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The Tragedy of Jun’yō Maru

The Tragedy of Jun’yō Maru

On 12 and 18 September 1944, Allied forces sank three Japanese cargo ships. The outcome was an unforeseen tragedy that became one of the deadliest maritime disasters of the Second World War.

Japan entered the war in a bid to advance their position. Adolf Hitler had been building strong ties with China but turned his attention to Japan as the Nazi Party grew, considering them a more strategic partner in Asia.

Japan saw this renewed relationship with Germany as an opportnity to expand and displace America as the dominant power in the Pacific.

Faced with shortages of oil and other natural resources, it also exposed them to supply routes they were quick to disrupt.

Beginning with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, their continuous bombardment of US and British forces in Southeast Asia vastly weakened the US Naval Fleet, enabling them to seize the resources they so desperately needed. Though they appeared unstoppable, America and Britain were able to intensify their efforts and fought back.

Deploying common tactics, Allied naval forces began attacking Japanese cargo ships, unaware that some were also carrying Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and Javanese labourers (romushas). Bamboo decks split into cages, no water and limited food earned them the name “hell ships”.

Vessels Kachidoki Maru and Rakuyo Maru were hit on 12 September, with the loss of around 1,500 lives. Their sinking led to the first eye-witness accounts of the conditions in Japanese labour camps.

The Sinking of Jun’yō Maru

On 16 September, Jun’yō Maru set sail from Jakarta following the embarkation of thousands of POWs and romushas. Forty-eight hours later, she crossed the path of British submarine, HMS Tradewind, without displaying the required flag to inform she was carrying POWs. HMS Tradewind fired her torpedo and struck.

HMS Tradewind © IWM Art.IWM ART LD 3315

The Jun’yō Maru’s sinking resulted in over 5,500 deaths: 4,200 romushas and 800 from Allied forces. At the time, the sinking was one of the worst in history.

The 880 survivors were picked up by Japanese ships and forced to work the Pakanbaru railway across Sumatra through dense jungle and swamp land, over rivers and through mountain ranges, just as others had done on the notorious Thailand-Burma railway. It is estimated that 100,000 romushas and 703 POWs died building the Pakanbaru.

Allied Forces Prisoner of War. Courtesy of State Library of Victoria

War is controversial and always has the same outcomes, battle and bloodshed, prisoners of war, winners and losers, fear, pain and grief. Both sides will believe they are right, both sides will have an enemy and both sides will suffer. And sometimes, despite our best efforts, our own – just as with the Jun’yō Maru – become “collateral damage.” It is a sad inevitability of these arenas where normal rules do not apply, for which there is no consolation.

As former President Jimmy Carter said, in his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 2002: “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”

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