Sketch by Jack Chalker

Kachidoki Maru


Kachidoki Maru

We lost quite a lot of men on this trip and on arrival were put to work on the godowns in Singapore Harbour, This was very heavy work carrying sacks of rice across your shoulders. So many were the beatings we received as we stumbled, through sheer fatigue and hunger, letting the sack drop and split open. After four or five months, one could never tell as we put ourselves on "auto-pilot", or most of us did, we were assembled and shepherded on to a cargo boat and forced to go down into the holds. Think of temperatures of 90 and imagine what the heat was in those holds. Really one seemed to accept that here was another part of our captivity which perhaps, if it were possible, was to be worse than before. And so it proved.

We were on our way. The throb of the engines, the heat, the awful stench of filthy, sweat-soaked bodies, no toilet so add urine and excrement to all of this and the battens across the top of the hold. At least they could have left them off but, no, that was not their style. How many days at sea? You had no idea as every hour became the same hell and your mind so shattered death would have been a godsend.

Then one night the ship shuddered as an explosion tore through the holds. Up on deck someone loosened the battens and there was a mad scramble for the one ladder up to the deck. Shouts and screaming racked the air. Suddenly the ship took a large dip to the bow and began to sink with most of us still trapped in the hold. I suddenly felt the cold water and the oil on my face. Instinctively I started to swim away from the ship knowing that if I didn't I would be drawn down by suction. Never having swum in a sea of oil before some inner strength, some strong need to survive, gave me power enough to move far enough out to clear the ship's last moments as it slid beneath the waves. It turned out we had been sunk by an American submarine (Pampanito) in the South China Sea on 13th September 1944. Oh, so many survived the Railway of Death to be free of the Japs, only to become prisoners of the sea. In reality we were only being taken from one slavery to another.

The sea was a mass of oil as a total of 21 ships were sunk that night. Those who were lucky enough to get on to a lifeboat started to sing "Abide with Me" and to this day I cannot listen to, or want to hear, that hymn. Many gave up and deliberately drowned themselves. Was I thankful that I was a good swimmer and able to do things in the water! With so much debris around I fashioned a raft on which I was to be floating for four nights and five days.

So many gulped salt water and quickly went stark raving mad, drowning themselves to end the torment. The harrowing scenes of men hallucinating, talking to their wives, mothers and children saying "Daddy will be home soon", then slipping away beneath the waves in the darkness. Any Japanese survivors were pushed under and held under. Fighting broke out as the ruthless instinct to survive made some try to capture more seaworthy vessels and shoved others off to their deaths. Many gave up immediately and very few officers survived. Horrible as it may sound, as men became mad they had to be shoved off the rafts or boats as the remainder would have perished.

Dawn came and suddenly there was a silence. An eerie feeling of solitude and fear. I had drifted from the main bunch and only one round inflatable dinghy was near. I realised it was a Japanese officer and had he come near enough either he or I would have perished, in fairly good English he said "We will be picked up soon" and threw a metal tin towards me which, even with my body and hands covered in oil, I caught and he paddled away. I tore at the waterproof covering and eventually opened it. Guess what? It was a tin of chocolates. The temptation was there but, having been a Scout of some standing, I knew to have even taken one would have been suicidal. As the sun came up my body, previously shivering in the night cold, now began to burn. There was nowhere to go. Either the sea or stay on my raft. My spirits were at their lowest ebb. With the pain of the sun on salty, oily body and no shade, I just kept moving round singing and talking to myself - anything to cut out the misery. After the third and fourth days the thirst was unbearable. I was hideously burned, lips swollen and my tongue so swollen it felt as if I had no mouth. It would have been so easy to have used my hand to scoop up seawater. I was no longer able to see anything, or virtually anything, except water and sky. Slowly I fell into a trance-like state, past caring, but somehow telling myself "Hang on until you can't hang on any more". I have since learned that a submarine (American) had picked up 15 survivors and taken them to Saipan.

On the fifth day suddenly there was a lot of noise and shouts and I was lifted up and into a small boat and then on to what was a Japanese whaling ship, left on the deck and eventually taken to Hainan Island. Congregated there were other survivors and, as a punishment we were paraded through the streets naked. As it was raining we all started to sing "Singing in the Rain" with some alterations to the words. Some of the Japanese public did turn their backs but most jeered and spat at us. Being burned so badly and emaciated I was left without a hair on my body and, so ill I staggered like a drunk along the streets. Eventually, along with others, I arrived at a P.O.W. camp in Omuta, approximately 12 miles from Nagasaki. For the first time we were given clothing but no improvement on the food.


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