In early October 1943, the Portuguese authorities in Goa busily prepared for a major event. As the Second World War raged on, the Allied and Axis powers had agreed to an exchange of prisoners and the place they chose for the swap was Mormugao in south Goa.

One reason for this was Goa’s location. Another was its neutrality. Despite the Mormugao port being the stage of a covert British military action that sank three German and one Italian merchant ships, Goa, by virtue of being a Portuguese colony, was accepted by the belligerents in the war as neutral territory.

“The entire wharf in the harbour had been cleared of ships and special contingents of Portuguese military and police patrolled a fenced area on the waterfront through which no unauthorized persons were allowed to go,” the Associated Press said about the official preparations.

A few months before, in August 1943, an agreement had been made between Japan, the United States and Portugal under which the Japanese steamship Teia Maru and the Swedish vessel MS Gripsholm would be allowed to enter the Mormugao port for the exchange of civilians.

The US sent Austin Preston, their consul general in Lourenco Marques (now Maputo), to Mormugao to coordinate with the Portuguese authorities, while Canada sent its trade commissioner in India, Paul Sykes. Japan, which did not have a diplomatic presence in British India on account of the war, requested the Swedish government to act on its behalf. Paul Eskstrom, a chancellor at the Swedish consulate in Bombay, agreed to represent Japanese interests.

It took several weeks for American, Canadian, Swedish and Portuguese officials to iron out the final details. On October 15, the international media’s attention was on Mormugao as the ships made their way to what Associated Press called a “jungle-clad port”. Correspondents of newswires as well as newspapers, such as The New York Times, had arrived in Goa a couple of weeks before the exchange.

Teia Maru’s voyage

The bartered civilians on the ships consisted of businessmen, executives in multinational companies, missionaries and others who found themselves stranded in an enemy country after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941.

The Japanese steamship had set sail from Singapore on October 5 with 1,236 Americans, 221 Canadians and 40 Latin Americans, most of whom had embarked two weeks earlier in Shanghai. From Singapore, the vessel went southeast and around the southern tip of Sumatra to avoid the Malacca Strait, making it a longer but safer journey.

Among the Americans on board was Royal Arch Gunnison, a 34-year-old journalist who was captured by the Japanese in Manilla and spent 17 months along with his wife in internment camps in the Philippines and China. After being released, he became one of the major American proponents of intensifying the war against Japan.

Gunnison’s book So Sorry, No Peace was published in 1944 and contained accounts of what happened to him after his capture. “The Japanese did what for generations they had wanted to do,” he wrote. “They seized American civilians, poked them with bayonets, slapped old women and children, stole their belongings, burned their household goods, ransacked their homes and pilfered their businesses. They threw us, the hated ‘foreigners’, into primitive, filthy, overcrowded concentration camps, with barely enough to eat.”

Also on board the Japanese vessel were 22 employees of Standard Oil, and executives from Chase National Bank and the National City Bank of New York. The youngest passenger was a baby born to an American couple on the ship two days before it reached Singapore.

Many of the repatriates on the Teia Maru did not share Gunnison’s view of the Japanese. “In general they said that despite many hardships they were treated fairly well by their Japanese captors,” Bryan Young, a correspondent of International News Service, wrote in a dispatch. An Associated Press report supported this. The newswire wrote, “With a few exceptions, the Teia Maru’s passengers appeared in excellent physical condition and reasonably well-clothed considering their 21-months internment in Japanese-controlled territory.”

The ship arrived in Goan waters, as expected, on the morning of October 15. “From her early anchorage in the open harbour, the Teia Maru was brought into dock by a British pilot,” Associated Press wrote. “For him it was a ticklish job, piloting an enemy-owned vessel into a port where anchorage is extremely difficult for a ship of such size. The vessel came in on high tide to clear the shallow floor harbour on the way into a dredged-out section along the wharf.”

The passengers were delighted to reach a neutral country but were not allowed to disembark immediately. American diplomats who boarded the ship told them that the MS Gripsholm, which was carrying Japanese civilians, had not arrived yet.

