As I was researching background information for my novel, “Deborah,” I stumbled across the interesting story of the Japanese transport ship, “Kachidoki Maru.” The haunting story of this ship has a connection to my family, and no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, it kept calling out to me. As mysterious and bizarre as this story is, it didn’t dovetail with my novel, so I edited my “little darling” out (a term borrowed from Stephen King) and put the “Kachidoki Maru” on the back burner. When I finished my novel, Deborah, I returned to the Kachidoki Maru.
Unfortunately, I don’t know of any veterans’ group, magazines, periodicals, or journals that may be interested in publishing this story, so when I noticed that the “Writers’ Digest” had a contest underway and that it included a category on “Magazine Articles and Feature Stories,” I entered. I was surprised and delighted to win 6th place in my category, but the unlikely story of the Kachidoki Maru still has not been published except on this website.
THE KACHIDOKI MARU
by Edie A. Clark
It was September 9, 1940, and a sixteen-year old messenger boy named Mike Carmody stood on Pier 44 overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. He gazed at the 540 foot passenger cargo ship that was awaiting authorization to depart. Though she lacked the sleek glamour of the opulent ocean liners that criss-crossed the Atlantic, he liked the ship’s graceful lines, and studied them carefully. She had a functional look, and good proportions, and with a displacement of 10,600 tons, she was larger than most of the ships he had seen.
With a nod to the state of Michigan, the ship was named the S.S. Wolverine; she was built in New Jersey in 1921 for the U.S. Dollar Line. Mike’s job was a simple one. The ship’s departure had been delayed by the U.S. Customs Office, which was withholding her “Ladings Permit” due to doubtful cargo. Though the U.S. hadn’t yet entered it, there was a war underway in Europe, and no wartime equipment or supplies were allowed on board commercial ships, especially critical inasmuch as this one was headed for Germany.
The Wolverine had been cleared, and Mike was hand-delivering her authorization to the ship’s first mate. Ordinarily the Wolverine would have been required to wait until the papers were sent by the shipping line, but in this case the Customs Office was happy to help out so that the ship could sail with the morning tide. The Wolverine was bound for Hamburg, and her First Mate was delighted to get the papers.
Michael Carmody would remember this day for the rest of his life, even the 40-foot walk across the gangplank would be etched forever in his memory.
Almost exactly four years later, on a hillside in Hawaii, a decoder examined the signals he had just intercepted. He sat inside a rambling frame structure with the word “FRUPAC” lettered on the side – a building that might have been inconspicuous except for the tangled coils of barbed wire surrounding it, and the armed marines who were on 24-hour patrol. FRUPAC stood for Fleet Radio Unit Pacific – and it included a branch of decoders who worked with H25 – the Japanese Merchant Marine code used to describe convoy movements. These most recent transmissions were big news.
The Japanese ship, Kachidoki Maru, was leaving Singapore in a convoy. She was known to be carrying bauxite and rubber confiscated from Japanese-occupied territories throughout the Pacific. What was unknown to the decoders was that the convoy also carried over 2,200 British POWs – half of whom were aboard the Kachidoki Maru – as well as 300 wounded Japanese soldiers and thousands of Japanese officials and their families fleeing southeast Asia and heading home to Japan. The Allies’ wartime noose was choking the Axis powers. The Japanese needed these British POWs for slave labor so that able-bodied Japanese men could be used in combat. There weren’t enough Japanese men to go around, and not enough steel to manufacture new ships and planes. The steel shortage, though, had taken a back seat to another, more pressing, issue. The Japanese were critically short on fuel, and didn’t have enough even to operate the depleted numbers of ships and planes still remaining to them after years of pounding from the relentless U.S. war machine. The U.S.A. had effectively converted their vast resources into a gargantuan military-industrial complex, cranking out ships, planes, tanks, artillery, and weapons with an efficiency that astonished the world. By September, 1944 the Axis nations had many reasons to be jumpy.
