The “Death Ship” and Chaplain McDonnell

It is Pearl Harbor Day.  All too often remembrance is confined to the attack on Pearl Harbor.  That attack was immediately followed by a Japanese invasion of the Phillippine Islands, an American possession at that time.  After months of heroic but futile resistance US and Filipino forces surrendered to the Japanese Army.  There ensued three and a half years of unmitigated brutality and murder inflicted on American prisoners of war by Japanese soldiers.

One of  those POWs was Chaplain John McDonnell who was captured on the Bataan Peninsula, survived the Death March and years of abuse only to die on board the Enoura Maru, a Japanese merchant vessel en route to Japan.

Chaplain McDonnell baptised me in the post chapel at Fort Devens, Massachusetts in 1940. 

Transcript of official record follows.  pl








25 Feb. 1947

File No. 014.13

Public Relations
Informational Summary No. 510

Subject:  U.S.
vs Junsaburo TOSHINO, Shusuke WADA, Kazutane AIHARA, Shin KAJIYAMA, Suketoshi

On 9 January in mid-morning, during the completion of the morning meal, anti-aircraft fire was heard on the Enoura Maru and all ships in the harbor. Soon the drone of planes was heard and almost simultaneously the whistle of bombs was heard. The Enoura Maru rocked violently from a near miss, causing a flail of bomb fragments and steel fragments from the sides of the ship which killed about 300 outright and injured a considerable number. After the bombing such first aid as could be rendered to men was made available by the Prisoner of War doctors and corpsmen aboard. This aid consisted of collecting dirtytowels, undershirts, or anything that could be used for bandages that the other prisoners would contribute. Outside of a few first aid kits which the doctors and corpsmen may have had, there were no medicines made available by the Japanese. In fact, no aid was rendered until 11 January when two Japanese enlisted hospital corpsmen announced they would treat those with minor injuries or wounds only. Treatment consisted of dabbing injuries with mercurochrome. The dead bodies in the holds were stacked in the center of the hatch area like stacks of cord wood. They remained there until the 12th of January. During this time, a majority of the men who were wounded and who soonthereafter died from those wounds could have been saved with proper medical attention, but with lack of bandages and medicines it was impossible for thedoctors to do much for them. Finally in mid-morning of 12 January, permission was granted to remove the dead bodies from the ship. The bodies were removed by placing them into cargo slings and lowering over the side of the ship into barges. Some of the dead were removed individually by tying ropes around the legs or arms and hauling them up onto the deck, then lowering them into the barges. The scene in the holds was like a page from Dante’s Inferno—dark, but one could see the wraithlike figures wandering dazedly through a maze of stacked corpses.