Gripsholm’s long trip

The MS Gripsholm, which carried 1,340 Japanese repatriates, left New York for Goa on September 2. It travelled to Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo before crossing the Atlantic to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, where it was refuelled before the voyage to Mormugao.

The US State Department painted a rosy picture of the conditions on board the Swedish ship and the attitude of the Japanese civilians. “The absence of indications of hostility toward the Americans on board among the Japanese repatriates continued to the end of the journey,” the department wrote in its report on the exchange.

It was widely believed that all the people on board were Japanese citizens, but this was not true. A first-hand account published by Japanese-American Archie Miyamoto in 2018 dispelled this myth.

“Most of those put on our ship were Japanese from Latin American countries,” Miyamoto wrote. “Among the families from the U.S., however, there were over 100 minors who were American citizens. Twenty-two of the Americans were male teenagers, including me.”

Miyamoto was allowed to return to the US after the end of the war. Most of the other teenagers too went back to the US, he wrote, but without their parents.

The Gripsholm reached Goa a day after the Teia Maru. “Cheers by several hundred Japanese rang out across the water as the Gripsholm, painted white with diagonal stripes in Sweden’s colours and bearing the word ‘Diplomat’ in large black letters on her side, was pushed into her berth here today,” United Press International wrote.

The Americans were pleased with the Goan port. “All things considered, Marmagão appears to be an ideal place for exchanging prisoners and internees,” the State Department note said. “There is adjoining berthing space for the exchange ships, there are travelling cranes and rail facilities for moving relief cargo and baggage from one ship to another, there are cool and clean sheds right on the pier for use as temporary offices and waiting rooms, and Marmagão is isolated from any population centre where passengers or crew may get into trouble or be lost or catch disease.”

The Gripsholm also carried 2,400 tonnes of Red Cross supplies, which were transferred to the Teia Maru for distribution among captured American soldiers in territory under Japanese control.

Final exchange

The exchange in Mormugao took five days as there were formalities to complete along with logistical challenges.

In the meantime, passengers were allowed to move around freely in the restricted dock area, where they ended up buying fruits, especially bananas. A group of Japanese Catholics asked the Portuguese authorities for permission to visit the tomb of St Francis Xavier, but this was denied, given the limited time they were in Mormugao.

While in Goa, the westerners and Japanese did not display open hostility to each other. A “general spirit of tolerance prevailed” between the two groups, although there was “no conversing”, The New York Times wrote in an article headlined Enemies Mingling At Exchange Port. “The Americans, freed from Far Eastern detention, and Japanese from the Americas watched each other curiously and occasionally rubbed shoulders. The Americans gazed longingly at the commodious comfortable Gripsholm and listened avidly to stories of the good food in her larders.”

On the morning of October 21, the Teia Maru departed for Singapore, Manilla and Yokohama. A day later, the Gripsholm set sail for Port Elizabeth, Rio de Janeiro and New York.

Sketch of Goa

The journalists who came to the Portuguese colony for the exchange had no restrictions on their movements. Some of them travelled around and recorded their impressions.

“Americans, relaxing after the Japanese internment camps, will find little to remind them of war in Mormugao,” Robert N Cool, a features writer with Associated Press, wrote before the Gripsholm arrived. “A trail across the narrow cabo will lead them to an excellent sandy beach facing the blue Indian Ocean “

Cool said the Portuguese wine was cheap and the locals were friendly and famed as “servitors” throughout the world. “If the Americans cross the estuary to sleepy Panjim, they may lose themselves in the 19th century – a world of plumed horse guards before iron palace gates, arrogant officialdom far from home. Strolling down antique brick causeways through the jungle toward Old Goa, every step will take them farther from the 20th century.”

While neither the Americans nor the Japanese repatriates got a chance to see the beauty of Goa, the state that had been long forgotten in many parts of the western world came into the limelight for a very brief period during some of the darkest days the world had seen.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.