THE SINKING OF THE LISBON MARU
THE SINKING OF THE LISBON MARU
Contributed by Val Kvalheim
Published in POLARIS February 1995
On September 25, 1942, 1,816 British POW's were assembled on the parade ground of their POW camp in Hong Kong. Japanese Lt. Hideo Wada addressed them, saying "You are going to be taken to a beautiful country, away from Hong Kong, where you will be weIl looked after and well treated. I will be in charge of you, so remember my face."
Reaction among the prisoners was mixed. After the initial shock of surrendering on Christmas Day 1941 had been absorbed, hopes for an early release ran high, but now it had become apparent that no relief could be expected from the Chinese army.
Conditions in the camp were poor -- crowded and inadequate food. Medical supplies were scarce and diphtheria epidemic had reached alarming proportions. Deaths were common. Few had escaped but reprisals on those who remained were so severe that future escapes were doubtful.
The men were divided into groups of 50 each, and after an exhausting (but ineffective) medical examination, they were loaded into lighters and taken to the 7000-ton freighter "Lisbon Maru." Conditions were very crowded in the holds assigned to the prisoners. Men were lying shoulder to shoulder on the floor or on platforms erected at various heights. Surprisingly though, food was quite good by POW standards; rice and tea in the morning, rice, tea and a quarter tin of bully beef and a spoonful of vegetables in the evening. Water was supplied for drinking but none for bathing. The latrines consisted of wooden hutches hanging over the side of the ship. About half the men were provided with kapok life belts. In addition to the prisoners, the ship had on board 778 Japanese troops and a guard force of 25.
The first four days after sailing on 27 September were uneventful. The weather was good and the prisoners were allowed up on deck for exercise and fresh air.
On the night of 30 September 1942, the USS Grouper (McGregor) on her second war patrol in the area south of Shanghai, sighted a group of sampans and a large freighter at about 4 a.m. in bright moonlight. Deciding that it was too bright to execute a surface attack, McGregor ran parallel to the target to determine her course and speed, then make an "end around" to await daylight on October first. At daylight the Lisbon Maru changed course 50 degrees, leaving Grouper in a poor position from which to attack. She dived and McGregor fired three torpedoes at a range of 3200 yards. All torpedoes missed (or failed to explode). Lisbon Maru remained on course and a fourth torpedo was fired. After 2 minutes and 10 seconds a loud explosion was heard. A periscope observation showed that the target changed course 50 degrees to the right and stopped, hoisting a flag, which resembled Baker, and commenced firing in the direction of Grouper with small caliber guns.
On board the ship the prisoners heard and felt the explosion, after which the engines stopped and the lights went out. There was wild activity and shouting among the Japanese.
At 8:45 McGregor fired a fifth torpedo, set to run at six feet, but again, no explosion. Taking up a position 1000 yards off the port side, a sixth torpedo was fired at 9:38 from a stern tube, set to run at zero feet. Diving to 100 feet, a loud explosion was heard 40 seconds later. Just prior to the last shot, a light bomber was sighted over the target and about 2 minutes after 3 depth charges exploded nearby. Coming to periscope depth some time later, the plane could be seen but the ship had disappeared from view. On board the damaged ship the Japanese calmed down but became very uncooperative. Requests for food and water were refused. Requests for permission to use the latrines was also refused, despite serious cases of dysentery and diarrhea.
Grouper stayed in the vicinity throughout the day, occasionally hearing depth charges, as did the prisoners on Lisbon Maru. At 7:05 PM, with the sky overcast and visibility through the periscope poor, Grouper surfaced and hauled clear of the area.
It was a Iong, uncomfortable day for the prisoners. It had become clear that the ship was disabled and listing, but they had no idea of the extent of the damage or what measures were being taken for their relief.
The Japanese destroyer Kure arrived on the scene on 1 October and received orders to take the 778 Japanese troops aboard. A short time later the freighter Toyakuni Maru arrived. After a short conference on board the freighter, it was decided that the troops would go to the freighter rather than the Kure. Arrangements were made to tow the Lisbon Maru to shallow water.
After removing the Japanese troops, Lt. Wada and the captain discussed what should be done with the prisoners. Lt. Wada declared that it would be impossible for his small guard force to guard 1816 prisoners. His solution was to close the hatches and seal the prisoners in the holds. The captain objected to this on the grounds that ventilation would become very bad, and in case of another attack and the ship sank, there would be needless loss of life. At about 9 PM Lt. Wada came up to the bridge and ordered the captain to close the hatches, saying that he was responsible for guarding the prisoners and a ship hand no authority to interfere.
As the night wore on, the air became very foul and men began to wonder how long they could survive. They have had no food for 24 hours and most of them had finished the small ration of water in their water bottles. Despite these horrible conditions, moral remained remarkably high.
By dawn on 2 October it was apparent that the ship was in imminent danger of sinking. Her captain requested permission from the Toyokuni Maru for every one to abandon ship. He was informed that a ship would be sent alongside to take off the Japanese but not the POW's.
As the air in the holds became increasingly foul, it was apparent that the men could not survive much longer. Then the ship gave a heavy lurch and it also became apparent that she could not last much longer either. One of the resourceful British troops produced a long butcher knife with which one of the troopers sliced his way through the hatch cover, providing an escape route. The Japanese had taken no action up to this time, but now starting firing from the bridge. Two prisoners were killed and several more wounded. It had now become abundantly clear that the ship was about to sink and for the first time since the torpedo struck there was panic in the holds as men struggled to get out at the order to abandon ship. Had the ship sunk at this stage, few would have escaped, but by good fortune, the stern had come to rest on a sand bar, leaving a large part of the ship sticking out of the water.
Upon arrival on deck, many of the men immediately plunged into the water. There were several small Japanese boats in the vicinity which the men tried to board, but were beaten off. After some time, these same boats, apparently responding to further orders, started to pick up those POW's who had not yet drifted past them toward the islands.
Nearly 200 survivors were assembled on the islands where the Chinese villagers fed and clothed them from their own meager supplies until the Japanese landed a force from a destroyer the follow in day and took them off except for three of them who remained hidden by a village representative who later arranged for their escape to Chungking. Thirty five of the prisoners who were seriously ill left the ship in Shanghai, the remainder being sent to Japan except for five who died enroute.
Out of the original 1816 officers and men, 842 were drowned or killed during the sinking, 5 died on the Shinsei Maru, and 244 died subsequently, leaving 724 survivors.
After the war, interpreter Niimori Genichiro was tried in Hong Kong in September 1946 before a War Crimes Tribunal and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Expecting the death penalty, Genichiro danced for joy as his sentence was read out. Captain Kyode Shigeru, master of the Lisbon Maru, was tried before a different Tribunal in October and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lt. Wada died before he could be brought to trial.