A Letter to My Grandson
By Willen Wanrooy
In the fall of 1944, when General Mac Arthur's forces were threatening to retake the Philippines, the Japanese started to increase the transportation of prisoners of war from the island of Java to the islands of Sumatra. A railroad was being built to transport coal from the west coast of this island to the east coast and then to Singapore.
My hellship journey began at Jakarta on September 15,1944. I was 19 years old then. The day we all had been dreading for months, the day 2,400 of us would be riding on a prison ship, filled me with apprehension.
Two long lines of men slowly moved up two gangways to an old, rusty freighter, the Junyo Maru. One line, going in the fore section of the ship, consisted of about 4,000 haggard looking Javanese natives. We moved into the stern. Some 2,200 filed down into the hold, and around 200 of us, including myself, wound up on deck.
On September 18, we were steaming some 10 to 15 miles off the west coast of Sumatra. For more than three days I had suffered from the blazing sun during the day, and from bone-chilling rains at night.
But it was more horrid below deck.
Without enough drinking water, food or medicine, or fresh air, the fetid, stifling hold was like a black stinking oven with more than 2,000 souls melting in their own sweat and gasping for every breath.
Around five in the afternoon, as I stood near the open deck hatch, a sudden jolt shook the ship. As I looked up, I saw human bodies and pieces of wood, metal and other debris blown high in the sky from somewhere midship.
"Be calm! Break down engines," a Japanese voice screeched through a loudspeaker.
Then there was a second jolt and a thundering blast deep beneath my feet, followed by a few moments of silence. Then, chaos. Howls and screams. "Torpedoes!" "Abandon ship!" Panic set in. Men jumped overboard. Others threw life rafts over the side.
I helped some men climb out of the hold. A mob of panic-stricken men crawled, trudged and wormed on the single iron ladder. Scratched, beaten and bloodied, some reached the deck. The bowels of the ship were belching up. It was horrible.
Numb and discouraged, I sat down and took off my boots, putties and outer clothing, and jumped into the ocean. I was an excellent swimmer and got as far away from the ship as I could in one effort, then stopped and looked back.
Oh my God, what an awful sight. The ship was slowly sinking deeper and deeper, stern first, bow high in the air. Hundreds and hundreds of bodies crawled and clung to the sides and decks. Others dropped off like ants from a sugar loaf. Howls, screams and cries filled the air.
The ship disappeared against a sunset sky burning with yellows and oranges. Foam and water bells churned madly in a maelstrom of death and destruction.
More than 5,000 souls perished before my eyes.
I looked at death and saw a friend. And I decided to fight him with all the strength left in me. After two-and-a-half years of prison camps I was skeletal in appearance and, as a prisoner of war, I had contempt for the Japanese. As a physical man I was not worth saving. But mentally, I was. I told myself that, if ever, this was the time I needed courage, courage to remain afloat, to remain alive.
I swam to a deck hatch and hung on to it. There were about ten others doing the same. As the night wore on, hunger, thirst, especially thirst, and misery in a cold dark ocean would make drowning seem a welcome relief.
Close by a man started to laugh. And laugh. High-pitched giggles that ended in a gurgling sound as he pushed himself under water to come up, moments later, as a floating corpse. Mumbling incoherently, a few others followed his example. I kept on floating, hanging on to that hatch. And the night passed by. Slowly. Hour after hour.
The interminable night came to an end as daylight broke through over the eastern horizon, where land was. Far, far away. There were only two other men left with me on the hatch.
"Ship! Ship!" someone shouted.
"What is it doing?"
"Nothing, damn it. It stays where it is."
My head buzzed. Tongue and throat raspy dry from thirst. Body aching. The sun rose. It got hotter and hotter.
I had reached the edge of madness when I heard a voice deep, deep inside me: "Choose your fate and seek your way, by your own light. God watches all the while and guides your steps unaware." It was the voice of my father when I was still a young boy.
A last surge of energy and strength shot through my exhausted body. "Swim, swim to the ship," my mind commanded. "Pull the hatch with you for safety when you get tired. Swim and swim until I cannot command your body any longer."
I swam for five long hours, pulling the hatch and the two men. Stopping and going. Slowly, pathetically slowly, the little ship became larger and larger. It was maddening. I kicked and kicked my feet. My shoulders and legs ached. Flashes of pain shot through my body. Water, sweat and tears ran down my face. And I swam and swam.
"Hurry up," a voice screamed.
I howled in desperation, kicked myself off against the hatch, and swam like a maniac, arms and legs grinding through the water. A race against death, death the ocean. I left the two men on the hatch behind.
As the ship gained speed I grabbed a dangling rope. Someone pulled me on board. I was the last one picked up that day. There were no other ships to be seen. Once on deck I dropped exhausted on my knees, and someone poured cool water down my throat. I had survived a watery hell.
I couldn't help but look back. A hatch with a head on either side bobbed in the ocean. There were no hysterics; no defiant oaths. No screams, "Coward! Murderer!"
Yes, my dear grandson, I had had the courage, strength and responsibility to pull the two men with me. To be sure, having the hatch with me during the swim was partially a matter of self-preservation, but I could have left those men where they were and taken a smaller piece of driftwood instead along. Somehow, though, the company of the two men reminded me of the reasons of living.
Yet at the decisive moment the importance of my own life took at precedence over compassion. Although I made that decision in a flash of a second, it was a conscious one. I have to live with it for the rest of my life. I survived the nightmare on the ocean, but the ordeal of it all is engraved forever in my memory.
The two men were picked up the following day. I saw them in the camp where we were initially assembled, but never met them again.
I don't know if they survived the war.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Willem F. Wanrooy, who writes his books and articles under the pen name Van Waterford, was a corporate communications director until he retired in 1984. Writing and acting are his primary interests. Wanrooy has authored 18 nonfiction books and hundreds of articles and stories. One of his first books, a consumer-oriented home computer textbook, became a best seller in its series.
His most recent book, a reference work titled, ‘Prisoners of the Japanese in World War II: Statistical History, Personal Narratives and Memorials Concerning POWS in Camps and on Hellships, Civilian Internees, Asian Slave Laborers and Others Captured in the Pacific Theater, was published by McFarland in 1994. He is presently working on a book that deals solely with the strategies of survival the camp prisoners of the Japanese have used in order to cope, endure and prevail during their incarceration.
Supplied by Jan A. Krancher, PhD
Author of ‘The Defining Years of the Dutch East Indies, 1942-1949’.
Van Waterford is now deceased.