Personal Stories

The Sinking Of The Suez Maru - Dennis R Courant

The Sinking Of The Suez Maru - Dennis R Courant


Dennis R Courant


Merchant Navy

Personal Stories

By Dennis R Courant

The Japanese Government was signatory to the ""Third Geneva Convention of 1929""- with respect to the treatment of POWs- but in the end fails ratify it.

The reasoning behind it seems to be the following.

The differences between Japanese Society as a whole and the more prosperous  European nations and the United States are insurmountable.

Discipline in the Japanese military is of such a strict nature, that a Japanese soldier would never  allow himself to be captured by enemy forces. It would bring shame on him, his family, his outfit, his country and the Emperor. By ratifying the treaty the Japanese feel they are at a disadvantage as it would be a one way street for them.

As a concession, the Japanese government in principal agrees to enforce the ""Rules and Regulations with respect to the treatment of POWs""- as laid down during the Prussian-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

The Japanese however keep omitting sections they dislike or don't seem to be in their favor. There is no mention of clothing or shoes for the POWs for instance. Neither is there any mention about employing POWs as common laborers.

According to accepted international convention POWs could only be employed for internal/external camp duties and not for the general advancement of the occupation forces.

The International Red Cross in Geneva (CIRC) offers to mediate between the United States and Japan where information about POW situations and exchanges are involved.

The Japanese Ministry of War establishes a Prisoner of War Bureau (POWIB)  and promises to supply the information requested. The information however is very sketchy and incomplete.

Early February 1942 the CIRC lead negotiations between the United States and Japan break down.

On February 20, 1942 CIRC informs the Dutch Government in Exile in London that the Japanese Government is willing to apply the rules of the ""Third Geneva Convention"" on the basis of reciprocity.

CIRC is looking for a way out and on February 26, 1942 they remind the Dutch Government that in 1911 the Japanese already signed (with reservations) the very limited ""Land War Rules and of 1907"" with respect to the treatment of POWs and in fact in 1934 also ratified the Second Geneva Convention of 1929 with respect to the treatment of the sick and wounded.

On April 24, 1942 the Japanese Foreign Ministry informs the Swiss envoy in Tokio that the  rules of the Second Geneva Convention will apply to POWs , but with the restriction ""as far as possible"".

However wonderful all these rules, regulations and promises were, in the final analysis the Japanese Camp Commander was in complete charge and everybody had to dance to his tune.

Early 1942.  In early 1942 Japanese Emperor Hirohito decrees the establishment of the Prisoners of War Bureau. One of it's task is to record the death of Allied Prisoners of War and to adopt a policy to ensure that by the end of hostilities all Allied Prisoners of War and internees will be eliminated. Japanese Imperial Headquarters issues orders to all Pacific Commands that under no circumstances will Prisoners of War be allowed to fall into enemy hands.

Mid January 1943. With increasing frequency US planes launched  from Australian bases attack targets in the Banda Sea. (The area in question stretches from the  Moluccas Archipelago as a barrier to the North and the Eastern part of the Lesser Sunda Islands to the South). US planes are sighted as far as the Macassar Straits. The Japanese plans to invade Australian New-Guinea have all but vanished. On January 15, 1943 after several months of heavy fighting, Guadalcanal finally falls into the hands of  US forces. After  devastating allied air raids around the Bismark Archipelago from 2 to 4 March 1943 the Japanese reenforcement shiping routes are severely restricted. Australia has become a major threat. The Japanese desperately need air coverage and close the door to the Banda Sea. The construction of new airfields and the expansion of existing ones becomes a top priority and  plans are finalized to use POWs as cheap labor.

April 1943. A large group of about 4000 British and Dutch POWs are shipped from Surabaya to the Island of Ambon. (Camps: Liang, Ambon City, Rumah Tiga, Wyame and Laha), the Island of Ceram (Camp Amahei) and the Island of Haruku (Palao Camp) to be used as slave labor in the construction and expansion of airfields. Some 2000 more are shipped to the Island of Flores (Camps: Wulff, Reyers, Blom and Talibura). Smaller groups are shipped to the Islands of Buton (Camp Raha) and Timor (Camp Kupang).

The POWs come from different camps in Java and are divided into 3 groups, all with letter designations indicating their camp of origin. The larger groups are assigned capital letters A, B and C; the smaller sub-groups are indicated by lower case letters a, b and c.

A for POWs from the Batavia (now Jakarta) and Tandjung Priok (Jakarta Harbor) area.

