‘They Have No Grave but the Cruel Sea’


The 81-year search for the Montevideo Maru has ended. On July 1, 1942, the American submarine Sturgeon fired four torpedoes from its stern tubes. Two of those torpedoes hit their target and 11 minutes later, the Montevideo Maru slipped below the surface and came to rest 13,000 feet below the water’s surface.

An estimated 1,080 persons from 14 countries lost their lives in the early morning hours off the coast of Luzon, in the Philippines. Approximately 900 Australian POWs and civilians were lost that day.

There is no plan to try and recover their bodies. The ship is their tomb, and out of respect, there will be no salvage efforts. There were other sinkings of ships carrying POWs and civilians by American submarines during WWII.

They have no grave but the cruel sea,
No flowers lay at their head,
A rusting hulk is their tombstone,
Afast on the ocean bed.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

— Attributed to Laurance Binyon, English poet

Ships were supposed to be marked to indicate that were carrying POWs, or if they were hospital ships. My late father told me a story that on one of his war patrols, they were stalking a Japanese ship but determined it was a hospital ship and let it pass.

In my research, I cannot find what the markings were supposed to be. My best guess would be the symbol for the Red Cross, painted on both sides of the hull, or on the stacks.

There were other ships carrying POWs that were sunk by American submarines in the Pacific. Rescues were rare and survivors were found several days later by submarines as they continued their patrol in the area of the attack.

Ships carrying POWs and interned civilians were called Hell Ships due to the brutal conditions aboard them. The best explanation for these sinkings I could find is in the following quotes.

Intercepted radio transmissions were the Allies’ most important source of information about Japan’s requisitioned merchant ships. The commanders of these ships sent two daily communications to the Japanese military’s general headquarters, and these communications would have included POW counts.

In order to intercept, decode, and act on these transmissions, the Allies established the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific Ocean Area (JICPOA) in September 1943. Allied intelligence units in Australia and elsewhere in the region monitored Japanese and other Axis radio traffic and relied on the decryption and translation skills of women and men at intelligence facilities in Bletchley Park, England; Delhi, India; and Colombo, Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Their work done, the intercepted messages now constituted actionable intelligence.

This actionable intelligence was then edited down for use in Ultras, short for “ultrasecret” communiqués going out to theater commanders. Next, those theater commanders would read the Ultras and decide which information to release to Allied ship commanders. In the end, the ship commanders received the bare minimum: ship name, location, destination, approximate size, and defenses. Somewhere along the chain, between the deciphering of the intercept and the transmission of information to ship commanders, details about POWs were excised. Individual ship commanders would not have known that their targets contained Allied POWs or even Japanese civilians.

May those left behind find peace. May those who lost their lives rest in peace.

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  1. Seawriter Contributor

    Hospital ships were supposed to be marked with red crosses on the sides and funnels and – most importantly – be lit up at night.  A lot of warships and merchant vessels hated being moored near a hospital ship because of that. Often the enemy would leave the hospital ship alone, but attack any unlighted ships illuminated by the hospital ship.

    The Japanese caught the Russian fleet attempting to reach Vladivostok during the Russo-Japanese War because a scouting cruiser spotted the lights of the Russian fleet’s hospital ship.

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  2. Chris O Coolidge
    Chris O

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    The Japanese caught the Russian fleet attempting to reach Vladivostok during the Russo-Japanese War because a scouting cruiser spotted the lights of the Russian fleet’s hospital ship.

    And so turns history. Without that victory, would the Japanese have been as adventuresome militarily? 

    I saw this in the news and have to commend the Australian government for making a big deal about it with appropriately solemn statements. Rest in peace all ye combatants.

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  3. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt

    There were Russian merchant ships on the Pacific route that were sunk by US submarines:

    Even though Japan had been at war with the USA since December 1941, it was anxious to preserve good relations with the USSR, and, despite German complaints, usually allowed Soviet ships to sail between the USA and Soviet Union’s Pacific ports unmolested. This contrasts with Germany and Britain’s behavior, whose navies would often destroy or capture neutrals’ ships sailing to their respective adversaries. As a result, during most of the war the Pacific Route became the safest path between the USA and the USSR.

    Nonetheless, several Soviet ships were torpedoed by submarines in the western Pacific. Japanese submarine I-180 probably sank Pavlin Vinogradov in the Alaska Gulf on 22 April 1944; and the United States Navy sank six.

    USS Grenadier sank SS Angarstroy in the East China Sea on 1 May 1942. USS Sawfish sank Ilmen and Kola off Kyushu on 17 February 1943. Kola was the former United States flagged Pacific Northwest Orient Line Satartia transferred as Lend-Lease on 14 December 1942. Both ships were lighted, but Sawfish was unaware of the Soviet winter routing change. Sawfish was later able to identify five other ships as Soviet, and let them pass.

    In July USS Pompon launched torpedoes at a ship known to be “Russian” but alleged to have been improperly marked. The torpedoes missed. Soviet Lend-Lease Liberty ship Odessa was torpedoed near Akhomten Bay on 4 October 1943. Odessa was repaired, but USS S-44 was sunk in the area three days later, and is thought to have launched the torpedo.

