A JAPANESE ATROCITY ON THE HIGH SEAS
The horrible ordeal of the merchant crew, U.S. Naval Armed Guard and passengers on board SS JEAN NICOLET began after being torpedoed on July 2, 1944.
This is the true story of one of the most horrible atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. Some people are aware of it, most are not. You will never read about this in the public media today.
SS JEAN NICOLET, a Liberty ship built in Portland, Oregon, in October 1943, was operated for the War Shipping Administration by the Oliver J. Olson Company of San Francisco and under the command of Captain David Martin Nilsson of Oakland, California. On board was a complement of 100 men consisting of 41 merchant crew, 28 Naval Armed Guard, and 31 passengers. The passenger list was made up of six U.S. Army officers, 12 U.S. Army enlisted men, eight Navy technicians, four civilians, and one U.S. Army medical corpsman.
On July 2, 1944, SS JEAN NICOLET was steaming alone in the Indian Ocean loaded with a cargo of war materials for the China/Burma/India theatre of war. Sailing from San Pedro, California, on May 12, the ship had stopped at Fremantle, Australia, for bunkers, stores, and to discharge some cargo. Departing from Fremantle on June 21, she was bound for Colombo, Ceylon, where she was to stop for orders prior to proceeding to Calcutta. The cargo consisted of heavy machinery, trucks, steel plate, landing barges, steel mooring pontoons, and other general wartime cargo.
At 1907 ship's time, on this date, she was located in position 3-28 South/74-30 West or about 700 miles south of Ceylon. At this time, she was struck by two torpedoes fired from the Japanese submarine I-8. The first hit between #2 and #3 holds on the starboard side and the second at #4 hold on the same side. A few minutes later the Master ordered abandon ship as he feared the ship would capsize due to the heavy starboard list. All hands abandoned ship safely in lifeboats and rafts. Before abandoning his post, Augustus Tilden, the radio operator, sent out a radio message that the ship had been torpedoed in the above position. The message was acknowledged by Calcutta and Ceylon. This radio message was responsible for saving the lives of 23 men.
Soon after the ship was abandoned, I-8 surfaced. As it was dark I-8 used a powerful searchlight to locate the boats and rafts. The survivors were threatened with machine guns and ordered to come alongside by a Japanese speaking perfect English. Some on one raft slipped over the side into the water to hide but were seen and ordered to get back on the raft. Then they were ordered to swim to the sub. Five others, who were on the side away from the sub, were not discovered. These five were the only ones who did not board the sub. This five consisted of four of the Naval Armed Guard and one Army enlisted man. They were among the 24 survivors.
Each man who lived to tell this tale has a different story about what happened to him but basically it was this way. One of the men forced to swim to the sub was William M. Musser, a 17-year-old messman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, making his first trip to sea. After boarding the sub, he was escorted towards the bow and as he walked forward, one of the Japanese sailors swung him around and slugged him over the head with a piece of steel pipe. As Musser staggered from the blow the sailor laughed and took out his pistol and shot Musser in the head and then kicked his body over the side as he fell.
Another crew member, Richard L. Kean, a 19-year-old ordinary seaman from Kennewick, Washington, was also brutally murdered. As he climbed out of a lifeboat to the sub's deck, he was searched, had his life jacket removed, and his arms were bound behind his back. The Japanese sailor who was leading him forward suddenly turned with a bayonet in his hand and plunged it into Kean's stomach. As Kean doubled over with pain, he was struck in the head with a rifle butt and kicked over the side into the water.
As each of the other survivors boarded I-8, they were immediately roughed up, searched, had life jackets removed and had all their valuables, shoes, and I.D. tags taken from them. Then they were bound with their arms behind their backs with rope or wire. They were forced to sit on deck with their heads bowed on their knees. Anyone who raised his head or made a noise of any kind was beaten with iron pipes and cut with bayonets. The deck ran red with blood and vomit.
