As we straggled through the city of Singapore we presented a very different spectacle from the smart columns of wide-eyed and hopeful young men who had proudly descended in full Highland dress from the SS Andes when she berthed in Singapore harbour all those months before.
Our kilts and sporrans had long gone, so too the topees that protected us from the harsh tropical sun. Now we were a bedraggled ghost army of living skeletons, scarred with seeping tropical ulcers, limping and stumbling through the streets of what had been Britain’s great Far Eastern fortress and clad just in our Jap-happy loincloths. Lice-ridden and clutching our meagre possessions we were a pathetic sight but we were determined to survive.
Our destination was the River Valley Road camp, in Singapore City, where a new chapter of slavery and misery awaited us. Still we felt relieved to have survived the nightmare train journey from Thailand and pleased to be out of the jungle and back amid familiar surroundings, which served as a reminder that civilisation really did still exist even if our brutal captors remained strangers to it. And surely nothing could be worse than the diseaseridden camps of the Death Railway. Hellfire Pass and the bridge over the river Kwai with all of their horrors were behind us now. Or so we thought . . .
There were about a thousand men in the camp at that time. The Japanese were using it as a holding centre for prisoners destined to slave in their vast South-East Asian gulag, a network of prison camps linked to construction sites and industrial complexes vital for their war effort. With complete disregard for international law, starving prisoners sweated in the steaming jungles of Burma, Thailand, Borneo, the Philippines and Sumatra, and shivered in horrific and freezing conditions in coal and copper mines in Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. By late 1943 acute manpower shortages in Japan itself led to the construction on the Japanese mainland of a system of prison camps adjacent to factories and mines operated by some of Japan’s best-known companies.
The camp at River Valley Road was a little better than the camps on the railway. The accommodation remained very basic, made from timber, but its four walls provided more shelter from the elements than the open-sided huts on the railway. The trouble was this served only to make the huts a safer haven for the swarms of bugs that we had to contend with, now even more numerous than on the railway. They got everywhere: in your bed, in the rafters and buzzing around your head constantly. Of course we had no mosquito nets. Bed bugs were also rife, sucking precious blood from you as you slept. And then there were the rats that fought for space in the hut with thirty or forty prisoners. Regularly in the night men would angrily cry out to scare away rats that showed increasingly little fear of humans. Each man had only about two and a half feet of space to call his own. If one rolled over, we all had to roll over. You would lie on your back on the bare boards without blankets. With just your Jap-happy on it got very cold at night.
Thankfully it was not the monsoon season so at least we didn’t have the rain and mud to put up with. The toilet facilities were basic, open wooden structures with a roof overhead, which was much the same as the shower block. The smell of the latrines was overpowering, as were the hordes of bugs and great clouds of disease-carrying blue-bottles. People dreaded having to pay a visit.
A wooden fence surrounded the camp and had watchtowers stationed at intervals, manned by Japanese guards with machine guns. The security was not as tight as one might have expected. The Japanese knew that even if we did manage to escape the camp we had nowhere to go. And as Westerners we would have stuck out like sore thumbs.
Guards patrolled the compound ceaselessly, usually on solo patrols but always within shouting distance of another sentry. They were pretty sure of themselves. I used to struggle to sleep at night, often from the constant pain of beriberi, which mostly hit my legs but arms as well – any joints really. In the absence of painkillers I would often go for a walk around the camp. The guards never minded as long as you walked within your own space. I just wandered aimlessly to ease up my joints and in the hope that I would get so exhausted that sleep would overtake the pain. Quite a few men used to walk at night. I would recognise the same faces but always walked on my own – you were less likely to be challenged by the guards. If there were two or three of you together, they might think you were cooking something up and would give you a beating or punishment.
At River Valley Road I suffered from a recurring nightmare, always of the Death Railway. A Japanese guard with horrific bulging eyes filled with fury and evil would be beating me. All I could see was his enraged face, him just laying into me. I would wake up sweating, scared to death. And no matter what I did I could never get back to sleep.
Again I often slept on the ground just outside my hut. It was mighty cold but free of the bugs and the irritations of the other men and the old trick I had learned on the railway still worked – I got a better sleep. I didn’t allow myself to think of home. All I could do was to think about the next day and how I would face it. I was psyching myself to make it through another day of hell and torture. To think of home was too much. It brought me down. Later when I thought my number was up I allowed myself to think of home – as a final, pleasurable treat because I thought I was going to die.
The officers and warrant officers at River Valley Road had their own huts and kept themselves apart. But they really had no authority over us. They were now just the same as everyone else – slave labour for an enemy that regarded us all, officers and ordinary soldiers alike, as subhumans to be worked to death. The only difference was that the officers never wore Jap-happies, their khaki shorts easily distinguishing them. Just like us though, they had to slave at Singapore’s docks. Only one officer was permitted to stay behind in the camp. The Japanese used to pick which would stay behind and if they thought an officer bolshie he would always be on the work party. Morale and discipline stayed rock-bottom in the camp and our commanding officer, Captain R. D. Wilkie, even suffered the indignity of being robbed of his own personal and company funds. There was very little respect for officers.