B for POWs from Tjimahi area, a pre-war garrison town near the city of Bandung and C for POWs from the Surabaya area. All POWs are shipped from Tandjung Perak (Surabaya Harbor). Initial shipments include the A group (AI, and AII -1000 Dutch: Cavalry captain Erkelens- from Batavia and AIII -1000 British: maj. Gibson- from Tandjung Priok), the B group (BI-700, BII-700 and BIII-600 all  Dutch: lt. col Altena- POWs from Tjimahi) and the C group-2070 mostly all British: sq.l. Pitts- POWs on 'stand by' in the Surabaya area.

Ships heading for Ambon are the Kunitama Maru, (mostly Dutch POWs) the Amagi Maru and the Matsukawa Maru (mostly British POWs) which arrive at Ambon on April 28. Two more ships arrive at Ambon on April 30; the Mayahashi Maru, and the Nishii Maru (mostly Dutch POWs). Other Japanese prison ships involved in the transportation of POWs from the Surabaya area are:  the Tazima Maru, the Tenzio Maru, and the Koam Maru. There are still more ships involved in the transportation of POWs between different ports and camps in the Moluccas and Flores or return transportation to the Surabaya area. These are: the Heian Maru, the Taian Maru, the Maros Maru and the Suez Maru.

After the War ended in 1945 nothing was known about the true circumstances surrounding the death of some 548 of these slave labor POWs. Along with the other POWs on board the Suez Maru, they were simply listed as victims of an American Submarine attack which sank the ship; until 1949 when a Japanese Officer, Lieutenant Koshio Masaji in writing discloses to Far East Command details about the sinking of the Suez Maru asking for an investigation into the massacre of Allied Prisoners of War at sea. His statements triggers an inquiry into his own actions, the actions of the captain of the Suez Maru and the commander of the escort Minesweeper W12.

Lieutenant Koshio Masaji was the officer in charge of the POWs and sick Japanese on board the Suez Maru. In early 1943 the Japanese liquidate their prison camps in the Surabaya area; the POWs are shipped to camps in Bandung and Tjimahi. As mentioned earlier, large groups of POWs from camps in the Batavia area and Tjimahi are subsequently transported back to Surabaya where they are to join the C group on 'stand by'  for shipment to camps in Ambon,  Haruku and Flores. The Japanese plan calls for  about 6300 'laborers'.

November 1942 Ambon. The task of building the airfield(s) on the island of Ambon has been  completed. The Japanese High Command at Ambon decides that the POWs will be returned to Java. Because of severe malnutrition and systematic starvation, they are too weak to be of any value and in Java they will be able to 'recover' from their illnesses (to mention a few: dysentery, beriberi, malaria, skin diseases, diphtheria, ulcerated eyes or a combination of all of these).

All POWs are simply skin over bones and most are physical wrecks; the ones who are unable to walk have to be carried on stretchers.

Haruku (Palao Camp) November 24, 04:00.  A group of about 776 POWs from Haruku's Palao Camp has to board a dirty 2000 ton Coal Barge with destination Ambon where they are to meet up with a second group of 500 POWs from Ambon's Liang Camp. Down in the holds the coal dust is about 2 inches thick. No ventilation and no air. In a small motor boat they are shuttled from the dilapidated dock in the harbor to the Coal Barge. Since there are a lot of patients on stretchers and the procedure is slow, Camp Commander Kurashima gets impatient and orders the construction of a hastily put together wooden platform mounted on 3 native proas. The patients on stretchers are to be transported on this makeshift raft. The situation is miserable. Due to unbalanced weight, the raft keeps tilting and the sick patients keep sliding into the water. Of a total of 30 who wind up in the water, 2 have to be sent back to the Camp Hospital of which 1 dies the next day.

November 25, 06:00. Boarding is complete and the Japanese doctors are threatened with punishment if any of the departing prisoners dies within 2 days of leaving. The Palao Camp group stuffed in the 2 crammed holds of the Coal Barge finally leaves Haruku. The tightly packed ship which is immediately spattered with faeces reaches the Bay of Ambon during the course of the day. The conditions on board have steadily worsened; some men are dying and a few corpses have been dropped overboard. No burial ceremonies; just bagged and thrown over the side.

November 25, Noon time. The Coal Barge arrives at the Port of Ambon where the Suez Maru, a (6,400 GRT) Japanese Army Cargo Ship designated PS 45 (Prison Ship # 45 of a total of 56 Japanese Prison Ships) lays anchored in the bay; the only ship available at the time on which these men could be transported to Java.

