‘J’ Force and ‘Wales Maru’ Party to Japan
The Japanese told the men of ‘J’ Force they were actually going to a rest camp!
This group of 900 POWs was made up of 600 British and 300 Australians who departed Singapore on ‘Wales Maru’ 15 May 1943. The 6,586-ton passenger/cargo ship ‘Weills Maru’ was christened ‘Wales Maru’ by the Australians. Described by the men as ‘old and slow with a top speed of 6 knots’ ‘Wales Maru’ had probably been purchased for scrap metal but shortage of ships meant all these ships had their lives extended.
The Australians were convalescents who had recently been discharged from hospital.
The 900 men were crammed into three of the four holds. There was no room to stand and the men had to avoid sitting or lying on protruding bolts. Their food consisted of meals of soggy rice and weak cabbage soup. Drinking water was precious. The POWs were allowed 20 mins on deck each per day unless using the latrines which were built over the side of the ship.
The first port of call was French Indo-China – the estuary of Riviere de Saigon at Cape Jacques where ‘Wales Maru’ anchored off the coast and waited for the convoy to arrive.
The estuary was a collecting point where convoys would arrive, break up and form up with other ships, depending on their destination. (American submarines later roamed the South China Seas terrorizing and attacking Japanese shipping, enforcing an affective blockade on Cape Jacque and Saigon).
The ‘Wales Maru’ sailed on 23 May reaching Takao, southwest coast of Formosa on 29 May 1942. They departed Takao on 2nd June. The men who were used to Singapore’s tropical heat were now experiencing light showers and cooler temperatures.
On 5 June 1942 at 10.00 hours all hell broke loose aboard ‘Wales Maru’. A US Navy submarine had fired torpedoes into the convoy. The POWs were locked down in the holds. The Japanese responded when their armed escort dropped depth charges on the submarine and other ships in the convoy fired their guns. The very primitive depth charges onboard the ‘Wales Maru’ were 44-gallon drums filled with explosives tied with rope to the stern of the ship. The rope was cut to allow the drums to fall. The explosions damaged the propeller shaft of ‘Wales Maru’ further reducing her speed.
The ‘old’ ship was now reduced to about 3 knots and soon left behind by the convoy having to fend for herself! One can only begin to imagine the terror felt in the ship holds and the men’s great relief when ‘Wales Maru’ arrived at Moji, Japan.
Moji on Kyushu Island and Shimonoseki on Honshu Island were the two most important transportation and communication centres in Japan. The each had good port facilities capable of handling large ships and providing unlimited anchorage. Kyushu had large coal exports and concentrations of heavy industry to trade with Korea, Manchuria, China and Netherlands East Indies.
Before disembarking and in full view of the public gathered on the wharf at Moji, a medical examination and glass rod test was conducted aboard the ‘Wales Maru’. The IJA had an ongoing paranoia concerning amoebic dysentery and pestis.
The POWs were now divided into 3 parties.
No. 1 Party was made up 150 sick and invalid who the Japanese claimed were being sent to a rest camp near Moji.
Included were 100 British and 50 Australians – from 2/4th were Roy Deveson and William ‘Pop’ Davey.
The promised rest camp was Fukuoka sub-Camp No. 9 Hakensho, Kyushu Island.
The 150 sick and invalided found themselves working down coal mines!
No. 2 Party comprised 250 Australians and 18 members of 2/4th MGB.
No. 3 Party was made up of 500 British who travelled with
No. 2 Party and remained on the train, continuing to another camp.
At dusk Parties 2 and 3 boarded a ferry that took them across the strait to Shimonoseki where they berthed at the ferry landing, located at the northern limit of the southern wharves. From the ferry landing it was only a matter of yards to the railway station to Kobe.
Kobe is built along a narrow section of the north coast of Osaka Bay at the western extremity of Osaka plain. Kobe began life as a tiny fishing village and then opened to foreign trade in1867. In 1892 the city was granted a charter and soon developed into a prosperous port with the aid of Sino-Japanese war of 1894-95 followed by Russo-Japanese War 1904-05 that saw this port outstrip Yokohama by volume of imports and exports.
The Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto area of Japan was the most highly industrialised in the Japanese Empire. The commercial districts were located near the waterfront on the coastal plain and produced vast quantities of war materials. The area produced 25% of all Japan’s rolled iron and steel products, approximately 30% of her naval and merchant ships and 30% of her marine engines. Wartime production in this area also included the manufacture of aircraft, engines, parts and ordnance. Undoubtedly the reason American B29 bombers were so attracted to the area!
(Read further about the bombing of Kobe)
The men travelled all night and arrived at Kobe the next morning, detraining at Sannomiya Railway Station. The POWs formed up and marched a short way down a street called Naka Machi Dore and assembled on the YMCA sports ground, called Yoenchi Park. This uneven sided park sat opposite Kobe House. At Yoenchi Park the men were issued with their POW numbers and divided into sections before crossing the road to their new home – Kobe House.
Some of the Kobe House POWs found themselves enlisted into the union of stevedores. John Lane’s book explained some of the Kobe companies and factories where the POWs were contracted out to work.
‘The Japanese companies of Mutsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, Kamagumi, Ohamagumi, Utsumigumi, Takahama, Kobe-go and Sempaku soon became as familiar to us as Coles and Woolworths. All these firms had large warehouses scattered along the huge artificially constructed waterfront, and most of the Aussies were allocated to these places. However there were three factories situated some ten miles east of Kobe, to which about seventy of us were detailed to work. This group comprised the Showal Denki carbon works, Yoshihara vegetable oil processors and Toyo Steel Foundry.‘
Union of Stevedores
Warehouses constructed by such companies as Sumitomo and Mitsubishi had railroad sidings adjacent to the main piers at the docks. These warehouses were of a modern concrete construction with multiple floors and earthquake proof.
Transit sheds constructed of wood or steel and corrugated iron lined most piers. Freight lines connected all the main wharves with the Tokaido-Sanyu railroads. There were 4 freight yards that served the waterfront section of Kobe. Takahama Quay was the collection point for general domestic cargo and when the opportunity arose provided plenty of scope for POWs to scrounge and loot.
With time the POWs became more proficient at the art of looting. If caught there was the risk of reprisal but in most cases the prize outweighed the punishment. Apart from some injuries in their new jobs as wharf lumpers and factory hands there wasn’t too much to complain about. Food was adequate with the midday meal supplied by the company or factory for which the prisoners were contracted out to work. The weather was pleasant with light showers and temperatures between 18 degrees and 30 degrees Celsius.