Riddled with dysentery, malaria, beriberi, tropical ulcers and disease, with bare, blistered feet and wearing just our Jap-happies, we paraded every morning shortly after sunrise. The sun would come up about 6 a.m. and by 7 a.m. you had to be up, have had your food and be ready to go out on the work party. The cook signalled breakfast by rattling a tin and everyone rushed to join the queue. One of the POWs served us – a cup of rice and a cup of boiling water, the same unappetising affair as on the railway, the rice again littered with all sorts of maggots, flies, lice, bed bugs and greyish weevils. Not that I was bothered. I was so hungry and so focused on staying alive that I devoured any food no matter what was in it or how it was contaminated. The cooks again had the advantage. They survived best, never doing hard labour and always better fed. With a bamboo ladle they would scoop up the rice and then skim the top of it using a paddle. Of course how much you got depended on how hard they pulled the ladle through the rice. As the men queued every eye fixed on that ladle, counting virtually every grain. I can see it still. We were in a desperate, horrible state.
Men would often try to call off sick. But it was the Japanese who decided whether or not you were sick enough to be off. You had to be very ill not to work. You were usually safe if you had tropical ulcers, coupled with dysentery or malaria. Yet having just one or the other would not be enough to save you from work. The tropical ulcers I had picked up on the railway were pretty much healed up. So despite continuing to suffer from dysentery and dehydration, during the three months I was at River Valley Road I was never allowed off work. Men died like flies but I never found out the fatality rate in my time there. You never knew how many were dying because you were away at work every day; they died in the so-called hospital wards and had been buried before you returned. There was a part of you too, to be honest, that didn’t want to know.
After all I had been through I had decided to stay apart from everyone else and focus totally on survival. I lived a day at a time in my own little world, a private cocoon, and adopted the position of self-sufficient loner. To survive each day required maximum concentration and alertness. It also meant that you had to conserve every possible ounce of energy. If someone spoke to me, I replied but there was no memorable sense of community. I was so damned tired all of the time that it was an effort to do anything but survive. Self-preservation had become the name of the game for me.
After parade we had to walk three miles to the docks. On the way you could see some of the local Chinese or Malayans moving about – the usual cosmopolitan Singapore population. At Changi some Malayans had worked as guards but we had Japanese and Korean guards at River Valley Road. The Japanese treated the Koreans very badly and they in turn treated us even worse. We were always piggy in the middle, getting beatings from all sides. The Koreans were probably more brutal. They would hit you with anything they could lay their hands on and wouldn’t know when to stop. The Japanese seemed more measured in the force they used and what they used against us.
We had no interaction with the locals on the walk to the docks – that was definitely taboo. The Korean guards walked in front and alongside you, and would beat you if you even looked at civilians. And even if you did manage to establish contact with the locals you had nothing to barter with anyway, so it was pretty hopeless even to try.
Once we arrived at the docks we were set to work straight away unloading bags of rice and sugar from various ships the Japanese had brought in for supplies. Whether they were Japanese ships or ones they had captured, I was unsure. We were always unloading, never on loading duty for some reason. We would pick up the heavy bags from the dockside and take them on our shoulders or backs to the warehouses known as go-down sheds. By now the sacks were heavier than us. I weighed less than a hundred pounds and our terrible, decrepit and weak physical state made the tough work that we performed without any shade from the relentless Asian sun unbearable. Every muscle, sinew and joint ached in the searing and relentless heat. Inevitably we would often drop the bags from our shoulders or backs. For the poor soul who dropped his load it was always a moment of terror when the sack burst open on the ground. All hell would break loose and you braced yourself for the inevitable beating, praying that it would be over with quickly. The Japanese would go mad and beat us with anything they had to hand. Blows would rain down from sticks, bamboo, fists and rifle butts.
There is no doubt that some of the guards enjoyed inflicting these beatings and vied with each other to see who could administer the most pain and suffering. I used to drop a sack at least once a week – sometimes twice a day. I remember thinking that the beating would never stop. They would usually last two or three minutes, which felt like an eternity. The guards could land a lot of blows in that time. Because I had been beaten repeatedly on the railway it was sort of commonplace to me. Yet every time your dignity really hurt more than the pain. It was the fact that you couldn’t fight back that really hurt. If someone is hitting you and you can’t fight back . . . it’s just the worst. It broke your spirit as much as your bones. They would beat you right down to primate level very quickly.