On 13 January, during the afternoon, orders came through from WADA that all the prisoners aboard the Enoura Maru would be transferred tothe Brazil Maru. Reasons for this change were that the Enoura Maru had been badly damaged during the bombing. Transfer to the Brazil Maru was affected by landing barges. The move was completed in late afternoon. The wounded men, fracture cases, etc., suffered great pain in transfer as in some cases they were lowered into boats by ropes and hoisted aboard ship in the same manner. At this time, there were approximately 900 men remaining alive out of the original group of 1619. The ship sailed from Takao on the 13th of January for Japan. The trip from Takao to Moji, Japan lasted from 13 January until 29 January. During the trip there were two issues of cooked rice a day. There were two or three men to a lightly packed canteen cup of rice. No soup was issued at all. This diet was augmented by whatever sugar the men could steal. Numerous protests to the prisoner commanders brought no results. A diagnosis for the cause of the high death rate aboard the Brazil Maru was due to a combination of malnutrition, dehydration and exposure. During the journey there was active trading for rings, watches and fountain pens between the prisoners and the Japanese guards and the ship’s crew for food, water and cigarettes. A lot of West Point and other graduation rings were traded for a cup of water or ten cigarettes. Anyone who had anything to trade did so. The water situation was very acute for the first two days out of Takao harbor. No liquids of any kind were issued. On the 15th approximately twice a day until the 29th, water was spooned out. It was black, salty and unpalatable. At no time even when the death rate was at its highest was the amount of water increased. Medical facilities aboard the ship were nil. Only the more seriously sick were placed under the hatch, which was considered as the hospital area. It was the coldest spot on the ship. Whenever a man was placed in sick bay it was almost a certainty that he would die. Only the men in the last stages were sent there. The doctor and medical corpsmen had nothing whatever to work with—no medicines, no bandages. It is said that one large bottle of sulfathiazol pills aboard the Brazil Maru probably would have saved at least 100 men whose diarrhea was a contributing cause to their death. When the ship first left Takao on the night of 13 January, about 15 men died. Bodies were stacked in the hospital area after first being stripped of all clothing by the hospital corpsmen under orders. Available clothing was then distributed to the men who most needed it. Bodies were collected over a two or three day period before permission was obtained from WADA to get a burial detail to throw them overboard. The first group of dead was about fifty. Generally, bodies would be taken up on deck and buried daily. It got progressively worse, finally reaching a maximum of about forty dead per day a few days prior to arrival in Japan. The men outside of the hospital area who had previously shown no evidence of suffering more than the rest would be found dead in the morning. This became so commonplace that a hospital corpsman would make a circuit of all bays each morning and shout “Roll out your dead.”Bay leaders would then check their bays. A Chaplain prisoner led the men in prayer every night until he died five days out of Takao. Another Chaplain gave all of his food and water to the sick until he too died. Another Chaplain who overtaxed his strength by helping the sick died. Two or three times a day the roll would be called and if a man’s name was called without an answer, someone would say “dead” or give the circumstances regarding his death, such as suffocation aboard the Oryoku Maru.Even though the list had been called many times previously, this was done byorder of the Japanese. The ship finally arrived in Moji, Japan on 29 January 1945. It was met by a large boarding party of officers, enlisted men and civilians. It was announced in mid-morning that clothing would be issued topside. There were about 450 men alive then. It was bitterly cold. The prisoners were issued a pair of wool trousers, a blouse, a suit of cotton underwear, but no socks. Shoes were captured British shoes and were issued without regard to size. This was the first time since 13 December that there was enough water available for each man to have as much as he wanted. However, the men were cautioned that the water might be contaminated and that they had better take it easy. Later on food was issued but many of the men were so sick they were unable to eat. When the men disembarked from the ship they were walking skeletons. The Japanese corpsmen seemed to have a look of astonishment on their faces and there were shocked expressions on the faces of the people at Moji as the prisoners were marched through the streets. Men shuffled, some walked with the support of others. The men were infested with lice and had not shaved since13 December. When the prisoners died aboard the Brazil Maru, they were stacked like cordwood. All of them presented a uniform appearance; lips were drawn back exposing teeth in a half snarl due to skin contraction, ribs seemed to be bursting out of the bodies and where the stomach would be was a hollow, legs and arms were pipe stems. A combination of cold and rigor mortis gave them a rigid unreal appearance. The eyes were sunken. Most of them were stripped nude and all of them gave a definite appearance of starvation .


Some other links mentioning McDonnell's ordeal, concentrating
on his time in the Phillipines, but, again, not specifying cause of
death: "


This entry was posted in The Military Art. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to The “Death Ship” and Chaplain McDonnell

  1. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Col. Lang:
    Were the Japanese being deliberately cruel or was this a consequence of being unprepared?
    [The South did not have enough medical supplies for her own soldiers, let alone for the Union POWs.]

  2. turcopolier says:

    It is quite clear that the Japanese were deliberately cruel, but they paid a high price for their actions. pl

  3. Jose L Campos says:

    There must be a God.

