The Rising Sun On My Back
In early September the order “All men go to Nippon” was repeated and I knew, by the excitement shown by the guards that this time it was for real. The thought of leaving our infested camp was a great morale booster, and for me, sailing orders could not come quick enough. We knew that American submarines were creating havoc with Jap shipping, but I for one, didn’t even consider the risk. I was so pleased to be going somewhere - anywhere - away from our unwholesome environment, that my mind was closed to all other considerations. Once again we were organised into groups and paraded and on the morning of September 4th, we made our way on foot to the docks, with the sick tottering behind desperately trying to keep up, while the guards ran up and down the column, snarling and snapping like a pack of angry dogs.
Our all British party of 900 boarded a ship which had been called the “ President Harrison “. She was a 10,000 ton cargo/passenger vessel captured by the Japs and renamed the “Kachidaki Maru”. We were herded into the forward hold where an upper platform had been installed. The stench from dirty sweating bodies was soon unbearable and the heat suffocating. One small light bulb hung from a central rafter so the corners of the hold were in complete darkness. Robbie and I sat near a forward ladder with our knees under our chins and our heads down, to avoid banging them on the upper platform, Harry Grapper and Joe were together near the main gangway. Our officers protested about the inhumane conditions and surprisingly a fairly generous set of rules evolved. The hold would not be battened down and provided we obeyed the guards implicitly we would be allowed on deck during daylight hours. At night we would be confined to the hold except to go to the latrines.
That first night Robbie and I sneaked up on deck and sat in the shadow of one of the twin rope bollards. We sat there undetected, enjoying the fresh air and the respite from the privations we were enduring in the hold.
The ship sailed out of harbour the next afternoon to await the formation of the convoy, and early on the morning of the 6th four cargo ships and two oil tankers formed up in a square convoy, escorted by what appeared to be destroyers of different classes. We began to adjust to our conditions, it was a little cooler now that we were moving. In the daytime we left the hold and swarmed over the forepart of the ship. From rail to rail nothing could be seen of the deck capstans, and hatches for bodies.
Facilities for providing food and drink were fully stretched. There was an abundance of rice but the inadequate cooking arrangements could not cope and we suffered acutely from hunger and thirst. I had a full water bottle which we shared out sparingly, topping it up whenever possible, and Robbie had a life jacket which we would share if the ship were sunk. As days passed more and more men stayed topside at night. We struck up a casual relationship with a couple of guards. We agreed with them that they were the master race - Nippon No. 1. This pleased them and they gave us cigarettes. Conditions in the hold were almost indescribable, the air was foul from dirty sweaty bodies and the excreta from many men, too weak to make their way up from the ladders. One morning there was a torrential down-pour. We danced naked with our mouths open and let the pure water fall over us. I placed my mess tin where rain was running off a corner hatchway and topped up the half empty water bottle. Then I filled the mess tin and drank the remainder.
It was still drizzling when night fell and we became cold, some went below and Robbie and I huddled together because I couldn’t face the hold, and we waited impatiently for the warmth of the dawn sunshine.
The crew and the guards appeared to be more watchful now. The horizon was ceaselessly scanned through high powered binoculars and the gun crew of the old field piece on the bow carried out their drills more diligently than ever. Our friendly guards confided that we had approached the most dangerous leg of the journey, and were without air cover for two or three days until we were nearer Formosa. On September 11th more ships joined the convoy. The night was cloudy and dark but still warm. Our guards turned a blind eye to us and we were able to sit around the bollard. I was watching the escort leader which was off our starboard side when suddenly the night sky was ablaze as a tremendous explosion ripped through the ship and blew her to pieces in front of my eyes, she was engulfed in flames and when the smoke cleared I could make out two parts; the aft end went down immediately but the bows gradually lifted out of the water reaching high into the air like a pointing finger, pausing for a moment before sliding quickly out of sight leaving a large patch of surface debris in the steaming turbulent sea.
