Scores of Bataan POWs died on Japanese 'hell ships' during World War II

The Oryoku Maru, under attack at Olongapo, Luzon, in December, 1944.


By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: April 10, 2020

SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — Looking at a well-known aerial photo of the sinking of the Japanese passenger ship Oryoku Maru, Christopher Schurtz sees the death of a beloved relative.

“On that ship is my grandfather’s body,” said Schurtz, a history teacher at El Paso Community College, whose grandfather, Maj. Paul Schurtz, took part in the Bataan conflict.

Paul Schurtz, a Deming resident who was in his 40s when called to serve in the Philippines, survived the battle of Bataan only to become a Japanese prisoner of war.

He died onboard the Oryoku Maru shortly after U.S. Navy planes attacked it, unaware the vessel was carrying some 1,600 POWs, some of them New Mexicans who had fought in Bataan before its April 9, 1942, surrender.

Japanese “hell ships” like the Oryoku Maru lived up to their name: Historians say they were crammed with hundreds or thousands of POWs — usually in dark, unventilated holds below deck. Most were denied medical care or fresh water.

The Oryoku Maru, attacked Dec. 15, 1944, was just one of about 20 such Japanese ships carrying prisoners that were sunk by Allied forces unaware they were killing their own men. These ships were not only moving the prisoners away from the Philippines as American forces retook ground there, but sending them to Japan to serve as laborers to help keep its war effort going.

The prisoners’ tragic fate remains a little-known slice of history tied to the fall of Bataan — and another slice of horror to be endured while in Japanese captivity.

Some 1,800 New Mexico soldiers fought in Bataan, which started in early January 1942 and ended on April 9 when American military commanders surrendered. After the surrender, the captives — as many as 65,000 Filipinos and 12,000 Americans — were forced to march some 65 miles in six days in what has become known as the Bataan Death March. Malaria, combat wounds, dehydration, physical abuse and death at the hands of their Japanese captors took their toll on the men.

Historians say some 10,000 Filipinos and Americans died along the way.

If possible, an even worse fate was to befall the survivors aboard the hell ships, Christopher Schurtz said.

“The Oryoku Maru hold was packed,” he said. “The prisoners were crammed in together — one guy sitting in between your legs, the next guy sitting in between his legs, four or five men deep, and most of them suffered from dysentery so there was feces everywhere,” Schurtz said.

Years ago he interviewed David Johns, a former miner from Silver City who was one of the POWs on the hell ship called Haro Maru. “Guys went pure crazy,” Johns said. “Each morning you’d feel a guy next to you to see if he was still alive. If he wasn’t, you took his shirt or shoes, if he had any. Then you’d holler topside, ‘Get this SOB out of here, he’s dead.’ ”

The Japanese threw the dead overboard.

There were reports prisoners confined in the hell ships, not all of them Bataan defenders, turned on their comrades in the hold.

“A lot of those guys suffocated to death. Or they were murdered. I don’t know another word you would use for it,” Schurtz said.

Historian Gregory Michno, who wrote the book Death on the Hellships: Prisoners at Sea in the Pacific War, reports there were 134 hell ships that transported some 126,000 Allied prisoners. He estimates more than 19,000 prisoners died as a result of American attacks.

One was Horace Chavez of Pueblitos, a small village near Belen. He was working as a hospital orderly when in early 1941 he joined the U.S. Army. By the end of that year, Chavez was serving as a medic in Bataan, which the Japanese attacked in the wake of their attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“He was a sweet, smart Valencia County boy,” said Chavez’s niece, Helen Laura Lopez of Santa Fe. “He came from a classic New Mexico family.”

Her uncle survived the battle of Bataan and the ensuing death march, administering aid the best he could along the way. After being interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in the Philippines for more than two years, he was put aboard another hell ship, the Arisan Maru, with about 1,800 other Allied prisoners.

An American submarine attacked that ship in October 1944 in the South China Sea. Almost all of the prisoners on board died as it went down. Fewer than 10 survived long enough to be rescued.

Chavez, then 20, was not one of them.

“It’s pretty painful to think of young men, boys like Horace, as prisoners on a hell ship and dying the way he did,” Lopez said. “And having it be American-caused? That was painful too.”

The Japanese could have identified the merchant vessels they used for prisoner transport by painting or putting a white cross on the ship, Christopher Schurtz said, but they refused — violating the terms protecting prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention.

Lopez said her grandmother, Elena Gallegos Chavez, lived to be 99 and never gave up hope that her son had survived the sinking. When Lopez’s brother once mentioned he was traveling to the Philippines for business, her grandmother asked him to “look for Uncle Horace who might still be living there. Maybe he forgot about us.”

Christopher Schurtz said historians who know about Bataan are well aware of the role the hell ships played in the aftermath of the battle. He said historians and military survivors believe the hell ship experiences “were the worst part of the story by far.”

Given that hell ship prisoners were often inadvertently killed by their own forces, he added, “There’s tons of ironies in this story, for sure.”

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