Stories of Diplomatic Exchange and Repatriation Ships

1 June 2016

By Bob Hackett and Sander Kingsepp

(KAMAKURA MARU as an Exchange and Repatriation Ship)

On 13 December 1941, just one week after the Attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States initially proposed repatriation of the Japanese and American diplomatic corps. Both countries agreed to guarantee safe passage of Swedish and Japanese liners through the vast war zones.

On 5 January 1942, Japan agreed that the ships would meet at the neutral port of Lourenço Marques in Portuguese East Africa (now Maputo, Mozambique). It was further agreed that the exchange vessels would have large white crosses on their sides and the owner's national flag painted prominently on port and starboard. The vessels would travel fully lit at night with identifying markings fully illuminated. In addition, the Japanese and Italian ships had large electric light crosses amidships on both sides.

In February 1942, the Swiss made a similar proposal for the reciprocal exchange of Japanese and British subjects which was accepted by the two warring countries.

On 11 June 1942, at New York harbor, Japan's ambassador to the United States, Admiral Nomura Kichisaburo (26), along with other Japanese dignitaries boarded the neutral Swedish liner MS GRIPSHOLM that had been chartered to the U. S. State Department. GRIPSHOLM sat at anchor until all final details were settled between the two governments and departed for Brazil on 17 June. At Rio de Janiero, GRIPSHOLM picked up additional Japanese, then rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made for Portuguese East Africa.

Meanwhile on 17 June 1942, in Japan, the first diplomatic exchange got underway. U. S. Ambassador Joseph Grew and other American diplomats left their compound in Tokyo and arrived by train at Yokohama where they boarded the NYK liner ASAMA MARU. The ship also sat at anchor until final details were worked out and finally sailed for Hong Kong on 25 June. ASAMA MARU picked up additional Americans and foreign nationals at Hong Kong and then proceeded to Saigon and Singapore where more repatriates were boarded.

On 22 July 1942 (JST), ASAMA MARU arrived at Lorenco Marques carrying approximately 800 American and foreign national civilians from Japan, South-East Asia and the Philippines. She was accompanied by the Italian repatriation vessel CONTE VERDE, with about 600 passengers from Shanghai. Together, the two ships carried 1,450 passengers. GRIPSHOLM arrived at Lorenco Marques later that day carrying 1,096 Japanese nationals.

On 23 July 1942, the actual exchange took place. Shortly thereafter, ASAMA MARU sailed to Singapore and then Yokohama and GRIPSHOLM sailed to Rio de Janeiro and then to New Jersey. Both ships also carried mail and food packages to prisoners of war.

One week later, on 30 July, the first Japanese-British diplomatic exchange voyage began. NYK liner TATUTA MARU departed Yokohama carrying Ambassador Sir Robert Craigie and the British embassy staff from Tokyo, Yokohama and Kobe.

On 27 August 1942, TATUTA MARU arrived at Lourenco Marques and British personnel were exchanged for Japanese diplomats from England, Australia and India. British and other passengers transferred to Furness Lines’ SS EL NIL and P & O (Peninsular & Oriental) Line’s SS NARKUNDA for the voyage to Liverpool, England.

On 6 September 1942, another exchange took place at Lourenco Marques. This time Japanese repatriates from Australia disembarked from SS CITY OF CANTERBURY and embarked on NYK Liner KAMAKURA MARU. Western nationals were disembarked from KAMAKURA MARU and 115 Australian, British and Allied nationals embarked on CITY OF CANTERBURY for the return voyage to Australia.

Almost a year later, on 2 September 1943, another 1,340 Japanese civilians left New York on GRIPSHOLM to be exchanged for Americans and Canadians at Mormugao, Goa on the west coast of India. At the same time, American and Canadian repatriates from Japan, China, the Philippines, French Indochina and Siam were carried by the former NYK liner TEIA MARU (ex-French liner ARAMIS) to Goa where they boarded GRIPSHOLM for the trip to New York. Allied and Axis government officals were exchanged in 1942. The 1943 exchange included businessmen and their families who were stranded in the Orient at the beginning of the war. No prisoners-of-war (POW) are included in the exchange. This was the final war-time exchange between the two countries.

Although these voyages were successful, the number of people thus exchanged represented but a small percentage of Japanese and Allied nationals held by the warring powers. It was estimated that at least 10,000 American civilians were left behind in Asia, of which 7,000 were in the Philippines and others in Dutch East Indies and Indochina. Many were repatriated at wars' end, but many died waiting for their freedom in internment camps.

The ships used in the two civilian exchange operations of 1942 and 1943 were the only means by which relief supplies for Allied POWs and internees were able to reach the Far East, apart from a single Japanese ship that picked up 2000 tons of supplies at Nakhodka, Siberia in 1944.

The International Red Cross Committee estimated that, over the whole war period, the Japanese received 225,000 Red Cross parcels for distribution. This allowed for only a very thin distribution of relief goods to the 300,000 Allied nationals estimated to be held by Japan.

Japanese Diplomatic Exchange and Repatriation Ships: Tabular Records of Movement (TROMs)

(Classes link to specifications summaries)

Asama Maru Class

Asama Maru (revised 3/27/2010)

Tatsuta Maru (revised 11/14/2009)

Kamakura Maru (revised 10/1/2015)

Kotobuki Maru Class

Kotobuki Maru(revised 6/1/2016)

Teia Maru Class

Teia Maru (revised 12/1/2013)

Bibliography of Sources

About the Authors

Mr. Robert Hackett is a military historian and researcher. Retired from the United States Air Force and later from the aerospace industry, he resides in the United States.

Mr. Sander Kingsepp of Estonia is also a military historian and researcher. A talented linguist, Sander's translations of Japanese source materials have added immeasurably to these TROMs.

Questions to the authors concerning these TROMs should be posted on the Discussion and Questions board.

Discussion & Questions