I was elated, in a fleeting moment this sleek symbol of Japanese invincibility had become the flaming tomb for hundreds of Jap sailors, at last the boot was on the other foot. We were overjoyed at this first tangible evidence that we were not alone. There was pandemonium on board our ship, the troops started yelling, sailors ran about in panic shouting, the ships siren blared out continuously and we veered to starboard, we were already making our way below, we didn’t relish a tangle with the guards. Everyone below wanted to know what had happened, and after hearing about the sinking a muffled cheer went up all round, a stubborn cheer from men already convinced that they were going to die. The ship began to zig zag, at first in very short legs but then gradually the legs became longer and the ship became quiet. After a while we chanced our luck and crept up on deck again. The night was darker than usual and there was a heavy swell, we settled down by our bollards, the patrolling guards had been doubled but they ignored us. The watch on the gun had also been doubled and there were two men now in the crow’s nest. Since the sinking there had been several explosions and during the night we saw fire on the horizon on three separate occasions. We were alone now, still zig- zagging and only the slap of the waves on the bows and muffled noises from the hold, disturbed the quiet. Joe broke the silence, “Hey, look at that ship ahead, we’re gaining on it fast or maybe it’s stopped”. We all looked, and there was a moment of silence. There was an urgency about Robbies voice, “It’s coming straight at us” he cried “We’re going to collide”. We all shouted together, the double watch on the gun and aloft had seen nothing. Then they all began shouting, the ships siren sounded a series of short blasts. I was mesmerised, it was like watching a slow motion film. The ships bows bore down and though we turned to port it was inevitable that we would be rammed. I could clearly see now that it was a tanker and then she was upon us. The point of the bows struck the curve of our starboard bow showering me in sparks and burning paint, I could have reached out and touched her as she slid silently by scraping and screeching all the way along the ships side and disappearing into the night like a ghost ship.
The ship shuddered and keeled over, I clung to the rope on the bollard to prevent myself being thrown over the side. The angle of the ship as we rolled was dangerously acute, and I thought we might turn right over.
Conditions in the holds must have been appalling, cries of terror and alarm came from British and Japanese alike as they were tossed about in the dark. Gradually the rolling subsided the ship came to an even keel. The guards were too scared to venture below so they chased us down to inspect for damage. We found a huge dent in the plates above the water line but no apparent leak.
I looked down into the semi-darkness of the hold and I could make out huddled figures crouched in that filthy evil smelling death trap. Alternate feelings of sympathy and revulsion swept over me, but I was pleased too that I was not down there, sharing the horror with them, but I could share their feelings of utter despair. All the excitement had dried my mouth and throat so I made my way below to fetch the water bottle. Harry and Grapper wanted to know what was going on, so I stayed down for a while talking to them. The ship quietened and we continued on our zig - zagging course. It must have been nearly midnight when the calm was suddenly shattered, the ship seemed to slow and the bow rose to the accompaniment of a peculiar metallic clang, which seemed to come from aft. I could only guess at what had happened it felt as if we had run aground. Then the metallic noise again, this time louder and yet muffled.
One of our officers shouted to us, “Stay where you are and await instructions, remain calm” - instructions that wasted at least five minutes valuable time, five minutes in which fifty more men may have cleared the hold. By now the bows had begun to lift out of the water and the ship was at an angle of about 10 degrees. Robbie came to the hatch opening and shouted to me to get on deck quickly, we had been torpedoed and were sinking fast, “and don’t forget to bring the water bottle and life jacket” he shouted. There was a queue at each end of the ladders forward of the hold and the angle of the deck had increased alarmingly. I joined the queue immediately behind Harry and Grapper, but I noticed that the gangway at the aft end of the hold was not being used. There were at least thirty ahead of us in the queue so I suggested to Harry that we use the aft gangway, I was worried at the rate we were sinking. But Grapper couldn’t swim and wanted to use the forward ladder, so Harry elected to stay and help him. Suddenly the bow lifted sharply, setting off alarm bells in my head. I waited no longer, I made my way across the sloping floor of the hold and up the gangway, which, by now, was nearly parallel with the sea. As I reached the gangway exit the bow lifted again. The sudden movement pitched me forward and I dropped the life jacket and water bottle to grab hold and as I looked down I could see the front of the bridge disappearing beneath the surface. Another jerk of the bows forced me to release my hold and I fell, luckily into the water, I could vaguely hear screams and shouts from the holds as the bows began to sink beneath the surface. The breath was knocked out of me and I had only managed a quick gasp of air before I was sucked under. On the way down I struggled to hold my breath but very soon I was taking in water. I could see nothing in the inky blackness, I was being struck by arms and legs which were flailing about all round me, and then as the trapped air escaped from the ship I was shot upwards, tumbling over and over until my head smashed against something solid and sharp. I shuddered with pain and in my panic to reach the surface I tried to push pass the obstruction. It took a few precious moments to realise I should be pulling backwards and then I was on my tumbling way up again. My struggle to breathe had ceased and I seemed to relax into drowsiness, I felt I was in a huge void where there was no sound and I began to enjoy the sleepy drunken stupor I had fallen into. My next sensation was searing pain in my chest, I was on the surface spluttering as I sucked in draughts of air, I vomited a vile tasting mixture of sea water, rice and oil. As I rose and fell with the swell I appeared to be entirely alone, there was no sound not even the breaking of waves. I vomited some more and several times the swell rolled me over and I swallowed oil and water which made me vomit again.
