Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ocean Liners: in Times of Peace and War

Asama Maru...Coming to America

Grandpa immigrated to America in 1929 on the maiden voyage of the Japanese liner, Asama Maru.  The $6,000,000 passenger ship carried over 800 persons:  between 222 and 239 first class passengers (accounts vary), 96 persons in second class, and 504 in third class.  It was the first Japan-made diesel engine ship and one of the fastest at the time traveling at 21 knots.  It took a little over 12 days from Asia to California.

Los Angeles Times display ad October 29, 1929
(Image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

This blogger's father's father arrived in San Francisco on October 24, 1929, six days before the crash of the New York Stock Exchange.  He mostly likely traveled from the starting point in Hong Kong on a third class ticket.

The next port call for the Asama Maru was Los Angeles on October 29th, and the anticipated arrival of the ocean liner brought with it economic optimism of closer relations with the Far East.  There was no way to foresee the ship's future:  employed in the Second World War as a "mercy" ship, then as a hell ship and then its sinking by a torpedo in 1944.

On its first time arrival in L.A. the ship was publicly opened to visits by the more than 15,000 people before it set sail back to the Orient on November 1st via San Francisco and Honolulu. 


Los Angeles Times article dated October 28, 1929
(Courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers)


The Asama Maru's interior décor was a blend of western and Oriental rooms.  The ship sailed through the decade of the 1930s.

From 1939 brochure
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, GC-1094)

1936 brochure
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

1930 ad
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

1930 ad reverse side with travel agent stamp out of Pasadena, Calif.
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

March, 1938 sales brochure
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

March, 1938 sales brochure
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)

March, 1938 sales brochure stamped with still hopeful reminder of upcoming Tokyo Olympics
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)


This 1940 brochure provided a Notice that due to the war in Europe, the Japan-Europe Service route was not in operation
(Courtesy of the Seaver Center, GC-1094)


Some History of American Ships on the Pacific Coast

Pacific Mail Steamship Co. operated several side-wheel steamers in the 19th century.  The SS Colorado (1864-1878) inaugurated in 1867 the company's first scheduled service to Hong Kong, with stops in Japan.  According to an anniversary calendar, the Colorado took travelers in search of fabric, tea, and spices.  Chinese migrant workers headed to Gold Mountain (California) made the return voyage.

From APL sesquicentennial calendar 1848-1998 picturing the SS Colorado
(Courtesy of blogger's personal collection)
Pacific Mail Steamship's SS The Great Republic (1867-1878) was among the last of the wooden side-wheelers taking passengers across the Pacific to Japan and later to Hong Kong (9.5 knots speed; 1,450 passengers of which 250 were first class).

Dollar Lines was another enterprise which in the early 1920s counted upon 90 percent of its transpacific passengers from Asia.  In 1925 Dollar Lines bought Pacific Mail Steamship.  During the Gilded Age, it operated luxurious ships boasting fine crystal, china and silverware in its dining rooms, grand pianos in the first class lounges.  By 1931, Dollar's SS President Hoover was the largest U.S. built passenger liner, with a telephone in each stateroom and private baths in first class.  It carried 988 passengers in four classes at a speed of 20 knots.

Air travel during this time was new - passenger flights began in the summer of 1929 by the Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc. (later to be named TWA).

Dollar Steamship Co. became known as American President Lines (APL) in 1938.  During the Second World War, APL managed ships for the War Shipping Administration, including its own APL liners.

Another line, Matson, concentrated on mainland to Hawaii service.  In 1927, its SS Malolo (1927) was the fastest in the Pacific Ocean at 22 knots.  Three other luxury Matson ships built between 1930 and 1932 were SS Mariposa, SS Monterey and SS Lurline.  Once the U.S. joined the war, Matson liners became a part of the war effort.

War Ships

Japan joined the Axis powers on September 27, 1940.  Japanese ships were conscripted into war service.  Similarly, when the United States joined Allied forces after December 7, 1941, American ships were adapted as troop carriers, hospital ships and freighters.

