The Sinking of the Junyo Maru
This the largest maritime disaster of World War 11.
The Japanese steamship Junyo Maru left Tanjong Priok, the harbor of Batavia (Jakarta), on the 16th of September 1944. On board the 5065 ton vessel were cramped, apart from the crew and Japanese guards, 2300 Dutch, British, American and Australian Prisoners of War (POWs) and 4200 Javanese slave laborers -- 6500 POWs in total. All had left POW camps days earlier unsure of their destination.
A large contingent of POWs (1600) had come from the camp of the 10th Infantry Battalion of the Dutch East-Indies Army (KNIL) in Batavia and included many members of the (City Guards). They had marched through Batavia to the central railway station and were then packed into carriages for the trip to Tanjong Priok. Soon after their arrival another train with 700 POWs from camp "Kampong Makassar" had pulled in.
Hungry and thirsty they had marched and waited to board the ship still unsure of their destination and fearful of what lay ahead. Finally the call had come and they had filed on board the rust bucket. The slave laborers had been directed to the bow of the ship. There they had thoughts of lying on the iron deck or in the ship's holds but all they could do was squat or stand because, as was the case with the POWs, in the stern, there was no room to stretch out or even to lie with bended knees.
The POWs had been led to the stern, to the deck as well as the holds below deck. In the holds the Japanese had used bamboo scaffolding to create another 'deck' between floor and ceiling thereby increasing the capacity to accommodate more prisoners. They were literally packed in like sardines in a tin. Many could find standing room only which led the optimists to conclude that the journey would only last for a few hours....
Considering the potential for enemy torpedo attacks the Junyo Maru was escorted by a Corvette and a gunboat equipped with asdic and depth charges to combat such an event. The ship had very little in the way of lifesaving equipment on board for its 'passengers'. It had only two old life-boats hanging up near the bridge on either side of the ship and a few rafts stacked up on deck. In contrast, the Japanese had their life-vests on as soon as the ship left the quay!
Life on the ship was intolerable. Those on deck were exposed to the full tropical sun during the day and chilling winds and rain during the night. Those below decks suffered in stifling heat from lack of air, food, water and toilet facilities. The smell was horrible and many went mad. Toilet facilities consisted of boxes suspended over the side of the ship. As there were not enough for that many 'passengers' there were long queues which, together with the overcrowding, meant that the round trip could take several hours. Many were much too weak and sick to undertake such a trip.
In contrast to the cold wet night, the day of the 18th of September was another hot searing uncomfortable tropical day for the POWs both on and below deck. However, towards late afternoon storms threatened and fearful of another soaking during the night many deck 'passengers' looked for space below decks. Indeed there were vacancies below as many there had offered their space for a stay on deck. As it turned out this was a life or death decision.
At about half-past-five there was a large explosion in the bow of the ship. Moments later another in the stern. Soon it was realized the ship had been struck by torpedoes. There had been little panic in the beginning; none when the engines were turned off, nor when the steam from the boilers was released, nor when the sirens were turned on. But when the stern started to sink and the bow lift high out of the water panic did set in.
Survival for those that made the water, and many did not, consisted of staying afloat as long as possible by hanging on to a life-raft or any other floating material that was around. Needless to say, the Japanese had commanded the life-boats. Swimming to the shore in their condition was impossible. The escorts were seen picking up people but seemed to favor the Japanese. Besides, these vessels might also become the target for the submarine...! However they continue to pick up survivors and ferry them to Padang some 6 hours away up the coast till late in the night. Then nothing....
After a nightmare night, clinging to whatever they could, one of the gunboats appeared out of the morning mist for a brief rescue mission and pulled out the survivors that could reach and hang onto the ropes thrown overboard. Exhausted they lay on the deck, to be told by the fitter ones to act alive or be kicked overboard again!
Final count of survivors picked up by the Japanese
boats was about 680 POWs and 200 slave laborers. That is a
total of 880 of the 6500 men who left Java 5 days before!