Captain Nilsson, Gus Tilden (radio operator), and Francis J. O'Gara were taken to the conning tower and shoved below. Mr. O'Gara was a War Shipping Administration representative en route to the Calcutta office. They were never seen again by the survivors.
While sitting in this painful position, the survivors were forced to listen to a harangue by l-8's commander. He hurled insults at them saying, "You are now my prisoners. Let this be a lesson to you that Americans are weak. You must realize that Japan will rule the world. You are stupid for letting your leaders take you to war. Do you know that the entire American fleet is now at the bottom of the Pacific?"
While all this was going on, I-8 cruised around looking for any boats or rafts they might have missed. The sub also commenced shelling JEAN NICOLET, which was still afloat. As I-8 cruised around, a wave came over the deck of the submarine washing three of the men overboard with their hands tied behind them. Two of them, Carl Rosenbaum (F/WT) and George Kenmore Hess (A.B.), survived but Lt. Morrison R. Miller, U.S. Army, was never seen again. Lt. Miller had suffered a broken arm abandoning ship and he had no chance of surviving.
In the meantime, a gauntlet consisting of 10 to 15 crew members of I-8 was formed on the after deck behind the conning tower. Those held on the fore deck could not see what was happening. They could, however, hear the horrible screams of the men who were forced to go through the gauntlet. Those forming the gauntlet were armed with steel stanchions, bayonets, and rifles. Waiting at the end was a huge Japanese holding a rifle with a fixed bayonet in both hands. If any man survived to the end of the gauntlet, he was impaled on the bayonet of this man and his body heaved overboard like a side of beef. Three men survived this torture by jumping overboard halfway through the gauntlet. Even though their hands were still bound, they decided they would take their chance in the ocean regardless of the sharks. All three of them suffered wounds from bayonets and steel pipes. Two of them were from the merchant crew, Charles E. Pyle (1st Assistant Engineer) and Harold R. Lee (messman). The third was Robert C. Butler, a U.S. Navy technician.
While all this torture was going on, those sitting on the fore deck, unaware of what was happening on the after deck, were led one by one to the slaughter until there were about 30 men left alive on deck. At this time, the diving siren sounded and crew members of I-8 were ordered below. An aircraft had been reported on the sub's radar heading in the direction of the submarine. Those left on deck with their hands tied behind their backs were left to drown. Seventeen of these men drowned or were killed by sharks. The remaining 13 men survived by swimming all night, some with their hands still tied. Others were able to get free by themselves or were freed by a Navy Armed Guard seaman who had concealed a knife in his blouse. He cut as many free as he could as the sub went under.
The aircraft reported on radar was in all likelihood searching for the survivors of JEAN NICOLET. This was the result of the radio message sent by Gus Tilden just before he abandoned ship.
Many of the survivors were in the water for 13 to 14 hours without any support. About 0800 the next morning (July 3) survivors saw a Liberator approaching the scene. It dropped a small rubber dinghy made to hold four people. Eventually, seven men ended up in this dinghy. An hour or so later, three more planes (PBYs) appeared overhead searching for survivors but flew off without any action.
At daylight on July 4, another Liberator appeared overhead and a ship was seen approaching. This was HMIS HOXA on her way to rescue the survivors. Seven men were found clinging to the small dinghy, thirteen others were rescued from rafts or dinghies, and three others were found clinging to wreckage. They were taken to Addu Atoll of the Maldive Islands group landing there on July 5 where they were interrogated by British Intelligence.
They left Addu Atoll on July 12 aboard HMIS SONNETI arriving in Colombo on July 14. On July 27 they were flown to Calcutta where the two Army men and the Navy technician were assigned duties in the area. The ten merchant crew members and the 10 Naval Armed Guard were eventually taken to Bombay by train. At Bombay they boarded USAT GEN. WILLIAM MITCHELL. They finally got back to the U.S., landing in San Diego on October 6, more than three months after their horrible ordeal.