Time passed and I began to think that I was the sole survivor - alone in the middle of the China sea. Then I saw something floating a short distance away and gathering my strength and using simple dogs paddle, I swam towards it. It was a table with broken legs. I was too exhausted to pull myself up, I worried about sharks and decided it would be safer with my legs out of the water. After several attempts I finally collapsed spread eagled across the table and though my position was precarious I felt a little safer. The night was bitterly cold, but the sea that lapped over me was warm. I dozed, and suddenly I was in the water and the table and I parted company. I became frantic with fear and struck out as hard as my feeble arms would allow. Each time I lunged for the table the swell took it just out of reach and it required a frantic despairing effort and all the strength left in me to gain hold with one hand. This final effort drained me completely of strength and a long time elapsed before I could swing myself round to grasp the table with my other hand. I had not the strength now to pull myself on, and I began to sing to keep myself awake and then there were voices and from another direction more shouting; I was not alone after all. I began to paddle towards unmistakable British voices. Then a head was bobbing towards me and hands reached for the table. It was the pock marked face of a sad looking Jap civilian. We paddled together towards a raft which had appeared through the mist and shortly raft and table came together, I crawled aboard and watched the table drift away into the blackness. There were perhaps a dozen British and a few Japs on the raft, and close by was an up-turned life boat. They sang “Rule Brittania”, Sons of the seas” and other familiar songs. I lay there helpless, my naked body covered in sticky oil, I was still vomiting, and as the raft tossed in the swell and the oily water lapped over me, I hoped that death would come swiftly. Dawn broke (Sept 13th) and the sun soon began to warm me, through the mist I could see that there were rafts and wreckage in all directions. Clinging to half submerged rafts were Jap soldiers, nurses and civilians and POWs, all shocked, cold and thirsty and covered in black oil.
Captain Pierce of Dad’s Regiment organised the prisoners and righted the lifeboat so that the Japs could be separated from us. As water spilled from the boat the body of a nurse floated out. There was no surface current and her body remained floating nearby for some time before drifting out of sight.
After several hours in the scorching sun I was aroused by shouting. A Jap frigate had arrived on the scene and was manoeuvring around picking up Japanese survivors. Captain Pierce stood and began exhorting us to row and paddle towards her. He started singing “The Vulgar Boatman” and rowers and paddlers alike joined in propelling the raft towards the rescue ship. I lay there, too weak to move and too sick to care. When we reached the frigate Jap sailors began pulling us aboard. I was lifted and dragged across the raft unceremoniously dragged aboard and hurdled forward on all fours to the bow, with about two hundred other survivors. The imperious sound of the alarm Klaxon caused panic aboard the ship, ladders were pulled up and she was underway with some POW’s still clinging to the side, and some still on rafts. The two guns above my head suddenly began firing “Christ” I thought “not again”. The ship gathered speed and soon I was unconscious. When I regained consciousness I learned that I had missed a small meal of rice and water but I was not upset by this knowledge, I never wanted to see rice again - ever.