The convoy pulled into the South China Sea and joined a second convoy from Manila, bringing the total number of ships to 15, including five destroyer escorts. The convoy’s captains were uncomfortable with their position – they were outside the range of Japanese aircraft which may otherwise have been able to do some scouting for them, or even provide air support in the event of an attack. They knew also that the South China Sea was patrolled relentlessly by enemy submarines – this was fertile hunting ground for the Americans. Having turned the tide of war in their favor, Yankees were flexing their wartime muscles before each battle, itching for action, thirsty for revenge.
Feeling the strain of fear, the convoy’s commanders tripled the lookouts on all ships and installed heavy artillery on the decks. They would have been still more frightened had they known that even the smallest details of their movement and position were being followed by Admiral Nimitz’s staff in Honolulu. Nimitz knew the speed, the coordinates, and the direction of the convoy. The Admiral had given the green light to three U.S. Subs – the U.S.S. Growler, the U.S.S. Sea Lion, and the U.S.S. Pampanito. Silently, hidden by fathoms of murky seawater, the subs maneuvered into position, drawing a bead on the convoy’s ships. The destroyers would be especially prime targets. The Japanese, after all, had sunk nearly all the U.S. destroyers at Pearl Harbor. For these select three submarines, it was payback time. Tense with anticipation, the Yankee sailors watched through the periscope as the convoy slipped through the water and into their crosshairs.
By noon on September 12, 1944, seven of the fifteen Japanese ships had been sunk, including the destroyer, the Shikinami Maru. The Pampanito’s crew then shifted their attention to the Kachidoki Maru, took their bearings, and scored three direct hits. The huge ship sank in only 20 minutes. At first the crew of the Pampanita cheered with excitement. Their expressions changed to horror and disbelief as hundreds of British POWs spilled into the water, struggling to stay alive, thrashing their arms, screaming desperately for help.
Through the Pampanita’s efforts, and the efforts of Japanese rescue vessels, about 656 of the 1,100 POWs on board the Kachidoki Maru were saved. Michael Carmody, the former messenger boy from New York City, was a machinist’s mate on board the Pampanita when it sank the Kachidoki Maru. There was something strangely familiar to him about that huge transport ship.
Years elapsed after the sinking of the Kachidoki Maru, and still the ship was surrounded by an aura of mystery that refused to go away with time. She tugged at the minds of naval historians; there were no documents establishing her origin or history, and the few remaining photos of her did not reveal a ship with typical Japanese construction. Even Japanese engineers and seamen were unable to account for her background. Historians, archivists, and military scholars combed through thousands of pages of Merchant Marine transcripts and conducted interviews with more than 600 allied POWs before the truth finally began to surface. This “Japanese” ship was the same 540 foot ship that Mike Carmody had seen from Pier 44 in New York City four years before she sank in the South China Sea. She was the same ship that had been built in a New Jersey shipyard in 1921, commissioned by the U.S. Dollar Line. The Kachidoki Maru was a ghostly Japanese reincarnation of the S. S. Wolverine.
Shortly after she left for Hamburg, Germany on that bright September day in 1940, the S.S. Wolverine was sold by the Dollar Line to the President’s Line, transferred to Pacific routes, and renamed the S.S. President Harrison. Throughout this time she remained under the command of Captain Orel Pierson of the U.S. Merchant Marines. A few months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Captain Pierson and the Harrison were chartered by the U.S. Navy to transport Naval and Marine personnel from China to the Philippine Islands. Late in October, 1941, the Harrison left Manila for Hong Kong, scheduled for conversion to a troop transport ship.
Work on the President Harrison was finished quickly, and Pierson received orders to evacuate 300 men from the 4th Marine Division in Shanghai to Manila. On December 7th, 1941, the ship was en route, located on the North side of the Yangtze estuary when Pearl Harbor was bombed and the U.S. was suddenly at war with Japan. Hoping to fade into the watery landscape, Captain Pierson immediately ordered his men to paint the unarmed ship gray. The Japanese, after all, had other things on their mind – the Harrison may yet make it to safety. Still, the ship was fully outfitted and in perfect repair; it would be a plum for the Japanese if they could capture her undamaged.
