American Merchant Marine Prisoners of War during World War II

Prisoners of War medalStanley WillnerStanley Willner's Story

Insight magazine May 5, 1997

[Photo of Stanley Willner as a U.S. Maritime Commission cadet 1938]

Stanley Willner was duty officer on the SS Sawokla when it was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean on November 29, 1942.

"It took only minutes for the ship to go down. I remember being out in the ocean and realizing that there were not that many of us left. When we were finally picked up by the German ship that sank us we were pretty close to death." The German captain immediately informed the Americans that "he was no Nazi and he was just serving his country." He previously had given early warning to American ships on the seaway, allowing them a chance to slip out of range. But in this case he'd hit us. "Willner was so loaded with shrapnel, he spent two months in the German ship's hospital. Willner and his fellow mariners spent 3 months on the Michel before being turned over to the Japanese in Singapore.

"The German doctor had given me a letter to hand over to the Japanese about my medical condition. Well, I handed it over all right, and the next thing you know I was hit by the broadside of a sword. I certainly knew that things were going to be different then."

After being held in Singapore for a few months, the American mariners were sent to one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps run by the Japanese. For three years, they were starved and worked as slaves building the notorious Burma railroad project which included the Bridge over the River Kwai. Willner began to keep a small notebook in which he and other POWs recorded their experiences. He is certain that if the Japanese had found it, they would have killed him on the spot. The writing helped him deal with what was a horrific confinement. "They literally starved us. I wasn't a big guy to begin with, but by the end of the war I had gone from weighing 135 pounds to just 75 pounds."

"I remember a really good friend, Dennis Roland, who was very sick, and I managed to steal a duck from down by the river to keep him alive. We bribed a British soldier, a one-legged Englishman who did some work for the Japanese, to keep the duck, and in exchange we would give him one egg per week." Willner's friend survived, but the Englishman was boiled alive by the Japanese after overheating their bathwater.

At war's end, Willner returned home, where he received no veteran benefits. "There was so much criticism of the Merchant Marine at the close of the war. Everyone thought that we were getting paid so much during our service. Well, my family received $1 a day after I disappeared, and when the government found out I was still alive they asked my family for repayment."

Several years ago Willner was one of two Americans who returned to the site of the Bridge over the River Kwai to participate in a reunion. But when the time came to walk across the bridge in a symbolic gesture of reconciliation with their captors, Willner was surprised to find himself unwilling to participate. "I just couldn't do it. All I could remember was the horror of the experience, and I just could not walk across that bridge."

Willner spent 40 years of his life fighting for veteran status for merchant mariners, who fought and suffered for their country only to be given the cold shoulder upon their return from the war. [Willner was one of the plaintiffs in Schumacher, Willner, Reid vs Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. Aldridge, Jr. trial in 1987]

Read Stan Willner's story in his own words
Order a CD with the story of Willner and others on the River Kwai at his site. Photo courtesy Stanley Willner

Prisoners of War medalGeorge Duffy's StoryGeorge duffy 1941

George Duffy was aboard the MV American Leader in September 1942 when she was sunk by the German cruiser Michel 850 miles west of Capetown, South Africa. The Michel picked up 47 survivors of the 58 on board. Four weeks later they were transferred to a German tanker, the Uckermark, which turned them over to the Japanese near Batavia [now Jakarta], Java. Duffy was one of 12 Americans working alongside other POW's, mostly British and Dutch building a railroad on Sumatra in August 1945. They finished construction on August 14, and were transferred to another camp. Japanese soldiers replaced their Korean guards and chaos reigned in the camp. On August 26, local doctors told of the Japanese surrender. Most prisoners didn't believe them.

Soon British intelligence officers parachuted onto the island and ordered all POW's brought to Pakan Baru at the northern end of the railroad they just completed. The men were "walking skeletons. "After August 15th men kept dying, with 87 men dying along the railway or at Pakan Baru. On September 16, after over 1,000 days of forced labor, Duffy hitched a ride to Singapore.

19 of the 47 men who survived the sinking of the MV American Leader did not survive the Japanese experience. 9 of the crew were aboard the Junyo Maru, carrying 2,300 Allied prisoners and 4,200 Javanese laborers when it was torpedoed by the British HMS Tradewind in September 1944. 5 of the 9, including Stanley Gorski survived.

Captain George Duffy's story of the American Leader

SS Stanvac Calcutta
In June 1942 off South America, the tanker SS Stanvac Calcutta was approached by what appeared to be a British merchant ship. Suddenly the ship raised the swastika, removed camouflage off its decks, and began firing. The German raider Stier fired 148 rounds and one torpedo and sank the SS Stanvac Calcutta. Those who were able to abandon ship were taken aboard the Stier, and after 6 days transferred to the Schliemann, a German tanker. They spent 5 months in a rat-infested hold with 500 other survivors. The only "comforts" in the hold were bales of straw. 100 prisoners were turned over to the Japanese in Singapore, the rest taken to Japan to work loading ships, planting rice, and building dams. They worked 5 days a week the first year, 6 days the second year, and 7 days the last year. They were fed rice, pickled radish, seaweed, and tea.

Prisoners of War medalSS President Harrison
On November 28, 1941, the SS President Harrison sailed from Shanghai for Manila after evacuating a contingent of U.S. Marines from Shanghai. On December 4, 1941 she was ordered back to Chinwangtao, North China from Manila to evacuate U.S. Marines from Peking (Beijing).

On December 7, 1941 the Master tried to make a run out of the Yangtse River below Shanghai. A Japanese cruiser trapped the ship at the mouth of the Yangtse River. The Master ordered the ship run aground at full speed and tore the bottom plates out of her.

