The Tottori Maru was one of the notorious “hellships” used to carry Australian, American and English prisoners of war around the south china seas. She was built in 1913 by Russell and Co, Port Glasgow, in Scotland for the Nippon Yusen Kaisha NYK shipping company. She was launched on Monday 25 /08/1913 and sailed under a Japanese flag.
Originally she was put to work as a cargo carrier on the Bordeaux- Cristobel to New York run, between 1917 and 1923, but when the Japanese entered the war, she was pressed into service for the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) propelled by a steam triple expansion engine, 556 nhp with a single screw that gave her a respectful 10 knots speed, which was good in her day. Tonnage was 5973 grt, length 128 m, Beam 17m, draught 8.5m.
One of her more infamous voyages was undertaken on 8th of October 1942, when she set sail at 0900 from Manila Bay with a cargo of prisoners of war. A diary of this event was kept by Jim Brown and can be viewed here.
These POW’s were transported to Fusan in the Korean Peninsula, arriving on November 7th after narrowly avoiding a torpedo attack. The number of POW’s transported varies between accounts, but according to the account of Robert Phillips, an American POW, she was loaded with about 2000 men, 1500 in the rear hold and 500 more in the front.
They were packed so tightly that they could hardly move, there was no ventilation, and they were fed crackers and water. Around 16 POW’s died en route and were buried at sea due to a combination of Dysentery, filth, starvation and a sense of hopelessness. Many more were to suffer horribly, later in life, with conditions caused by the inhumane treatment endured during this voyage and subsequent incarceration.
According to the account of Mr. Phillips, on reaching Korea 1500 POW’s disembarked from the rear holds and were then transported over land to their final destination in Manchuria. The Tottori Maru then headed for Japan, Osaka, where the remaining POW’s were put to shore and taken to Mitsui camp, which would be their home for the next 3 years. It is important to note that some of these POW’s had already survived the Bataan Death March, only then to be exposed to the horrors of the hellships, and subsequent incarceration.
When fate finally caught up with the Tottori Maru, she was en route to Singapore in convoy with the Hatsutaka running escort. She was not carrying any POW’s at the time of her sinking.
The following is an excerpt from the captain’s report on the action which led to the sinking of the Tottori Maru:
15 May 1945
0008: Commenced attack from starboard bow as escort started around to port ahead of target. We were suckers.
0021: At range of 4000 yards from target, escort came around target’s stern and was 2000 yards from us on starboard quarter of target, turning for us. Cleared out at flank with escort, making only 17 knots eastern. Escort fired several close 4.7 shots.
0024: Informed COBIA of setup and he apparently started attack.
0029: Escort gave up chase, dropped three depth charges and went back.
0030: Paralleled target at 13000 yards
0048: Figured COBIA was in firing position. Fired two clips of 40mm towards escort.
0104: Escort apparently after COBIA. Started in again.
0120: Escort gave up COBIA chase.
012614:Commenced firing 3 bow MK 18- 2 torpedoes, small gyros 79∘S track. Torpedo run 2500 yards, depth 1 foot. No more Torpedoes.
012930:Hit in bow of target.
0138: Tracking target stopped. Escort apparently alongside target for about 5 minutes.
0140: Escort headed for us.
0148: Escort turned away.
0151: Target pip disappeared.
The captain’s declassified log of the action dated 15 May 1945 is available here
22 August 1945
From: the commander submarines SEVENTH FLEET
To: the commander in chief UNITED STATES FLEET
Via: the commander SEVENTH FLEET
SUBJECT: USS Hammerhead (SS-364) Report of sixth war patrol correction to second endorsement.
Reference (a)ComSub7thFltConf.Ltr.Serial:01350-A 27 June 1945
1. The HAMMERHEAD reported sinking 6800 ton tanker at 0151, May 15 1945. COBIA has subsequently reported observing the attack, seeing two hits, watching the target sink. They also report recovering a life ring which identifies the target as the TOTTORI MARU, 5725 gross tons.
The Tottori Maru now lies in 75m of water on her port side. The bow is twisted and nearly broken off, facing the surface.
Note: This article has been collated from the many articles and official documents freely available on the internet. The wreck of the Tottori is a war grave. Nothing was taken from her during this expedition, except video and pictures to help us keep the memories alive of the members of the armed forces who gave and still give the ultimate sacrifice of life so that we may be free.
We are at present organizing a technical dive trip in collaboration with the Thailand Technical Wreck Diving Project to conduct a full survey of this vessel. If you would like to be involved, please contact us for more information.
Thailand Technical Wreck project
Originally established by a group of technical dive centres on Koh Tao, Thailand. Our aim is to combine resources and help fund a technical diving liveaboard dedicated to the exploration of the Gulf of Thailand and Andaman sea. To look for shipwrecks of all ages, in the remotest regions for the purpose of surveying and documenting the wrecks. And to help preserve these time capsules for future generations.
Founding dive centres:
Koh Tao Tech Divers, Crystal Tech Divers, BansTec and Davy Jone’s Locker Tech.
All technical dive centres are welcome to join in and contribute to this project. This will help us continue to enjoy a common passion that is deep wreck diving and exploration.