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 path to the primitive but hygienic latrines – a slatted box lashed with rope to the port rail.
‘Rakuyo Maru‘ cast off and sailed from the docks just before dusk and soon dropped anchor in the roads outside the harbour. 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.
There was no food rations 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.
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 the 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 the temperature 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 accompanies by one cruiser, 4 destroyers and 2 corvettes.
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 they POWs were aware of a huge roar, had felt a thud that was quickly followed by two explosions. 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 began ringing amidst the hysterical cries from the men everywhere and 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 in the sea below.
There were no lifeboats except for crew and the few passengers. There had been no boat drill for the likes of this event. There were definitely no life jackets.
Amidst the pandemonium, 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. The ‘Rakuyo Maru’ was drawing away from the convoy and he 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.
Their troubled sleep was suddenly awakened with a shuddering crash accompanied by a great sheet of flame. ‘Rakuyo Maru’ faltered and those of deck found themselves being pounded by sea that was boiling and hissing. Initially the men thought their ship had already sunk. Next the water was gone leaving the men confused, spluttering and blundering about on deck in darkness with possessions gone, washed away. The sea surged and broke over the bow. There were continual splashes as men jumped into the water. The Japanese crew appeared in life jackets and some POWs managed to grab one from their supply. Several rafts hit the water. It appeared the majority of the men had jumped overboard. In the reappearing moonlight those in the water sought floating cargo and debris for support. Especially those unable to swim. But mostly it was darkness, unknown, confusion, and shock calling for mates.
Men saw two furrows of white streaking through the water. One torpedo struck ‘Rakuyo Maru’ mid-ships and the other just missed.
For those on-board there was further panic with the Japanese seemingly not knowing what to do and taking longer to do it. They had managed to have one lifeboat tangled and hanging from the ship. The Japanese who found themselves alone and swimming in the water were now facing the prospect of being outnumbered by POWs.
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.