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VJ Day 75: Remembering a survivor of Japanese troopship Lisbon Maru, a forgotten wartime tragedy

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The ordeal suffered by British prisoners-of-war aboard the Japanese troopship Lisbon Maru in 1942 is a little-known story of cruelty and courage. Journal reporter Tina Murray’s father survived the ill-fated voyage and, to mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day, she tells his story.

The murder of hundreds of British prisoners of war on the final voyage of the Japanese freighter Lisbon Maru should rank high in the annals of war crimes but, 75 years after VJ Day, it remains the Second World War’s forgotten tragedy.

On October 2, 1942, 24 hours after the 7,000-ton vessel was torpedoed in the South China Sea, more than 1,800 prisoners were locked into the Lisbon Maru’s three holds and left to die as Japanese troops and guards abandoned ship.

The young man who lied about his age so he could join up at 16.
The young man who lied about his age so he could join up at 16.

My father, Bombardier Rodney Giddins of the Royal Artillery was among them.

He had joined the Army in 1935 straight from school where the only parts of his education he enjoyed were playing rugby and being a member of the Combined Cadet Force.

He knocked two years off his date of birth, the lie being repeated on all his subsequent Army documents, and after training at Catterick and Aldershot, sent a cheery ‘sailing today’ message to his mother as his regiment was despatched to Hong Kong on September 1, 1938.

The Lisbon Maru, one of the forgotten war crimes of the Second World War.
The Lisbon Maru, one of the forgotten war crimes of the Second World War.

He loved every minute of his time in the colony but everything changed on December 8, 1941, when 150,000 troops of the Imperial Japanese army launched an attack on Hong Kong overwhelming the 10,000-strong British garrison in a short and bloody battle which was all over in less than three weeks when Rod became a prisoner-of-war.

Conditions in the overcrowded PoW camps in Hong Kong were appalling, food was scarce and inedible, work was hard, diseases including diphtheria were rife, guards were brutal and the death tally was high, so when Rod heard he was to be transported to Japan, he wrote to his mother saying he had heard Kobe was ‘a decent camp’ and he was looking forward to the move.

The Lisbon Maru set sail for Japan on September 27, 1942, carrying 800 Japanese troops and 1,816 prisoners of war who were shut into three dark and very cramped holds.

Nearest the bows of the ship was hold number one which was allocated to the Royal Navy. The 2nd Bn Royal Scots and the 1st Bn Royal Middlesex Regiment plus members of some smaller units were put in hold number two, with the Royal Artillery contingent in the third hold.

Proud daughter Tina Murray and her father Rod Giddins.
Proud daughter Tina Murray and her father Rod Giddins.

A split-second decision at that moment probably saved Rod’s life. A friend suddenly decided he didn’t like the look of hold three and called to Rod and another pal, who quickly broke ranks and followed him into hold two.

Four days later, just after dawn on October 1, the Lisbon Maru, was spotted on the radar of an American submarine, the USS Grouper, which tracked it for some hours before firing torpedoes, one of which found its target.

Stuck in the hot and stinking holds, where they had been given no food or water and where there was no access to latrines, the already weak prisoners had begun to die.

Bombadier Rod Giddins, pictured in Jong Kong in 1940.
Bombadier Rod Giddins, pictured in Jong Kong in 1940.

For 24 hours after the torpedo struck they manned a few hand pumps as the water sloshed around their knees. There was very little oxygen, and the slightest physical activity resulted in men passing out. Any attempt to lift the hatches was met with gunfire.

By dawn the next day, it was clear the Lisbon Maru was about to sink. The Japanese troops and guards were ordered to abandon ship on to vessels which had been summoned to assist.

The hatches were locked and covered with tarpaulins which were roped down and, in the dark and almost airtight holds, the prisoners were left to their fate.

As the ship slowly sank, it was hold three, containing the men of the Royal Artillery which went under the water first with next to no survivors. Those in holds one and two, including Rod and his two friends, managed somehow to force open the hatches just before the ship slipped beneath the waves.

Many tried to swim away from the ship but their ordeal was far from over as patrol boats fired on survivors in the water and many who had not drowned were shot, bayonetted or run down by boats.

Rod, perhaps with youth on his side, swam more than four miles before he was picked up by Chinese fishermen and taken to an island where, he later said, he had been treated with kindness, but he was soon recaptured and shipped to mainland China.

At a roll call taken on the dock in Shanghai, 970 prisoners answered their names but there was only silence when the remaining 846 were called. Of the Lisbon Maru survivors, many later succumbed to the barbaric treatment they suffered as captives, dying as a result of starvation, disease and cruelty.

Rod finished his journey to Kobe where he was put to work on the docks for the rest of the war.

He spoke very little about his experiences but said that on the docks there was always something to steal either to eat or to swap for something you could eat. Any number of tropical diseases swept through the camp and later in his life, when he wanted to become a blood donor, a routine test showed that his blood retained remnants of the numerous diseases he had suffered from while a prisoner.

Rod, who stood six feet tall, weighed about seven stone when he was liberated by the Americans on September 6, 1945...

Rod, who stood six feet tall, weighed about seven stone when he was liberated by the Americans on September 6, 1945, three weeks after the Japanese surrender. His relieved parents, who had no news of him for three years and didn’t know if he was dead or alive, received a telegram 10 days later, followed by a letter saying he was safe in Australian hands and was being treated ‘like a Lord’. A frustratingly slow voyage home ended on October 20 with a joyful reunion with his parents who had not seen him for seven years.

As a regular soldier, Rod had to complete the 11 years he had signed up for as a 16-year-old recruit in 1935 and his service finally ended in the early 1950s after a period as a reservist.

Apart from one incident soon after his return when he ‘escaped’ in the middle of the night from an upstairs window at the family home and was still asleep when he was found in the garden by his worried mother, Rod seemed to put his wartime experiences behind him and got on with his life.

He took over the boat-building business started by his great grandfather, served for many years as a district councillor and a school governor and was a kind and generous father and friend.

In his seventies he travelled to Japan where he was shown around the modern Kobe by young volunteers from the university, a trip which his family believed finally let him put the past behind him.

When he died, just before his 90th birthday in April 2009, he left two daughters, five grandchildren and, subsequently, five great grandchildren with another on the way.

We all remember him with love and pride.