Of the 100 men aboard JEAN NICOLET, only 24 survived. A breakdown of the lost is as follows: 31 merchant crew, 18 Naval Armed Guard, and 27 passengers. Francis J. O'Gara was found alive in Ofuna prison camp near Yokohama after the end of hostilities. He had been declared dead by the U.S. Navy. He even had a Liberty ship named for him, the only living person who was to see his name on a Liberty ship. FRANCIS O'GARA was built June 1945 in Panama City, Florida.
Mr. O'Gara had been a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer prior to December 7, 1941, but early in 1942 he joined the merchant marine as a seaman. After about two years of sea duty he came ashore to work for the WSA.
After I-8 submerged, O'Gara spent 44 days aboard the sub suffering frequent beatings, denial of food and water most of the time. During this time he got a glimpse of Capt. Nilsson and Gus Tilden, the radio operator. I-8 reached Penang on August 15 where he and Capt. Nilsson were taken ashore. He never saw the radio operator again but did get a brief look at Capt. Nilsson through the window of his cell. O'Gara was returned aboard I-8 on September 15 and eventually ended up in Yokohama on October 9, 1944.
Capt. Nilsson was left behind when O'Gara was taken from Penang to Japan. Nothing is known of his fate. O'Gara was of the opinion that Capt. Nilsson was put aboard a submarine to be transported to Japan and the sub was sunk en route by the U.S. Navy.
The captain of I-8 was a brutal, sadistic creep named Tetsunosuke Ariizumi. He had been nicknamed "The Butcher" by the British Royal Navy because of several other atrocities he had committed against Allied merchant crews similar to that of JEAN NICOLET. One such atrocity was perpetrated against a Dutch merchant ship, SS TJISALAK, on March 26, 1944. Of 103 men on board only five survived. The men on board this ship suffered the same fate as those on JEAN NICOLET. The five survivors saved themselves by jumping overboard and swimming underwater despite the fact they were being machine-gunned. They eventually reached one of the boats previously abandoned and were picked up by the Liberty ship SS JAMES A. WALKER on March 30.
Toward the final days of the war Ariizumi was a Flotilla Commander and was on 1-401, the largest submarine ever built, a boat of some 5000 tons equipped with three catapult planes. Subs of that class were called "underseas aircraft carriers." At this time Ariizumi proposed using 1-401 and three other subs of that class to destroy the Panama Canal. When this plan was scrapped in favor of attacking Ulithi, Ariizumi was infuriated.
Upon receipt of the Emperor's surrender order, 1-401 proceeded back toward Japan and surrendered to the U.S. Navy submarine USS SEGUNDO. Five of SEGUNDO's crew were put aboard 1-401 as guards.
The U.S. Navy reported that while 1-401 was entering Tokyo Bay on August 31, 1945, about 0400 hours, Ariizumi committed suicide and his body was thrown overboard.
Mr. O'Gara disputed this report by the Navy and expressed outrage to the criminal registration officer. He agreed with O'Gara and assigned a Nisei investigator to track down Ariizumi. Mr. O'Gara was convinced that Ariizumi was put ashore before 1-401 was captured by the Americans or he slipped through a hatch and swam ashore after entering Tokyo Bay.
Upon investigation, it had been determined that 1-401 came within sight of land en route to Tokyo Bay around Sendai in northern Honshu where Ariizumi could easily have been put ashore before the submarine surrendered. None of the Navy men on 1-401 ever saw Ariizumi aboard nor did they see a body or a burial at sea.
O'Gara was brought back to Japan in 1948 by the War Crimes Tribunal as a witness against Japanese war criminals that he had experienced while he was a prisoner of war. However, the one he wanted most was Ariizumi. He even took it upon himself to search for him personally. He wanted him that bad and who could blame him!
Some members of the crew of I-8 were tried and received light sentences but even those sentences were commuted. Ariizumi was never caught. It's very possible that this man and other crew members of I-8 are still alive and well in Japan today. This infuriates me and all others who care.
