On November 18, 1944 the Sydney Morning Herald ran a front page story on an event that had happened more than on a month before, at 5:30 A.M. on September 12, 1944, but had just been made known to the public: the sinking, by Allied forces, of a Japanese ship in the Western Pacific, the Rakuyo Maru (“Tragic Story of P.o.W. Transport Sinking,” 1944). On board the ship, it was reported, were some 700 Australian and some 500 British prisoners of war, all of whom were being transported to Japan to work as forced labor. American submarines managed to rescue 92 Australians and 50 British. The rest were all presumed dead. On board, the 1300 men had been packed into a space designed for “187 steerage passengers” (ibid). The newspaper reported each man had only “two square feet of room, and two feet headroom” (ibid). This was quite literal, as the Japanese had built a false floor to subdivide the decks, each with a mere four feet of clearance (“Japanese Left Prisoners To Drown 600 A.I.F. Men Missing From Transport,” 1944). Men were required to sleep stretched across one another.
When the ship had been struck, the Japanese reported abandoned the ship, leaving the POWs on board, but the officers among the men organized the movement into life rafts. Charges in the water claimed many lives, which had been dropped by a Japanese destroyer in a counterattack to the Allies (ibid). While Japanese ships combed the water in the immediate aftermath of the attack, they refused to pick up POWs (ibid). When men who were eventually rescued were picked up, they had already spent four days in the life rafts without food or water while covered in oil from the sunken ships (“Drifted About,” 1944). Men became delirious and tried to swim away from their rafts, while others were perishing of thirst (ibid). The slickness from the oil meant at night some men accidentally slipped out of the rafts, drowning during the night. On the fifth night in the water, a storm hit, but it was during the storm that a US submarine first came upon the men and began the rescue operation that was able to pull 142 of the 1300 to safety (ibid).