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“Men began to panic and tried to form a pyramid to climb out of the hold. In the light of the explosions I could see the faces of the fellows they were stepping on. I hugged a big steel beam and gave myself to God.”


— Lorenzo Banegas

“Beyond Courage”

16 Aug 1945: Bataan Relief Organization demands Senate investigation into sinking of Japanese ships carrying American prisoners of war.

USS Queenfish rescuing British and Australian prisoners of war, survivors of the Japanese “Hell Ship” Rakuyo Maru, sunk in the China Sea by USS Sealion in September 1944. [NARA]

The Diary of
Henry C. Henderson, USN

With Family, 1951


“On October 1, 1944, we marched out of Bilibid Prison in Manila, and were herded on board transports to be moved to Japan. Little did we know what a horrible place Hell really was.”


TX National Guard 1932-1933

US Navy 1933-1962


Courtesy of Garnet Murphy, Daughter

Lt Fr Joseph Verbis Lafleur


Each year, on the anniversary of the Sinking of the Shinyo Maru, a Special Mass is held at St. Landry Catholic Church in Opelousas, Louisiana celebrating the life and works of Father Lafleur who was last seen at the bottom of a ladder in the hold of the Shinyo Maru helping his comrades topside following the torpedo attack which sunk the ship.


Photo Courtesy of Richard Lafleur



As early as the fall of 1942, the Japanese began moving prisoners of war out of the Philippines by sea.


Japan, Formosa, Manchuria, Korea . . . eventual destinations for the nightmarish voyages aboard “Hell Ships.” In 1944, as the allies drew closer, the Japanese began moving POWs out of the Philippines by the thousands. Hundreds, and sometimes, a thousand and more prisoners were crammed into cargo holds — spaces only big enough for a quarter that number — oftentimes with only enough room to sit for a journey that would last weeks. Never enough buckets for their waste, and with hundreds of dysentery cases, the healthy succumbed. Deprived of air and water and exposed to intoxicating heat, men suffocated or went mad.


Ships carrying prisoners of war went unmarked and were targeted by American submarines. One in every three prisoners of the Japanese who died in captivity died at sea.


On September 7, 1944, American torpedoes found their target in the Shinyo Maru. As the prisoners fought their way off the sinking ship, they were fired on coming out of the holds or in the water. Of the 750 Americans who began the voyage, only 83 made it to shore, with one man dying on the beach.


One of the worst maritime disasters in American history — On October 24, 1944, the Arisan Maru, with 1,782 American prisoners on board, was torpedoed during a typhoon. That night over 100 New Mexicans were lost, including brothers Dwayne and Eugene Davis of Carlsbad. Calvin Graef of the 200th was one of only 9 survivors of the sinking.  Five of those men made it to freedom, including Graef, the other four recaptured by the Japanese.


On December 14, 1944, the Oryoku Maru put to sea. Transporting Japanese soldiers, civilians, and 1,619 prisoners of war out of Manila, the ship suffered repeated attacks from American fighters that day. That night, the soldiers and civilians were put ashore leaving behind the prisoners and their guards. Returning to finish the Oryoku on the 15th, fighters from USS Hornet loosened bombs that killed approximately 300 prisoners of war. The survivors were rounded up and held in an open enclosure for five days with almost no food until they were transported in two groups to San Fernando by truck. Several of the weaker prisoners were “selected” for execution. On Christmas Day, the survivors were loaded onto the Enoura Maru and the Brazil Maru. The ships arrived in Takao (Formosa) on New Year’s Eve, and remained in port for the next six days with the prisoners still on board who received no food and little to no water. The men from the Brazil Maru were then transferred to the Enoura Maru. On January 9, 1945, 300 prisoners died when the Enoura Maru was bombed. Of those killed, approximately 200 prisoners in the forward hold were killed instantly. On January 11th, the remaining Enoura survivors were loaded onto the Brazil Maru which did not head to sea until January 14th. The Brazil made port in Moji (Japan) on January 29, 1945 with only 435 of the original 1,619 prisoners of war who began the long ordeal onboard the Oryoku Maru a month and a half earlier. Within weeks, one hundred more men would perish. Only 19 of the 43 New Mexicans who had originally embarked on the Oryoku Maru survived.


Already having survived unimaginable horrors in Japanese prisoner of war camps, some the Bataan Death March, and up to a month and more aboard a Hell Ship, prisoners arrived in the north with little clothing, and in November and December, many fell ill with pneumonia due to exposure. Those that survived were put to work to support the Japanese war effort as slave laborers where each act of sabotage was a small victory. They were Americans after all, their heads “bloody, but unbowed!”



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“Ride the Waves to Freedom,” the story of Calvin Graef, one of five soldiers who survived the sinking of the Arisan Maru, by Melissa Masterson, and “The December Ship - A Story of Lt. Col. Arden R. Boellner’s Capture in the Philippines, Imprisonment, and Death on a World War II Japanese Hellship,” by his daughter Betty (Boellner) Jones, are among a small group of books written on the New Mexican POW experience.