  4. turcopolier says:

    Jose L. Campos
    Father McDonnell evidently thought there was. My mother was not a forgiving person. She knew McDonnell of course and thought that the only way to visit Japan was in a B-29. pl

  5. turcopolier says:

    You might want to read up on this. I suppose there is a case to be made that strategic bombing is a similarly murderous thing, but I have never been an admirer of Lemay or Bomber Harris either. pl

  6. Ramojus says:

    As a PCV in the Philippine Islands (1978-1980) I had been to the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PRRI) facility in Los Banos, Nueva Ecija province on several occasions.
    I recall locals talking about the spirits of Bataan Death March victims inhabiting the coconut groves in the area. One local described to me her conversation with a “‘kano” spirit. Of course this was after several San Miguel beers at the local “Sari Sari” store (the one with a refrigerator).
    I always felt a supernatural historical past when I was there.

  7. Mj says:

    My father was proud to be “First in the Philippines” and the liberation of Corregidor on the USS Crosby, APD 17. He was in the Navy on that day and went to sea 12 hours after the attack.

  8. Mike Martin, Yorktown, VA says:

    The photos of an emaciated Gen Wainwright standing behind MacArthur at the Japanese surrender are evocative of – what? – vengeance? satisfaction? irony?

  9. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Yes, so I heard from Chinese and Koreans: “US ought to have dropped more nuclear weapons on Japan”.
    I suppose many people from the Philippenes would agree as well.

  10. Babak Makkinejad says:

    The Soviet Union prosecuted the largest number of war crimes cases.
    Men like Ezra Pound or those whose sentences were commuted by MacArthur would have been executed – and should.

  11. Pat, my late father was on the Pensacola convoy which was headed to the Philippines on 7 December and was turned around and sent to Australia. He then worked in the Combine US-Australian G2 until he joined the 121st Field Artillery of the 32nd Infantry Division where he fought across New Guinea. His accounts of fighting the Japanese and what happened to the number of Americans who when captured by the Japanese and then executed was chilling. He went to his grave referring to the Japanese as the (please excuse the next word–but I am quoting my father) “Fucking Japanese.”

  12. Charles I says:


  13. steve g says:

    A good friends paternal uncle and namesake
    was on the Oryoku Maru another prisoner
    ship. It was bombed in Subic Bay. He
    lived through that but died a prisoner.
    His family would not have anthing Japanese
    or talk about it. The friend now drives
    a Honda Accord, tho.

  14. Bobo says:

    My late Father-in-Law a Japanese-American who fought with the 442nd in Europe, a very private man, always felt the wrath of us round eyes throughout his life for the actions of his former countrymen to the degree that in his dying days he insisted that a family member stay with him in the hospital 24-7 as a manner of protection. Thus a generation of Japanese have paid dearly for those actions, such as the Death March. Not to say that this offsets, equalizes or condones any of those vile actions by the Japanese inflicted on Allied personnel.
    A little off track but I thought this would add to the conversation.

  15. turcopolier says:

    Charkes I
    “Respect,” Yes, Another chaplain originally from the archdiocese of Brooklyn, New York (and also Irish)baptised my father in 1939. He spent most of the war as a PW in Manchuria and survived. Remarkable men. pl

  16. The Twisted Genius says:

    These chaplains were a magnificent breed. The only pastor I knew while growing up was a Navy chaplain in the Pacific during the War. He was a pillar of strength, faith, wisdom and compassion. I was one of his altar boys for eight years.

  17. Charles I says:

    It would gall me to say war brings out the best – and the worst – in people. But as TTG says, they were already of the best – a magnificent breed. One would have to be to be of any true succor in such existential circumstances.

