Everything about the sinking of the Junyo Maru (also written as “Jun’yo Maru” and sometimes even “Shinyo Maru”) is depressing. It was a Japanese Prisoner-of-War ship, one of the so-called “hell ships” of the Imperial Japanese Navy (more on this below), that carried thousands of miserable captured soldiers. When it was struck by a British submarine during World War II (WWII), over 5,000 people died, making it the deadliest ship disaster ever at the time of the attack. Although two other ship disasters have since happened that resulted in greater losses of life, both of which also occurred during WWII, the sinking of the Junyo Maru remains one the deadliest ship disasters of WWII and, indeed, of all time. Below you will find some basic information about the attack against the Junyo Maru and its role as a “hell ship.”
[NOTE: Why is this article about the sinking of a vessel that is not a cruise ship on a site that is about pleasure cruises? Because we had such an overwhelmingly positive response to our articles about the sinkings of the Titanic, the Lusitania, and others, that we realize our readers are interested in this subject, and we aim to oblige.]
The Junyo Maru’s history of ownership is unusually complicated. It was built in Glasgow in 1913 for Lang and Fulton, a UK company that still exists. During Lang and Fulton’s ownership, the ship was named “SS Ardgorm.” The ship was sold a few years later, in 1917, to the Norfolk and North American Steamship Company of London, which renamed the ship “Hartland Point.” One year later, the ship was bought by the Johnstone Line of Liverpool. Again, the ship was renamed, this time to “Hartmore,” although this didn’t occur until 1920. In 1921, the ship was sold to the Anglo-Oriental Navigation Company, which called the ship “Hartmore,” and then in 1926 the ship was sold yet again to a Japanese company who gave the ship its final name: “Junyo Maru.” The Japanese Government took over the ship in 1938 and it would stay in the government’s possession until its sinking.
Like many other so-called “hell ships,” the Junyo Maru was used to transport prisoners of war. Although “hell ship” can refer to any ship with notoriously brutal living conditions on board, the term most frequently refers to ships operated by the Japanese Imperial Army. Hell ships were often used to transport POWs during WWII. Prisoners were forced into extremely cramped cages and were given little food, water, or air during long journeys at sea. Many POWs died while on board these ships, both as a result of the conditions on board and because the ships were often attacked by Allied forces.
When the Junyo Maru was attacked, it was loaded with Dutch, British, Australian, and American POWs. However, the majority of the passengers were Romushas, or Japanese slave laborers. The POWs and Romushas were on their way to work on a railway in Sumatra, an island in western Indonesia. The ship left port on September 16, 1944. Two days into the journey, on the 18th, the ship was struck with two torpedoes. Right after the explosions, all seemed alright, as the engines remained on and continued to operate as usual. However, shortly thereafter, the stern (or rear) of the ship started to sink and panic ensued.
Over 6,000 people were on board the ship. The Japanese were able to fit so many people on the vessel by fitting it with extra decks that held bamboo cages. About 5,620 died in the sinking of the ship, with many going down with the vessel, trapped inside. Several hundred people survived (around 700 or 800), but since they were rescued by those who imprisoned them, they would soon be put to work again in horrendous and deadly conditions (e.g., the conditions that workers toiled in while building the Burma Railway, a project that killed over 200,000 people).
The sinking of the Junyo Maru is a sad story in multiple respects. The thousands of captured people on board the ship were only given a break from their suffering by being killed by a torpedo attack, or if they managed to survive, they were thrust right back into horrendous conditions by the Japanese.