A JAPANESE ATROCITY ON THE HIGH SEAS
The horrible ordeal of the Merchant crew, U.S. Naval Armed Guard,
and passengers, on board the SS JEAN NICOLET after being torpedoed
July 2, 1944.
This is the true story of one of the most horrible atrocities
committed by the Japanese during World War II. Some people are aware
of it, most are not. You will never read about this in the public
The SS JEAN NICOLET, a Liberty Ship built in Portland, Oregon, in
October 1943, was operated for the War Shipping Administration by
the Oliver J. Olson Company of San Francisco and under the command
of Captain David Martin Nilsson of Oakland, California. On board was
a complement of 100 men consisting of 41 Merchant crew, 28 Naval
Armed Guard, and 31 passengers. The passenger list was made up of
6 U.S. Army Officers, 12 U.S. Army enlisted men, eight Navy
technicians, four civilians, and one U.S. Army Medical Corpsmen.
On July 2, 1944, the SS JEAN NICOLET was steaming alone in the
Indian Ocean loaded with a cargo of war materials for the
China/Burma/India Theatre of War. Sailing from San Pedro on May
12th, the ship had stopped at Fremantle, Australia, for bunkers,
stores, and to discharge some cargo. Departing from Fremantle on
June 21st, she was bound for Colombo, Ceylon, where she was to stop
for orders prior to proceeding to Calcutta. The cargo consisted of
heavy machinery, trucks, steel plate, landing barges, steel mooring
pontoons, and other general wartime cargo.
At 1907 ship's time, on this date, she was located in position 3-28
South/74-30 West or about 700 miles south of Ceylon. At this time,
she was struck by two torpedoes fired from the Japanese submarine
I-8. The first hit between #2 and #3 holds on the starboard side and
the second at #4 hold on the same side. A few minutes later the
Master ordered abandon ship as he feared the ship would capsize due
to the heavy starboard list. All hands abandoned ship safely in
lifeboats and rafts. Before abandoning his post, Augustus Tilden,
the Radio Operator, sent out a radio message that the ship had been
torpedoed in the above position. The message was acknowledged by
Calcutta and Ceylon. This radio message was responsible for saving
the lives of 23 men.
Soon after the ship was abandoned, the I-8 surfaced. As it was dark
the I-8 used a powerful searchlight to locate the boats and rafts.
The survivors were threatened with machine guns and ordered to come
alongside by a Japanese speaking perfect English. Some on one raft
slipped over the side into the water to hide but were seen and
ordered to get back on the raft. Then they were ordered to swim to
the sub. Five others, who were on the side away from the sub, were
not discovered. These five were the only ones who did not board
the sub. This five consisted of four of the Naval Armed Guard and
one Army enlisted man. They were among the 23 survivors.
One of the men forced to swim to the sub was William M. Musser, a
17-year-old Messman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, making his first
trip to sea. Each man who lived to tell this tale has a different
story about what happened to him but basically it was this way.
After boarding the sub, he was escorted towards the bow and as he
walked forward, one of the Japanese sailors swung him around and
slugged him over the head with a piece of steel pipe. As Musser
staggered from the blow the sailor laughed and took out his pistol
and shot Musser in the head and then kicked his body over the side
as he fell.
Another crew member, Richard L. Kean, a 19- year-old Ordinary Seaman
from Kennewick, Washington was also brutally murdered. As he climbed
out of a lifeboat to the sub's deck, he was searched, had his life
jacket removed, and then his arms were bound behind his back. The
Japanese sailor who was leading him forward suddenly turned with a
bayonet in his hand and plunged it into Kean's stomach. As Kean dou-
bled over with pain, he was struck in the head with a rifle butt and
kicked over the side into the water.
As each of the other survivors boarded the I-8, they were
immediately roughed up, searched, had life jackets removed and all
their valuables, shoes, and I.D. tags were taken from them. Then
they were bound with their arms behind their backs with rope or
wire. They were forced to sit on deck with their heads bowed on
their knees. Anyone who raised his head or made a noise of any kind
was beaten with iron pipes and cut with bayonets. The deck ran red
with blood and vomit.
Captain Nilsson, Gus Tilden (Radio Operator), and Francis J. O'Gara
were taken to the conning tower and shoved below. Mr. O'Gara was a
War Shipping Administration representative en route to the Calcutta
office. They were never seen again by the survivors.
