The ‘Rakuyo Maru’ a Japanese built passenger-cargo ship displacing 9,419 tons, was sunk in the South China Sea between Hainan Island and Luzon 12 September 1944. This ship was part of a convoy of Japanese ships transporting POW’s from Singapore to Japan. On board were some 600 British and 718 Australian POW’s including 55 members of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. Onboard was also load of raw rubber.
Thirteen of the 55 were to survive the sinking. Eleven (11) were picked up by American submarines and two (2) picked up by Japanese ships and taken onto Japan.
WX12765 Pte. Philip James Beilby, WX7409 Pte. Thomas Anthony Pascoe, WX9223 Pte. Harold Thomas Bunker, WX9055 Pte. Harry Pickett, WX16369 Pte. Alfred John Cocking, WX16424 Pte. Alfred Sing, WX7123 L/Sgt. Robert Douglas Hampson, WX 8110 Pte. Alfred Daly Winter, WX17452 Pte. Laurence Daniel Kearney, WX10373 Pte. Walter Victor Winter, WX7268 Pte. Frederick Victor Cross. Three other surviving members of the 2/4th were Bert Wall WX12989, Austin ‘Aussie’ Climie WX4927 and Syd Clayden WX10358 who were rescued by the Japanese.
Read the story Members of 2/4th nominated for Medal but not awarded.
And also read the story Surviving the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru written by Roy Cornford NX44955 of the 2/19th Battalion.
The video USS Sealion 11 rescuing Australian POW’s is worth watching.
There were total 717 Australian POWs onboard 477 foot ‘Rakuyo Maru’
543 Lives lost on Rakuyo Maru – 500 AIF, 33 RAN, 7 RAAF
82 Men Rescued by Japanese – 71 AIF, 8 RAN, 3 RAAF
92 Rescued by US Submarines – 87 AIF, 4 RAN, 1 RAAF
There was a report 2 Australian Merchant seaman (captured in Java) who were also lost.
The other POW transport ship in the convoy which was hit by American submarine torpedoes was ‘Kachidojku Maru’ carrying 900 British men. It is estimated a total of about 150 Australian and British POWs were rescued by the 4 American submarines.
- On 5th September 1944 the POWs were marched to the docks en route for Japan. It was 3rd time during past fortnight the men had done so. The procedure was –
- parade at 5 am
- sit around waiting until noon
- marched to the docks where they again sat around waiting until late evening (large numbers of men were unable to march and others were sick with usual tropical diseases).
- before being marched back to their accommodation at the Transit Camp.
Many doubted they would actually see a ship on this particular day. But there it was – ‘Rakuyo Maru‘ moored at the docks. Many POWs were familiar with the ship as they had been loading her for the past weeks with raw rubber, copra, tin and scrap metal.
The men were herded below decks where conditions were very crowded, dark and stifling hot in the Singapore heat. A tense standoff had taken place with the Japanese when a large number of POWs refused to go below into the over-crowded hold. They were warned there would be no water and food until they did so and situation was hostile.
Eventually the Japanese agreed with senior POWs officers that two thirds of the men would go into the hold. The remaining third could remain on deck but must not impede the movement of crew.
Prodded by rifles with bayonets and the usual slapping and kicking, two-thirds of the men squeezed themselves below. Sitting back-to-back and knee-to-knee the men including the sick settled down and waited in the dark hold sweating in the appalling conditions.
On deck and below there were numerous injuries from the hostilities – sore heads, bruises, cuts and broken ribs. They tried to maintain a path to the primitive but hygienic latrines – a slatted box lashed with rope to the port rail.
On 4 September 1944 ‘Rakuyo Maru‘ with 1318 men, 717 Australians, 600 British and one American airman (shot down in Burma) moved off just before dusk and soon dropped anchor in the roads outside the harbour. They remained in the roadstead for another 36 hours. Those on deck were able to see the lights of Singapore and enjoyed the faintest of breezes. For those below there was no relief, it must have been horrific trying to sleep sitting with heads on their knees, listening to the sick and injured cries and moans, the air filled with fear and the growing stench of so many bodies.
There was no food ration this night. Whatever food they had been provided in the early morning was supposed to be for the day – however rice would not keep in the heat.
On the morning of 6th September 900 British POWs on ‘Kachidoki Maru’ and two passenger cargo vessels, two tankers and several escorts joined them.
During the night ‘Rakuyo Maru’ joined a convoy of two tankers and further three transports to form two lines headed by a light cruiser, flanked by two destroyers and followed by a corvette and sailed away from Singapore.
