The Kawaminami shipyard was opened in 1936 and went bankrupt in 1955. It had four huge bays and two large factory buildings. Through the war years it served as both a munitions factory, a drydock for construction of cargo ships, escort ships, and kaitens, and possibly also as a Prisoner of War (POW) slave labor camp. By some accounts up to 4000 POWs were forced to work here during wartime.
The main factory hall.
History on the place has been hard to come by definitively. According to official POW internment records, it never had POWs. According to other sites it did. It may be a simple mix-up of names, as there was another infamous POW camp in Nagasaki harbor that also built ships, and was also called Kawaminami. Either way, it was far from uncommon for POWs to be made into slave labor.
The major company Mitsubishi became famous for its ‘hellships’, transports loaded down with POWs sent to factories all over Japan and Manchuria, and for the factories themselves, which often had no heating even in the depths of winter.
I discovered that Osarizawa mine, the haikyo I went to in the Tohoku area, which had the brilliant blue pools and is still being operated by Mitsubishi to this day, was a site of slave POW labor. 503 American POWs worked there, claiming the mining techniques and equipment were as primitive as those of centuries earlier. Here’s an extract from a site titled ‘Mitsubishi: Empire of Exploitation’ about conditions in Osarizawa-
“The mine was cold and damp and had icicles hanging from the ceiling”, Kenneth Calvit recalled. The prisoners had to walk over two miles up a steep mountain road to get to the mine. “On one stretch of the road there was a cut in the mountain where the wind and snow were blinding, so we used a rope and would go hand by hand to keep from getting lost”, Calvit said. During the few months when snow wasn’t on the ground, the POWs would try to catch grasshoppers along the way, in a desperate search for protein to add to their watery soup. They had no mid-day meal from the company. Calvit also remembered the time ammonia leaked from pipes in the company’s refrigeration plant into the vat of soup — which was served to the POWs anyway.
But what the prisoners remembered most was the terrible cold, how they were only allowed two hours of heat per day, and how, when they tried to bring a few scrap timbers from the mine to put in the little barracks stove, the company guards would take it from them. “At times I thought I was going to freeze to death”, David Summons said.
Ivy creeps up the crumbled concrete.
The stories of this time are fascinating and horrifying. POWs who were too terrified to speak, who died by their scores of pneumonia, injuries, disease. Also there are the stories of courage, the sabotage done to the factories by men unwilling to help the enemy cause, the men who took control of their labor camps the moment they heard the war was over and marched their once-overlords to the city to be arrested by occupying forces.
View into the main factory.
I’ve spent hours perusing documents, maps, and photographs from that time now, and feel I`ve only scraped the surface. In history class in the UK I only learned about the war in the European theater, I knew nothing of it in the Pacific. Every time I come across some of that history directly, whether it`s incidentally while holiday-making on Saipan or as part of my haikyo `explorations`, it hits me hard that there was this whole side to a war that I knew nothing about. The misery was not limited to Europe. It happened all over this country also, and all around its orbit (Manchuria [occupied China], Saipan, Guam, etc..)
Can you imagine being a world war 2 POW in a Japanese labor camp? It must have been one of the most alien environments imaginable. In their first week Allied soldiers were forced to learn Japanese numbers so they could know when they were being called, but beyond that nothing said around them would have made any sense.
They survived on a diet of mostly rice, in portions that decreased as the war progressed more and more poorly. The discipline they were exposed to was often iron-clad and brutal, with executions commonplace, leaving prisoners in a perpetual state of shock and humiliation. They spent their days alongside drafted Japanese and Korean workers building ships for the enemy.
Prisoners in camp Fukuoka #2B, situated just outside of Nagasaki, clearly saw the mushroom cloud and blast of the atomic bomb dropped on that city.
I found one document that was a list of all the POWs killed in Fukuoka #2B. A large number died from penumonia, with others dying from colitis, and a few from crushing, burning, drowning while at work.
I found a list of POW camp orders, direct from the Camp Commander through the Japanese interpreter. The Japangrish is slightly comic, but the reality is stark. They were prisoners, and they had to do what they were told.
Monday July 5, 1943
In accident at dockyard, the man did not help in boat accident. Two Dutch officers ran away. They are unfaithful and we are disappointed in them.
You must salute from the heart.
Do not say Nip or Jap. It is just as bad as saying Yank.
No reading after 9 P.M..
Flanked by vegetation.
Sept. 4 
The Sgt. Major is the N.C.O. of the week. There will be no mistakes. Men will stop sleeping in the latrine.
All men are responsible for all men.
Watch and check each other.
Drillers are very good, the under ship are very lazy. POW No. 341 is no good at picking up iron.
Oct. 8. 
The Sgt. Major really expects you not to happen. You may bathe when the water is fired.
You have a new galley hancho (mess sergeant) make him good. Salute from the heart.
Use water sparingly.
Try not to have fire.
Dec. 31 
Unnecessary things are going on at the docks – there will be heavy, heavy punishment. Officers and room-chiefs are responsible.
All men receive food as well as lunch – why should 6 or 7 be hungry. They are smuggling time from watchmen to bake food. Therefore they are lazy.
All buying and selling is forbidden.
New Year tomorrow so nothing filthy – live happily in the camp.
The galley hancho (mess sergeant) feels very bad because people try to improve upon his cooking.
Our camp is the talk of the town of Nagasaki on the food-proposition. Don’t let it happen from any view point. The supply sergeant says keep your brooms dry.
Graffiti and columns.
Jan. 19 
Camp authorities want everybody to be happy.
To keep happy very much responsibility of room chiefs at dockyard and camp from any view point. Salute from the heart.
Gargle twice daily.
Navy officers at dockyard say many things have been going on recently. You must swear not to do it again.
More like this on this very thorough POW site.
I came to the shipyard without knowing much about it, and despite the information above I still don’t know much about it directly, only by inference. I just know it was huge, and abandoned 55 years ago. It has simply been left as it was, though with all the machinery stripped out. It’s falling to pieces and obscured by scrubby trees.
I didn’t have long to explore, as I had to get back for the last train, then onto a plane back to Tokyo, but there wasn’t much to investigate. With ruins of this age, you’re looking at bones. There’s no detritus left, none of the stuff of everyday life. All that’s left are the things that don’t rot and can’t be stolen- a huge factory structure and 6 giant dry-dock bays where ships were cast and built.
Trees grow up where ships were once cast.
One of the 4 drydocks.
Twisty trees obscure dry-dock bays.
End of the drydock railings.
Drydock bays reflecting pool.
You can find more ruins explorations in the galleries:[album id=4 template=compact]