Hellships of World War II

by Chad N. Proudfoot

In the waning days of the Second World War, Americans were swiftly closing in on one of their former Pacific strongholds, the Philippines. The Philippines had been lost to the Japanese in 1942. On December 8, 1941, Japan began an aerial attack on the islands that soon turned into a full-blown ground and air war. General MacArthur and his troops fought with great dignity and courage, but the enemy was closing in at a rapid speed. In early 1942, MacArthur was ordered to Australia by President Roosevelt, leaving General Wainwright in command. General Wainwright continued the gallant fight against the enemy, but he and his troops were forced to surrender after the fall of Bataan and Corregidor on May 6, 1942.

Thus began a period of unimaginable hardship for the American prisoners of war. Many were forced to endure the horrors of prisons such as Bilibid and Nichols Field, where prisoners were beaten, starved, and denied adequate medical care. Thomas Abruzzino of Clarksburg, Harrison County, who would later perish on board a hellship, was a POW at Nichols Field, and a deposition given by another inmate after the war describes how bad the treatment could become:

One of the track bosses, a Japanese civilian called "Pistol Pete" used an iron bar about 1/2 inch in diameter and about 2' [feet] long to beat prisoners. I watched him break the ribs of one prisoner while beating him with this bar. The prisoner's name was Abrazzino [sic], and Aviation Metalsmith Second Class.1

Throughout it all, many American prisoners survived on the islands. As the war progressed, the allied advance in the Pacific was strengthening. It looked as though General MacArthur was going to make good on his promise to return to his post in the Philippines. The Japanese understood what was coming, and so they decided to move the prisoners of war from the Philippines to Japan for use as slave labor. Any able-bodied man was to be moved, and as one source describes "able bodied" meant any man who could stand.2 So began the period of the hellships.

Hellships were freight ships used by Japan to transport prisoners of war. They were not necessarily military ships, and they were unmarked. This made them legitimate targets for allied attacks. They were called "hellships" not because of the torpedo attacks that would later occur (many ships made safe voyages and were never damaged or sunk), but because of the conditions endured by the prisoners onboard.3 There were many hellships that operated in the Pacific during World War II, but the horrific story of the Arisan Maru can serve as the example of the horrors that all hellship prisoners endured in one form or another.

The Arisan Maru was a 6,886 ton civilian-controlled cargo ship, that 1,782 prisoners of war boarded on October 11, 1944.4 The ship sailed for Palawan, but returned to Manila on October 20, after allied air raids on Manila has ceased. The ship finally left Manila for good on October 21, destined for Japan. The Arisan Maru was part of a convoy of ships, but it and the Kimikawa Maru were the slowest of the pack. On October 23, US submarines attacked the convoy, causing it to split and leaving the Arisan Maru on its own.

The conditions on board the ship were absolutely deplorable. Avery E. Wilbur, a survivor from the Arisan Maru, described his experience for United Press, which was later reprinted in the Wheeling News-Register on February 16, 1945:

Each prisoner was fed about one teacup of cooked rice twice daily and given a canteen full of dirty water once a day. Sanitary facilities consisted of four 5-gallon buckets which were grossly inadequate. Scores of men were afflicted with dysentery and other sickness. The heat was stifling, the stench unbearable... Hundreds went out of their minds. There was room to lie down for only a few. Most of the prisoners stood or squatted on the floor, hour after hour for fourteen days.

Another survivor, Robert S. Overbeck, told his story to the Associated Press, which was later printed in the Logan Banner on February 17, 1945:

The men were crammed into an area 9 feet high, 50 feet wide, and 90 feet long, divided into three tiers each 3 feet high, Overbeck said. They couldn't even sit erect...The heat was almost unbearable with the sides of the ship 'so hot nobody could touch them as they lay naked...' Jap machine guns were trained on a tiny entrance to the hold so small only one man could pass through at a time...Only ten men who cooked rice for them were allowed on deck. They got only about two handfuls of rice a day and had so little 'dirty water' to drink they couldn't eat that. It was almost dark in their hold.

The conditions on the ship were so horrible that many of the men prayed that a bomb or torpedo would end their lives, if only to save them from such a deplorable condition.5 Their wish would be granted.

On October 24, 1944 Cdr. E. N. Blakely spotted the unmarked Arisan Maru through his periscope on the USS Shark, an American submarine. He and his crew sent two torpedoes speeding through the icy waters of the South China Sea toward the ship, striking it on the starboard number three hold and the stern.6

Sgt. Calvin Graef later reported that when the ship was struck there was no panic aboard. "There wasn't any hysteria, in fact, if anything, it was more or less that if the ship were sunk, it could be that some people would get out and that would be better than what we had been going through."7 The Japanese cut the rope ladders so that the men could not escape, but after the guards left the men found other rope and many pulled themselves out of the hold. Because the ship did not sink immediately, many men had time to run to the galley and eat whatever food they could find. "It was just comical to watch some of they guys drinking bottles of ketchup and eating all this sugar" while "smoking two cigarettes at a time."8

The Japanese that were on board the ship were much too busy saving themselves to worry about any of the prisoners, and it was clear that they were going to be left to die. Hundreds of prisoners could not swim or were too weak to go on. Many men swam to an enemy destroyer, hoping to be saved. When they got to the sides of the ship, however, they were beaten off with clubs and were left floating in the icy Pacific waters. Others were pushed under the water with sticks.9

All-in-all, only nine prisoners survived the attack on the Arisan Maru. Thomas Abruzzino was one of the many brave men who perished along with many other West Virginians. The sinking of the Arisan Maru marks not only the largest incident where West Virginians were killed on hellships, it remains the largest loss of American lives in a single disaster at sea.10

After the war, the allies were anxious to publicize the awful attacks on the hellships, and the unlawful way in which they were transported so as to invite submarine attacks. In the last days at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, Sgt. Graef testified about the atrocities. After his testimony, Sir William Webb, President of the Tribunal, congratulated Graef for his "will to live."11 It was a will held by many, but only able to be exercised by a lucky few. Truly, the hellships remain among the most senseless atrocities of World War II, as so many lives were expended for no purpose or reason.

Besides the Arisan Maru, there were many other Hellships (information from the Hellship Information and Photographs page from www.west- and Death on the Hellships: Prisoners at Sea in the Pacific War by Gregory Minchno):


1. Affidavit of Edward Lochbihler; August 28, 1946; recorded in West Virginia Veterans Memorial Archives file of Thomas J. Abruzzino in West Virginia State Archives.

2. "Japanese POW Hell Ships of World War II Historical Context," (July 1, 2004).

3. "Japanese-POW Web Site; Hellship Information and Photographs," pow/photos.htm (June 19, 2004).

4. Michno, Gregory F. (2001). Death on the Hellships: Prisoners at Sea in the Pacific War. Naval Institute Press: Annapolis. p. 249.

5. Death on the Hellships, p. 252.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Death on the Hellships, p. 253.

9. Death on the Hellships, p. 254.

10. Death on the Hellships, p. 258.

11. Maga, Tim. (2001). Judgement at Tokyo: The Japanese War Crimes Trials. The University Press of Kentucky: Lexington. pp. 121-127.

West Virginia Veterans Memorial Archives Database

West Virginia Archives and History

West Virginia Archives and History