Sinking of the Lisbon Maru


by Arthur Lane

The sinking of the Lisbon Maru has created many discussions, and I have also received several letters from the relatives of men who were on board when she was sunk by an American submarine. Varying dates have been mentioned and varying stories told. Here therefore is a transcript taken from the report made by Lt, G, W, Hamilton of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Scots regiment to the ministry of Defence on his return to the UK in 1945.

The first batch of prisoners had already been successfully transported to Japan immediately after we had been taken prisoner, On the 25th September 1942 more prisoners were embarking aboard the Lisbon Maru under the command of Lieutenant Walda of the Imperial Japanese army.

A total of 1,816 men and officers were accommodated in three holds. The Royal navy in the forward hold, the Royal Scots, the Middlesex regiment and other small units and individuals were in the second hold, which was just forward of the bridge. The third hold, which was aft of the bridge contained the Royal Artillery.

There was not sufficient room for the men to be able to lie down all at the same time so sleeping was to be achieved by rota. Food was adequate according to prisoner of war status, the usual rice and tea for breakfast with an evening meal of rice and possibly a small portion of corned beef. Drinking water was at a premium so was therefore rationed, water for washing was none existent. Within a very short time after boarding, the stench of sweating men and excreta became an intolerable burden, so the Japanese allowed sections of prisoners on deck in rota for prescribed periods of time.

Also on board were some 2,000 Japanese, who occupied most of the deck space forward.

For the first few days, the voyage had so far been uneventful apart from the natural grumbling of the men, who so far had not been able to have much sleep, due to the heat, the oppressive atmosphere, the stench and the rolling movements of the ship.

At 0700hrs on the 1st of October, all the prisoners were waiting in the holds for morning roll call, suddenly without warning a torpedo struck and the ship shuddered to a halt. There was no casualties among the prisoners, the torpedo having hit the bunkers below the water line. The few prisoners who at that time were on deck, were immediately pushed back into the nearest hold and Japanese sentries were placed on the entrance of each hold. The

prisoners remained perfectly calm as they listened to depth charges being dropped by the Japanese navy. The ships three inch gun on the after deck began to fire rather spasmodically, and later the sound of Japanese planes could be heard dropping bombs, and the sound of depth charges exploding.

Many of the prisoners were suffering from dysentery and diarrhoea, so the attack accentuated their predicament, and although requests were made to the Japanese for these men to be allowed on deck to use the receptacles provided, they were refused, with the inevitable results.

There was no breakfast issued, which might have been just as well

considering the stench and filth. No one was allowed on deck for any reason and for the next seven hours in the stifling heat there was no communication at all with the Japanese. Suddenly at dusk, around seven o'clock in the evening, the Japanese began to batten down the hatches.Lt Colonel Stewart the senior British officer on board began to remonstrate with the Japanese, requesting that they should at least leave one balk of timber to help provide a little air.

The request was followed by an order from the Japanese commander for all the hatches to be battened down and covered with tarpaulins, which were then roped down.There was now no means of exit and with no fresh air flow, the conditions worsened very rapidly, but through it all the men remained calm and obedient. By various means, the men in number 2 hold managed to get into contact with those in number three by shouting, and with number one by tapping out in code on the bulkhead. They learned that conditions in number one were similar to their own, while those in number three were getting desperate.

Number three hold was now taking water and the pumps had to be manned, reports came from number three to Colonel Stewart in number two, that the men who were manning the pumps rapidly lost consciousness owing to the extreme heat and lack of air. Each man would do about six strokes on the pump before fainting. In number two hold, in similar conditions, they found that by lying flat and not moving they remained conscious. Reports came through that two men had died in number one hold from diphtheria.

Lt Potter (A member of the Hong Kong St Johns Ambulance Brigade) acted as interpreter and began to request air and water from Lieutenant Walda, but he refused every request that was made. Later a ship came alongside and the Japanese soldiers were taken off and the Lisbon Maru was taken into tow, heading for Shanghai.

