A wise woman told me “Never ask a question that you don’t want to know the answer to.” It’s good advice. Unfortunately, sometimes, I don’t know that I don’t want to know the answer until I find out the answer.
You know how in a movie or a TV show whenever a character says, “What could possibly go wrong?” it’s always a sign that things are about to go terribly wrong?
I have my own words that always foretell an obsessive quest, although I never know it at the time. They are: “What does that mean?”
Of the 40-plus men from Wise County who were members of the Lost Battalion during World War II, 10 did not make it home.
Seven of them died between July and November of 1943 from tropical illness. An eighth also died of illness in January 1944.
But two men died differently.
On June 24, 1944, Ardell Redwine and Lucian D. Shults both died, according to the list from the Lost Battalion Association, “sunk en route to Japan.”
So two members of the Lost Battalion from Wise County died on the same day, sunk en route to Japan. What does that mean?
Here’s what I found out.
It turns out 14 members of the Lost Battalion died on that day by those means.
They were being transported to Japan on a ship called the Tamahoko Maru.
The Tamahoko Maru was part of a convoy. It was carrying 720 POWs – including 25 members of the Lost Battalion – supplies and soldiers.
Before I talk about the fate of the Tamahoko Maru, let me talk about what has been termed the “hellships.”
Treatment of prisoners of war by the Japanese during WWII is notorious. To put it succinctly, they were cruel. That didn’t change during transit.
As the war progressed, the need for labor increased, and Japan found it needed to move its forced labor from place to place. One of its means of doing so was by sea. It is estimated that 134 ships made 156 voyages and carried approximately 126,000 Allied prisoners over the course of the war.
Conditions on these ships were horrendous. I honestly don’t think the vocabulary exists to describe what men went through who were transported on these vessels.
There are those who have stated the story of the hellships cannot be told. As historian Gregory F. Michno puts it, “Their damned, dark world lies buried beyond the reach of imagination or memory. It was a world unrelieved by humor, light, setting, or routine. Such a story … would collapse into itself like a black hole, shedding no light and yielding no understanding.”
They suffered from overheating, humidity, lack of oxygen, lack of food and water. Many went mad from the conditions. Some bit, attacked, even killed fellow prisoners. Many suffocated. An estimated 1,540 prisoners died from the conditions on the ships.
It is also estimated, however, that more than 19,000 Allied prisoners of war died on these ships as a result of Allied attacks.
This is what happened to Redwine and Shults and the 12 other members of the Lost Battalion who perished on June 24, 1944.
On June 19, U.S. intelligence intercepted and decoded a message that told them that a convoy would soon change course to Moji. The message said it consisted of 11 ships, several of which were carrying U.S. prisoners of war.
This actionable intelligence was put in a communiqu called an “Ultra,” which was short for “ultrasecret” and sent out to theater commanders.
The theater commanders would read the Ultra and decide what to do and what information to release to Allied ship commanders.
According to the U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage website, “the ship commanders received the bare minimum: ship name, location, destination, approximate size and defenses … details about POWs were excised. Individual ship commanders would not have known that their targets contained Allied POWs.”
A trio of submarines, the USS Tang, Tinosa and Shark II proceeded to intercept the convoy. On June 24, the Tang hit the Tamahoko Maru with three torpedoes and quickly moved out of range.
It took the Tamahoko Maru less than two minutes to sink.
Many men died in the initial explosion and many had no time to escape the sinking vessel. But many POWs did make it into the water and found floating planks and debris to cling to.
Japanese rescue ships picked up surviving soldiers first, then women and children. They left the POWs in the water to fend for themselves.
The next morning a whaling vessel retrieved the surviving POWs. In all, 212 men survived, including 11 members of the Lost Battalion (if my math is accurate). 560 POWs from the Tamahoko Maru perished.
The 212 survivors were taken to Fukuoka POW Camp No. 14 Branch Camp in Nagasaki where Mitsubishi Heavy Industry Company used their services. Those that remained would get to repeat their experience with the most extreme case of “friendly fire” to date on Aug. 9, 1945.
The deaths of Redwine and Shults are particularly tragic to me because, in both cases, their families had received word they were OK. Of course, there are no certainties in war and a letter from a soldier saying all is well can always be accompanied by a message of doom. But the giving of hope then its removal seems particularly painful to me. Reading about it 75 years later, I feel for the Redwine and the Shults family.
And I hate that they, as the U.S. Navy’s history webpage puts it, were effectively drowned by their own country.
It has been argued that the Allied forces didn’t know POWs were aboard because the ships weren’t marked, and it’s true the ships were not marked.
The Red Cross repeatedly urged everyone to mark their transport ships carrying POWs and to not mix their POW cargo with troops and munitions.
No one followed these recommendations. The Japanese certainly didn’t. So there were no markings on ships carrying POWs to indicate prisoners were aboard.
But I don’t think marking the ships would have made a difference.
From what I read, the submarines and aircraft that attacked these convoys were not that discerning about who they aimed their weapons at. They were told to attack the group, and they attacked whatever they could. How was a submarine supposed to distinguish the POW ship from the other convoy vessels, even if they were marked?
That’s if the Japanese could be trusted to be truthful about marking POW ships to actually carry POWs.
But marked or not marked is an irrelevant argument because they knew. The documentation has been uncovered by historians that shows those who issued the orders to attack absolutely knew they were sending in submarines and fighters to attack convoys that would most certainly cause the deaths of many Allied prisoners of war.
That is the truth. A U.S. theater commander ordered the attack that killed Ardell Redwine and Lucian Shults.
It wasn’t his objective to kill these men, of course. His objective was to cripple the enemy by depriving them of much needed supplies and troops, which were also on board those ships. The death of these POWs was an unfortunate byproduct of this warfare.
I don’t think they were wrong to order the strikes. I think it’s terrible, but I see the reasoning of it.
If the Japanese knew the Allied forces wouldn’t fire on a ship with POWs aboard, every single Japanese vessel would be crammed full of POWs.
Redwine’s fate was reported in the Aug. 2, 1945, Messenger. “Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Redwine … were advised last week by the War Department that their son, Pfc. Ardell L. Redwine, 20, a prisoner of the Japanese, was presumed lost when a transport carrying prisoners to Japan was torpedoed.” So although they didn’t emphasize the point, it was reported that his ship was torpedoed. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to put things together as to who torpedoed it.
I could find no mention of the same fate for Shults anywhere, except in lists of the Lost Battalion and their fate. No newspaper that I could find covered the news of his family learning he was lost at sea.
I have no knowledge about how anyone took the news, what they thought or felt about any of this.
But the Lost Battalion was lost on Java in the first place because the government decided to leave them there, despite being urged by the 19th Bomb Group – who had been ordered to abandon the Indies – to bring them along.
When I think about spending years as a Japanese prisoner as a result of being regarded as an acceptable loss, only to face an attack by my own Navy because my country decides that my death is an unfortunate byproduct of a bigger need, in essence being expendable twice … I don’t know how I could wrap my head around that reality.
Redwine and Shults didn’t have to live with it. But thousands who survived attacks on hellships did. Eleven members of the Lost Battalion did.
It doesn’t surprise me that it took the government until the mid ’70s to declassify those Ultras that proved they knew what they were doing.
I almost wish I hadn’t asked, “What does that mean?” But I did, and as that same wise woman also told me, “Once you know, you can’t not know.”
Joy Burgess-Carrico is a Messenger graphic artist. Send her your questions about Wise County to email@example.com.