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Nations at war
Heal, S.C. Ugly Ducklings: Japan's WWII Liberty Type Standard Ships. St Catherines, ONT: Vanwell Publishing Ltd, 2003
Acknowledgements; Introduction; photos; tables; diagrams; line drawings; Bibliography; Ship Index; Index
During the Second World War the well-known Liberty shipssimplified, easy-to-build cargo vesselswere mass-produced in Allied shipyards in large numbers to meet the huge needs for ocean-going transports and to replace shipping lost in action, especially to enemy submarines. Japan faced exactly the same needs during the war, and responded in part with an emergency program for producing the Type A cargo ship, in some ways the equivalent of the Liberty ships.
This book partly concerns those Type A vessels, but relying on just the title, just the sub-title, or even both in combination could easily give prospective readers the wrong idea of what Ugly Ducklings is all about. Although the sobriquet "ugly ducklings" seems to have been for many years reserved exclusively for Liberty ships, it's understandable that Syd Heal might want to invoke that nickname for the equally plain-jane, strictly functional wartime Type A's, even though the Japanese apparently didn't call their vessels "ugly ducklings" and certainly never called them "Liberty ships." In that sense the title might be a bit misleading. The title also seems to indicate that the book is all about those Liberty equivalents. That's also a little misleading, because the book covers a great deal more territory than just the 140 or so wartime Type A's. How much more territory? Quite a bit!
Not many writers of World War II topics can claim to have the breadth and depth of experience of Heal. He's a WWII veteran, he had first-hand experience with the Type A while serving with the Royal Navy in the Far East, he spent his post-war career in the shipping business, he has studied all kinds of ships for many years, and he's devoted much time and energy to researching aspects of the Japanese merchant marine that are little known even in Japan. From all those years of experience and study, Heal brings a unique perspective to this book, and he's produced an unusual volume that brings together his personal recollections, a great deal of background on the business/financial/insurance aspects of Japanese shipping firms, a general account of the Japanese merchant marine during the war, other wartime emergency shipbuilding programs in Japan, andin the last half of the bookan unsurpassed study of the Type A program and histories all the individual Type A vessels. In many ways Ugly Ducklings (although smaller and perhaps quirkier) exhibits close similarities to one of Heal's earlier books, A Great Fleet of Ships, which covered the Canadian Forts and Parks cargo vessels.
Heal divides his book into eight chapters:
The Zaibatsu: Japan's form of conglomerate enterprise
The First Japanese [merchant marine] War Loss
The Prosecution of the Pacific War
The Collapse of an Empire and Personal Memories
The Japanese Emergency Shipbuilding Program
The Standard Type A Freighter Becomes a Cargo Liner
The Type A Fleet
Beyond the Type A: Other ship types in the Japanese emergency standard ship program
To begin with, the author reminds readers that Japan was very much a capitalistic nation, and that banking, profits, taxes, and insurance were pervasive aspects of Japanese commerce in general and Japanese shipping lines in particular. Heal traces the rise of modern business practices in Japan and describes the importance of the inter-connecting conglomerates known as Zaibatsu. By 1941 the four largest Zaibatsu controlled 72 percent of Japanese war industry, and by 1945 they controlled 75 percent of all Japanese industry, commerce, and finance. The two largest shipping concerns, NYK (Nippon Yusen Kaisha) and OSK (Osaka Shosen Kaisha), were each closely integrated with an important Zaibatsu as "shasen" ("chosen and most favored") firms. Heal's chapter on the Zaibatsu covers their ties to the ship owning, ship operating, and ship construction businesses, but it also tackles some larger issues.
During the Second World War and the events leading up to it, the Zaibatsu played a dominant role
as the principal suppliers of all manner of munitions and equipment to the armed services. So powerful was their influence that it is doubtful if the Japanese could ever have mounted a major war without
their backing. It was something of a conundrum as to which came first. Was it the dependence of the
military on the munition makers, being the Zaibatsu, or did the Zaibatsu influence the military in order
to aid them in sales and peddling influence? The whole process multiplied as following the success of
one supplier the competition followed suit in order to maintain their share of the potential market. The
military establishment took over the government, but there is some speculation that the Zaibatsu effectively controlled both so that a primary Allied objective following the war was to break up the combines,
which will be discussed later.
The second chapter looks at the story of the Terukuni Maru, a Japanese motor passenger-cargo liner sunk by a magnetic mine off the coast of England on 2 November 1939. "Terukuni Maru had the unique distinction of being the only Japanese war loss in the Second World War prior to Pearl Harbor." Although allied with Germany, Tokyo lodged a complaint with Berlin over the sinking. As it was impossible to prove the mine was German (although Heal points out the British would not likely be mining their own shipping lanes), NYK never received compensation for the loss of its neutral vessel. Even more interestingly, Heal points out a rarely noted feature of Japan's preparation for war:
There is a feature of Japanese merchant shipping about which I have seen no official or other, speculative comment. This concerns the position of Japanese ships in foreign harbours or at sea when the
Pacific War commenced. If there were instances of Japanese ships being interned, captured at sea or scuttled, I can find no reference to such events, as none ever seem to have taken place.
In fact, in the large fleet of former German and Italian ships which were operated for the British
Ministry of War Transport, which had been given "Empire" names and were listed in Mitchell and
Sawyer's book Empire Ships of World War II, there is a notable absence of any former Japanese vessels
prior to 1945. The handful of small vessels which were incorporated into the British merchant fleet were
obviously postwar seizures taken in Southeast Asia. In a similar way, a limited number of smaller ships
might have also been seized by the Americans, particularly in the Philippines and elsewhere.