While sitting in this painful position, the survivors were forced
to listen to a harangue by the l-8's Commander. He hurled insults at
them saying, "You are now my prisoners. Let this be a lesson to you
that Americans are weak. You must realize that Japan will rule the
world. You are stupid for letting your leaders take you to war. Do
you know that the entire American fleet is now at the bottom of the
While all this was going on, the I-8 cruised around looking for any
boats or rafts they might have missed. The sub also commenced
shelling the NICOLET which was still afloat. As the I-8 cruised
around, a wave came over the deck of the submarine washing three of
the men overboard with their hands tied behind them. Two of them,
Carl Rosenbaum (F/WT) and George Kenmore Hess (A.B.), survived but
Lt. Morrison R. Miller, U.S. Army, was never seen again. Lt. Miller
had suffered a broken arm abandoning ship and he had no chance of
In the meantime, a gauntlet consisting of 10 to 15 crew members of
the I-8 was formed on the after deck behind the conning tower. Those
held on the fore deck could not see what was happening. They
could, however, hear the horrible screams of the men who were forced
to go through the gauntlet. Those forming the gauntlet were armed
with steel stanchions, bayonets, and rifles. Waiting at the end was
a huge Japanese holding a rifle with a fixed bayonet in both hands.
If any man survived to the end of the gauntlet, he was impaled on
the bayonet of this man and his body heaved overboard like a side of
beef. Three men survived this torture by jumping overboard halfway
through the gauntlet. Even though their hands were still bound, they
decided they would take their chance in the ocean regardless of the
sharks. All three of them suffered wounds from bayonets and steel
pipes. Two of them were from the merchant crew, Charles E. Pyle (1st
Asst. Engr.) and Harold R. Lee (Messman). The third was Robert C.
Butler, a U.S. Navy Technician.
While all this torture was going on, those sitting on the fore deck,
unaware of what was happening on the after deck, were led one by
one to the slaughter until there were about 30 men left alive on
deck. At this time, the diving siren sounded and crew members of the
I-8 were ordered below. An aircraft had been reported on the sub's
radar heading in the direction of the submarine. Those left on deck
with their hands tied behind their backs were left to drown.
Seventeen of these men drowned or were killed by sharks. The
remaining 13 men survived by swimming all night, some with their
hands still tied. Others were able to get free by themselves or were
freed by a Navy Armed Guard Seaman who had concealed a knife in
his blouse. He cut as many free as he could as the sub went under.
The aircraft reported on radar was in all likelihood searching for
the survivors of the NICOLET. This was the result of the radio
message sent by Gus Tilden just before he abandoned ship.
Many of the survivors were in the water for 13 to 14 hours without
any support. About 0800 the next morning (July 3rd) survivors saw a
Liberator approaching the scene. It dropped a small rubber dinghy
made to hold four people. Eventually, seven men ended up in this
dinghy. An hour or so later, three more planes appeared overhead
(PBY's) searching for survivors but flew off without any action.
At daylight on July 4th, another Liberator appeared overhead and a
ship was seen approaching. This was HMIS HOXA on her way to rescue
the survivors. Seven men were found clinging to the small dinghy,
thirteen others were rescued from rafts or dinghies, and three
others were found clinging to wreckage. They were taken to Addu
Atoll of the Maldive Islands group landing there on July 5th where
they were interrogated by the British Intelligence.
They left Addu Atoll on July 12th aboard HMIS SONNETI arriving in
Colombo on July 14th. On July 27th they were flown to Calcutta where
the two Army men and the Navy technician were assigned duties in the
area. The 10 crew members and the 10 Naval Armed Guard were even-
tually taken to Bombay by train. At Bombay they boarded the USAT
GEN. WILLIAM MITCHELL. They finally got back to the U.S., landing in
San Diego on October 6th, more than 3 months after their horrible
Of the 100 men aboard the JEAN NICOLET, only 4 survived. A breakdown
of the lost is as follows: 31 merchant crew, 18 Naval Armed Guard,
and 27 passengers. Francis J. O'Gara was found alive in Ofuna prison
camp near Yokohama after the end of hostilities. He had been
declared dead by the U.S. Navy. He even had a Liberty Ship named for
him, the only living person who was to see his name on a Liberty
Ship. The O'GARA was built June 1945 in Panama City, Florida.
Mr. O'Gara had been a Sports writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer
prior to Dec. 7, 1941 but early in 1942 he joined the Merchant
Marine as a Seaman. After about two years of sea duty he came ashore
to work for the WSA.
After the I-8 submerged, O'Gara spent 44 days aboard the sub
suffering frequent beatings, denial of food and water most of the
time. During this time he got a glimpse of Capt. Nilsson and Gus
Tilden, the Radio Operator. The I-8 reached Penang on August 15th
where he and Capt. Nilsson were taken ashore. He never saw the
Radio Operator again but did get a brief look at Capt. Nilsson
through the window of his cell. O'Gara was returned aboard the I-8
on September 15th and eventually ended up in Yokohama on October
Capt. Nilsson was left behind when O'Gara was taken from Penang to
Japan. Nothing is known of his fate. O'Gara was of the opinion that
Capt. Nilsson was put aboard a submarine to be transported to
Japan and the sub was sunk en route by the U.S. Navy.
The Commander of the I-8 was a brutal, sadistic creep named
Tetsunosuke Ariizumi. He had been nicknamed "The Butcher" by the
British Royal Navy because of several other atrocities he had
committed against Allied Merchant crews similar to that of the JEAN
NICOLET. One such atrocity was perpetrated against a Dutch Mer-
chant ship, the SS TJISALAK on March 26, 1944. Of 103 men on board
only five survived. The men on board this ship suffered the same
fate as those on the JEAN NICOLET. The five survivors saved
themselves by jumping overboard and swimming underwater despite
the fact they were being machine gunned. They eventually reached
one of the boats previously abandoned and were picked up by the
Liberty Ship SS JAMES A. WALKER on March 30th.
Toward the final days of the war Ariizumi was a Flotilla Commander
and was on the 1-401, the largest submarine ever built, a boat of
some 5000 tons equipped with three catapult planes. Subs of that
class were called "underseas aircraft carriers." At this time
Ariizumi proposed using the 1-401 and three other subs of that class
to destroy the Panama Canal. When this plan was scrapped in favor of
attacking Ulithi, Ariizumi was infuriated.
Upon receipt of the Emperor's surrender order the 1-401 proceeded
back toward Japan and was surrendered to the U.S. Navy submarine USS
SEGUNDO. Five of the SEGUNDO's crew were put aboard the 1-401 as
The U.S. Navy reported that while the 1-401 was entering Tokyo Bay
on August 31, 1945, about 0400 hours, Ariizumi committed suicide and
his body was thrown overboard.
Mr. O'Gara disputed this report by the Navy and expressed outrage to
the Criminal Registration Officer. He agreed with O'Gara and
assigned a Nisei investigator to track down Ariizumi. Mr. O'Gara was
convinced that Ariizumi was put ashore before the 1-401 was captured
by the Americans or he slipped through a hatch and swam ashore after
entering Tokyo Bay.
Upon investigation, it had been determined that the 1-401 came
within sight of land en route to Tokyo Bay around Sendai in northern
Honshu where Ariizumi could easily have been put ashore before the
submarine surrendered. None of the Navy men on the 1-401 ever saw
Ariizumi aboard nor did they see a body or a burial at sea.
O'Gara was brought back to Japan in 1948 by the War Crimes Tribunal
as a witness against Japanese war criminals that he had experienced
while he was a prisoner of war. However, the one he wanted most was
Ariizumi. He even took it upon himself to search for him personally.
He wanted him that bad and who could blame him!
Some members of the crew of the I-8 were tried and received light
sentences but even those sentences were commuted. Ariizumi was never
caught. It's very possible that this man and other crew members of
the I-8 are still alive and well in Japan today. This infuriates me
and all others who care.
O'Gara said the one person who was most helpful, as far as the
attack on the JEAN NICOLET, was the one who spoke perfect English
from the deck of the sub giving orders to the Americans. He came
forward, voluntarily, to the authorities and told all he knew of the
sinkings and atrocities and identified all he knew to be
responsible. His name was Harold Jiro Nakahara who was born in
Hawaii and lived there. At the time of the outbreak of the war he
was studying in Japan and unable to return. He had been pressed into
service as a Radio Operator and interpreter.
Francis J. O'Gara died September 18, 1981, at the age of 69.
To my knowledge, William R. Flury of White City, Oregon, may be the
last living survivor of this most heinous of atrocities. Some may
still be alive but Mr. Flury does not know of them. He had been
denied Prisoner of War status by the U.S. Coast Guard but he
appealed that decision and won. Whether he was a Prisoner of War if
he has been captured by the enemy. Remember what the Commander,
Ariizumi, said, "You are now my prisoners!"