It was nearer midday before the POWs received their small serving of food. They each received a small mug of rice with a tiny drop of stew! There was chaos and queue jumping by ravenous men. They were advised they would receive half a pint of tea later in the day. Cooking facilities were absolutely inadequate. The cooks had use of two kwalies for more than 1,000 men, worked in a lean-to cookhouse made of corrugated iron at the ship’s stern, exposed to weather and open deck. There was no way the POWs would receive more than two meals per day in daylight hours with two kwalies cooking for 1300 men. (There would be no fires at night for cooking).
Australians manned the cookhouse and eventually the British conceded the rice was well cooked. Initially the British felt outsmarted by the Aussies who had manoeuvred themselves into the cookhouse ahead of the British. By the second day they all received a pint of tea each man and the British conceded the Aussies were doing well. The prisoners soon settled into routine with food distribution points, pathways to the latrine, etc. The POWs knew they faced everybody being jammed into the hold with hatches closed if they created trouble.
Those on deck faced stinking hot conditions during the day, but were rewarded with cooler nights. For those in the hold it was otherwise and they were glad of a turn upstairs. By the fifth day the men were desperate for water for cleaning themselves. Conditions soon became unsanitary. The Japanese agreed for bath parades! 5-6 men at a time allowed on deck and the use of a pump for 5 minutes. It was heaven beneath the 3-foot torrent of water whilst they splashed and rolled about.
Drinking water had become dangerously short and that night the heavens opened up. Those on deck were happily drenched and filled their drink containers and from below came the hordes taking turns to do likewise. On deck, temperatures plummeted and the men with their sodden belongings gathered together to keep warm until morning when the sun was again out.
This was the 6th day and their convoy was joined by another comprised of 5 transports accompanied by escorted by two destroyers. The POWs felt reasonably safe as the convoy forged on in favourable conditions accompanied by one cruiser, 4 destroyers and 2 corvettes.
The convoy headed directly northeast for the Formosa Straits.
The following day the convoy approached the danger area of the voyage – midway between Hainan Island and Luzon in the Philippines where the American submarines were concentrated.
Extra lookouts were evident on the foredeck and the bridge and the gun crews practiced on the antiquated artillery piece in the bow. Tension was high.
At this point (according to Ghosts in Khaki) the convoy was joined by three empty freighters and three frigates. The convoy became three columns of ships with tankers in the centre and ‘Rakuyo Maru’ becoming ‘tail end charlie’ at the right rear.
The hunt was on for life jackets and ample stock was found on ‘Kachidoki Maru’ however 25% or more of POWs on ‘Rakuyo Maru’ missed out.
Survivors on board from HMAS Perth (taken POWs in Java) were active in spreading the message of ‘abandon ship survival’. They found the life jackets, wooden life rafts and advised how to launch them. They also devised a plan to empty the holds quickly. The Perth survivors prepared those around them as much as was possible under the conditions. (‘Perth’ survivors provided further valuable knowledge to POWs on ‘Rakuyo Maru ).
On the evening of 11th September two 2/4th Machine gunners Alf and Wally Winter had been out scrounging and this incident proved to be a minor crisis, taking minds off the torpedoes!
“We broke a lock and got into a hold. We pinched a small bag of sugar, got it back to the hold and split it up amongst our Kumi (platoon). Everybody gulped it down by the handful. The Japs were on to the theft pretty quickly and announced that if they couldn’t find the culprit everyone would be punished.” …………Alf Winter (from Ghosts in Khaki Page 310)
The decision was left until the next morning – and the ship eventually settled down. As the ship sailed on the number of men sleeping on deck grew to many 100s of POWs on the forward deck. The decision of the missing sugar was never made and was taken over by a much greater crisis.
A little before midnight of the 6th day, on 12 September the convoy was attacked. For those on deck the night was dark, as the moon had not risen. The previous quiet evenings had lulled them into a sense of safety and tranquillity. Startled awake by the roar of activity, POWs on deck saw the destroyer escort charging around with lights blinking. There was a huge flash of light, an explosion or two, and the destroyer was gone.
Pandemonium followed, bells ringing, Japs racing everywhere and some even jumping into the lifeboats. Terrified men heaved themselves out of the holds. For those on deck they could see one of the tankers ablaze now lighting up the night. ‘Rakuyo Maru’ was veering evasively right to the starboard. There were more explosions. Alarm bells continued ringing amidst the hysterical cries from men everywhere and from below, they could hear the scurrying of crew feet in a night which had suddenly gone mad. The POWs did not know what was to happen, what they were to do as their ship rocked about.
The panicked guards and crew began to force the POWs back down the hold. A young Australian Officer took command. He confirmed the convoy had been attacked and two ships hit and advised the men to sit quietly and settle down. Nothing further happened and the convoy again settle down.
