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Arisan Maru

Arisan Maru

Operator Mitsui Sempaku
Classification Wartime Standard Cargo ship
Gross tonnage 6,886 tons
Speed 13.3 knots
Departure point Manila
Departure date 11 October 1944
Destination Japan
No. of POWs 1,782 (USA, USN & USMC) and, 100 civilians of various nationalities
Location of disaster Bashi Strait (200 NM northwest of Cape Bojeador, Luzon Island)
Date of disaster 24 October 1944
POW casualties 1,773
POW survivors 9

On 11 October 1944, Arisan Maru left Manila harbor with the POWs and passengers aboard. After clearing the harbor, however, in order to evade air raids of the Manila area, she headed south to the west coast of Palawan Island. When she returned to Manila on 20 October, she was horridly incorporated into MATA-30 convoy consisting of 12 ships bound for Japan. On 21 October, the convoy left Manila for Takao, escorted by destroyers Harukaze, Kuretake, Take, and others, a total of 5 vessels, They were scheduled to arrive at Takao on 24 October.

On the evening of 23 October, when the convoy was steaming through Bashi Strait, they encountered fully alerted and waiting three wolf-packs, consisting of eight submarines. Beginning with Kimikawa Maru sunk by Swordfish at 1730, from the midnight until the daytime of 24 October, Seadragon sank Kokuryu Maru, Daiten Maru, and Eiko Maru. Drum sank Shinki Maru, and Icefish sank Tenshin Maru one after another. After that, at 17:30, three torpedoes which Snook fired hit Arisan Maru (two struck No. 3 empty hold, and one at her stern).

The Japanese guards cut the rope ladder in No. 1 hold, but there was no panic. In another hold, the guards left the hatch open and were waiting with machine guns in their hands, but soon they were gone and the POWs got out of there quietly. In No. 1 hold, some POWs climbed a stanchion to the top side. As they found some ropes, they lowered them for the men down below to fasten to the cut ladder. Thus about 600 men got out of the hold. The guards did not fire at the POWs, because they were too busy to get into the life-boats. The stern of Arisan Maru was torn off and floated away, but unexpectedly, the broken two halves were still afloat. Approx. 30 POWs swam to a destroyer, only to be driven off. Seeing this, other POWs decided to remain aboard, and got into the galley, and then ate all the food they could find there. Soon, Arisan Maru went down to the bottom. For the past few days, the sea had been rough and the waves were as high as 15 feet. Hundreds of men who were not killed in the explosion, or did not go down with the ship died being abandoned in the raging cold sea on the first night.

Thus, an odyssey of the five men which is stranger than fiction began. When Bob Overbeck (a civilian passenger) tried to get into a life boat many Japanese were in, he was hit on his arm with a piece of wood and fell into the water. Then his fortune began to change. The Japanese just left that boat after they were rescued by a destroyer. Seeing this from a distance, he climbed on the boat before it got dark. On the boat, he found a little container with about 10 gallons of fresh water. After dark, in a box reached his boat, he found a sail. Soon afterward, Private Avery Wilbur who had escaped from the sinking ship swam to the boat. Then Tony Cichy, who had seen the Japanese beating the POWs trying to get on a destroyer, swam away from it, and sighted a lifeboat. While he was swimming to the boat, he found a plank floating nearby. He used it like a surfboard, and paddled to the boat. Calvin Graef, who also tried to get aboard a destroyer, and pushed back into the water, swam away. While adrift, he found two bamboo poles, and tied them together with his G-string, and floated with it. While floating, he bumped against a man in the darkness. It was Don Meyer, and they spent the night together. After dawn, they sighted the boat, and reached it with all their remaining strength.

When they picked up a sturdy pole floating by, and were going to rig a sail, they sighted a Japanese destroyer over the horizon, which had refused to rescue them the day before, coming toward them. The five men decided to play possum and lying across each other in a haphazard way, and let the destroyer, which made one circle around the boat, pass by. When all of them felt quite relieved, this time, they were able to pick up a box containing a mast which was the very one for their boat, and a pulley with ropes to rig a sail floating by. As one man moved a tin can to fix the broken rudder, he found hardtacks in the can.

Now they had food, water, a mast and a sail, everything needed for a voyage. With the use of Overbeck's knowledge on astronomy, all they had to do was to sail to the Chinese mainland about 300 miles away. Their luck did not run out, and the winds carried them 300 miles to the west.

Near the coast of the mainland, they encountered a Chinese junk, and they took the five men to the guerrillas. With guiding guerrillas, they walked, drove, and bicycled, avoiding the Japanese soldiers and wild dogs, and reached a US outpost in Anlung. Then they traveled by air via Kunming, North Africa, and Bermuda, and in the beginning of December, they arrived at Washington, D.C., where Wilber and Cichy provided information on the Japanese defenses useful for the US Forces to recapture Luzon Island.

Other than the five POWs mentioned above, four POWs were rescued by the Japanese side, and on 1 October, they were put aboard Hokusen Maru at Manila to be sent to Japan. However, the ship returned one day later, considering the voyage would be too dangerous at that time. On 8 October, the POWs disembarked from the ship, and were sent to the camps in Shirakwa, Taipei, and Inran. Out of 1,782 POWs only nine survived in the sinking of Arisan Maru, which was the largest loss of POW lives in one single disaster at sea.

Note1: In regard to which US submarine sank which Japanese vessel(s) is extremely difficult to determine in a melee, and there are some discrepancies between the Japanese and the US sources. Therefore, Taiheiyo Senso to Nihon Shosen Doko (The Pacific War & movement of the Japanese merchantmen) (59) was used to write this remark section.

Note2: Although some sources state that Shark II sank Arisan Maru., according to Submarine War Patrols departing Pearl Harbor, September-October 1944, p958 of Silent Victory by Clay Blair, Jr., it shows that she was lost and Ships/Tonnage are zero/zero. It is believed that Snook should be given credit for the sinking of Arisan Maru.