Hell Ships and "Liberators"



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Submarine terms













Here is one of many examples of submarines sinking ships that carried allied POWs without any notification to the allies.

The code breakers at Pearl Harbor learned that a convoy of six ships (four passenger-freighters and two tankers) would leave Singapore September 6, 1944, with escorts to be joined by another convoy of three plus escorts from Manila to go to Japan, with "noon positions" specified on the coded grid of the Pacific they now knew. Unknown to any one on our side over a thousand POWs were crowded into the holds on board two of the ships from Singapore. They were survivors of building the bridge over the river Kwai. The information about the convoy was reported to Admiral Lockwood, who with Commander Voge and staff selected a wolf pack of three submarines to intercept the combined convoys in Formosa Straits at a selected position. That intercept spot was determined from the “noon-positions” for a night radar attack. The wolf pack of Growler with “Ben” Oakley skipper, Pampanito with “Pete” Summers skipper moved toward that position, while the third, Sealion II, Eli Reich (pronounced “rich”) skipper, was rushing back from base where they got a load of torpedoes after recent actions. Sealion II did join the others in time to attack the convoy near midnight.

During the action they torpedoed the two largest "marus" that carried the POWs and other ships. Japanese ships rescued Japanese survivors. Some escorts picked up POW survivors, while others left most POWs on floating wreckage on the sea. The three submarines followed the fleeing surviving ships.

Days later the Pampanito happened to move into the area where the two ships had been sunk and lookouts spotted people on some floating wreckage, black from oil and sun, and assumed they were enemies who might try to damage or destroy their submarine. Lookouts were handed weapons to defend the submarine as they approached the first group of people. As they neared, a clearly British voice shouted, “You sank our ship and now you’re going to shoot us!” Those on the bridge were shocked, quickly called on one person only to come onto the deck, while a couple of crewmen dropped to the deck to help him, knowing it could well be another enemy trick. As soon as they were sure this really was a British POW they were joined by other crew, who started helping survivors onto the deck. The Pharmacist Mate, “Doc,” figured out how to remove the thick, crusty oil from their skin and wash each with fresh water to clean skin of salt water, and crewmen helped them get below. Pamapanito was now very vulnerable deep in seas patrolled by enemy planes and ships. Dozens of crew were on deck distant from hatches to rush below as the submarine crept among wreckage. Summers radioed his pack mates and Admiral Lockwood of the prisoners. Soon the pack mate submarines arrived to pick up survivors, who were emaciated and weakened by years as POWs building the bridge of death over the Kwai and now days under the tropical sun on the ocean without water. The three submarines picked up a couple of hundred survivors. The three Pharmacist Mates suggested the survivors be kept separate from the crew because of skin conditions and illnesses. Many were delirious. Cooks creatively figured out what mild food would be appropriate for the survivors. Many were very ill, and a few died on the trip back to base, who were buried at sea with full honors. The three submarines rushed toward Saipan on the surface at full speed, keeping a very careful watch for enemy planes or ships, but miraculously managed to remain on the surface at high speed until arriving at Saipan. The “Docs” were joined by other crewmen volunteers to care for the survivors, getting almost no sleep. The condition of the survivors as described in the book, Return From the River Kwai, is appalling.

Meanwhile Adm. Lockwood ordered another two submarines nearby to rush to rescue. On the way they ran into a convoy with an escort carrier, quickly attacked, sinking the carrier and other ships, before rushing through rising seas to where survivors remained. They found most were dead, but rescued as many as they could find, before rushing them to Saipan.

There were several other times that unmarked, unidentified ships that carried POWs were sunk by our submarines. The few survivors called them hell ships and the submariners saviors. Despite careful study of enemy records many POWs are unaccounted for, and probably thousands died at sea after their ships were sunk. Most were being carried to Japan to be slave labor.

Several times the enemy through neutral nations asked for safe passage for hospital ships and other ships, and our submarines were notified of them.

In contrast when Britain sent ship loads of German POWs to Canada and the U.S., they notified Germany through neutral nations, and German navy leaders told how to mark those ships so U-boats would not attack. All those POWs successfully crossed the Atlantic.