Tuesday, January 20, 2009

16. At Sea

Image Source: www.west-point.org

On 2 July 1944, on a dark, moonless night, a long file of prisoners of war walk up the gangway of a medium-size freighter bearing the number 13 on her funnel. [1] There is no talk among the men. Resigned to the inevitable, they step on deck for the long journey to Japan, or to eternity. Wooden structures, resembling privies, are rigged up on the railing side. In the glare of a loading lamp, the darkly yawning ladder entrance leading down to the holds is like the shaft of an abandoned mine. The deck is slippery underfoot from the light drizzle which started at dusk. A large tarpaulin is stretched over the hatchway to keep the rain out. The smell of wet, newly sawed timber lingers in the air, fresh and pleasant, but at the head of the ladder a wave of hot, nauseating stench hits us from down below. "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here" is the first thought when descending the steps to what seems the dungeons of the condemned, teeming with gleaming, half-naked bodies lying pell-mell in a state of exhaustion on the planks of the lower hold top. Beads of perspiration gather on my forehead and at the corners of my eyes before I have reached the foot of the ladder. As on the ship from Batavia to Singapore, the 'tween decks are divided into three narrow floors, one over the other, to increase the storage capacity of personnel, with complete indifference as to the hardship such little space inflicts on the men. To move in or out, one must crawl.

There is barely room for one to sit upright. Better to try to keep away from the 'tween decks and get as close to the hatchway as possible. Imagine being trapped in the sleeping slots when the ship is hit, and getting out quickly is a matter of life or death! On top of those bales (rubber bales they are), right at the base of the ladder then. Good enough for a bed. Odd that nobody else has had the same idea. The bales, made up of pressed rubber sheets in cubes of five feet, weigh about one hundred and thirteen kilos each. There are only three bales but they are placed tightly against each other. Yes, that will make a good bed to lie on, high and dry above the dirty deck planks. Naked but for a pair of briefs and stretched out on the bales, I am in no time drenched in perspiration. The stifling air stinks like a sewer. There are not as many people in our hold as on the trip from Batavia to Singapore, which is a good thing. Where would Joop be, and Harry? Damn it, it's hot. Wish they'd take that damned tarpaulin away, rain or no rain, anything for some fresh air. My sweat is literally pouring down in rivulets along my back and my arms. Where does all that moisture come from?

"Beer! Beer! Now for a glass of cold beer!" someone cries out, very rudely.

"Shut yer damn mouth or I'll close it for ye!" roars another one.

We all must be very thirsty, and that remark was quite uncalled for. There are not many, but here is one and there another - people who do not fan themselves with their hats like the others, for they don't care a rap about the heat and probably are not even aware of it. The poor devils, filled with terror, beset with fear for what they believe is inevitable. It makes them insensible to heat and thirst. At a later stage their obsession will hopefully wear off, and then they too will become aware of physical suffering.

One of our officers comes down the ladder, calling for everybody's attention. We learn that at night no smoking is allowed, and that our departure is set for tomorrow morning, after which the upper deck will be made available for airing. But anybody found on the bridge, forecastle or astern with be thrown in irons. Meals will be distributed twice daily, the first meal after calisthenics conducted by a member of the ship's crew, the last meal late in the afternoon. In the event of an attack we are to remain down below. Anyone found on deck at that time will be shot on sight. Drinking water must be used sparingly. From time to time the seawater pump on the upper deck will be used for showering.

Soon afterwards all lights are switched off with the exception of one at the top of the ladder. Gradually it becomes quiet but for a low murmur of a few voices. In the darkness here and there is the furtive, hand-covered glow from a forbidden smoke. Suddenly a blissful gust of cold air sweeps down the hatchway. Overhead the clap of thunder of a tropical downpour. Turning on my side on the rubber bales, my knees drawn up to my chest, I close my eyes.

Praise God, so far I have been spared and I'm truly thankful for that. If it would fit in Your plan, spare me some more, but above all, please look after her and the child, and the family. If I have to go shortly, Your will be done, but if only possible, allow me this: that I shall not be like them when I have to go. I humbly ask you, if I have to die, let it be as a man.

Amen, says the white flash of lightning quivering dimly through the tarpaulin.

The dull sound of rain on canvas brings sleep, and old times. Odd simple things of everyday she is saying, as if there was never anyone but us two. But even in the dream I feel that it is all but a mirage. There is the familiar pressure of her hand while we walk under the sycamores before our home on the banks of the Brantas river. In great sadness I watch her fine lips and softly rounded chin while she is talking, because I know that while she is moving so closely beside, yet she is unreachable, far away. Halting her stride, she says then that it is all over, that everything will be all right again. Lisa, Lisa, where are you?