O'Gara said the one person who was most helpful, as far as the attack on the JEAN NICOLET, was the one who spoke perfect English from the deck of the sub giving orders to the Americans. He came forward, voluntarily, to the authorities and told all he knew of the sinkings and atrocities and identified all he knew to be responsible. His name was Harold Jiro Nakahara who was born in Hawaii and lived there. At the time of the outbreak of the war he was studying in Japan and was unable to return. He had been pressed into service as a radio operator and interpreter.
Francis J. O'Gara died September 18, 1981, at the age of 69.
To my knowledge, William R. Flury of White City, Oregon, may be the last living survivor of this most heinous of atrocities. Some may still be alive but Mr. Flury does not know of them. He had been denied prisoner of war status by the U.S. Coast Guard but he appealed that decision and won. Whether he was a prisoner of war, he had been captured by the enemy. Remember what the Japanese commander, Ariizumi, said, "You are now my prisoners!"
On October 25, 1993, William B. Flury was awarded the POW medal by the U.S. Coast Guard. Although none of the other nine surviving merchant crew members are still alive, their families are eligible to receive this medal.
I wish to extend my thanks to Robert Carl Rosenbaum, son of Carl R. Rosenbaum, for much of the material used in this article. Carl Rosenbaum was one of the 24 survivors of this tragedy.
I am also indebted to William J. Howard, Jr., Capt. USAFR (Ret.) for the information on Francis J. O'Gara. Capt. Howard's daughter is married to the son of Mr. O'Gara, Francis J. O'Gara, Jr.
Also many thanks to Bill Flury for sharing some of his experiences with me regarding his survival of this atrocity.
SURVIVORS OF SS JEAN NICOLET
MERCHANT CREW (10)
William B. Flury, Cook, Chiloguin, OR
George K. Hess, A.B., Berkley, CA
Harold R. Lee, Messman, Dunbar, WV
John McDougall, A.B., Berkley, CA
Paul L. Mitchem, Deck Engineer, San Francisco, CA
Charles E. Pyle, 1st Engineer, Lodi, CA
Carl Rosenbaum, FWT, Crockett, CA
Lloyd B. Ruth, Wiper, Akron, OH
Stuart R. Vanderhurst, A.B., San Francisco, CA
Jack C. Van Ness, Carpenter, Burlingame, CA
NAVAL ARMED GUARD (10)
Robert Applegate, S/1, Jackson, MI
Carl L. Bevatori, S/1, Springfield, IL
Gerald V. Deal, Lt. j.g., Pomoma, CA
Ora E. Lamb, S/1, Champagne, IL
Archie L. Howard, S/1, Albany, CA
Robert L. Nuvill, S/1, Grand Haven, MI
William E. Simons, RM/3, Huntington Park, CA
Collie C. Stone, RM/3, Tulsa, OK
Raymond M. Wheeler, S/1, Orange, NJ
Teofils Wyrozumski, GM/3, Van Nuys, CA
Robert C. Butler, U.S. Navy Technician, Camino, CA
John J. Gussak, Capt., U.S. Army, Brooklyn, NY
Harvey Matyas, Private, U.S. Army, Milwaukee, WI
Francis J. O'Gara, WSA Representative, prisoner of war