Their attempt at camouflage notwithstanding, the ship was buzzed at dawn and signaled to stop by a rip of machine gun fire from a Japanese plane. Still the Harrison proceeded. A Japanese mail carrier named the Nagaski Maru began trailing them – at 22 knots the humble mail carrier was a fast vessel that could keep track of the ship’s movements.
Captain Pierson’s objective was to scuttle the ship. He hoped to tear away the entire hull by beaching it in rocks, rendering it useless to the Japanese. He was headed for Shaweiskan Island when a Japanese Destroyer approached at full speed. Hoping to capture the Harrison intact, the destroyer didn’t fire. Pierson ordered all hands out of the engine room, then rammed the rocks in the shallow waters around Shaweiskan Island at full throttle, tearing a 90-foot hole in the hull. The ship lurched sideways, then was caught in a strong current and pulled off the rocks and into a mud bank. She settled slowly, upright, wounded but not beyond repair.
The ship was temporarily refitted by the Japanese where she rested in the mud bank, then was ordered to Shanghai for further repairs. She hauled cargo and troops for the Empire of Japan until September 12, 1944, when she was torpedoed and sunk by the U.S.S. Pampanito. Captain Pierson and his crew were among the first POWs captured by the Japanese during World War II. Two times the captain was nearly executed for his attempt to scuttle the ship, but each time he was spared. He survived the war and returned to his family in 1945.
During her attenuated career carrying non-military cargo and passengers in the Pacific, it was the S.S. Harrison, a.k.a the S.S. Wolverine, a.k.a. the Kachidoki Maru that carried an exhilarated green-eyed brunette, age 23, from Honolulu to Manila in March, 1941. Her name was Deborah Port, and she arrived in the Philippines on Easter Sunday, April 13th, radiant with anticipation and buoyed by the love she felt sure would carry her for a lifetime. On April 18th Deborah Port married her childhood sweetheart, First Lieutenant Lincoln Romeiser Clark, Jr. in Fort Stotsenburg’s army chapel on the island of Luzon. She wore satin and tulle, and following their vows, the couple walked out of the small stone chapel under an archway of crossed sabers that gleamed and flashed in the tropical sunshine.
When Deborah made the voyage from Honolulu to Manila, the S.S. President Harrison’s commander was none other than Captain Orel Pierson, the same man who, eight months later, would risk his life trying to keep his ship out of enemy hands by running it aground in the shallow waters surrounding Shaweiskan Island.
Time and distance make it nearly impossible to imagine what thoughts may have gone through Deborah’s mind when, shortly after her wedding ceremony, she was ordered to evacuate the Philippine Islands with the other military wives and families. She had been married less than a month, and she suspected she was pregnant. But she was also an army wife by then, and orders were orders. She said her farewells, climbed on board an army transport ship, and pulled out of Manila Bay.
On January 16, 1942, Deborah gave birth to a daughter, Katherine Ellen, while her husband fought with the 86th Field Artillery Battalion on the Abucay Line in a doomed effort to maintain U.S. positions on the Bataan Peninsula. The largest surrender in U.S. history took place when 15,000 American soldiers and 60,000 Filipino soldiers laid down their weapons on April 9th, 1942. First Lieutenant Lincoln Clark survived the monstrous Death March that followed, as well as nearly three years of starvation and torture in the notorious Japanese POW camp, Cabanatuan. He was killed in action on the Oryoku Maru on December 15th, 1944, en route to Manchuria for assignment to a slave labor camp. He never saw his bride again after the 1941 evacuation, and never once set eyes on his daughter. Deborah’s life was changed forever, and though she eventually remarried, she lived the rest of her life with a persistent inner core of sadness.
The U.S.S. Pampanito still floats in San Francisco Bay, open to the public as a museum. Over 110,000 people visit her annually, including more than 8,000 children, making her one of the most popular historic naval vessels in the country. In striking contrast to the Pampanito’s viability, the Kachidoki Maru rests quietly, deteriorating in the murky water at the bottom of the South China Sea, an all-but-forgotten remnant of the terrible price the world paid for freedom.