When I witnessed other men getting beatings I was just glad it wasn’t me. I had become anaesthetised to the suffering of others but I would feel sick when I saw someone in a worse physical or mental state than me getting the treatment. To see a grown man on the ground crying and howling, begging his tormentors to stop, was very hard to take. Your reaction to the beating meant a lot to the Japanese. If you caved in and showed fear, they would go at you harder. But if you showed that it wasn’t hurting, they gave up. It seems the wrong way round – you’d think they would go easy on you if you were weaker. But the Japanese mind worked in strange ways.
We usually toiled until sundown – at around five or six in the evening, depending on which Japanese officer was in charge. If he were fed up, you might get finished early or alternatively they could make you work later under arc lamps until the ship had been completely unloaded. You tried to do the least amount of work possible while always looking busy. But the slower you went the more pain you had with the weight of the bags on your back – and the Japanese knew it. You would take the bag from dockside to the go-downs as quickly as you could and walk back as slowly as possible via a different route. You could go behind piles of other bags and hide for a bit. There was a lot of dodging of labour. Some men would do one journey to the go-downs and nip behind the stacks of sacks and stay there for up to half an hour.
After a long, ten-hour shift at the docks we were searched with our hands above our heads. You really had nowhere to hide anything, whether it was food or whatever. If they did find something on a worker, the man would be severely punished. He might be forced to stand with something heavy above his head all night and day or the guards might even call in the military police, the dreaded Kempeitai. It usually had to be something very serious in Japanese eyes for the military police to come. When they came and took people away the prisoners were never seen again.
I was utterly exhausted on the trudge back to camp. The only thing that spurred me on was the thought of getting a cup of rice. It was dark by the time you got back and after some food you went to your hut, which was in darkness from sunset to sunrise. Most of us just crashed out to sleep.
The days turned into weeks and then into months. There seemed no end to our misery. Then one day while working on the docks we were suddenly herded on to a large ship. None of us were given any prior warning, not even our officers. We were soon to find out why.
On 4 September 1944, nine hundred British POWs were rushed up the gangway of the Kachidoki Maru, a ten-thousand-tonne cargo vessel that had been named the President Harrison before it was captured from the Americans. Using sticks the Japanese drove us like cattle aboard the ship and down into the holds. We could never move fast enough for them. The liner had two holds, both quite obviously not made to accommodate human beings, yet they wanted around 450 of us in each. The lads below were shouting, begging and pleading for the Japanese not to let any more men in. But the louder they shouted, the more frenzied the guards became and down we went into the depths of hell.
Nothing in all of our suffering had prepared me for anything like this and even today I can scarcely find the words to describe the horrors of the Kachidoki Maru. By the time I got down to the hold I had nowhere to sit. It was standing room only, all of us packed like sardines, with no toilet facilities. Most had dysentery, malaria, beriberi and all manner of tropical diseases. Once inside and the hold crammed full, the Japanese battened down the hatches, plunging us into a terrifying black pit. At that moment the most fearful clamour went up as claustrophobia and panic gripped the men. Many feared they were doomed and began screaming and shouting. Yet a strange tranquillity overcame me. I felt resigned and just thought, This is it. I thought that we would never get out alive and would never see home again. You felt resigned to accept this as your last. I could only think that they were taking us out to sea to sink the ship and drown us all. Our captors were capable of it. I had seen that they were capable of anything.
We knew nothing about these ships, which would become infamous in the annals of Second World War history as ‘hellships’ – a fleet of dozens of rusting hulks used to shuttle supplies and prisoners around Japan’s Far Eastern empire. Some of the most appalling episodes of the war occurred on these ships in which men driven crazy by thirst killed fellow prisoners to drink their blood. In some cases prisoners trying to escape from the seething mass of hysterical captives were shot by Japanese soldiers guarding the stairways from the holds. Some voyages took weeks with only a handful of prisoners surviving. Men drank their own urine. Sick prisoners were trampled to death or suffocated. The sane murdered the insane and wondered when it would be their turn to go mad. Cannibalism as well as vampirism was not unknown and even Japanese medics were shocked by what they found when the holds were finally opened. In the case of the Oryoku Maru, where insane prisoners killed fellow men for their blood, only 271 men survived out of 1619. The experience of one Dutch group was fairly typical: of 1500 men shipped from Java to Rangoon to work on the Death Railway, 200 died and 450 were unable to walk on arrival in Burma. Nineteen of the fifty-six hellships were sunk by submarines and aircraft and a total of 22,000 allied prisoners died during agonising voyages to the slave camps in Japan and Taiwan.
Down in the sweltering bowels of that ship we suffered for thirty-six hours before we got underway. The Japanese had been assembling HI-72, a tightly packed convoy of around a dozen ships with destroyer protection for the voyage to Japan. Unknown to us there was a second hellship in our convoy: the Rakuyo Maru, carrying around 1317 British and Australian prisoners.
