Death on the Hellships
Death On the Hellships: Prisoners at Sea in the Pacific War

(Gregory Michno)

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Death on the Hellships

This is a compelling though sometimes irritating book. Compelling, because it tells (once again and with greater detail) the extended atrocity that was the Japanese treatment of its prisoners of war. Irritating, because it gets carried away by the fact that many of the Anglo-American-Dutch prisoners who died were sent to the bottom by Allied submarines. Sure they were, but you can't jump from that fact to the accusation that the Allies were responsible for their deaths.

First, the Japanese were moving those prisoners for two reasons: to use them as slave labor in new constructions projects, and to remove them from the battle zone so they couldn't be liberated by the American advance--Japan wanted to use them as labor at home, or as bargaining chips, or to murder them in an insane act of punishment for the approaching Allied victory. They shouldn't have been at sea.

Second, the Japanese moved the prisoners in unmarked ships carrying war materiel. Submarine commanders often couldn't identify the ships. When they could identify them, through Ultra intercepts, they had to attack or let the war materiel pass, with resultant loss of Allied lives on the battlefield.

Third, the Japanese routinely locked the prisoners down and let them drown. If they got into the water, they weren't picked up, and sometimes they were machinegunned. To attribute these deaths to the submariners, rather than to the Japanese captors, is a travesty.

Fourth, Michno seems to assume that if a given prisoner hadn't drowned from a sinking, he would have survived the war in good health. His own book scarcely bears out this assumption: 880 survivors from one sinking were put to work building a railroad in Sumatra, and of that number only 96 were alive at the end of the war.

Fifth, Michno blurs the distinction between hellship deaths and those on land, to the extent that he can make the astonishing claim that if the deaths due to Allied sinkings are removed from the equation, the PWs in Japanese hands fared no worse than those in German captivity. This is true only of the hellship experience. But the prisoners were only the hellships for days or weeks; they were tortured and tormented on land for years, and they died and were murdered in unconscionable numbers.

Read the book, but beware of the academic tendency to equate all wrongs. ("One may rightly condemn the Japanese treatment of POWs during World War II. But Allied treatment was not always exemplary." No shit! By the same token, one could write that Allied treatment of the Jews was not always exemplary. Does that in any way excuse the Holocaust?) And balance its rather neutral findings with the sustained outage that is Gavan Daws's Prisoners of the Japanese.