Inside the Capitol

Monday, May 09, 2005

5-16 Hell Ships

MON, 5-16-05

SANTA FE � Prison life was barely survivable for the men of the New Mexico National Guard. Some didn�t survive, succumbing to jungle diseases, beatings, being worked to death or simply giving up.
But not many New Mexicans gave up. They were there for each other. They stuck together as much as they possibly could, volunteering for the same work details, sharing information and tending to those in need.
Occasionally a ray of hope emerged. There were telltale signs that the war was turning. A knowing smile from a passing Filipino, increased irritability of Japanese guards and a further decrease in food rations were subtle hints. And sometimes American planes were spotted overhead.
Then there were the radios. Strictly forbidden by the Japanese guards, possession of a radio meant a certain beating, or worse. But they were vital for eventual survival. The prisoners were told that if American troops got near, all prisoners would be executed. So it was important to keep track of the war�s progress.
Occasionally, broadcasts from stations in China would bring the straight scoop. But it was possible to keep track through Japanese propaganda transmissions, telling of major Japanese victories and tremendous American losses. Once someone was able to find a map, the prisoners could track the battle locations and deduce that each Japanese �victory� was closer to its homeland.
But, tragically, the worst of our guardsmen�s ordeal was yet to come. As American and Allied planes bombed Manila and the island�s airfields, the Japanese prepared to evacuate all prisoners to the north to prevent their recapture and to alleviate severe labor shortages in the mills and mines of Manchuria and Japan.
Since late 1942, prisoners were moved north aboard unmarked ships. By 1944, mass evacuations were underway. Prisoners were crammed into the holds of tramp steamers, with no food, water or facilities. Heat mounted. Oxygen decreased. Many grew delirious.
Since they were unmarked, torpedo and air attacks sank many Japanese ships. The Americans had no idea they were shooting at their own men. Markings indicating hospital ships or Prisoner of War ships were saved for Japanese vessels of a more tactical nature.
In the opinion of most, the Japanese Hell Ships assaulted humanity worse even than the Death March. Thousands died. Those who made it through in November 1944 faced bitter winter conditions. Clad only in rags suited for jungle conditions, many froze to death.
Gradually, winter clothes were provided and conditions improved slightly. The Japanese needed the prisoners for labor. The military hired the men out to industries critical to the war effort. Many of these industries had names still familiar in the world of automobiles and electronics.
The prisoners worked as stevedores on the waterfronts or labored in steel mills, ironworks, shipyards, factories, mines or smelters. Although far from the fields of battle, the men continued to engage the enemy in as many ways as possible � from minor ego-denting annoyance to major sabotage.
They played mind games during interrogations, giving evasive answers and using figures of speech that no dictionary could clarify. Theft was the order of the day, especially for food. Ingenious plots meant no food was safe anywhere near an American work detail.
They impeded the Japanese war effort in any way they could. They were a nuisance even when they did some work. As one observed, �We never could figure why they put up with us.�
If you are interested in some of the hilarious details of POW sabotage or want to know more of the horrors of the Hell Ships, get a copy of Dorothy Cave�s book, Beyond Courage, which chronicles the experiences of the New Mexico National Guard during World War II, from beginning to end. It is a book that will make any New Mexican proud.
We�ll leave the New Mexico guardsmen for awhile and follow Gen. MacArthur�s advance up through the Pacific to liberate them. Those battles also included other New Mexicans.



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