There must have been at least one officer, a warrant officer or a sergeant major somewhere in the hold. But they certainly didn’t make themselves known. Discipline had gone. Everyone, whatever their rank, was in the same situation. All of us just wanted to survive and were prepared to do anything to ensure that happened. It would have taken a very brave man to try and take command of the men in the hold in those conditions. It would have been suicidal.
The heat down in the holds was unbelievable. The longer the hatches stayed shut, the hotter it got. With all of the bodies tightly packed together temperatures quickly reached well in excess of one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. We began losing body fluid awfully quickly and dehydration became a big problem. As did stomach cramp. I was suffering from dysentery and dehydration, which were pretty much perpetual for me. In three and a half years I never really had a proper bowel movement.
I never thought anything could ever match the terror of the railway. Being in the hold was worse. At least while slaving on the railway you could move. And you had fresh air.
Air must have been coming into the hold from somewhere otherwise we would have all suffocated to death, though some men did. It felt like we were breathing in the last of it. When the ship began to move you realised within hours that anything was possible. Maybe we would be sunk deliberately and drowned as the Japanese had done to other prisoners.
Then another dread thought struck me. Submarines. The Kachidoki Maru had no Red Cross markings painted on it. I would later learn that none of the hellships bore any indication that POWs were on board, as they were required to do by the Geneva Convention. Red crosses were, however, painted on Japanese ammunition carriers. My fears that without markings we were a target for our own side were to prove all too justified.
As we sailed out of Singapore harbour on 6 September, in Hawaii signals officers of the US Navy’s Fleet Radio Unit Pacific were listening in to Japanese radio traffic and intercepted messages relating to our convoy and its course. On 9 September orders were issued to three US submarines. Two days later on the night of 11 September, in the shipping lane known to American crews as ‘Convoy College’, the USS Growler broke the calm surface of the South China Sea, south of Hainan Island. As the crew of the Growler checked out the overcast skies that threatened rain on the horizon, the bow of the USS Sealion II was the next to emerge from the depths and sidle alongside the Growler. One and a half hours later the USS Pampanito joined the compact. The wolf pack was formed. The submarines were so close together, around a hundred metres apart, that the captains were able to shout to each other and forge their attack plans. As they separated to take up their positions in a stretch of water out of range of Japanese aircraft, the captains wished each other happy hunting and dived. They were in high spirits and had nicknamed their wolf pack ‘Ben’s Busters’, after the Growler’s audacious skipper, Commander Ben Oakley. They knew each other well and had spent the previous month harassing Japanese convoys and sinking freighters in the South China Sea.
In the hold of the Kachidoki Maru the torment went on. The noise was constant and deafening, an awful cacophony of throbbing engines, moaning, coughing and occasional panic-stricken screaming the background music for this latest torture. The chilling screams of the mad and insane would stop abruptly. I didn’t know how they were dealt with but I could imagine . . .
I was completely stuck where I was in the hold and could not move. No one could. You couldn’t sit or lie down, you couldn’t even go down on your haunches, there was so little room. You didn’t really want to lie down anyway. It was a sea of human waste and you risked being trampled. You had your space and protected it with your life. Quite literally. You stayed strong, protecting your space with elbows and fists. By any means necessary. By this stage it was every man for himself. Each person had their own problems to resolve, their own life to save. Strangers surrounded me, all British but none of us knew each other. The only noise coming from outside the hold was the steady shudder of the ship as we crawled along. At least it felt like we were crawling. The noises inside continued getting louder as men kept panicking or shouting out in pain.
The smell inside the hold was indescribable, a repugnant stench. An overpowering mixture of excrement, urine, vomit, sweaty bodies, weeping ulcers and rotting flesh clogged the atmosphere. There was no way we could get any fresh air. Even when the Japanese opened the hatches it didn’t really help that much – you were still breathing in what was already there.
In the darkness we had no way to keep track of time. But at some point on that first day of the voyage the battens were taken off and the hatches opened wide. I was stuck a long way from the hatch but could see the blue emptiness of the sky, a distant, tantalising beacon of freedom that from down there looked as close as I would ever get to it again. Some men, maybe forty or fifty or so, were allowed to go up on deck. Not the rest of us. That started a terrible mêlée. People climbed over each other, scratching and scrambling. It was sheer pandemonium. I supposed that the men allowed on deck could use the toilet arrangement that hung over the side of the ship. But letting fifty men use the toilet would have taken a long time and it would have been an especially long time for the impatient Japanese, so I doubt whether more than one or two were allowed to go. It did allow a lovely cool breeze to come inside the hold and ease some of the airlessness momentarily. While the hatches were open, the guards lowered down a single pail of rice. Even the most peaceful man alive turned into a real scavenger. We were fighting for our lives. When the men got put back down in the hold they found that their places had been taken over by other prisoners. Space was at such a premium. That caused more fights to break out. It is impossible to describe fully just how horrendous the conditions were. During the whole journey the guards opened the hatches just three times. I never got up on deck. I suspect that some allowed up managed to hide somewhere on the deck. I know I would have. It would have been worth the risk. Anything was better than being down in that dark hold. If anyone got caught, they would in all probability have been killed. At the very least they would have had a serious beating.