  18. walrus says:

    My most prized posession is the family Bible. It was given to my Dad by a Reverend Davis, at a small missionary community (christian and missionary alliance) near the town of Malayal in the southern phillipines in 1942, while Dad was on the run from the Japanese following the fall of Manilla.
    That Bible is one of the few things that survived his sea voyage to Australia where he arrived with his crew of (muslim) Moro pirates near Darwin.
    Dad fought through New Guinea and the Solomons and ended up as an Australian war crimes investigator in Tokyo in 1946. He succeeded in tracking down the culprits of at least one massacre of European civilians and the ring leader was hanged.
    His general view of the Japanese was : “The worlds largest tribe”. They had plenty of food and medical supplies, Dad saw their stockpiles in New Guinea and the Solomons. They just regarded their prisoners as beneath contempt and unworthy of assistance or compassion.
    I have yet to find out what happened to the Rev. Davis and the others.

  19. turcopolier says:

    God bless your late father. pl

  20. Al Arabist says:

    pl and others
    Any of you with Devens connections, please contribute your recollections to the fort’s museum, visited by many many school kids around here. God bless you all.

  21. Amir says:

    One evil does not justify another evil. But would you consider the withholding of medicine from Iraqis in the 90s – famously approved and defended by Madlaine Albright – as an act of Evil to Hirohito’s?
    I have to admit that I am the first one to suspect that Ambassador Madleine Albright probably has dual loyalties and US is not necessarily to be blamed about this.

  22. Peter C says:

    Hank, my late father talks about how when their convoy left San Francisco to head to Australia the convoy went clear down the coast of South America almost into artic waters to make the crossing to Adelaide Australia to avoid Japanese subs. Then by train up to Townsville for the jump to New Guinea. I’m unsure when his unit joined up to the 32nd or if they left the U.S. as the 32nd. I will look in his writings to see the order of his units.
    My father was quiet about his time in New Guinea, until he was passing away in 2008. He did mention through the years especially when Viet Nam was ongoing how the Jungle in New Guinea and its environment took out infantry, through malaria, infections, bad water etc.

  23. turcopolier says:

    “would you consider the withholding of medicine from Iraqis in the 90s” Yes. And Albright is a total fraud in many ways. pl

  24. turcopolier says:

    peter c
    Yes, New Guinea and parts of VN were quite similar but army logistics in VN were so much better that the two situations were not comparable. the marines suffered a lot more from sheer deprivation in VN because their logistics system was not set up for sustained operations in the field, any field. pl

  25. Tom in Texas says:

    Dear Col. Lang,
    Thank you for posting this. In googling the story after reading your post, I came across another account of the bombing of the Enoura Maru posted at a site called “Never Forgotten: The Story of the Taiwan POW Camps and the Men Who Where Interned In Them.” It appears to be a written version of remarks delivered orally in Taiwan in 2005 (the speaker notes, “Today we are here to say goodbye and to honor these men for their courage and sacrifice in the terrible tragedy that befell them here 60 years ago.”)
    Your posts (and the comments section) regularly expand my knowledge and understanding of the world. Thanks!

  26. turcopolier says:

    Tom in Texas
    The government indictment for the Japs (deliberate denigration on my part)mentions that the ship had been bombed. Naval air from USS Hornet bombed the ship twice. Naval air was sinking Japanese shipping wherever it was found. Nothing distinguished this ship from any other “maru.” pl

  27. Medicine Man says:

    There is ample indication that the Japanese treated their prisoners the way they did simply out of a sense of tribal superiority over the inferior alien outsiders. My father used to tell me that all of the island dwelling people tend to be like this, though he never had an explanation of why the Irish and Scottish don’t share the condition.

  28. Patricia McDonnell Connor says:

    November 11,2011
    On this Veterans Day the Mc Donnell Family remembers the loss of their beloved Uncle Reverand John J.McDonnell, U.S.Army Chaplain and Brooklyn Fire Drpt. Chaplain prior to WW11.( See 1986, 1987 issues of The Quan in which Fa.McDonnell( under Chaplains) is listed.
    Fa.McDonnell was among 1619 POW’s aboard the Oryoko Mary on 13 Dec.1944 when it was bombed. RIP.

Comments are closed.