Many people are unaware of the significant role the merchant marine ships played during World War II and even fewer know of the atrocity of the merchant marine ship the S.S. Jean Nicolet. In fact, some refer to this event as the second Pearl Harbor.
The S.S. Jean Nicolet, a Liberty ship, was in the Indian Ocean carrying a typical merchant marine load of war materials and was on her way to Ceylon. She had already made a couple of scheduled stops. Oftentimes during WWII, merchant marine ships would travel in convoys to better insure safe travels. This was not the case for the S.S. Jean Nicolet, for she was steaming alone.
On board were a total of 100 men:
- 41 merchant marines
- 28 Naval Armed Guard
- 31 Passengers consisting of six US Army officers, 12 US Army enlisted eight Navy technicians, four civilians and one US Army medical corpsman.
The horrific events began to unfold on July 2, 1944 at 19:07 ship time when the SS Jean Nicolet was struck by two Japanese sub torpedoes. Within moments, due to a heavy starboard list, the Master ordered the ship to be abandoned. All were safely evacuated using the lifeboats and rafts. The ship’s radio operator, prior to abandoning his post, managed to send out a radio message regarding the ship being hit by torpedoes and her current position. The radio transmission was received and confirmed by Calcutta and Ceylon and ultimately responsible for saving the lives of 23 of the men on board.
Shortly after the crew abandoned the ship, the I-8 Japanese sub surfaced. Despite the darkness, the sub was able to use its powerful searchlight to locate the lifeboats and rafts. With machine guns in hand, the Japanese ordered the men to position themselves alongside the sub. One man attempted to slip over the side of the boat he was on, but was discovered and ordered to get back into the boat. Five others, however, managed to do the same and were not detected. All others were eventually forced to swim to the sub.
Some, as they boarded, were beaten, shot and then thrown back into the water. All were roughed up, searched, had their life jackets removed and their personal belongings taken from them. They all had their hands tied behind their backs and their feet bound and were forced to remain seated on the deck with their heads bowed. Anyone raising their heads or making any sort of noise was not only beaten with iron pipes, but also slashed with bayonets.
Three of the men - the radio operator, the captain and another gentleman were taken and placed below, but never seen again. The rest remained on deck forced to listen to continued criticism from the commander of the 1-8. As all this was unfolding, the sub continued to circle the area searching for any additional lifeboats or rafts. They also continued to shell the S.S. Nicolet.
Behind the survivors, the Japanese formed a gauntlet. Many were forced through, at which time they were tortured with steel stanchions, bayonets and rifles. Those who survived were impaled with a huge bayonet at the end of the gauntlet and thrown overboard. Three men survived by jumping overboard midway through the gauntlet, only two of them survived.
One by one, the men were led to the gauntlet. As the remaining 30 or so awaited their fate, the I-8 sounded its diving siren and its crew members were ordered below. An aircraft was spotted and was heading in the sub’s direction. The remaining surviving crew of the S.S. Jean Nicolet were left on deck – still bound – to die. Of the remaining 30, 17 either drowned or were killed by sharks. Those that survived still had to swim the entire night, many of them were in the water 13 – 14 hours with their hands still bound. Others were cut lose by a Navy Armed Guard who had a knife concealed on his person. As the sub submerged, he freed as many as he could. It is speculated the plane spotted was out searching for survivors of the ship.
Approximately 8 AM that following morning (July 3rd), a Liberator approached the area dropping a small rubber dinghy. Though originally intended to hold four people, seven managed to climb aboard. Soon, thereafter, three additional planes appeared (also searching for any survivors) but left the area without taking any action.
On the morning of July 4th, just as daylight broke, a Liberator flew overhead and a ship was spotted in the distance. The seven men with the dinghy were now in the water clinging to its side. An additional 13 men were discovered on rafts and dinghies and 3 more managed to survive clinging to wreckage.
The survivors were taken to Addu Atoll and interrogated by the British Intelligence. On July 12th, they boarded the HMS SONNETI and arrived in Colombo two days later. From there, they were flown on July 27th to Calcutta. Two of the Army men and the Navy technician received assignments in the area and remained in Calcutta. The rest were taken by train to Bombay. It wasn’t until October 6th – three months after their horrific experience – that the men finally reached United States soil (San Diego).
Of all the survivors, the most incredible story was that of Francis J. O’Gara. Mr. O’Gara was originally reported as dead by the US Navy. However, he was later found alive in a Japanese prison. He had been held captive on the submarine for 44 days, repeatedly beaten, starved and refused water. Prior to being found alive, a Liberty ship was named for O’Gara, making him the only living individual to see a Liberty Ship named in his honor.
This SS Jean Nicolet was not the only WWII Merchant Marine Ship to experience such an atrocity. The captain of the Japanese I-8 Tetsunosuke Ariizumi – also referred to as “The Butcher’ by the Royal Navy committed several other similar brutalities to that suffered by the SS Jean Nicolet.