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Unsung: The Hell Ships of WW II

History, World Affairs

As is the custom, Memorial Day is featured in newspaper articles and newscasts. Tributes to the fallen are numerous and fully justified. However, there are many unsung heroes that languish in anonymity. One such account is of the hell ships of WW II. Towards the end of the war, Japan was desperate for POW labor to replace their young men gone to war. Consequently, they shipped American POW's in the holds of merchant ships bound for Japan. The conditions as you can imagine were abysmal and many died during the voyage and afterwards from debilitation.

In violation of the Geneva Convention, the ships were not marked as POW transports. As a result, many were sunk by American submarines and aircraft. The loss of life was horrendous, made worse by the Japanese killing the survivors instead of rescuing them.  A total of 3600 American POW's were lost in Japanese merchant ship sinkings, most during 1944. Another 700+ who were not sunk died later. There are stories of American POW's attempting to save their comrades by hoisting them out of the sinking ships' holds by building human "ladders", only to be gunned down in the water by the Japanese.

In September, 1944, the Shinyo Maru was sunk with the loss of 832 Americans, 82 executed in the water. In October, the Arisan Maru went down with 1800 loss of life, 8 survivors executed. The Arisan Maru went down on October 24th with the loss of 49 POW's from Wisconsin, the deadliest day in the entire war for our state. These are just a few examples.

There are two lessons to take from this largely ignored chapter of WW II. One, is that America is one of the very few nations who fight wars under moral precepts. Other nations typically ignore the Geneva Convention and execute prisoners or starve them under unspeakable conditions of detention, including extreme torture. We are the stronger as a result of our inner moral strength. One reason for the tenacity and valor with which Americans fight is we have a cause, a moral imperative that our opponents rarely possess. This leads journalists to wonder where we find such men and women today in our volunteer military.

Second, there are many cases of valor and bravery not directly related to combat. Our POW's with very few exceptions, conducted themselves with patriotism, bravery and an inner strength that often confounded our enemies. They must not be forgotten. So, on this Memorial Day, 2013, let us remember them all, those that died in combat and those that died at the hands of a depraved enemy. They too served with honor.

God bless them all. 

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