By dawn of the 2nd October, twenty four hours after the torpedo had struck, the air in the holds was becoming dangerously foul, the ship began to lurch and stagger, it was evident that she was going to sink.Since all requests to the Japanese had been ignored or refused, Lt Colonel Stewart authorised a small party to attempt to break out, principally to persuade the Japanese to at least give them a fighting chance.

Men with long knives had already been stationed by the hatch, and on the orders of Colonel Stewart, began to push their knives up through the balks of timber above them to cut away the ropes and tarpaulin. The operation was successful, Lt Howell and Lt Potter plus one or two others climbed onto the deck and walked slowly toward the bridge asking to be allowed to talk to the captain of the ship.

The Japanese opened fire with their rifles hitting Lt Potter and one or two other ranks who had climbed onto the deck LT Potter subsequently died. The remaining men returned to the hold and reported to Colonel Stewart that the ship was very low in the water and evidently about to sink. From a distance, the Japanese started to fire into the hold. Suddenly the ship lurched and began sinking by the stern, the water rushing into the now open hold. The stern resting on a sand bank and the forward section remained protruding from the water for about an hour.

As soon as it was realised that the ship was sinking, the men with the knives began to hack at the ropes on the other hatches. The men from number one and two hold formed queues to escape, but the men of number three hold were unfortunately now below the water line, and it was not possible for those with knives to be able to cut away the ropes and tarpaulin The Japanese soldiers and sailors who were standing by aboard ships alongside, now began to fire at the escaping prisoners, and at those swimming in the water.

About three miles away there were some small islands which were believed to be very rocky and dangerous, and the current was swiftly taking men in this direction. About four Japanese ships were standing by, but made no attempt to assist the prisoners. Ropes were dangled from the ships, and as prisoners tried to climb them they were allowed to get within inches of the deck, and were then kicked back over the side.

Later the Japanese policy changed, but not before several men had managed to get to the islands, many were lost however in the water or sent crashing onto the rocks. Others were picked up by Chinese junks and Sampans and taken to the islands. These Chinese treated the prisoners with great kindness, giving them what little food they had and some of their clothing.

Then the Japanese landing parties came and gathering the prisoners together they transferred them to Shanghai. Others were taken aboard Japanese craft, or put down the holds of other ships. Most of those recovered were naked and covered in oil. The night air was so cold that the prisoners sheltered under the tarpaulin. From then on they received four hard tack biscuits a day with some watered down milk and every third day a bowl of thin weak soup.

On the 5th October all the prisoners who had been recaptured were assembled on the dock at Shanghai and a roll call was taken, of the original 1816 prisoners 970 answered their names, 846 had perished. It was learned later that six or seven men had managed to escape, assisted by the Chinese.

Thirty five of the worst dysentery patients were left in Shanghai and the remainder were taken aboard the SS Shinsei Maru, where five men later died. On arrival at Moji enroute for Osaka fifty more very sick prisoners were dropped off at Kokura with a similar number at Hiroshima. Five hundred went on to Kobe and the remainder to Osaka. 200 died during the first winter from diphtheria, diarrhoea, pneumonia, and malnutrition. It had been the intention of the Japanese to let the prisoners all drown , so that they would be able to say that the ship had been sunk by the Americans, leaving them no chance to effect a rescue. It was only after the Japanese had watched the Chinese rescuing so many prisoners that it was decided that their original plan would not be believed. All the prisoners could have been saved, had the Japanese transferred them at the same time they had transferred their own troops..

The Lisbon Maru was not marked in any way to indicate that she was carrying prisoners of war, which in itself was a contravention of the Geneva agreement.

For the families of those men who went aboard the Lisbon Maru on the 25th September, no one will know exactly which men drowned and which managed to survive to die later, the Japanese did not keep records, and I can only offer my sympathies to them.

Arthur Lane


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