The Journeys of the Hawaii Maru

The Hawaii Maru transported passengers and cargo for a quarter century before becoming a Japanese “hell ship” during World War II.

The Hawaii Maru — the vessel that carried my great grandmother and her five daughters to America from Japan in 1918 — had a colorful history, judging from the stories reported before, during and after my family’s voyage on board this Japanese steamship owned by the Osaka Shosen Kaisha line.

The ship gained notoriety not long after its maiden voyage in 1915. As noted in a previous aside, the Hawaii Maru was at the center of a 1916 cholera outbreak in Japan, when 55 cases were discovered on board the ship as it sat in Yokohama harbor in late July preparing to depart for Seattle. Some of those cases were fatal. This incident is cited in the 1917 Annual Report of the Surgeon General as the impetus behind new rules requiring all steerage passengers traveling on foreign ships from Asia to disembark at quarantine stations for “bacteriological examination” before being allowed to enter the United States.

The January 1918 voyage of the Hawaii Maru, with the Naginsky family on board, made headlines for different reasons. According to a report published Jan. 26, 1918, in The Seattle Daily Times, the ship was carrying an unprecedented amount of precious cargo: 1,365 bales of raw silk and 3,000 cases of manufactured silk, the largest shipment of silk ever received in the city — at the time, valued at more than $4 million (or $60.8 million today).

SeattleWashingtonCrewListp1Carrying all this cargo, the ship likely needed to make multiple stops to ensure the silk got on the way to its proper destination. A report on recent ship arrivals and departures published Jan 27, 1918, in The Seattle Daily Times indicated that the Hawaii Maru sailed from Seattle on Jan. 26 at 11:30 a.m., arriving later that day in Tacoma, Wash. It appears the ship also made a stop in Canada, as the manifest of crew members (one page shown at left) notes that it sailed from Victoria, British Columbia, to Seattle.

Another newsworthy event stemming from this voyage of the Hawaii Maru involved the ship’s stowaways, who likely hid in steerage along with paying passengers, including Mariasia and her daughters. A week after the ship’s arrival, two people appeared before a U.S. commissioner, accused of helping these illegal aliens enter the country. As reported Feb. 3, 1918, by The Seattle Daily Times, after denying any involvement in assisting the seven stowaways on board the Hawaii Maru, the hearing took a comical turn when one of the accused, Sirochi Tanno, inadvertently admitted that he had been a stowaway himself five years earlier, then “bowed impressively” to the commissioner, interpreter and U.S. marshal. Tanno would be deported for his admission.

The connections forged by the Hawaii Maru in a growing U.S.-Asia travel and trade relationship would come to an abrupt halt 23 years later. Requisitioned by the Imperial Army in 1941 for use during World War II, it served as a “hell ship,” carrying prisoners of war to Japanese camps, according to various Internet sources. The conditions on board the ship led directly to the disease and death of scores of POWs. On Dec. 2, 1944, the U.S.S. Sea Devil would hit the Hawaii Maru with a torpedo, sinking it in the East China Sea off the coast of Japan.

2 comments on “The Journeys of the Hawaii Maru

  1. David Lott says:

    Wonderful work on your family. My father in law, a Dutchman captured in Java in January 1942, was on Hawaii Maru when it took 1000 prisoners from Changi prison camp in Singapore to Japan in April of 1943. Conditions were very poor and about 100 prisoners died either on the voyage or within a month of arrival. My father in law survived the voyage and the war. In a time that brutal, the hint of survival could come in strange and terrible forms. For my father in law that moment was a flash of light across the Inland Sea on August 6, 1945, followed several minutes later by a loud explosion that sounded like the tearing of sheets. It was the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, about 40 miles away. Less than a month later he was liberated and he returned to live a long and happy life in Carpenteria, California with his American wife.

    It was not just allied soldiers who went to suffering and death on the Hawaii Maru. The ship was a transport in the original invasion of the Philippines and was taking reinforcements to the Philippine Islands when sunk in December 1944. Over 2000 Japanese soldiers died as a result of the sinking. They never even made it to a battle that their army was doomed to lose.

    • nsgreer says:

      Wow, incredible! I am really struck by the fact that the ship played such a positive role in bringing my family here (even though it was likely a horrible trip) and then became such a negative force during WWII. Thank you so much for sharing your father-in-law’s story and adding to what I know about the Hawaii Maru.

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