Mercy Ships of War

The Asama Maru had a role during the Second World War in the exchange of civilians among countries.  The Gripsholm Exchanges involved the return of citizens behind enemy lines, and the first took place with the Asama Maru in 1942 transporting American diplomats and their families, as well as some South Americans, who had been imprisoned since December 8, 1941.  Another ship, the Italian Conte Verde, simultaneously swept up Americans stranded in China.  The Asama Maru left Yokohama, Japan on June 25th, making further pickups at Hong Kong, Saigon and Singapore, where it met the Conte Verde.  Both ships departed for Lourenco Marques, Mozambique, with all of their lights on, illuminated crosses on the hind deck, and with the word EXCHANGE painted in large letters on the sides, arriving July 23rd. 

Arriving also was the Swedish MS Grispsholm which had carried Japanese nationals from New York and Rio de Janeiro.  The exchange took place on the 24th.  (In comparison to the Asama Maru that was Japan's first diesel-fueled passenger liner, the Grispholm was a 1925 cruise ship and the first diesel-powered one to cross the Atlantic Ocean.)

Asama Maru was sunk by an American submarine USS Atule in the South China Sea on November 1, 1944.

Hell Ships of War

Among the luxury Japanese liners from the era of the 1930s, this blogger finds a brief web mention that the Asama Maru served as a hell ship.  These Japanese ships transported WWII prisoners-of-war from Japan-occupied lands - their intent to ship these POWs to Japan and other occupied territories for slave labor.

Another liner, Nitta Maru, formerly serviced the Japan-Europe passenger route (referenced in a previous image above), was converted during the war and served as a hell ship (documented is the transport of Allied soldiers from Wake Island to Japan in January of 1942).

Many other Japanese military ships served as hell ships, and this blog post serves to bring attention to the Arisan Maru that transported 31st Regiment Infantry Private Charles G. Vargas who hailed from the L.A. area.

(Image courtesy of J. Adame)


The Arisan Maru was a military ship, never a passenger liner, that set out carrying over 1,780 prisoners from Bataan, Philippines on October 11, 1944 destined for Formosa.  The men had already endured several years of hardship, brutality, and torture by the hands of their Japanese counterparts since the fall of the Philippines in 1942.

As the men were crammed onto the ship, they faced starvation, dysentery and continued torture.  Many began dying while the ship detoured for several days before the journey north.  The ship did not bear any signs indicating the transport of American and Allied POWs and other civilian prisoners, and on October 24, 1944 friendly fire torpedoed the ship.  Five soldiers survived, but Private Vargas and the rest all perished .  This was the greatest number of fatalities in a single instance at sea.

Private Vargas is remembered as a young resident of Simons, California, the brick-making company town near Montebello in L.A. County.  His profile in the American Patriots of Latino Heritage website states he was born in Santa Monica (Simons Brick Company had a plant located in Santa Monica, and quite probably Vargas was born there.)  Also listed are his three brothers, the oldest Alexander (born in Simons, 1920), and Charles' two younger brothers, Salvador (born in Santa Monica, 1926) and Ismael (born in Santa Monica, 1928) - the three brothers survived the war.  Out of all the profiles in the Latino Heritage site, this blogger only found a couple of soldiers who died on hell ships, one of which was Private Vargas.

At the war's Pacific Theater, the Death March of Bataan, the prison camps and the hell ships were bleak episodes in humanity, where war produced heinous and atrocious crimes by otherwise civilized men in otherwise peaceful times.  It is a mournful memory even 73 years later.

Grandpa was living in L.A. before he was drafted as a civilian worker following the attack at Pearl Harbor.  He worked in Kaneohe, Oahu.  Found in an old suitcase, he saved what appears to be a memento of his time on the island:

Pillow case souvenir

No comments:

Post a Comment