November 26, Early morning. About 350 sick men from Liang Camp arrive at the Port of Ambon and are straight away embarked on the Suez Maru. In the mean time the POWs on the Coal Barge from Haruku are inspected by a Japanese doctor and a nurse. They decide that about 2 dozen are too sick to travel and they are sent to Liang Camp; then as the POWs from Haruku are finally embarking, barges with wounded Japanese on board come cruising up. They are given immediate priority for embarkation.

At the time the seas around Ambon were very dangerous and during the boarding of the POWs, Lieutenant Koshio who is in charge asks his superior officer, Unit Commander Lt. Col. Anami for instructions in case of an enemy submarine attack and possible sinking of the ship. He wants to know what measures to take and how to care for the POWs. The escort will be a Minesweeper which hasn't the capacity to accommodate everybody. The Unit Commander reminds him to carry out the orders from High Command: 'No Allied prisoner is to survive or fall into enemy hands; you will kill them all!'

The Suez Maru has 4 holds. The No.1 and No.2 holds are already occupied by Japanese patients. At final count there are now about 549 sick POWs on board (422 Allied and 127 Dutch). They are located in the No.3 and No.4 holds. There is ample room down below and the dying patients are allowed to stay on deck near the No.3 and No.4 hatches so they don't have to be hauled up when the end finally comes. They just have to be wrapped up in gunny sacks and thrown overboard.

November 26, past noon time. After the boarding is complete, the Suez Maru escorted by two Minesweepers (W11 and W 12) leaves the Port of Ambon steaming over the Banda Sea heading for Surabaya. There is an aircraft (E13A1 float plane) located on the foredeck of the ship. The aircraft has a fractured fuselage and is scheduled for repairs at the Repair Depot 102 in Surabaya. Tentative time of arrival is November 30th. There are reports of magnetic mines dropped by US in Surabaya harbor.

November 26 and 27. Minesweeper W11 peels off heading due West for Kendari Air and Naval Base (South East Celebes) and shows up at Kendari harbor on the 28th. The Suez Maru is now only in convoy with Minesweeper W12 who is not ""pinging"" (sonar is not ""on""). Neither ship is 'zigzagging', a naval procedure making ships a more difficult target for submarines. The small corvette encounters no problems.

November 28 night time. For reasons unknown, on the night of the 28th the W 12 disappears. The Suez Maru is now sailing alone.

November 29, morning. Position: near the Kangean Islands, a group of small islands located North of Bali and East of Madura. On the morning of the 29th the W 12 reappears on the horizon far to the rear, eventually catching up with the Suez Maru until she is sailing ahead of her at the same speed.

Bonefish locates Suez Maru. By March 1943 the US Submarine Command knew all the Japanese convoy routes and most Allied Submarines lay waiting adjacent to them. The Japanese Maru Code (JN14) had been broken and by knowing the Departure time plus the Noon position and the Destination, you had a fix.

Bonefish leaves Fremantle, Western Australia (her home base) on November 22 heading for the Flores Sea. She is on her 4th patrol. Destination: an area in the South China Sea. She has transited the Bali Strait on the evening of November 28th. and her surface radar detects a contact 17 miles (27 km) out at 19:27. Bonefish probably  tracked it for about 15 to 20 minutes, then reached a location for attack, usually about 1500 yards (1.372 km) from an intersecting course. The whole procedure would probably take less than an hour. Since all US Submarines in the area were aware of Japanese air activity, staying on the surface would invite an attack and that was suicide. The Suez Maru's fate was that she traveled a known route that Bonefish patrolled. She was an easy target.

08:00. Bonefish fires torpedoes. Bonefish position now: Kangean Islands 6º 22' South by 116º 35' East. Bonefish's torpedo data: T4/2DUP -Translation: Fired 4 torpedoes of which 2 hit - Daylight - Under Water - Using Periscope. (Note: Actually only one torpedo inflicted damage on the Suez Maru; the second 'hit' must have been a 'Premature' and viewed as a 'hit' through Bonefish's periscope. The torpedoes were the old magnetic types prone to all kinds of malfunctions; 'Duds' or 'Pre matures'. Bonefish fired the 4 torpedoes at overlapping targets: Suez Maru/Minesweeper W12. Only the Suez Maru was hit.

