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Hong Kong - Lisbon Maru Sinking/2icon for Recommended story

by ChrisPix

Contributed by 
People in story: 
George Stare RN - Telegraphist
Location of story: 
Hong Kong / Shanghai
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 May 2005

Chris Pix
16th May 2005

The Sinking of the Lisbon Maru — Originally by G.C. Hamilton.

In the annals of modern warfare, the sinking of the Lisbon Maru, as a result of which over a thousand officers & men lost their lives, does not perhaps rate very high as a horror story.
There have been many incidents in which many more people have been killed, in a more brutal fashion. But it stands out as an example of unnecessary killing, and a callous disregard for human lives which could have been saved. Each of the survivors remembers with clarity his own part in the affair, but few know all the facts. The account which follows is based on the account by Martin Weedon in his book “Guest of an Emperor”; the newspaper accounts of the War Crimes Trial’s of the Japanese responsible; extracts from the log of USS Grouper, which torpedoed the Lisbon Maru; newspaper accounts of the presentation to the Sing Pang Islanders who helped rescue the survivors; newspaper account in the Japan Times Weekly dated 20th October 1942; Knights of Bushido” by Lord Russell of Liverpool; personal accounts written at the time; and personal reminiscences.

One matter should be placed beyond doubt: The official Japanese account quoted the survivors as voicing indignation against the American Submarine which sank the ship. This is quite untrue. The Lisbon Maru was armed and carried Japanese troops as well as prisoners of war; she bore no sign that she was a P.O.W. ship. The American submarine was fully justified in sinking her, and I never heard any criticism of the Americans for their action.

The affair is worth recording for another reason: the gallantry of a number of individuals and the high standard of conduct of all the men. Some individual acts are recorded in these pages, but there were many others of which I have no personal knowledge. The general steadfastness was due in large measure to the leadership of Lieut. Col. H.W.M. Stewart O.B.E., M.C., the Commanding Officer of the Middlesex Regiment (The Diehards.)


Preparation in Hong Kong

On 25th September 1942, 1816 British prisoners of war were assembled on the parade ground of Shamshuipo Camp, Hong Kong, and were addressed by Lieutenant Hideo Wada of the Imperial Japanese Army through his interpreter Niimori Genichiro.
“You are going to be taken away from Hong Kong” he said, “to a beautiful country where you will be well looked after and well treated. I shall be in charge of the party. Take care of your health. Remember my face.”

Reactions among the prisoners were mixed. After the initial shock of the surrender on Christmas Day 1941 had been absorbed, hopes had run high for an early release. But now it had become apparent that no relief was to be expected from the Chinese Army. Singapore and the Philippines had fallen to the Japanese, and the news from Europe was bad.

Conditions in the main camp in Shamshuipo and in the Officers’ Camp in Argyle Street were poor. Quarters were crowded and food was inadequate. Medical supplies were scarce and a diphtheria epidemic had reached alarming proportions. Deaths were common. A few intrepid men had escaped, but reprisals on those who remained were so severe, and the punishment for those who were caught was so savage that future escapes were doubtful, even for those who still retained sufficient stamina to make the attempt.

There were some who argued that a move to Japan, which seemed the obvious destination, would be an improvement since (they believed) the Japanese would not wish to display in its own homeland its in humanity to its prisoners of war and that consequently better treatment might be expected. The more cynical scorned these ideas and would have preferred to stay in Hong Kong, where, perhaps the chances of rescue and escape were slightly greater. But discussion was futile, for a prisoner of war has no choice of action.

On Board the “Lisbon Maru”

The men were divided into groups of 50, each group being in the charge of a subaltern, while the whole party was commanded by Lt. Col. H.W.M. (Monkey) Stewart, O.B.E., M.C., the Commanding Officer of the Middlesex Regiment (The Diehards), assisted by a small number of officers.

After an exhaustive but (as it turned out) ineffective medical examination, the prisoners were loaded on 27th September into lighters from the pier at the corner of Shamshuipo Camp and taken out to a freighter of some 7000 tons, the Lisbon Maru , under the command of Captain Kyoda Shigeru, where they were accommodated in three holds. In No.1 hold, nearest the bows, were the Royal Navy under the command of Lieut. J.T. Pollock. In No2 hold, just in front of the bridge, were the Royal Scots (2nd Btn.), the Middlesex Regiment (1st Btn.), and some smaller units, all under Lt. Col. Stewart. In No3 hold, just behind the bridge, were the Royal Artillery under Major Pitt. Conditions were very crowded indeed, all the men lying shoulder to shoulder on the floor of the hold or on platforms erected at various heights. The officers on a small ‘tween deck half way up the hold were similarly crowded.