However, during 1941 it is hardly credible that a massive quantity of Japanese shipping could he
simply withdrawn without it's [sic] being noticed, but this is more or less what appeared to happen. No doubt
the professional shipping press noticed it from its beginning but, at least in Britain and probably in
Canada and the United States, the popular press made little, if any, reference to the disappearance of
Japanese shipping from the high seas and its accumulation in its home ports in Japan. Changes in shipping patterns and trade movements are quickly noted in a variety of ways through reports from many
sources such as commodity traders and their markets, shipping agents, Lloyd's agents, insurance and
banking people engaged in trade transactions.
With the embargo in place there was little chance of Japanese shipping being caught in an endangered position. From July, the month of the march into Indo-China, to December 7 the Japanese had adequate time to work their shipping back into home waters. The Japanese military and naval authorities
had sufficient time and the broadest possible choice in preparing their ships as military transports and
other purposes as necessary. Converting merchant ships into military or naval auxiliaries, such as seaplane carriers or attack transports, with elaborate special equipment and power requirements could not
he undertaken on short notice or without considerable planning.
Heal goes on to say "When Pearl Harbor was attacked, Japanese convoys laden with munitions and troops were already underway to attack Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and the Indies. Again, preparations on this scale must have been made far earlier...." Here the author slightly misstates the facts. Although Pearl Harbor is almost always remembered as the opening round of the war in the Pacific, in actuality the initial Japanese landings in Malaya, after adjusting for time zones and the international date line, took place prior to the raid on Hawaii. In addition, the attack against Hong Kong came not from the sea but via the landward side from territory already controlled by the Japanese in China.
Heal's next two chapters also tend to be a bit superficial and imprecise when describing the overall conduct of the Pacific war, but he's always on much firmer groundif that's the right phrasewhen discussing merchant shipping. His first chapter on the conduct of the war also features three pages about the intricacies of "War Risks insurance," comparing the Japanese, British, Canadian, and American practices and concluding that the Japanese went much farther than the western Allies in forcing the obligations and risks of shipping ownership onto private concerns. The second chapter on the conduct of the war mostly involves his personal participation with the Royal Navy in the campaign's closing stages and his experiences in Malaya, Singapore, the Indies, and Hong Kong. His service there provided many opportunities for first-hand observation and exploration of Japanese shipping, as did his post-war career.
At this point, nearly halfway through the book, the author turns his attention to his central subject, the Japanese emergency shipbuilding program and the Type A vessels. Despite some preliminary pre-war planning, not until 1943, with their merchant shipping already in precipitous decline, did the Japanese authorities launch a construction program. Chapter five describes the implementation of the emergency plans, the various classes of ships, and Heal's theory that the Japanese Type A derived largely from the War Melody, a British Type N built by Harland & Wolff at Belfast in 1918, sold to an American owner after World War I, renamed Grace Dollar, and in turn sold to a Japanese shipping concern in 1924 as Hakamatsu Maru. Heal devotes a few pages to comparing the War Melody with the Type A and exploring the possible origin of the Japanese design. The next chapter takes the story of the surviving Type A's through the post-war years and interweaves Heal's personal observations with the story of the vessels in civilian cargo service.
Chapter seven utilizes a series of tables to enumerate all the Type A's according to builder and owner, and then presents an alphabetical listing of all the individual Type A vessels. For each ship Heal gives name, GRT, completion date, official serial number, builder, yard, machinery, first owner, and notes about later changes and eventual fate. In sum, this amounts to some 140 vesselsfar less than the number of Liberty ships constructed, but a very significant proportion of Japan's wartime shipping output. Here are a couple of examples of typical ship listings:
|Nissan Maru No. 1
|Completed as a tanker (2AT). 26.5.45, mined and sunk off Shimonoseki, Japan
|Completed as a tanker (2AT). 11.45, converted to dry cargo. Converted to three-island type. Classed by ABS. 1956, transferred to Toyo Kaiun, renamed Tamegawa Maru. 1963, broken up at Setoda, Japan.
The book's final chapter surveys other ship types in the wartime "standard ship" programs with photos, sketches, silhouettes, specifications, and other data.
Especially in the last chapter, but also in some of the material on the Type A ships, data tends to be vague and incomplete, but Heal addresses this issue throughout the book. Apparently only small amounts of archival information survived the war in official documents, little has been published in the popular or specialized press, and over the years the knowledge held by veterans and other participants has gradually disappeared. Indeed, judging from what Heal has been able to ascertain about specific details, much about the Type A vesselsand other aspects of the Japanese merchant marine during World War IIhas been lost forever, thus Heal's book will need to endure as one of the best sources available.
While not as broad, inclusive, or analytical as The Japanese Merchant Marine in World War II by Mark Parillo, and certainly not intended to replace that excellent work, Heal with his unique experiences and perspective has produced a very worthwhile addition to the rather slim resources on Japanese shipping during WWII. Some readers will want Ugly Ducklings for its compilations of specifications and individual ship histories. Some readers will be interested in Heal's insights into obscure matters such as insurance for Japanese shipping during the war. Some readers will enjoy studying the ample photographs (thoroughly captioned) of Japanese shipping from pre-war through post-war years. And some readers will relish Heal's anecdotes dating back to his first contacts with Japanese ships and the Type A almost sixty years ago. In any event, despite some occasionally ragged prose and punctuation, this is a fine, engaging, and informative book. Recommended to anyone with an interest in this aspect of the war.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Vanwell Publishing (or Naval Institute Press in the US).
Thanks to Vanwell for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 22 June 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone