It is 75 Years since ‘Rakuyo’ Maru was torpedoed in early hours of 12 Sept 1944 by submarine USS ‘Sealion’ while sailing with Japanese convoy through Luzon Strait, South China Sea.
On board ‘Rakuyo’ Maru were 600 British & 718 Australian POWs who had sailed from Singapore crowded into the hull, huddled in appalling conditions. Some fortunate POWs were on deck as there was not sufficient room below.
Miraculously 159 POWs were unexpectedly sighted and saved as USS ‘Pampanito’ sailed back over the area of the sinking 4 days later.
A total of 73 POWs were picked up by ‘Pampanito’ who signalled ‘Growler’ and ‘Sealion’ to assist.
‘Sealion’, ‘Pampanito’ and ‘Growler’ known as the ‘Busters’ wolf pack had earlier attacked the convoy.
Another wolf pack in the region, the ‘Eradicators’ included USS Barb and USS Queenfish were also called up to assist – especially now with late afternoon upon them. There was real urgency to pick up as many POWs as possible while it was light. Americans quickly realised the men were in terrible physical condition being in the ocean for four days. There was also the real possibility of roaming Japanese war ships.
A total of 55 Australians picked up including 13 men from 2/4th. Three were picked up by a Japanese ship and taken to Japan and very lucky 11 POWs were picked up US submarines and taken to freedom!
Tragically 38 young West Australian men from 2/4th, perished in the South China Sea.
The following is Pampanito’s story of the rescue.
Sea Lion and Pampanito rendezvoused on night of 13 Sep 1944 with Growler who thereafter headed south. Sea Lion and Pampanito spent the next day, 14 Sept searching in vain for rest of the Japanese convoy – finally heading east toward the area of ‘Rakuyo’ Maru attack on 12 September.
Late in the afternoon of 15 Sept Pampanito dived to avoid a Japanese plane. On resurfacing the crew of Pampanito noticed much debris and floating wreckage.
At about 1600 hours a bridge lookout sighted some men on a raft. The crew stood by small arms as Pampanito moved closer to investigate.
“16.34 hours – It was noted the men were covered with oil and filth. The crew could not make them out – they were shouting but we couldn’t make them out, until finally they heard the words “Pick us up please’. Crew called for a rescue party up on deck to take the POWs off the raft. There were about 15 British and Australian survivors on this raft from Rakuyo Maru sunk on night 11-12 September 1944, after being torpedoed by ‘Sea Lion’. “
The Americans learned the POWs were enroute from Singapore to Japan. there were more than 1300 on board.
After four days drifting on makeshift rafts they were in extremely bad shape. Covered in oil from the sunken Japanese tanker they had long used up the small supply of water and food taken from the sinking ‘Rakuyo’ Maru.
Pampanito radioed Sealion, and Reich also moved to pick up survivors.
“1634 Hours – As the POWs were received on board Pampanito they were each stripped and cleaned of most of the heavy coating of oil and muck. Pampanito crew cleared the after torpedo room and the weakened POWs were quickly passed below.
Each man was given a moistened cloth to suck on. They were in a very poor state of health having spent the previous 3 years as POWs in Burma and Thailand. Many had lashed themselves to their makeshift rafts which were slickened with grease and most had little else but lifebelts with them.
All showed signs of immersion, salt-water sores, beri beri, pellagra, ringworm, malaria, etc. The men were very thin and showed results of undernourishment.
Some were in very bad shape – it was a pitiful sight which none of the crew will ever forget. All available crew quickly began full-time caring and nursing the POWs.
1712 Hours – picked up a second raft with about nine men onboard.
1721 Hours – picked up another six.
1730 Hours – picked up another six.
1753 hours – picked up about eleven men.
1824 hours ………. about six men.
1832 hours ……..about five men…….
1957 hours – Light fading rapidly as we picked up a single survivor.
2005 hours – Completely dark. Took aboard the last group of about ten men.
Pampanito made a thorough search of vicinity with high periscope and kept true bearing of all rafts sighted. Felt they had everyone in sight and knew they had all they could care for if not more. The final count of those rescued numbered 73. These together with 79 crew members and 10 officers made for cramped living.
2015 hours – Made final search and finding no one else set course for Saipan at four engine speed.”
During the five-day trip to Saipan, the nearest Allied port, the survivors were berthed in the crew’s quarters amidships and on the empty torpedo skids and bunks in the after torpedo room and cared for by the crew.
Submarines did not carry a doctor. Treatment for these very ill men became the responsibility of the only man onboard with medical training – Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Maurice Demers. Demers worked around the clock. Seriously ill British survivor John Campbell was unable to be saved. He died the next day on 16 September and was buried at sea following a very sombre ceremony.
Although Demers tried to grab a few hours sleep – he was awakened when several survivors took a turn for the worse. He worked tirelessly and became close to total exhaustion. Thankfully Campbell was the only death.
Demers wrote after the war “as I examined and treated each one I could feel a deep sense of gratitude, their faces were expressionless and only a few could move their lips to whisper a faint ‘thanks’. It was quite gratifying to see the happy expressions on their faces when they left the ship.”
Below: Fremantle was Submarine base during WW2
USS PAMPANITO RETURNS TO FREMANTLE 30 DEC 1944
In December 1944 USS Pampanito sailed into Fremantle Harbour – an American submarine base throughout the war. To the crew’s surprise there appeared several familiar faces waiting dockside.
These men had somehow overcome the strict submarine security – Jack Cocking, Wally Winter and Harry Pickett stood waiting -dressed in same dungarees the crew had provided them aboard Pampanito after being rescued three months earlier! All wearing beaming smiles of welcome.
The crew received a warm welcome everywhere they went accompanied by the Aussies. Doc Demers who had worked without sleep to keep the men alive was hugged and kissed by everybody. The men partied for New Year in Perth and Fremantle.
A taxi driver attempted to overcharge the Americans until Wally Winters stepped up and threatened the driver! Instead of the original 20 Bob (shillings!) fare asked, the crew never paid more than 7 Bob throughout their visit.
Above: Wally Winter and below Harry Pickett