On board the Suez Maru. The lookout spots white traces in the water heading towards the ship and starts yelling: 'Torpedo, torpedo'! What happened to the anti-submarine precautions? Why no warning from W12; what happened to the air coverage? The ship is frantically trying to dodge the incoming torpedo by making a big turn at full speed. The evasive action is successful and the first torpedo misses. Bonefish fires 2, 3 and 4. (Note: The torpedo firing sequence probably went something like this: Bonefish fires 1 and 2 but both miss the overlapping target; she then she fires 3 and 4. Three is a 'premature' but 4 is a direct hit at the stern of the Suez Maru -back of the ship into the No.4 hold). Panic and mass confusion on board. There are a considerable number of victims in the No. 4 hold; few men are moving. The majority of POWs are coming out of the No.3 hatch some with their life jackets on. They are ordered to go back down below into the No.4 hold to rescue the injured. The ship is dead in the water; the shaft is broken and the engines ceased to function; she slowly begins to sink. Since the POWs are too weak to do any heavy lifting, the Korean guards are instructed to throw the heavy life rafts into the sea and now everybody is jumping overboard. The W12 reports 'heavy loss of life' and calls for assistance, but none arrives. The list of the sinking Suez Maru gradually becomes steep.

09:40. The Suez Maru finally disappears below the surface at 09:40 taking down with her the dead and seriously wounded who were unable to make it above deck. By this time the surviving POWs, between 200 and 250 of them, are floating in the sea, clinging to the rafts, pieces of wood and debris while slowly drifting in the currents. Minesweeper W 12 who has managed to dodge Bonefish's torpedoes has come back cruising around in a large circle only picking up Japanese and Korean survivors.

14:00. After the last Japanese survivor is taken out of the sea around 14:00. Captain Kawano of the W 12 confronts Lt. Koshio -who is one of the last ones to be picked up- with the following: The small Minesweeper is full and he can not accommodate any more survivors; he is afraid the boat will capsize. He wants to know what should be done with the Allied survivors in the sea who are now floating in a long line. There is great animosity towards the enemy amongst the his Officers and men and after a short discussion Captain Kawano, as senior officer, orders the shooting of all allied survivors. The standing orders of the Army have to be carried out: 'Under no circumstances shall any allied survivor fall into enemy hands', especially with the enemy Submarine probably still nearby. Since Lt. Koshio is officially still in charge of the POWs, he gets the order to supervise the killing. He takes charge of the rifle unit on W 12. A machine gun is readied at the bow of the boat and 12 men armed with rifles are deployed, 6 on each side of the foredeck. Lt. Koshio orders the officer in charge of the rifle unit and the lookouts to make no mistakes as to the targets because 2 Japanese are still missing. The Captain of the W 12 assumes command on the bridge and Lt. Koshio supervises the shooting.

14:15. The massacre begins. Minesweeper W 12 begins cruising at slow speed within 50 meters of the POWs, the left side of the ship facing them. The firing with the machine gun and rifles begins and continues until the sea around turns red with blood. Some brave POWs knowing they are going to be shot, stand up on the debris they are clinging to and present themselves as targets for the bullets.

16:30. More than two hours have gone by but sporadic shooting continues and finally seems to come to an end around 16:30. The W 12 having accomplished her gruesome task is gradually moving away from the scene. Her destination has changed and instead of continuing on her journey to Surabaya, she is now heading for Batavia because magnetic mines had been dropped by US planes at the entrance to Surabaya harbor.

(Note: After the completion of the Japanese War Crimes Trials, not further action was taken to indict Kawano Usumu, Commander of Minesweeper No. 12, for the killing of Allied Prisoners of War or Lt. Koshio for carrying out the orders).

According to the C.O.F.E.P.O.W. web site, there was one survivor, a British POW by the name of Ken Thomas who after floating in the sea for 24 hours was rescued by the Australian Corvette HMAS Ballarat en route to Colombo some 2500 miles away.

The amount of Japanese and Korean survivors is unknown. One of the Japanese survivors shows up at Liang Camp and mentions 7 Japanese/Korean survivors. The Japanese did not like to leave  paper trails, but estimates are that there must have been between 200 to 250 Japanese/Korean survivors.

Suez Maru: New construction for the Japanese Mitsui Line but taken over by the Army. Single hull construction, so that one torpedo would be enough to sink her.

Built: 1919 by Sumitomo Heavy Industries Ltd. Uraga Shipyard,  Japan.

Owners: Kuribayasi Syosen K.K.

Class: 1A cargo type.