When the guards closed the hatches again, plunging us back into darkness, the feeling of complete desolation, total resignation, returned. Thirst became our biggest problem. People don’t understand what real thirst truly is. You start to hallucinate and see mirages, and that is the most dangerous thing. People died down in the holds from suffocation or heart attacks. The men who died were not taken away. Their bodies lay among us.
The second time the hatches opened the bucket of rice came down nearer to where I was. Someone threw a lump of rice and I managed to catch it. I wolfed it down. Rice becomes water and that is what I needed to abate my thirst. At no time during this terrible journey did the Japanese give us water; we relied on the occasional rice ball for it. The terrible stomach cramps induced by the lack of food and water defied belief. The pain doubled me over. This was a slow and painful death.
Six days out of Singapore I wondered how much more I could take. Then in the distance came a muffled explosion. Right on cue we had sailed into the trap set by the American submariners, who were determined to sink as many of the vessels they believed to be carrying oil and rubber as they could. At two in the morning the USS Growler had fired at the convoy sending our escorts fanning out. Then in one of the most daring manoeuvres in American naval history the Growler took on the Japanese destroyer Shikinami bow to bow. At a range of a thousand yards, Commander Oakley slammed three torpedoes into the Shikinami. She was only two hundred yards from the Growler when she sank. Oakley hit another two vessels before withdrawing to rearm.
Next the Pampanito and the Sealion II moved in for the kill. On board the Pampanito Lieutenant Commander Paul Summers had just taken up a perfect position to attack the scattered convoy when several large explosions unexpectedly rocked his vessel. To the west of Summers the Sealion II had fired two salvoes of three torpedoes each at the frantically zig-zagging convoy – and met with spectacular success. Three torpedoes smashed into a large oil tanker that exploded into flames, lighting up the sea like a giant flare. Out of control the burning tanker collided with the Kachidoki Maru. We had an amazingly close escape as it screeched along the side of our hull. When the Kachidoki Maru suddenly listed dramatically, pandemonium broke out afresh as men screamed in terror and begged to be let up on deck. It was terrifying; we expected to be torpedoed at any moment and drowned like rats in those stinking holds. We all fixed our eyes on the narrow stairwell to the decks, wondering how the hell we would ever get out.
But the burning tanker had illuminated a second target, the Rakuyo Maru. The poor prisoners in the holds knew what was coming and braced themselves for the inevitable. At 5.25 a.m. Lieutenant Commander Eli Reich steadied the Sealion II, a modern Balao-class submarine that had been commissioned just six months earlier, and fixed the Rakuyo Maru in the sights of his periscope. The thirty-one-year-old skipper took careful aim at the 9500-tonne vessel silhouetted against the night sky by the burning tanker. He was not going to miss. Earlier in the attack he had fired in support of the Growler and missed and been forced to flee Japanese escorts. And he had a personal score to settle: the first USS Sealion had been sunk in a Japanese bombing raid on the Philippines at the outbreak of war and Reich had lost four of his crew. There would be no mistake. As he gave the order to fire three steam torpedoes at ten-second intervals, the young New Yorker had no idea of the carnage he was about to cause. All three tin fish hit the Rakuyo Maru. The first struck the engine room, another hit amidships and the third torpedo hit the 477-foot ship in the bow area. Amazingly none of the 1317 prisoners were killed by the explosion. The ship started to list and the Japanese guards and sailors immediately deserted the sinking ship in ten of twelve available lifeboats, leaving the prisoners to fashion makeshift rafts and take to the water with what little food and water they could find on board.
Tragically 1159 men, survivors of the Death Railway and all of its hardships, either drowned or died of exposure after days floating in the sea. It was a colossal loss of life and as the Sealion II dived to avoid depth charges the young sailors who celebrated their kill had no idea of the catastrophe unfolding above them.
While the Sealion II dived to safety, the Growler and the Pampanito set off after the convoy, and when Commander Oakley caught up with it the survivors in the water found themselves in the middle of a fierce naval battle. The Growler fired its torpedoes on the Japanese frigate Hiradoand scored a direct hit. Some men in the water cheered while others saw all chance of rescue disappear. The shockwaves from the Hirado explosion killed some prisoners, others died when the Japanese retaliated with depth charges or were killed by the propellers. The Growler got away unscathed. (It was Oakley’s last major triumph, two months later he and his crew were killed when the Growler succumbed to Japanese depth-charging.)