On October 25, 1993 William B. Flury was awarded the POW medal by
the U.S. Coast Guard. Although none of the other nine surviving
merchant crew members are still alive, their families are eligible
to receive this medal.
I wish to extend my thanks to Robert Carl Rosenbaum, son of Carl R.
Rosenbaum for much of the material used in this article. Carl Rosen-
baum was one of the 23 survivors of this tragedy.
I am also indebted to William J. Howard, Jr. Capt. USAFR (Ret.) for
the information on Francis J. O'Gara. Capt. Howard's daughter is
married to the son of Mr. O'Gara, Francis J. O'Gara, Jr.
Also many thanks to Bill Flury for sharing some of his experiences
with me regarding his survival of this atrocity.
SURVIVORS OF THE SS JEAN NICOLET
MERCHANT CREW (10)
Charles E. Pyle 1st Engr. Lodi, Cal.
John McDougall A.B. Berkley, Cal.
Paul L. Mitchem Dk. Engr. San Francisco, Cal.
Jack C. Van Ness Carpenter Burlingame, Cal.
Lloyd B. Ruth Wiper Akron, Ohio
George K. Hess A.B. Berkley, Cal.
William B. Flury 2nd Cook Chiloguin, Oregon
Stuart R. Vanderhurst A.B. San Francisco, Cal.
Carl Rosenbaum Fireman Crockett, Cal.
Harold R. Lee Messman Dunbar, West Virginia
NAVAL ARMED GUARD (10)
Gerald V. Deal Lt. j.g. Pomoma, Cal.
Teofils Wyrozumski GM/3 Van Nuys, Cal.
William E. Simons RM/3 Huntington Park, Cal.
Collie C. Stone RM/3 Tulsa, Okla.
Robert Applegate S/1 Jackson, Mich.
Carl L. Bevatori S/1 Springfield, Ill.
Robert L. Nuvill S/1 Grand Haven, Mich.
Raymond M. Wheeler S/1 Orange, N.J.
Ora E. Lamb S/1 Champagne, Ill.
Archie L. Howard S/1 Albany, Cal.
John J. Gussak Capt. UU.S. Army Brooklyn, N.Y.
Harvey Matyas Private U.S. Army Milwaukee, Wis.
Robert C. Butler U.S. Navy Technician Camino, Cal.
Francis J. O'Gara WSA Representative Prisoner of War
U.S. NAVAL ARMED GUARD, AND U.S. NAVY, U.S. ARMY, AND CIVILIAN
PASSENGERS LOST ON THE SS "JEAN NICOLET"
U.S. NAVAL ARMED GUARD (18)
ARMONT, Walter D. Slc
ATCHLEY, Ernest E. Slc
BAK, Alec F. Slc
FLOYD, David L. Slc
GAGNIER, Patrick E. Coxswain
HARDWICK, Ralph Slc
HOLMSTROM, Terry W. Slc
KONJA, Farry D. Slc
KOLCZYNKSKI, Raymond R. Slc
KRAJEWSKI, Richard J. Slc
KUHN, Charles E. Slc
LASKY, John E. Slc
LALLATHIN, Frank J. Slc
RATEN, Frank R. GM3c
U.S. ARMY PERSONNEL (Passengers) (17)
FERGUSON, Donald B. Captain CMP
GUTHRIE, Walter R. Captain QMC
MILLER, Morrison R. 2nd LT. AC
COTTEN, James P. WO (JG) AC
COLEMAN, Edward J. T. Sgt. QMC
LITTRELL, Goerge D., Jr. Sgt. AC
THORPE, Robert O. Sgt. AC
CHURCH, Charles B., Jr. S. Sgt QMC
CAIN, William R. Tech 4 MC
McCUTCHEON, Willard L. Pvt. AC
MORRIS, Wilbert O. Pvt. AC
PIERCE, Newton C. Pvt. AC
PIERRARD, Marvin E. Pvt. AC
POE, Robert W. Pvt. AC
SALINAS, Waldemar Pvt. AC
SATTERFIELD, Thomas R., Jr. Pvt. AC
SNODGRASS, Ralph Captain MC
U.S. NAVY PERSONNEL (Passengers) (7)
BOLTON, Robert E.
FRANK, John William
INEDEMAR, George M.
McCAULEY, George G.
VIGER, Leon J.
CIVILIAN PASSENGERS (3)
MULLIN, Thomas J.
WEBB, Thomas T.http://www.armed-guard.com/ag87.html