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WWII hell ships: A tale of loss, memory and a search for forgiveness

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s just a small sliver of metal, probably aluminum, probably fashioned from an Army mess kit.

On one side is engraved the word “Daddy” and the date 3-3-43. Incised on the other side is “J.W. Brown,” which happens to be the name of the 76-year-old man holding the tiny piece as he explains that its significance far exceeds its size.

J.W. “Joe” Brown’s father, Warrant Officer Charles D. Brown of the U.S. Army’s 31st Infantry Regiment, was interred in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in the Philippines when he made the bracelet for his toddler son. Smuggled out of the camp by a Catholic priest who delivered it to Brown’s family, it has been one of Joe’s most treasured possessions since he was very young.

Joe Brown holds the tiny bracelet his father, Army Warrant Officer Charles D. Brown, made while being held in a Japanese POW camp during World War II. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Luckily, I never lost that as a child,” he said.

That is fortunate, because Joe did lose his father. Charles Brown was among the more than 1,700 U.S. and Allied POWs, military and civilian, who died when the Japanese prison ship Arisan Maru was torpedoed by an American submarine on Oct. 24, 1944.

Hell ships

Brown, who now makes his home in Temecula, Calif., was one of the 145 persons attending the convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society on Thursday through Saturday at Hotel Albuquerque.

J.W. “Joe” Brown talks about his father, an American POW who died when a Japanese prison ship was sunk during World War II. Brown was among the 145 people attending a convention of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society in Albuquerque from Thursday through Saturday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The organization evolved from a group formed in 1946 by American military veterans who were overrun and captured during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in the early months of 1942.

Today, the membership is made up mostly of the widows, children and grandchildren of those World War II veterans who battled the Japanese on the Bataan peninsular or the island of Corregidor. But some of the old POWs still attend. There were five at this year’s convention, including Henry Chamberlain, 95, of Edmonds, Wash.

Henry Chamberlain, 95, was one of five World War II POWs attending the convention. Chamberlain spent the last days of the war doing prison labor in a Japanese lead and zinc mine. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Chamberlain was an Army private and surgical tech in the hospital at Fort William McKinley in the Philippines when he was taken prisoner. He survived transport to Japan on the Haro Maru, one of the so-called Japanese hell ships notorious for the horrendous conditions inflicted on the prisoners confined in the bowels of the vessels.

Chamberlain said the prisoners were fed just two baseball-size portions of rice a day and lived in their own waste.

“I had a piece of T-shirt, and it proved to be a blessing,” he said. “When we were in warm waters, the men would perspire and the perspiration would condense on the side of the ship. I would wipe down the sides of the ship with that piece of T-shirt and squeeze the perspiration out of it to drink.”

The Haro Maru took its POWs to Yokohama, and Chamberlain passed the last days of World War II working prison labor in a Japanese lead and zinc mine.

Also attending the convention was John Whitehurst, 77, of San Antonio, Texas. His father, Army Maj. Collin Whitehurst Jr., like Brown’s father, died in the sinking of the Arisan Maru.

John Whitehurst’s father died in the same attack. Whitehurst said a visit to Japan last year helped him get past some of the bitterness he has felt because of the loss of his father. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Two Japanese men, Mitsuhiro Ogawa, 62, and his son, Takashi Ogawa, 28, attended the convention. Mitsuhiro’s father, Nobumi Ogawa, was a 17-year-old civilian radio operator on the Arisan Maru.

Friendship visit

There was no way for the American submarine to know the Arisan Maru was a POW ship. It was not marked in any way to indicate that. Japanese destroyer escorts pulled the Japanese survivors from the water and lifeboats. But none of the 1,700-plus POWs was rescued by the Japanese that day.

Mitsuhiro Ogawa, speaking through an interpreter, said his father was told by other Japanese survivors not to worry about the Americans because they would be rescued by American ships.

Mitsuhiro Ogawa, left, and his son Takashi, right, traveled from Japan to attend the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society convention in Albuquerque. Mitsuhiro’s father was a civilian radio operator on the Japanese POW ship Arisan Maru. Yukako Ibuki, center, with the US-Japan Dialogue on POWs, served as interpreter for the Ogawas. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The memorial society promotes education about the POW experience in the Pacific, but it also supports efforts aimed at reconciliation and understanding.

For 10 days this past fall, 10 people – including Chamberlain, Brown and Whitehurst – made a friendship visit to Japan as guests of the Japanese government. Chamberlain returned to the mine where he had toiled as a prisoner. Brown and Whitehurst went to visit Mitsuhiro’s father, who is now 91 and residing in an assisted-living facility.

“I was just very interested to hear what he had to say,” Whitehurst said. “He told us he liked the Americans. He told us a crew member (on the Arisan Maru) was sick and that one of the prisoners was a doctor and treated him successfully.”

Whitehurst said he was bitter for many years about the war and the loss of his father but the visit to Japan helped him see things in a different light.

“I was only looking at the bad part,” he said.


Chamberlain remained in military service after World War II, retiring from the Air Force in 1967 as a senior master sergeant. He served part of his post-war duty in Okinawa. He said he felt compelled to return to Japan.

“I wanted to go back to express my feelings of despair, which I did in prayer,” he said. “And I wanted to forgive the Japanese for what they had done to me and my friends.”

Upfront is a front page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Ollie Reed Jr. at 823-3916 or