Darkness had once again fallen and the Kachidoki Maru steamed north towards Taiwan, making a dash for protective air cover. But by eleven o’clock that night the Pampanito caught up with us and thirty-one-year-old skipper Paul Summers was planning a very special celebration of his birthday, which had taken place just a few days before on the day we sailed from Singapore.
Any hopes we had that we had outrun the wolf pack or that the attack was over were about to be dashed. Summers prepared to mount a surface attack on the Kachidoki Maru but had to abandon it because of technical difficulties. His crew worked feverishly to fix the problem and Summers resumed the attack. We were the biggest vessel among the group of small ships and made a juicy target. As the Kachidoki Maru steamed into the crosshairs of Pampanito’s periscope, Summers gave the fateful order to fire. Four minutes later we suddenly felt a tremendous blast and an explosion tore through the hold. The whole structure shuddered and water flooded in from above. I knew then as the water crashed on top of me that my worst fears had been realised. We had been hit and I knew that the torpedo had struck very close to us. It was in fact the first of two torpedoes that would send the hellship to the bottom within fifteen minutes.
The ship tilted. We were going down. Up above the Japanese began shooting their wounded men in the sick bay in mercy killings. Down below men shouted and panicked and scrambled madly for the single ladder up on to the deck. The noise was horrendous. But the pressure of the water must have pushed the hatches wide open. Either that or someone on deck, whether one of the stowaways or one of the POWs up there at the time we were hit, gave us a chance. Water rushed into the hold straight away with incredible pressure. It pushed me up as the ship continued to tip over. The hatches became parallel with the sea now and by some miracle the water washed me out of the hatch, and I floundered into a stream or strong current that rushed me out into the sea. It all seemed to happen at once. I popped out of the ship like a cork out of a champagne bottle.
After the extreme heat of the hold the water felt very cold. The sea was just a mass of thick oil as a total of twelve ships in our convoy were sunk that night. I knew I had to get as far away from the ship as possible as soon as I could, to avoid being dragged under with it, but it was like swimming through treacle. Those of us who could swim were the only ones who had a chance. I knew from my Boy Scout training that I had to swim away to avoid getting pulled down by the suction.
I swam for my life, as hard as I could, away from the waves created by the pull of the ship going down. I put my head down and powered with desperate overarm strokes, dodging debris as I went, all the time gulping down oil. It was like drinking fire and burned all the way down, doing irreparable damage to my vocal chords.
When I was fifty yards away I felt safe – for the moment. I turned to look at the ship. Treading water I saw it tilt and then in just a few seconds the stern silently and gracefully slipped under the waves. The sea was now aflame as the oil burned, and a torpedoed oil tanker was well ablaze. Like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, smoke filled the night sky and shouts and screams came from all directions. As the flames got closer I feared that I might be burned alive. Luckily they spluttered out before reaching me and then I was very sick, bringing up a horrible mixture of crude oil and salt water.
Even after the sinking the killing went on for those of us who survived and got on to rafts. Anyone starting to panic was thrown off into the sea. When they scrambled to get back on they were kicked away. Men pushed under and held under Japanese survivors. Fighting broke out as the animal instinct to survive asserted itself, making some survivors try to capture more seaworthy vessels and shove others off to their deaths. Many gave up, already so weak, dangerously dehydrated and ill. Frequently they had been injured too in the sinking. Many gulped salt water and quickly went stark raving mad, drowning themselves to end the torment. Horrible as it may sound, as men became mad they had to be shoved off the rafts or boats or the remainder might have perished.
There was a lot of shouting and screaming. Cries of ‘Get off, you bastard!’ or ‘I’ll kill you!’ made me close my eyes in distress. Most of the shouts were in English. There were not many Japanese, the majority of whom had got off early in lifeboats. Drowning and dying men called for their wives, their children or mothers. Men said things like ‘Daddy will be home soon’ and then disappeared beneath the waves. It was harrowing to hear. By that stage most of us were treading a very fine line between sanity and madness. It didn’t take much to put people over the top. I couldn’t see where it was coming from but a group of men started singing. First to keep their spirits up they sang ‘Rule Britannia’. After the Selarang Incident we had been banned from singing this stirring anthem with its line about ‘Britons never, ever, being slaves’. But this was a strange freedom and as the situation worsened the song changed and the poignant words of the great hymn ‘Abide with Me’ drifted across the South China Sea. It was very moving and I still cannot bear to hear that hymn in church.
I felt horrendous and wondered if I would last the night. How little could a human being survive on? I was about to find out. In the water with bedlam all around, a great urge to be on my own engulfed me. It felt like the safest tactic.
Two hundred and forty-four of my comrades on the Kachidoki Maru died that night. It was tragic beyond belief that having survived the Death Railway they became prisoners of the deep.