The ship remained on an even keel and control returned. The ‘Rakuyo Maru’ was drawing away from the convoy and they thought they would be all right. The terrified men had willed their ship to find safety away from the convoy into the safety of darkness. They were suddenly aware the’ Rakuyo Maru’ was now alone. One cannot begin to imagine what was going through their minds of those hundreds of terrified men below decks.
At 5.30am POWs on deck saw a tanker go up in flames joined a few minutes later by a freighter. It was now the ‘Rakuyo Maru’s’ turn. Watchers at the rails yelled “they’re going to hit” as two torpedoes streaked toward their ship. One torpedo went into the engine room bringing the ship to an abrupt halt with a loud explosion and a sheet of flame and the second torpedo hit below where it was seemingly cushioned by the cargo of rubber bales or even missed its target.
A massive wave poured over the forecastle. POWs on deck were thrown violently about as they were pounded by boiling and hissing seas. Many thought the ship had already sunk. Next the water had gone leaving men confused, spluttering and blundering about the deck, their meagre possessions washed overboard. They had hung on to avoid being swept overboard. Harry Bunker said, “It was like being hit by an enormous dumper at Cottesloe beach. I was all ends up scraping along the deck”. Harry Pickett said he had to hang on to stop being swept over the side. (from ‘Ghosts in Khaki P. 311)
There were continual splashes as men jumped into the water. For those on-board there was further panic with the Japanese seemingly not knowing what to do and taking longer to do it. However the Japanese crew didn’t waste time appearing in life jackets (some POWs managed to grab one from their supply) and several rafts hit the water. Before everybody was out of the hold, the lowered lifeboats loaded with crew were pulling away from ‘Rakuyo Maru’.
The panicked POWs in the holds had immediately scrambled for the ladder. On deck, there were some savage confrontations between POWs with years of pent up hatred and a few of Japanese still on board. It appeared the majority of men had jumped overboard. In the reappearing moonlight those in the water desperately sought floating cargo and debris for support. Especially those unable to swim.
By now the ship was sitting still and the initial rush to jump overboard slowed down. Some POWs returned to their ship. Some with leadership and survival skills began throwing overboard rafts and floatable material such as that which could be ripped off the superstructure following the explosion. Chairs, tables, hatch boards, POW cookhouse, oil drums, wooden stairs, etc. – anything which would float. Some of these struck men floating in the water further increasing injuries and deaths amidst the mayhem. Groups were drawn into the sea of blazing oil from the tanker – unable to make their way to safer waters. For now it was mostly darkness, the unknown, confusion, and shocked voices calling for mates. A few Japanese who found themselves alone and swimming in the water were now facing the prospect of being outnumbered by POWs.
Doug Hampton said, “The Jap frigates were moving amongst the wreckage picking up their own survivors. We had one Jap officer aboard our raft and we were hoping someone would come to collect him and take us too! Small hope, they came for him in a small boat with a Jap in the bow holding a tommy gun. The two frigates then cruised alongside the rafts, the crew lining the rails with guns pointed at us. We thought we were going to get it (be shot) and gave them our thumbs up sign, I think they got the message.” (Page 312 Ghosts in Khaki)
The Japanese boats finally after ramming through wreckage, sinking rafts, breaking up groups and killing men in the water turned away and with the remaining freighter leaving behind a mass of struggling, shocked and injured survivors.
The moon once again disappeared leaving 100’s of nameless men floating in the dark water eager to push away from ‘Rakuyo Maru’ fearing the sinking ship may take them with it. Some men managed to get a place on a few lifeboats, larger pieces of floating debris – nobody wished to remain alone. It would be dawn in a few hours and they hoped to see their situation more clearly.
Phil Beilby, a lucky survivor, was well prepared when he jumped over board having first thrown a hatch cover. He had three canteens of water and a life jacket. He left behind his most cherished possession, his battered clarinet. He was joined by Vic Cross on a large raft.
Alf Winter said “When I jumped I forgot to fold my arms over the life jacket and it came up and cracked me on the chin. I was nearly knocked out and it took some minutes to recover. I finally managed to get on a raft with eight others.
In the first rush, all everybody thought about was getting over the side before the ship sank, but when we realized we had no water, we went back on board and collected some water bottles but they had no corks and the water was lost! We got away from the ship as fast as we could.” (from Ghosts in Khaki Page 312)
By early morning the extent of the night’s tragedy was there for all to witness. Many who had clung onto floating debri and craft had died in the night and it was evident many more had little chance of surviving the day. The current was carrying them into the oil covered waters where the tanker had sunk. The oil soon covered everything including the wreckage, the men, their bodies – eyes, ears and mouths. The oil made if impossible for some to hold onto wreckage. They slipped away and didn’t have the strength to swim back.
The heat, despair and their overwhelming thirst began to take hold. Resorting to drinking sea water resulted in death.
Doug Hampton said “People were doing strange things.