Voyage of the Awa Maru
26th December 1944 to 15th January 1945
Singapore to Moji Japan

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By Neil O. MacPherson, Australia - rescued at Senryu, Fukuoka #24

At Singapore, on 15th December 1944, Neil and several hundred other prisoners lined up on the parade ground at River Valley Road Camp, with their pathetic little bundle of possessions, awaiting movement to the wharves, after many searches of their gear, and several counts, they boarded trucks for the trip to the docks. Naturally there was great excitement amongst the prisoners, this was a break from the boredom of an unchanging routine, reduced rations, and every one had visions of being rescued on by the US Navy on their voyage to Japan. Every one had vivid memories of the British destroyer HMS Cossack which rescued some hundred odd merchant navy crews from torpedoed ships on their way to Germany for internment.

On arrival at the docks which was familiar territory, for most prisoners had done long stints on the docks loading cargo for Japan, they could see that a large merchant ship, actually the last survivor of Japans larger merchant ships, the 11,249 ton Awa Maru was to be their means of transport to the land of the cherry blossom. By now they were accustomed to the conditions on these prison ships and with little protest made there way down into the bowels of the ship. They were to spend the next 11 days, down below anchored out in the outer harbour while the convoy assembled, the conditions below decks, with little ventilation, crammed into sardine like shelves, in the hot tropic climate was beyond description.

Allowed up on deck only for toilet needs, the two meals a day were cooked on deck by the Japanese cooks and taken down below for distribution. Weak tea was the only drink supplied. During toilet visits the POWs were allowed to fill their water bottles with condensation escaping from steam pipes on the deck.

Life below decks was far from boring as survival was in every one's mind. How would so many of us be able to escape up the narrow ladder onto the deck in case of a torpedo or air attack? This was cause for endless discussion and, many sailors who survived the sinking of the HMAS Perth and the USS Houston gave instructions on how to proceed. Games of chess, checkers and draughts were popular while each prisoner counted the hours till the next food issue. Very few guards ventured down into the fetid holds, so we were free to pursue the few distractions available. Stories were told and retold, old jokes retold, the few letters received read and shared amongst friends. Neil had ten letters from home and friends by this time and they were read and re-read, and photographs were exchanged.

After 11 long days and nights in these sweltering conditions there was movement up on the decks. Christmas day was unmarked with any thing special and remains just another of the many days spent out in the outer harbour. On the 26th the anchor was raised and the vessel slowly made headway out to sea. Boxing Day 1944 will be a day that Neil will remember for the rest of his life.

It is interesting to record that Japanese nationals out numbered POWs on board the Awa Maru. Many women were on board, perhaps they were Comfort Ladies returning from entertaining the Jap soldiery or officers wives. We never learned who they were. Prisoners did however find it interesting to look up to the upper decks and see these ladies paying them much attention, especially as they were attending their toilet needs on the open platforms protruding over the side of the top deck.

As soon as the ship settled down onto a regular course, a compass secretly owned by a sailor on board established that the heading was in a north easterly direction, rumours set in that they were heading for Saigon and, sure enough, after some days the convoy anchored out side Saigon. Some POWs had been in Saigon before going to Singapore and recognized the harbour. The convoy took on more enemy troops and a few more vessels joined the convoy, by now it numbered some 20 or more vessels, tankers, merchant ships, and a couple of escorts that were judged to be frigates.

From Saigon the convoy was seldom far from land, hugging the shallow waters of the coastline. After all the losses of hundreds of merchant ships to Allied submarines, it was obvious that the only way to avoid the U.S. submarine blockade, was to hug the coast of China, anchoring each night in an enclosed bay, relatively safe from submarine attack. During the day low flying aircraft patrolled the waters around the convoy searching for signs of submarine activity.

In September 1945 when Neil was being evacuated from Japan in the American Aircraft Carrier, USS Chenango (ACV-28), which had an illustrious war record against the enemy, an officer on board asked Neil when he was transported to Japan from Asia. When he was told December 1944, he retorted "Bullshit, our blockade was so tight even a rowing boat wouldn't have got through" when told not only the Awa Maru got through to Japan unscathed but another 20 odd ships in the convoy.

As the days passed and the convoy moved further into northern waters the weather became colder It was now mid winter in the northern hemisphere, and the prisoners with little clothing to protect them from the cold, found it harder to go up onto the wind swept upper deck for their ablutions. To use our bowels perched on the rickety platform attached to the deck railing, and extending over the water, was a hazardous as well as an uncomfortable and freezing experience. Many prisoners preferred to suffer the discomforts of constipation . Snow was often seen on the upper deck. Below decks, where in the tropics, we had sweltered in the enclosed spaces, the rusty steel side plates dripped cold water from the condensation.

The oppressively hot conditions in the earlier part of the journey now turned into a chilling cold. With little flesh to insulate them the POWS suffered badly, not having wintered for nearly three years while in the tropics meant that their blood had become very thin. Neil himself had lost all of the physical condition he had put on along the "Death Railway" in Tamarkan.

On the 15th January 1945 our ship entered the harbour of Moji. It was mid winter in Japan, many of us were with out footwear, and we were not looking forward to lining up on the snow covered wharf while our guards went through the tedious task of counting their charges.

A very embarrassing episode took place on the upper deck of the vessel before we disembarked. As we had come from a cholera infected area the Japanese decided to check each prisoner to find out if any of us were carriers of the cholera germ. The standard procedure was for the prisoner to drop his trousers, bend over, and a glass rod was inserted into the rectum, not usually in a gentle manner I can tell you, the sample from the bowel was later tested. What made the whole exercise so demeaning was that the task was performed by Japanese women, most of them were of the bovine type. The job was punctuated by giggles from these women as they were comparing our equipment with their own country men -- a subject of much conjecture and fun in later months.

When we were marched off the ship with our few possessions, we were lined up and counted, recounted and counted again, this was important as the army was now handing us over to our new owners and every one had to be accounted for. It seemed like hours standing on the freezing wharf, with snow falling around us, and why none of us got pneumonia we will never know. Eventually they must have been satisfied, as they marched us off to a nearby hall, where we settled down on the plain wooden floor to wait the next move, it's worth reporting that in the toilets at the hall were scratched the names of many prisoners that had passed through on their way to their slave labour.

Among the names were notes of those prisoners that had survived the sinking of the Rykuyo Maru in September, there were scribbled details of the sinking, how the Japs had allowed the writings to remain is a puzzle, maybe no English speaking Jap had used the toilets.

One of Neil's strongest memories was the issue of a rice meal, which contained meat and vegetables, although almost frozen it was most nourishing.

The prisoners slept on the floor of the hall that night, then next day were marched to the railway station where they were loaded into a railway carriage. Only the POWs and guards were in each car. It was interesting to see the civilians being pushed into already over crowded carriages by rail employees at the stations. Eventually the prisoners were unloaded and were marched to a camp which was surrounded by a high wooden fence, this was to be their home for the next 8 months, the village was Sendyu, site of POW Camp Fukuoka #24, coal mining was the main industry, the prisoners were to be slave labourers in the mine for the next 8 months.