Suddenly the thought of sharks came into my mind. I knew that I must have suffered some cuts on the way out and that sharks were attracted to the scent of blood – I had to get out of the water as soon as I could.
My prayers were answered when a single-man raft came floating past. Exhausted and covered in thick bunker oil I hoisted myself into it. It was oval-shaped like a big dog’s basket, made of a cork-like substance and just big enough for me to sit in with my legs out in front. It had no provisions in it. With so many dead bodies floating in the water the sharks must have had a field day. From the sea I picked up shreds of string and rope, as well as bits of wood that I thought might be useful later. I also managed to find a few scraps of canvas to shield me from the sun if I lasted that long. I looked for anything in the water that might do for a paddle but it was pointless anyway. I didn’t know in which direction to paddle. It was amazing how quickly I drifted away from the rest of the shipwrecked men. I could soon see outlines of people in the water in the distance, all of them covered in oil. I had no way to know who they were, whether Japanese or POWs. It was easy to mistake a Japanese for one of my own. I made up my mind that if it came down to me or a Japanese, he would be going to meet his ancestors.
The position I had drifted to must have been in the opposite direction from the bulk of the flotilla. A strong current took me even further away.
The noise from everyone else in the sea started to fade anyway. Soon I was alone and bitterly cold in the night air. I tried to use the rope I had picked out of the water to lash the raft together more sturdily but it was very difficult in the dark and with my lack of energy. Yet I busied myself, knowing that I had to stay awake to stay alive.
When light came in the morning I was utterly alone. There was not a thing in sight. Just the vastness of the blue sea, the infinite blue sky and the scorching yellow sun. Whether it was because of the heat, thirst or oil, my tongue had begun to swell. My eyes stung from the oil. When the sun had been up a couple of hours I had still not seen or heard a thing. I started to think of home, of my family and friends, and of happy times in Scotland.
Castaway and dreaming of home I was shocked to suddenly hear a shout from behind me.
‘You will be picked up soon!’ a voice called out. My spirits soared at the thought of a companion to share the ordeal but my joy was short-lived. I turned around full of expectation only to be confronted by a Japanese officer in a one-man raft similar to mine. Immediately I thought, Right! Here we go. I couldn’t see if he still had his sword or not but prepared myself for a fight. There was no way to fight from the raft, I knew it had to be in the water. I knew that my swimming ability would give me the edge. I had my lifesaving badge and I could control a frantic person in the water. He was also fully dressed in a tunic, trousers and boots so I was confident of beating him. It was incredible that even in the extreme circumstances we were in, the need to defend yourself from another human being was uppermost in my mind.
He was using a proper paddle to come towards me. I steeled myself but he stopped five yards or so away and shouted, ‘Here’, as he threw me a tin. Despite my oily hands I managed to catch it. The Japanese officer then paddled off without saying anything more and it was the last I saw of him.
The top on the tin was sealed and waterproof. I clawed at it frantically, eager to know what was inside. It seemed to take for ever. When I finally managed to prise the top off my heart sank. The tin contained chocolates, something we could have only dreamed of in the last two years but a death sentence for me now, dehydrated and adrift in the tropical ocean. I would have loved to have devoured those chocolates but I knew that afterwards they would have sent me mad with thirst. Eating them may have even killed me because I had eaten nothing like that for such a long time. Immediately I threw the tin and its lid in the water. I watched it sink and realised I probably should have discarded the chocolates but kept the tin to catch any rain water. It was a cruel moment.
I was alone again, and so tired, completely unable to do anything. All I could do was lie there and use my brain and imagination to keep me awake. One of the things I did was to go back in my mind to the plumbers’ merchant in Aberdeen I worked at before the war. I did a mental stock-take through the bins and warehouse, memorising all of the stock. Going through the drawers of pipes, fittings, couplings, screws, nuts and washers took a long time and I enjoyed it. I even made up imaginary orders for customers in the ‘big houses’.
It was so hot out on the open sea with the unrelenting glare bouncing off the water. My burning skin was dissolving into salt-water immersion sores, made even more painful when crude oil got into the fissures. It felt like being cooked alive. When one part of my skin could take no more of the blow-torch heat I would move my little pieces of canvas around, feebly trying to gain some protection. I began to think of the cold and bitter winters back in Aberdeen, almost willing myself cool.
I recalled childhood days of making slides and organising snowball fights and smiled as I thought of our sledging expeditions to Auchinyell Brae, where we would toboggan from early morning until late at night, returning home with ears and fingers frozen numb.
Images began flooding back. I could see the fantastic sight of the mighty carts that belonged to Wordie and Co. picking up goods from the warehouse to take them down to the railway goods station. It was amazing to see the giant Clydesdales struggling in pairs up frosty braes, hauling huge loads with their masters whipping them on and shouting out obscenities. The carters were a ‘gallus’ lot, really rough and ready.