6,400 tons GRT (Gross registered tonnage). 9,200 tons DWT.

Machinery: VTE Steam.

Fuel: Coal

Length :445' Speed -58' Beam - 32' Draught.

Speed: 15 knots with 13.5 knots at Cruising speed.

Radius at Cruising - 13,000 miles.

No markings on the ship during transportation of POWs as required by the Third Geneva Convention. Japanese weapons transports typically bore Red Cross markings while the ships carrying prisoners of war -including the Suez Maru- were unmarked and therefore targeted by US submarines.

Minesweeper No. 12: Built 15 August 1939 at Ishikawa Heavy Industries, Japan.

10 March 1942 assigned to Japanese 21st Special Naval Base Force, 2nd Southern Expeditionary Fleet. Stationed at Kendari Air and Naval Base , Celebes (with Minesweepers W7, W8, W9 and W11). W11 and W12 were of the W7 Class and this is the following;   

Displacement - 750 Normal, 630 Standard

Length - 237'

Machinery - 2 sets GTU, 2 Kampon Boilers, twin screw

Speed - 20 knots

Radius - 2,000 miles @ 14 knots

Crew - 88

Armament - 2x120mm (4.7"") 45 Cal. LA - 2x25mm AA plus DC

This class was modified beginning in September 1943 to escorts,

landing their sweep gear, with the changes as follows;

Add 2 x 4.7"" - Add 9 x 25mm AA - Increased DC to 36 from 24.

For reasons unknown, her recently upgraded Sonar was off at the time of Bonefish's attack and therefore the Suez Maru did not receive any prior warning.

Sunk - 6 April 1945 after being torpedoed by the Submarine USS Besugo (SS-321).

USS Bonefish (SS-223): Gato Class Submarine built specifically to hunt down and destroy Japanese Cargo Ships. This boat sank 12 enemy vessels and damaged 7.

Length: 311'. Speed - 20 knots surfaced, 9 knots submerged. Torpedoes - 6 bow and 4 stern torpedo tubes. Total of 24 torpedoes (loaded tubes plus reloads - 10 forward, 4 aft). Built at Electric Boat Co. in Groton Connecticut and commissioned 31 May 1943. Bonefish's war patrols included the South China Sea, the Celebes Sea and the Sulu Sea. After she torpedoed the Suez Maru Bonefish remained in the area for an hour or so (not clear on this). Before moving into Makassar Strait two days later she was at the upper arm of Celebes -quite a distance from the Kangean Islands- where she sank the Nichiyo Maru off the North coast of Celebes on December 1st. She then transited Sibitu Strait into the Sulu Sea.

She was lost to enemy action on her 8th war patrol, when conducting a submerged daylight patrol penetrating the Sea of Japan with Submarines USS Tunny (SS-282) and USS Skate (SS-305). She was lost after a heavy barrage of depth charges off Toyama Wan in the mid part of Western Honshu. Japanese records of antisubmarine attacks mention the attack made on 18 June 1945, at 37º 18'N; 137º 25'E in Toyama Wan. 86 officers and men were lost. Bonefish was the last Submarine sunk in World War II.

USS Besugo (SS-321): Balao Class Submarine (upgrade from the Gato Class). Basically same configuration as Bonefish; also built at Electric Boat Co. Commissioned - 19 June 1944. Besugo's war patrols included the Bungo Straits -Southern entrance to the Sea of Japan- and Makassar Straits, Java and South China Sea. She sank the German Submarine U-183; one 10,020-ton tanker one LSV, one Frigate and Minesweeper W12. Decommissioned - 21 March 1958. Recommissioned - 15 June 1965. Decommissioned and loaned to Italy - 31 March 1966. Returned and struck from the Navy List - 15 November 1975. Sold for scrapping - 16 April 1976. Crew - 6 Officers and 60 enlisted men.

HMAS Ballarat: Australian Destroyer. She was active in the evacuation of Sumatra and on 19-20 February 1942 took a party of RAF personnel from Batavia to Oosthaven where they salvaged a quantity of essential Air Force material. She was the last vessel to leave Tjilatjap on 3 March 1942 and reached Fremantle, Australia on 9 March 1942.


 'As POW to the Moluccas and Flores' (Account of a Japanese transport of Dutch and British service men 1943-1945 by J.H.W. Veenstra e.a.-Dutch).

'Kill the Prisoners' by Don Wall (Australia)

E-mail contacts  in the U.S., The Netherlands, Japan and Australia.

World War II Military Web Sites.



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