Sketch by Jack Chalker

Fukai Maru

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Fukai Maru

And so, on Sunday 16th August of 1942, in company with approximately one thousand one hundred other English and Australian prisoners, Dick finally embarked on the Japanese cargo ship, the Fukai Maru. Dick and the others had actually been on the ship for four days before it sailed on the 20th; four days in hot and overcrowded conditions without even a sense of movement to distract the mind from the horrendous conditions. The ship’s holds were dirty and infested with vermin, which rendered rather pointless all the disinfecting and fumigating that had preceded the men’s arrival on board. On the Tuesday it rained heavily and all the men were kept in the holds with the hatch covers on. It must have been a relief when, at quarter past eight in the morning of Wednesday 19th August, the ship slipped its moorings and headed out to sea. Whatever lay in store, they were at least on the move. 

At twelve noon on Saturday 22nd August the ship anchored off Cholon Sunyak on the Sunyak River. Here the ship joined a small convoy of six other ships, which sailed the following day at about two o’clock in the afternoon. That morning a number of boats had come alongside the Fukai Maru selling cigarettes, eggs, fruit and even beer, to the prisoners. The only problem was it had to be paid for in Japanese currency, so most of the men could buy little or nothing. 28


The Voyage of the Fukai Maru

© Fran de Groen

The ship’s next port of call was Takao, Formosa. The ship anchored in the harbour on the afternoon of Saturday 29th August. Dick and his fellow prisoners spent some two weeks working in the docks to load the Fukai Maru with its cargo of bauxite. The men had to load the cargo into lighters, either shovelling it or carrying it on their backs like sacks of coal. It then had to be unloaded from the lighters into the ship’s holds the same way. It was hard physical labour; the only consolation being that the men were fed better rations and had three meals a day. On most of the days that they were in harbour it rained, usually heavily; it was the beginning of the typhoon season. Finally the ship was fully loaded and set sail on Tuesday 15th September. The men were then housed on top of the cargo of bauxite for the duration of the next part of the voyage.

200 men were packed into this section of the hold on the Fukai Maru

Sketch by J. D. Wilkinson

The ship sailed up the West Coast of Formosa and joined a small convoy at the Pescadores, which then sailed north. The ships then doubled back apparently following a report of American submarine activity in the area. Then on the 17th September they headed off into the China Sea. Conditions aboard the old and rusting 3,821 ton Fukai Maru were far from ideal. It had been a cargo ship, a tramp steamer, and it had already seen better days. The men were divided between two holds, 550 men in each. Wooden shelving had been placed on top of the cargo in each hold, making two tiers each with about a metre of space. There was not room to stand or even kneel; it was sit, lie or crawl. The men stripped off their clothes, sweated and made the best of it. At first the weather continued to be extremely hot, many of the men suffered from heat rash and beriberi was all too common. Meals, if such they could be called, were twice a day at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The mainstay was rice, steamed using steam from the boilers, and a thin soup made with flour, water, a few onions and 14 tins of Irish stew – 14 tins between 1,100 men. 29

As the Fukai Maru steamed north towards Korea the weather deteriorated and the sea became increasingly rough. As they headed into the South China Sea the ship pitched and tossed for hours on end; a good many of the men now fell prey to seasickness. In order to accommodate the thousand men on board several outrigger style latrines had been rigged on the decks; these were washed overboard as the ship ploughed through the tail end of a typhoon. Conditions in the overcrowded holds now worsened considerably as the men suffered from seasickness, diarrhoea and dysentery. It also got distinctly colder. On Tuesday 22nd September the ship finally reached its destination, Fusan in Korea. Although the men had initially believed that they were heading for Japan, the majority of them were destined to see out the rest of the War in Korea. 30


The ship docked, the holds were fumigated and the men subjected to a medical examination by a team of Japanese doctors. More than twenty men were found to have contracted dysentery and most of the others were suffering from beriberi and acute diarrhoea. The serious dysentery cases were taken ashore immediately to the local military hospital. The men then spent the next day, Wednesday 23rd September, stuck in the same holds, going nowhere and not knowing what was in store for them. It was the next day before the men were finally ordered to disembark. The Fukai Maru sailed away and continued to ply its trade in the area for another year or so. It was torpedoed, carrying Japanese troops, off Palau on the 13th December 1943. 31



28 Information from a diary entry of Corporal Alex Johnstone, Australian Imperial Forces, from the typescript of his wartime experiences: The Years Between

29 Information from “Honourable Stomach is Empty” Wade op cit.

30 There were some of the party who were later sent to camps in Japan itself, but the numbers were small.

31 Naval Historical Centre, Dep. of Navy, Wash. HyperWar: World War II on the World Wide Web 1993 Washington

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Fusan - Korea


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