by Thomas L Snyder
This past weekend (27 Feb-1Mar) marked the 69th anniversary of the Battle of the Java Sea, in which a combined American-British-Dutch-Australian fleet was completely destroyed by an equal-sized Japanese fleet which enjoyed the advantages of superior gunnery, air superiority and a new, long-range torpedo. Only one hospital ship was present in the area, Op ten Noort.(1) Launched in Amsterdam in 1927, she was originally commissioned to passenger service in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia. With the onset of World War II, the Dutch Royal Navy took her up from trade for conversion to hospital duty. This work, performed at the naval yard at Surabaya on the north coast of the Island of Java, was completed 14 February 1942.
One week later, while under way from Surabaya, the ship was bombed. Flying debris from a near-miss killed one physician, a nurse and a medical technician and eleven others wounded(2). Another source claims one doctor and three nurses killed(3). On 28 February, she received orders to rescue survivors of the ships de Ruyter, Java, Encounter and Kortenauer, all sunk during the running fleet battle the preceding day and night. She was diverted from this mission by Japanese destroyers Amatsukaze and Murasame, searched, and her radio-telephone equipment destroyed. A day later, she sailed under Japanese orders to Bandjermasin on the south coast of Borneo where, over the next several days, she took on as many as 900 survivors from the many allied ships sunk in the battle. Early in March, she sailed to Makassar on the southwest coast of the Celebes (now Sulawesi) Island. There she remained, under Dutch flag, serving as the hospital facility for several area POW camps. In October, the Dutch flag was stricken, to be replaced by the Rising Sun ensign. A month later, she departed, under Japanese command, for Yokohama. In Yokohama her Dutch medical staff of 44 were interned at the Aiko Medical Facility in Miyoshi, Hirshima Prefecture; the 35 Indonesian crewmen went to the Kakugorocho Church in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Reportedly, all but one Indonesian survived the war.(4)
Thereafter, the ship, was commissioned in the Imperial Japanese Navy as the hospital ship Tenou Maru. Two Surgeon Captains–Endo Haruo from 31 Mar 1942 and Shimizu Masayoshi from Dec 1943– have been identified as serving the ship’s medical director. Her crew apparently consisted of civilian employees of the Kawasaki Kisen Kaishi Company Line during her very busy career in the southwest Pacific.
On 25 July 1944 she was strafed and damaged by aircraft from Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher’s Task Force 58. During September and October 1944, the ship underwent repairs and remodeling, with a second, dummy smokestack funnel added to disguise her true origin. Surgeon Captain Satoshi Kamishiro became her medical director in December, and her very active career throughout the western Pacific continued until the end of July 1945. On 16 August, apparently by direction of Japanese Naval authorities, she was moved to a point just outside Japanese territorial waters of the Sea of Japan, off Maizuru Port, Kyoto, and scuttled.(5)
Several days after the Armistice, the Dutch government made inquiry about the ship’s location. In prolonged postwar arbitration proceedings, the Japanese admitted the facts of the scuttling, but, on a technicality denied responsibility for reimbursing the Dutch government for the loss of the ship. Finally, in 1977, the Dutch agreed to a settlement said to amount to 100 million yen, just over $1 million at today’s exchange rates (the Yen was likely significantly stronger in 1977).
The Company of Master Mariners of Australia, on their web page about Op ten Noort state “Her subsequent career [as hospital ship] illustrates the viciousness of the Pacific War: bombed by the Japanese on February 22, 1942, in violation of the Hague Conventions; commandeered by the Japanese on February 28, in violation of the Hague Conventions; used by the Japanese in October to transport mines while in hospital colors, in violation of the Hague Conventions; strafed by American carrier aircraft in violation of the Hague Convention; scuttled on August 17, 1945, in violation of the ceasefire. There were incidents involving hospital ships on both sides, but those involving the Op Ten Noort were unquestionably deliberate and especially egregious [emphasis mine].”(6)(1) I was first made aware of Op ten Noort from a very brief mention of the ship in van Oosten, F. C., “The Battle of the Java Sea”, Naval Institute Press, 1976, p. 74. The book number 15 in the Naval Institute’s “Sea Battles in Close Up” series. (2) “IJN Hospital Ship HIKAWA MARU No. 2: Tabular Record of Movement” by Bob Hackett, Sander Kingsepp and Peter Cundall, accessed 1 March 2011, http://www.combinedfleet.com/Hikawa2_c.htm. This web page is part of a much larger “combinedfleet.com” website. The material here seems authoritative, with citations listed, though not in formally academic format. (3) “Op ten Noort-class hospitalship”, accessed 1 March 2011, http://www.netherlandsnavy.nl/Noort.htm. Although this page bears the root title “netherlandsnavy”, it is not an official navy website;rather, the site is a private effort by Jan Visser. While exuberantly sourced, Mr Visser has not footnoted his material. (4) “Civilian Internment Camps in Japan”, apparently compiled by Wes Injerd, accessed 1 Mar 2011, http://home.comcast.net/~winjerd/CivCamps.html. This webpage, part of a much larger assessment of Japanese civilian internment camps appears to be very well sourced, but, again, not footnoted by the compiler. (5) “Reports of International Arbitral Awards–Case of the Netherlands Steamship Op ten Noort-Decisions I and II (Netherlands, Japan) 16 January 1961”, accessed 1 Mar 2001, http://untreaty.un.org/cod/riaa/cases/vol_XIV/501-523.pdf, page 510. (6) Company of Master Mariners of Australia, “Op ten Noort”, accessed 1 March 2011, http://mastermariners.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=238&Itemid=308. (7) Image source: http://www.photoship.co.uk/JAlbum%20Ships/Old%20Ships%20O/slides/Op%20Ten%20Noort-04.html
©2011 Thomas L Snyder