    On 3 March 1944 USS Sand Lance torpedoed a ship off Kamchatka “positively identified” as Florida Maru. The torpedoes sank Belorussia. USS Sunfish sank Ob in the Sea of Okhotsk on 6 July 1944. USS Spadefish sank Transbalt near the Perouse strait on 13 June 1945 because the ship was unlighted and allegedly “not following a designated Russian route.” – from Wikipedia

    There are some stories that the Russians might have been trading some Lend-Lease supplies from Portland and Seattle with the Japanese for gold. There is another story that Russian complaints were answered by COMSUBPAC telling them to start identifying their ships with the Russian flag and identifiers on their hulls and stacks.

    My father served on the USS Sand Lance and the USS Tilefish. He has four stars on his Asia Pacific Ribbon. He has a Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon with one star. His Submarine Combat Pin has three stars indicating three or more successful war patrols.

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  4. Stad Coolidge

    Doug Watt (View Comment):
    My father served on the USS Sand Lance and the USS Tilefish. He has four stars on his Asia Pacific Ribbon. He has a Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon with one star. His Submarine Combat Pin has three stars indicating three or more successful war patrols.

    A hearty salute to your dad . . .

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  5. Tedley Member

    It’s great to see this closure for the victims of Montevideo Maru. It was but one of the many prison ships that was sunk while transporting POWs among the many places the Japanese had conquered. While working on a project for a university class a few years ago, I found some resources on this topic. Here’s a portion of one of them, by Gavan Daws, titled Prisoners of the Japanese. POWs of World War II in the Pacific, that touches on these questions and gives an idea of the scale of the loss of lives (pages 295–297):

    According to Japanese figures, about twenty-five ships carrying POWs were bombed or torpedoed. Which raises an obvious question: Why were POW transports not marked? Why were those ships out on the ocean in the war zone, some armed, some not, looking no different from any other targets for attack?

    There is a simple answer: for the same reason that the Japanese did not mark POW camps on land, even camps sited near obvious military targets like railroads and airfields and ammunition dumps. But that in turn raises another question: Why not? And to that question there is no clear answer. It might be thought that marking POW camps close to military targets would be to the advantage of the Japanese; presumably it would lessen the chances of those targets being bombed. But the Japanese did not reason along those lines.

    On the specific question of POWs being moved around by ship, though, no other belligerent power looked much better. Since the beginning of the war in the Atlantic theater and the Mediterranean, the International Red Cross had been trying to persuade the Allies to agree with Germany and Italy on some way of guaranteeing the safety of POWs at sea. The two sides answered letters from the Red Cross. No more than that, but at least that. The Japanese, when they came into the war, did not bother even to make that gesture.

    According to Japanese figures, of the 50,000 POWs they shipped, 10,800 died at sea. Going by Allied figures, more Americans died in the sinking of the Arisan Maru than died in the weeks of the death march out of Bataan, or in the months at Camp O’Donnell, which were the two worst sustained atrocities committed by the Japanese against Americans. More Dutchmen died in the sinking of the Jun’yo Maru than in a year on the Burma-Siam railroad. The total deaths of all nationalities on the railroad added up to the war’s biggest sustained Japanese atrocity against Allied POWs. Total deaths of all nationalities at sea were second in number only to total deaths on the railroad. Of all POWs who died in the Pacific war, one in every three was killed on the water by friendly fire.

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  6. Tedley Member

    Continued from last post.

    There can be many different opinions regarding the American sinking of so many Japanese merchant ships, even if there was risk that POWs were onboard. There’s more in the section from Daws quoted above on this question. I also located some documents documenting POW experiences. One of them is a declassified record of the interview of the Executive Officer of the USS PAMPANITO, Lieutenant Commander Landon Davis, Jr., conducted on 20 October 1944. The PAMPANITO rescued a group of POWs from a prison ship that had been sunk by the USS SEALION off of the Chinese coast near Hainan Island. On pages 12-13, he described the opinion of survivors regarding the sinking, and it might surprise you.

    We had picked up 73 of the survivors, the SEALION picked up 53, the BARB and the QUEENFISH between them picked up about 32. We had one of ours die coming in, and the SCALION had several of hers, unfortunately. That made a total of about 150, I believe. I know in the newspaper report that we saw after we got back here, the Japs reported that they themselves had picked up 170 some survivors from a ship that was torpedoed by American submarines. The dates didn’t exactly jibe but I believe that they referred to some of that they had picked up from the same convoy. Tokyo Rose, of course, had her say-so about it, it wasn’t ten hours after the thing happened that she brought out the story about a transport with a bunch of prisoners of war being sunk at quite a loss of life of American, English, and Australian people onboard. But it didn’t bother the people that we picked up, they said they were darn glad they were sunk, when they were in the convoy coming in they would cheer every time they saw a torpedo hit even if it did hit their own ship, because they wanted to see the sons-of-guns go down.

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