Food was quite good by prisoner of war standards: rice and tea in the morning; and rice, tea and a quarter tin of bully beef with a spoonful of vegetables in the evening. There was sufficient water for drinking, but none for washing. Some cigarettes were issued, a great luxury. The latrines consisted of wooden hutches hanging over the side of the ship and were too few for the numbers on board. About half the men were provided with kapok life belts. At the subsequent War Crimes trial Interpreter Niimori claimed that every man had a life belt, which he checked at every roll call.

There were also on board 778 Japanese troops and a guard of 25 under the command of Lieut. Hideo Wada. The ship sailed on 27th September. The first 4 days were uneventful. The weather was good and the prisoners were allowed on deck in parties for fresh air and exercise. There were four lifeboats and six life rafts, and according to the Captain it was decided that the four lifeboats and four of the rafts should be set aside for the Japanese if required, leaving two life rafts for the 1816 prisoners.

The Torpedo Attack

On the night of the 30th September 1942, the U.S.S. Grouper (SS 214), belonging to Division 81 of the United States Pacific Fleet Submarine Force, was engaged in its second War Patrol in an area south of Shanghai. It was a bright moonlight night, and at about 4 am “Grouper” sighted about nine sampans and a 7,000 ton freighter, the Lisbon Maru. Her Commanding Officer decided that the night was too bright for a surface attack, so he paced the target in order to determine her course and speed, and then took up a position ahead of the ship to await daylight on 1st October. While he was doing so he passed within 4,000 yards of two fishing boats equipped with fishing lights and side-lights.

In No.2 hold of the Lisbon Maru Lieut. G.D. Fairbairn of the Royal Scots, Duty Officer for the day, visited the lower deck at 6.30 am on 1st October to rouse the men and ensure they rolled up their bedding and dressed before roll call at 7 am. Several of the men took the opportunity of visiting the scarce latrines on deck before the morning rush began — a wise precaution as it turned out.

At daylight, the Lisbon Maru changed course about 50 degrees leaving the submarine in a poor position from which to attack. She dived and began her approach at 7.04am, she fired three torpedoes at the closest range attainable (3,200 yards) but scored no hits. The ship remained on course; the Commander fired a fourth torpedo and in two minutes ten seconds heard a loud explosion. He raised the telescope and that the ship had changed course about 50 degrees to the right and had then stopped. There was no visible sign of damage. The Grouper then headed for a position abeam to starboard for a straight bow shot. The Commander then continues his report: “Target meanwhile hoisted flag resembling “Baker” and was firing at us with what sounded like a small calibre gun. Sharp explosions all around us”.

On board the ship the prisoners heard and felt the explosion, after which the engines stopped and the lights went out; but they did not know whether the ship had been torpedoed or whether there had been an internal explosion in the engine room. There was wild activity and shouting among the Japanese; some prisoners who were up on deck were hustled and pushed into the holds, the ship’s gun began firing. About ten sick men, who had been allowed to remain permanently on deck, were also sent down into the packed holds, with an order that they should be “isolated”. In the holds, the prisoners sat gloomily, wondering what was happening and whether they were going to get any breakfast.

The account in the Japan Times Weekly of 20th October 1942 was different. “We must rescue the British prisoners of war was the foremost thought which leaped into our minds when the ship met the disaster” said Lieut. Hideo Wada, “It was just the hour for the roll call of prisoners; somewhat taken aback they were about to stampede. ‘Don’t worry’, we told them ‘Japanese planes and warships will come to your rescue’. The commotion died down. It was encouraging to note that they had come to have such trust in the Imperial Forces during a brief War Prisoners’ camp life”.

By 8.45 am USS Grouper had reached a firing position for a 0 degree gyro, 80 degree track, range 1,000 yards. She fired the fifth torpedo with a 6 foot depth setting, but missed.
The ship had now developed a slight list to starboard. The Commander did not wish to use another bow torpedo so he worked around to a position 1,000 yards on the port side and at 9.38 am fired a sixth torpedo from the stern tube 180 degrees gyro, 80 degrees track, with a depth setting of 0 feet. He did not wait to see the results but immediately went to a 100feet dive and heard a loud explosion 40 seconds later “definitely torpedoish”.
Just before firing this sixth and last torpedo the Commander spotted a light bomber Mitsubishi Davia 108 over the target, and about two minutes later three depth charges, none of which was close, exploded.

It is doubtful whether this sixth torpedo hit. The prisoners did not observe it, but it could have passed unnoticed among the depth charges exploding around the ship.
The Japanese claim to have destroyed this torpedo. “It was just about 10.30 am that I happened to discover the sixth torpedo rushing towards the ship” said one of the gunners. “Corporal Moji gave us the order to fire at the torpedo …. Surprised beyond words, but faithful to the order, we charged our cannon with e shell, aimed at the torpedo, and fired. We looked ahead of us and discovered that we had scored a direct hit”.

