After 2 long years in Java a draft was assembled to be sent to work in Japan. As the war dragged on it was becoming clear to the Japanese that the war was turning in favour of the Allies and they needed every fit man they could find to work as part of its war machine. The draft was assembled at the ADEK barracks and on May 19th and embarked on the trip to Singapore on the ‘Kiska Maru’. They arrived on May 22nd and were transported by lorry to the Havelock Road camp. On June 2nd the men marched from the camp to the docks where they loaded aboard a large transport ship and were put in the forward between-decks. 772 POW’s were aboard the ship as it sailed towards Nagasaki on 3rd June as part of a convoy of 11 ships, 3 of which were carrying POW’s. The crew and prisoners were apprehensive of submarine attack, and this was accentuated when the leading corvette in the convoy was torpedoed on 7th June 1944.
On June 11th the convoy arrived in Manila Bay anchoring off the town and staying for 2 days, sailing again on the morning of the 14th as a convoy of 10 ships escorted by 3 corvettes, a minelayer and whaling ship. The ship arrived at Takao on June 18th before transhipping to the Tamahoko Maru, which was a larger cargo ship that also carried 500 Japanese soldiers. Unlike on previous ships, life belts were not issued on the Tamahoko Maru, despite protests from the POW’s.
The Tamahoko Maru was known by the POW’s as a Hellship, which was a ship with extremely unpleasant living conditions or with a reputation for cruelty among the crew. Prisoners were often crammed into cargo holds with little air, food or water for journeys that would last weeks. Some POWs became delirious and unresponsive in their environment of heat, humidity and lack of oxygen, food, and water. These unmarked prisoner transports were targeted as enemy ships by Allied submarines and aircraft.
More than 20,000 Allied POWs died at sea when the hellships carrying them were attacked by Allied submarines and aircraft. Although Allied headquarters often knew of the presence of POWs through radio interception and code breaking, the ships were sunk because sinking Japanese ships was considered more important than the lives of prisoners-of-war, and because Allied leaders feared that a pattern of sparing POW ships might lead the Japanese to use prisoners as human shields on valuable targets.
The Tamahoko Maru left Takao on June 22nd and sailed for two days before disaster struck on June 24th, approx 40 miles south of Nagasaki when a large explosion woke the men as another ship in the convoy had been struck by a torpedo, moments later another torpedo hit the Tamahoko Maru, on the starboard side. The explosion instantly killed a number of men on board, with falling debris killing many more. Escape by those below was made by means of the iron ladders under the hatches, or, for the most part, by being washed out to sea. It has been estimated that the ship sank in less than 2 minutes.
In an interview given to the Benalla Ensign newspaper Eric described how the night before the sinking, a mate who was sleeping on the top deck said he would swap with Eric who was below deck. So, when the torpedo hit, Eric was not below where most of those who lost their lives were sleeping.
Finding themselves in the water, most prisoners managed to find debris and other wreckage and settled down with the Japanese survivors to wait for dawn, all nationalities helping each other.
Eric remembered the night was miserably cold with sleet and rain and many prisoners were swept into the freezing waters wearing nothing but their underclothing or some with nothing at all. Eric felt sorry for one naked rescued prisoner and gave him his G string to wear. Eric himself only escaped with his shorts, a medical certificate telling of his treatment for Malaria that he picked up in Java and some photos of his fiancé Molly.
Fortunately, no depth charges were dropped nearby by the escort and at dawn a corvette lowered her boats and picked up Japanese, leaving the prisoners on the wreckage. Luckily at around 7am a small whaling ship came up and lowered rope ladders saving the men from certain death.
The whaling ship with 211 prisoners arrived in Nagasaki at 12:30 pm and after a cold hungry wait the prisoners were landed at 6pm. During this period a Japanese doctor and two nurses came to treat the sick, but they cared little for the POW’s who had just been through hell. 560 POW’s out of 772 had died from the Torpedo which was fired from the US submarine ‘Tang’.
Lorries transported the prisoners to Fukuoka 14 camp, in the Mitsubishi factories, were a hot meal, clothes and sleeping mats were provided. For six weeks, the men lived in crowded conditions in a smaller section of the camp before being moved to their main quarters at Fukuoka 14. During this period the camp staff were sympathetic, though comforts and medicines were scarce. The men now prepared for a long period of what would basically be slave labor at the Mitsubishi Shipyards.