MERCHANT CREW, U.S. NAVAL ARMED GUARD, AND U.S. NAVY, U.S. ARMY, AND CIVILIAN PASSENGERS LOST ON SS JEAN NICOLET
MERCHANT CREW (31)
BEESON, Harold Eugene, Cook, Salem, OR
BIRD, Sterling Leroy, Utility, Proctor, MN
BRANDON, Willis Lee, Oiler, Baltimore, MD
BUTLER, Ermal, Utility, Los Angeles, CA
CARLIN, Clement, Chief Mate, Glendale, CA
CARSTAIRS, Jack Ed, Jr., O.S., Richmond, CA
CHRISTEN, Walter Aloysius, A.B., San Mateo, CA
DOWNING, Howard Richard, Oiler, Arlington, WA
HARDING, Dexter, Jr., Steward, Joplin, MO
HORGESHEIMER, Russell Edwin, Oiler, Gary, IN
HUSTEN, James Alfred, O.S., San Francisco, CA
KAGY, Donald Lynn, Purser, Cleveland, OH
KEAN, Richard Leroy, O.S., Kennewick, WA
MARTINEZ, Ernest Paul, Wiper, Sacramento, CA
MCDONALD, Donald Calvin, FWT, Bremerton, WA
MEDLOCK, Troy, Cook, San Francisco, CA
MUSSER, William Michael, Messman, Lancaster, PA
NILSSON, David Martin, Master, Oakland, CA
PESHEN, Stanley, Bosun, South Boston, MA
RESER, Paul, Messman, New Lebanon, OH
ROACH, Floyd Walter, 2nd Engineer, Park City, UT
RUTAN, George Morris, 3rd Mate, Albany, CA
SELVAGGI, Leo John, 3rd Engineer, Los Angeles, CA
STRONG, William Washington, Jr., 2nd Mate, Mobile, AL
SULLIVAN, Edward Martin, Messman, West Haven, CT
THURMAN, John William, Chief Engineer, San Francisco, CA
TILDEN, Augustus, Radio Operator, Oakland, CA
WALKER, Floyd Marion, O.S., Albany, OR
WALKER, Robert Wilson, FWT, St. Louis, MO
WEIR, Robert Orval, O.S., El Cerrito, CA
WRIGHT, Oswald Samuel, Cook, New York, NY
U.S. NAVAL ARMED GUARD (18)
ARMENT, Walter D., Slc
ATCHLEY, Ernest E., Slc
ATEN, Frank R., GM3c
BAK, Alec F., Slc
FLOYD, David L., Slc
GAGNIER, Patrick E., Coxswain
HARDWICK, Ralph, Slc
HERMAN, A., Slc
HOLMSTROM, Terry W., Slc
KOLCZYNSKI, Raymond R., Slc
KONYA, Harry D., Slc
KRAJEWSKI, Richard J., Slc
KUHN, Charles E., Slc
LALLATHIN, Frank J., Slc
LASKY, John E., Slc
LISSER, Herman John, S1c
PETERSEN, Richard J., S1c
WILSON, Franklin F., SM3c
U.S. ARMY PERSONNEL (Passengers) (17)
CAIN, William R., Tech 4, MC
CHURCH, Charles B., Jr., S. Sgt, QMC
COTTEN, James P., WO (JG), AC
COLEMAN, Edward J., T. Sgt., QMC
FERGUSON, Donald B., Captain, CMP
GUTHRIE, Walter R., Captain, QMC
LITTRELL, Goerge D., Jr., Sgt., AC
McCUTCHEON, Willard L., Pvt., AC
MILLER, Morrison R., 2nd LT., AC
MORRIS, Wilbert O., Pvt., AC
PIERCE, Newton C., Pvt., AC
PIERRARD, Marvin E., Pvt., AC
POE, Robert W., Pvt., AC
SALINAS, Waldemar, Pvt., AC
SATTERFIELD, Thomas R., Jr., Pvt., AC
SNODGRASS, Ralph, Captain, MC
THORPE, Robert O., Sgt., AC
U.S. NAVY PERSONNEL (Passengers) (7)
BOLTON, Robert E.
FRANK, John William
INEDEMAR, George M.
McCAULEY, George G.
VIGER, Leon J.
CIVILIAN PASSENGERS (3)
MULLIN, Thomas J.
PARKER, A. T.
WEBB, Thomas T.
From A Careless Word - A Needless Sinking by Arthur R. Moore
Return to Ship Logs and Reports
Return to Home Page