The submarine then came up to periscope depth. The plane could be seen but the ship had disappeared and the Commander assumed, incorrectly, that she had sunk.

In the Hold.

On board the Lisbon Maru the Japanese had calmed down but had become uncooperative. Requests for food and water were refused. There was no latrine accommodation in the holds and many of the men were suffering from dysentery or diarrhoea. Requests for permission to attend the latrines on deck, or for receptacles to be passed down were ignored.

The submarine stayed in the vicinity throughout the day, occasionally hearing depth charges, as did the prisoners on the ship. Dusk settled, the sky was overcast and visibility through the periscope was poor. At 7.05 pm the Commander sighted lights astern and he decided to surface “and remove ourselves while the removing was good”.

For the prisoners it was a long, uncomfortable and increasingly anxious day. It was by now clear that the ship had been disabled and was listing; but the prisoners had no means of knowing the extent of the damage or what measures were being taken for their relief.

In the course of the day the Japanese partially closed the hatches, leaving a canvas wind funnel through which some air could reach the men in the hold.

According to the evidence of Captain Kyoda Shigeru, master of the Lisbon Maru, at his trial in Hong Kong in October 1946, the Japanese destroyer “Kure” arrived at the scene during the afternoon of 1st October and an order was received about 5 pm to transfer all the 778 Japanese troops to the destroyer. While this transfer was taking place, with the aid of two lifeboats, the “Toyokuni Maru” arrived under Captain Yano, and a conference was held on board the Lisbon Maru at which it was decided that the remaining Japanese troops should be transferred to the “Toyokuni Maru” and not to the “Kure”. The 77 members of the crew and the 25 guards under Lieut. Wada were to remain on the Lisbon Maru and arrangements were made for her to be towed to shallow water.

After the Japanese Troops had been removed to safety, Capt Kyoda Shigeru and Lieut. Wada discussed what should be done about the prisoners. According to the Captain, Lieut. Wada said that it was impossible for 25 guards to guard 1816 prisoners and that the best solution would be to close the hatches. The Captain said that he objected to the closing of the hatches on the grounds that ventilation would become very bad and also that if there were another attack and the ship sank with the hatches closed, there would be a needless waste of lives.
Wada appeared to accept this, but, according to the Captain, at about 8 pm one of the guards came and adopted a very truculent attitude. He told the Captain that the guards did not wish to be killed by the POW’s and asked why the hatches should not be closed. The Captain asked the guard if he was a soldier, and he then left.At about 9 pm Wada came to the bridge and ordered the Captain to have the hatches closed. Wada said that he was responsible for guarding the POW’s and that the Master of the ship had no authority to interfere. The attitude of Wada was very threatening, so the Captain ordered the First Officer to close the hatches.

On the instruction of Lieut. Wada, who, according to the official account in Japan Times Weekly, “directed the rescue atop the mast of the sinking Lisbon Maru”, the hatches were then closed, canvas tarpaulins were stretched over them and roped down, leaving the prisoners in complete darkness. As the night wore on the air became very foul indeed, and men began to wonder how long they could survive. No food had been received for over 24 hours and most men had finished the small ration of water in their water bottles. It was also over 24 hours since the prisoners, with the exception of those who had been on deck at 6.30 am, had been to the latrines; and in the packed holds, with everyone shoulder to shoulder, no facilities could be improvised. But despite these discomforts the men remained calm, and were reassured by Col. Stewart’s insistence that even the Japanese would not abandon a ship and kill all the POW’s. Indeed morale remained remarkably high. C.Q.M.S. Henderson, of the Royal Scots in particular, his beard jutting out aggressively, encouraged non-swimmers like himself by insisting that now was the time to learn. Repeated attempts by Lieut. Potter of the St. John Ambulance Association, who spoke Japanese, to communicate with the guards on deck brought NO response.

In the course of the long night, the men in No.2 hold got in touch with …
*** unfortunately my copy of G.C. Hamilton’s story is blocked at this point where the photocopy has been partially obscured — but clearly men were dying. Conditions in No.1 hold — where my uncle George Christopher Stare RN telegraphist age 22 was held must have been terrible — diphtheria sufferers dying, extreme heat etc …

Col. Stewart decided to prepare for a break out. He accordingly approached Lieut. H.M. Howell, who was something of an expert in these matters, having been in two previous shipwrecks, and ordered him to try and make a hole in the hatch covers. One of the resourceful British troops produced a long butcher’s knife which had escaped the eyes of the Japanese searchers; and armed with this, Lieut. Howell mounted an iron ladder in pitch blackness and tried to make an opening. But having to hold on to the ladder with one hand and suffering from a lack of oxygen, he was unable to effect any purchase, and was obliged to abandon the attempt.

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