I laughed to myself as I thought of the rag and bone man too. At the sound of his bugle we kids would swarm behind his cart like a plague of locusts, hoping to be given a balloon or to pick up the steaming horse dung to take triumphantly back home for Mum to put on the garden. There were some real fights over that dung!
When the sun went down again it was bitingly cold. A full moon on that cloudless second night made it feel even colder for some reason. I had the bits and pieces of canvas draped over me but I was so cold. Terrified of rolling off the raft, I still had to stay awake. I was at my lowest ebb. The light from the moon struck the water and reflected bright in my eyes. I started to see things that weren’t there. Imaginary bits of wreckage or a boat would suddenly come into view. I began to lose my senses, saying to myself, ‘Come on, let yourself go. Go to sleep.’ It was always an inner battle. Half of me wanted to give up. The other half refused. And so it went on.
Alone with no sight of land, birds, dolphins or life of any kind, I sang songs to keep my mind occupied and awake. No words would come out of my parched throat but I sang them in my head. I went through all the pre-1940 dance songs I knew and always returned to my favourite: ‘It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie’.
It was a hit for Fats Waller and I sang it over and over and over in my head.
Be sure it’s true when you say I love you
It’s a sin to tell a lie
Millions of hearts have been broken
Just because these words were spoken
I love you, yes I do, I love you
If you break my heart I’ll die
So be sure it’s true
When you say I love you
It’s a sin to tell a lie
Unknown to me over 650 survivors of the Kachidoki Maru had already been picked up by the Japanese and the Pampanito, which had returned to the scene of the original attack to make a horrible discovery. As the submarine surfaced amid the debris and wreckage of the Rakuyo Maru, the crew saw survivors who had been in the water for three days and were horrified when weak voices started shouting. At first the young Americans could not understand the British and Australian accents, until one of the sailors made out the words ‘pick us up, please!’ Then the awful reality dawned. These oil-covered survivors were not Japanese but English, Scottish and Australian. The wolf pack had sunk two hellships packed with prisoners of war. One thousand four hundred and three allied servicemen had died as a result of the failure of the Japanese to observe the Geneva Convention and apply red crosses to our hellships.
Pampanito promptly radioed for assistance, and the Sealion II and two other American submarines returned to the scene. With survivors too weak to clamber aboard the subs, American sailors dived into the sea to pull men out, rescuing a total of 159 men. A handful died on board and the Americans were horrified at the condition of the survivors and to hear about the Death Railway and the privations we had endured. Incredibly the evidence gleaned from these survivors allowed the allies to discover for the first time the true extent of the horrors on the Death Railway and simultaneous announcements were subsequently made to stunned Houses of Parliament in both London and Canberra.
The men picked up by the subs were the lucky ones. Joe Bates, communications officer on the Sealion II, later told how his captain angered the crew by ordering the submarine to dive after rescuing just fifty survivors, leaving behind dozens of others frantically calling out, ‘Over here! Over here!’ It was a heartbreaking decision but Lieutenant Commander Eli Reich feared for the safety of his vessel. The cries of the men left behind haunted Joe Bates and his shipmates for decades.
I was still drifting alone. By the time the sun came up on the fifth day I could no longer see; my eyes had been seared by the dazzling sun and sparkling sea. I had no eyebrows or hair on my head; I think the sheer shock of what was happening to me had caused my hair to fall out. I kept moving around in my tiny raft the best I could and prayed for rain. I sang to myself and vainly tried to croak out loud, urging myself: ‘Hang on in there until you can’t hang on any longer.’
Badly burned by the sun, my tongue swollen, gripped by a maddening thirst, effectively blind and completely hairless, I fell into a trance-like state. I was on the very edge of death. At some point on that fifth day there came a lot of shouting around me. I was lifted into a small boat and then on to a Japanese whaling ship. I must have been left on deck but from there on I have no real recollection. I don’t know what the Japanese on board that ship did for me. As far as I was concerned they just left me alone but they must have at least given me some water. I was as close to death as I had ever been.
The next thing I knew I was being dropped off at a port, which I later learned was on Hainan Island. Congregated there were other shipwrecked POW survivors. As a punishment we were paraded through the village stark naked. One man shouted out, ‘If we work like horses, we may as well look like them.’
I was so burned and emaciated and ill that I staggered through the streets like a drunk. Some of the locals turned their backs on this terrible procession but others jeered and spat at us. I was past caring. There must have been at least a hundred of us, and then came an incredible and inspiring episode. As we stumbled along in the pouring rain someone started singing. It was ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, and slowly we all took up the song and joined in, singing a very rude version of the hit – complete with altered lyrics crudely deriding our Japanese captors. Even in this terrible condition and after all we had been through, my comrades, ravaged by exposure, naked and in slavery, were defiant, their spirits unbroken.