Though the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war during World War II has been written about before, only with this detailed chronicle will readers come to appreciate the true dimensions of the Allied POW experience at sea. It is a disturbing story; many believe the Bataan Death March pales by comparison. Survivors describe their ordeal in the Japanese hellships as the absolute worst experience of their captivity. Crammed by the thousands into the holds of the ships, moved from island to island and put to work, they endured all the horrors of the prison camps magnified tenfold.
Gregory Michno draws on American, British, Australian, and Dutch POW accounts as well as Japanese convoy histories, recently declassified radio intelligence reports, and a wealth of archival sources to present a detailed picture of what happened. His findings are startling. More than 126,00 Allied prisoners were transported in the hellships with more than 21,000 fatalities. While beatings, starvation, and disease caused many of the deaths, the most, Michno reports, were caused by Allied bombs. Bullets, and torpedoes. He further reports that this so-called friendly fire was not always accidental—at times high-level decision were made to sink Japanese ships despite the presence of POWs. The statistics led Michno to conclude that it was more dangerous to be a prisoner on the Japanese hellships than a U.S. Marine fighting in the campaign. His careful examination of the role U.S. submarines in the sinkings and the rescue of POWs makes yet another significant contribution to the history of the Pacific war.