanese aircraft in the area.
On board the ship, the Japanese soldiers had initially forced everyone below, causing no great alarm as this was fairly standard in such circumstances. It seems that they were not generally aware of the fact that the ship was in fact sinking, and that the hatches were not only being closed, but tightly secured with the heavy canvas sea-covers, making it almost impossible to escape but also hard to breathe as the oxygen became depleted. Some reports mentioned individuals panicking and having to be restrained – but for the most part the troops remained calm.
Then, as the ship started to list, boats could be heard coming alongside. People thought they were going to take them off, but, after removing the Japanese troops, the boats were heard to leave and the POWs finally realised that they were being left to drown as the ship went down. It was now almost 24 hours after the first torpedo had hit and the prisoners knew they had to make an attempt to get out.
One man had a butcher’s knife which he used to cut a hole in the hatch timbers as well as the canvas. When this was enlarged a few men managed to get out but were immediately shot at by some guards who had been left on the ship. More men escaped and managed to overcome the two guards, allowing the other hatches to be removed. All this time they were being shot at from Japanese vessels around the ship and many died on the deck or after going into the water. Others who made it to the surrounding ships were also then shot, or allowed on board only to be killed of thrown back under the propellers.
In one hold, the rusty access ladder broke and men had to try to crawl up the metal walls using the rivet-heads to gain purchase. However, these had become slippery from the vomit and diarrhoea of the worst-affected and weakened men and many of them did not make it; most were in the Royal Artillery.
Men swam to some islands about three of four miles away, although many were swept out to the ocean by the prevailing currents. As they neared land, Chinese fishermen realised they were not Japanese, who they hated, and immediately started to rescue them from the water, launching many sampans and other boats in the process. Hundreds were saved in this way; they were then fed and had their wounds and sunburn treated by the Islanders once ashore. Of course, the islands were then searched by the Japanese who took the remaining British and Canadians onwards to their original intended destination, a POW camp.
It has been said that some POWs were in fact saved by Japanese ships, but the figures involved are not clear. Estimates suggest that of the 1800+ POWs battened down in those holds, over 800 died as a direct result of the actions of the Japanese. According to information available, all but 85 men actually got off the ship. Some were shot on the ship, others in the water as they tried to swim away. Still more were taken by sharks and, in their weakened state simply drowned. Some of the survivors who eventually ended up in the POW camp succumbed to the harsh treatment meted out under the Japanese regime.
The actions of the USS Grouper cannot be criticised. Her commander reported seeing the signal flag “B” flying from the mast of the Lisbon Maru. In international signalling terms, “B” indicates “I am taking on or discharging explosives”. There was no sign of it being a POW ship, and observations only showed Japanese troops leaving the sinking vessel, making it a legitimate war target.
In early 2018, an advertisement was placed in British papers asking anyone who knew someone who survived the sinking to get in contact with Fang Li, a Chinese film director, who has discovered a wreck believed to be the Lisbon Maru. He wants to make a film to tell the stories of the men involved and wishes to see if he can recover the remains still on board to return them to their relatives for burial in the UK or Canada. Some are horrified by this (including one of the few survivors left), calling it an act of desecration of a war-grave. Others are pleased to be able to have the chance of repatriating long-lost relatives and being able to honour them in a grave nearer home.
The reality is that the expedition to recover the dead might raise hopes which might then be dashed as the full extent of the task of identifying individuals becomes apparent. That said, using modern DNA techniques, it should be no harder than doing so for the remains of troops buried under the mud of Flanders from the Great War – or indeed the Second War.
Either way, the publicity has served to remind us of a tragic incident in the Second World War which might otherwise have been forgotten about by so many people (such as myself). For that alone, Mr Li is to be thanked.