The ship carried a crew of 156 persons including the Master. They were among the first POW's of WWII. Among them was Clara Main, a stewardess. Twelve crew members died in Japanese captivity and three men were killed while abandoning ship. The Master was sentenced to a six month jail sentence at the Japanese Naval Station in Sasebo, Japan for wrecking the ship. Some officers and crew members were sent to work in the coal mines at Hokkaido, Japan.

The SS President Harrison was salvaged and repaired by the Japanese. She was torpedoed and sunk by the American submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383) in the South China Sea on September 12, 1944 while en route from Singapore to Japan with about 900 Allied prisoners of war on board. About 500 of them were saved, mostly by U.S. submarines.

While Harold McDonald, a yeoman on the Harrison, was in the Shanghai Powtung camp, he met and fell in love with a young Englishwoman. He left for the United States in October 1945, when mines were finally cleared from the Yangtse River. She stayed in Shanghai with her family, and Harold returned to Shanghai to marry Lillian in April 1946. [They celebrated their 50th Anniversary in 1996.]

SS President Harrison: Master's Report to American President Lines

POWs captured by the Germans and turned over to the Japanese

Following are U.S. Merchant Marine ships that were sunk by the Germans, and whose crews and Naval Armed Guard were subsequently turned over to the Japanese.

SS Connecticut, a tanker, was torpedoed and sunk on April 23, 1942 in the South Atlantic by a Motor Torpedo boat attached to the German Raider Michel. Twenty-four of the 43 crew members were killed in the attack, one died aboard the raider, two died in Japanese prison camps. The Naval Armed Guard of 11 were killed with the explosion of the second torpedo. The survivors were turned over at Yokohama, Japan, by the German captain. Sixteen were repatriated after they survived the cruelties of Japanese prisons camps. The Michel was sunk on October 17, 1943 by the submarine USS Tarpon near Tokyo Bay with the loss of 263 men.

SS Stanvac Calcutta, a tanker, was shelled, torpedoed, and sunk on June 6, 1942 by the German Raider Stier off the coast of Brazil. Thirteen of the 42 crew members were killed in the attack, on died on the Stier, and was buried at sea. There were 9 Naval Armed Guard aboard. Nine crew and 2 Navy men were wounded by shrapnel. Twenty-six crew members and 9 Navy men were taken to Yokohama, Japan, to prison camps. The First Engineer died in a Japanese prison camp. One crew member was sent to a prison camp in Germany. The Stanvac Calcutta was awarded the Gallant Ship Award from the U.S. Government for her heroic fight against the enemy. The Stier was sunk on September 27, 1942 in the South Atlantic by the heroic action of the SS Stephen Hopkins and Cadet-Midshipman Edwin J. O'Hara. O'Hara who was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal posthumously.

SS William F. Humphrey, a tanker, was shelled, torpedoed, and sunk by the German Raider Michel on July 16, 1942 in the South Atlantic off the coast of Africa. Four of the 41 crew members, and 2 of the 7 Navy men were killed during the attack. The ship's Master, 8 crew, and 2 Navy men avoided capture and were picked up by the Norwegian freighter Triton, and taken to Sierra Leone. Some had serious injuries. Twenty-six crew and two Navy men were taken prisoner while one Navy man died of wounds on the raider. They were transferred to the Japanese at Yokohama. Three of the 26 crew died in prison camps, and one died in the sinking of the Japanese ship Junyo Maru. Twenty-two survived the hell of Japanese prison camps, and were repatriated after the war. The Michel was sunk on October 17, 1943 by the submarine USS Tarpon near Tokyo Bay with the loss of 263 men.

MV American Leader, a freighter, was attacked and sunk on September 10, 1942 by the German Raider Michel off South Africa. Ten of the 49 crew members were killed in the attack. The remaining crew and 9 Naval Armed Guard were taken prisoner and turned over to the Japanese at Batavia, Java, Dutch East Indies (present day Djakarta, Indonesia). Captain George Duffy was the Third Officer on the ship and writes the POW Page on this Web Site. For story of the crew in Japanese prison camps and in sinkings of Japanese ships, see "The Dreadful Saga of the MV American Leader and Her Crew" by Captain Duffy. The Michel was sunk on October 17, 1943 by the submarine USS Tarpon near Tokyo Bay with the loss of 263 men.

MS Sawokla, a freighter, was shelled, torpedoed, and sunk on November 29, 1942 off Madagascar by the German Raider Michel. She had 41 crew, 13 Naval Armed Guard, and 5 passengers. The Captain, 15 crew, and 4 Navy men were killed in the attack. Thirty mariners and 9 Navy men were taken prisoners, and turned over to the Japanese in Singapore. They spent the war as slave laborers on the infamous "Death Railroad" in Burma and Thailand, depicted in the movie Bridge over the River Kwai. Amazingly all survived the hell and were repatriated. See Stanley Willner's Story above to tell the horrors of the ordeal. Read Stan Willner's story in his own words at The Michel was sunk on October 17, 1943 by the submarine USS Tarpon near Tokyo Bay with the loss of 263 men.

Further Reading:
Captives of Shanghai: Story of SS President Harrison, David H. Grover and Gretchen G. Grover, Napa, CA: Western Maritime Press, 1999
Empire of the Sun, 1986 Oscar winning movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, is set in Shanghai and an internment camp.
VIDEO No Way Back: The Untold Story About the World War II Prisoners of War America Forgot, Zed Merrill & Associates , PO Box 19608, Portland, OR 97219 ($24.95 +3.50 S&H) 800-325-5188

Names and fates of Merchant Marine POWs
Merchant Mariners at Milag Nord Prisoner of War Camp in Germany
U-Boat Commander Takes Master of SS William King as Prisoner of War
Government Regulation for Merchant Marine Prisoners of War
Men and Ships in WWII

Women Mariners in WWII

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