Hell Ships to Burma
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Hell Ships to Burma


April 1942 saw the first move of prisoners to the new “Rest Camps” up north.

Brigadier Varley -1b

Brigadier A.L Varley

The first group were known by the administration in Changi as “A” force. This was made up of 3,000 Australians under the  command of Brigadier Varley. The men were put into crammed holds on a Japanese freighter. With very little air and overcrowding they soon became sick on this ninety hour ordeal from Singapore up the west coast of Malaya to Burma. The sanitary conditions were very poor and with very little air flow, the stench made the situation much worse.

These men were put to work on the airfields in Burma at Victoria Point, Tavoy and Mergui. At the end of September the airfield work was finished and “A” force was moved by ship to Moulmein and then by road to Thanbyuzayat. The conditions they left at the airfields were good compared with their new camps. Thanbyuzayat station soon became a hive of activity building sheds, stacking sleepers and rails. The prisoners constructed their own atap huts a short distance from the station and a hospital was established to house the many sick suffering from malnutrition and tropical diseases.

By October the base camp for the Burma end of the proposed railway route was ready and more prisoners arrived from the Batavia camps only to pass through Thanbyazuayat and build new camps further along the new railway route. They had travelled from Java in the holds of Japanese freighters to Singapore where they had a stay at Changi before continuing their journey up the Strait of Malacca to Burma, the conditions on board the Hellships were the same as “A” force had experienced.

Japanese Freighter

Japanese Freighter

Known as Hellships

A reported voyage from Batavia on one of these Hellships, was typical of the journey to Burma by sea. The holds were crammed full of cargo before loading its 1,500 prisoners, who were put into its three small holds. The holds were so overcrowded that men had to lie on top of each other, within forty-eight hours at sea the first man had died. When docking at Singapore the men had a few days at Changi only to continue their journey on the same Hellship to Burma.

It was clear that the major transfers of prisoners from Singapore and Java during November and December 1942 had still not provided the Japanese with an adequate labour force for their gigantic undertaking.

A freighter left Singapore in January with its human cargo only to be delayed by submarine activity it took ten days to reach Penang Island, off Malaya, within that time  fourteen men had died within the holds.

Taken from Death Railway by Clifford Kinvig

However, there were still further drafts to come up from Changi and another group of ex-Java prisoners had yet to make their 'hell-ship' journey to the Burma end of the line. This latter party had started their move very soon after the first Java shiploads had left, but unlike their predecessors, their stay in the Changi compound had lasted nearly three months before they were taken in lorries down to the Singapore dockside and embarked on Japanese cargo boats for their trip to Burma. There were 1.800 men in this group, a mixture of Australians. Dutch and Americans, packed as usual into the cramped holds of the freighters. In mid-January 1943 the little convoy of two cargo boats and a small naval escort had practically reached its destination and was just off Moulmein in the Andaman Sea when two Liberator bombers from bases in India spotted the ships and began to bomb them. They scored three direct hits on the first freighter and its cargo of Japanese soldiers and prisoners were forced to take to the water. Finally the planes sheered off and the second freighter, which was also damaged, circled around picking up the survivors from the first. Four hundred Japanese and about fifty prisoners lost their lives in this attack. This was a harrowing experience for the prisoners before they had even begun their ordeal on the railway, and a grim augury of the hazards of sea passages aboard Japanese ships once the Allies had begun to re-establish their mastery of sea and air in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The prisoners who ran this gauntlet before arriving in Burma became No 5 Group, working with No 3 Group on the northern end of the project.

Kyle Thompson of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery sailed on one of the hellships. He was  taken prisoners by Japanese when Java fell March 8, 1942;

We had three ship rides under the Japs:

  1. October 11, 1942, boarded Dai Nishi Maru in Batavia and sailed to Singapore, arriving October 16th
  2. Moved by metal boxcars on train from Singapore to Penang, Malaya
  3. January 12th, 1943, loaded on Mojo Maru and sailed from Penang in company with the Nitimei Maru and a small escort vessel; on January 15th, 1943, Allied bombers located the small convoy 48 miles off Moulmein, Burma, sinking the Nitimei Maru and damaging the Moji Maru, the latter containing all the Americans who were in this convoy. Some Dutch and perhaps others lost when Nitimei Maur sunk, but no American casulties.

These were the only hell ships the bulk of American POWs captured in Java cruised on. Later 18 Americans of our group (including survivors of USS Houston, American heavy cruiser sunk 03/01/42 off coast of Java) perished when Allied submarines sunk Jap ship (identity unknown) enroute to Japan (location unknown) on June 24th, 1944.

After the horrors of the sea journey the Burmese did show compassion to the prisoners at Moulmein by supplying them with food as they passed through the streets.

By November “A” force had been boosted by 4,600 Dutch from Java and Sumatra, large numbers of Australian and Americans from Java and the 500 British from Sumatra. Brigadier Varley, who was still at Thanbyuzayat where the Japanese had their H.Q., was now in charge of a 10,000 workforce.




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