The vibration of the ship's engines and the warm sunlight on my closed eyelids end the dream. The tarpaulin is taken away, revealing a very blue sky, with fresh air streaming into our hatch. The ship rolls slightly. There is a stirring about of men, rising and crawling over limp bodies lying still in heavy sleep. Grunts and snarls emanate from the darkness in the 'tween decks when probing knees connect with faces or other sensitive parts of the body. One thing is certain, this bed of rubber is heaven-sent, and before long someone will probably try to claim it by force.

Suddenly the call from above: "Everybody up for PT! Move! Move!"

On deck I drink in the invigorating salty air, in great gulps. All around is the great expanse of slowly rising and falling green-white flecked sea. A moment later we are imitating the jerky exercises of an absurdly healthy looking Japanese sailor. "Ich, nee, san, see," goes he, standing against a background of shrieking seagulls and - holy cow! - a large army type of field gun on wheels, with armour plate and all! A ten or twelve-pounder, made fast high on the stern for all Allied submarines in the Pacific to see clearly!

Anyone who has nursed illusions about the Japs observing the internationally agreed upon rules for non-combatant prisoner of war transports will be sobered up by that thing. No American sub captain is able to tell us from an ordinary combat troops transport with that peashooter on board, and consequently will slam a fish into our hull. There are five other freighters in the convoy, two at portside and three on starboard. But where is our promised escort? I do hope we get them, otherwise we'll be a sitting duck. How many of these transports will eventually arrive at their destination, three, two? (A much smaller number of them will be at the finish. In fact, there will be only one left - ours!)

I claim a clean, dry spot at the steam winch, where I spend most of the time, playing solitaire, or reading, but mostly thinking, just thinking, until my thoughts dissolve into the far horizon.

They say that Sergeant Hiramatsu, the Tiger of the Railroad, is also on board. The beast responsible for sending scores of sick men to work, and to their hastened deaths. We'll probably hear from him before long, though some say that a certain message from Japan has changed the man overnight from a cold-hearted killer into a human being. Mister Rumours sports a beautiful shiner. Someone had become sick and tired of him.

The food on board is always the same unidentifiable stew with rice, and not enough. On the fourth day we sail into Miri in Sarawak, Borneo. Late in the afternoon we steam out, escorted by a corvette of the Japanese Navy. Looks like a small destroyer, but powerful. The sleek lines suggest speed, the guns fore and aft mean business. [2]

At dusk the weather takes a sudden turn. An orange glowing barbed flash of lightning explodes on the horizon, setting off a sharp wind howling through the rigging. All of us are ordered down below and the hatchway is hastily closed. Soon the ship starts to roll like mad, and when darkness falls a proper gale is blowing. The light is switched off, leaving us in pitch darkness, tossing about like marbles in a box, grabbing onto anything solid and immovable. The bed of rubber is firm as a rock, about fifteen inches above the deck. The whole world is rising and falling, the air filled with the thudding impact of angry waves against the hull. The old ship's plates are groaning and creaking. Can she take all this punishment? Sound like she'll burst in two! All around me the men are retching their hearts out, filling the air with the stink of their sickness. For some inexplicable reason I am not seasick at all, but perhaps that will come. Should I go up the ladder as high as possible? If anything happens I'll be close to the upper deck to jump overboard, but that wouldn't be much help in weather like this. Better stay here.

A heavy swell throws seawater into the hatchway, drenching a number of men whose outburst of profanity mingles with the moaning of the sick and the shrill cursing from those splashed with vomit. Turning onto my stomach, I straddle the bales to get a firmer grip. The way she's rolling, hopefully the cargo won't shift or she'll capsize for sure! Thank heaven, I'm not seasick, but oh, I don't like this, I don't like this at all! Anything can happen except a submarine attack, which is about the only thing we're safe from now.

Suddenly I feel two hands on my back. Two hands pushing, tearing to get me off my bed. Who the hell - what the... "HEY, GET OFF MY BACK!" But the hands push with force, fingers claw in my flesh, pinching and pulling at my skin. A sharp pain - his teeth! "HEY, YOU!" Jerking myself up, I grab with my left hand in the direction of where his teeth were, feel hair, smell a rank vomit-breath blowing on my face. Pushing his head backwards, I throw a wild right-handed punch on the spot where I reckon his face must be, but my fist meets only empty air. The momentum of the swing together with an unexpected heavy roll brings me down onto the deck, smack on my face. My, that hurts! Mad with rage, I throw myself with outspread hands on the bed, which is empty. In the darkness it is impossible to see where he has gone to. Someone must have lost his mind through this storm, I guess.

Daylight finds me lying on my back beside my bed. It hurts where he has bitten me. Getting up, I accidentally place my hand in a small puddle of vomit. Bah! Holding my hand away from my face, I rise, dizzy and weak in the knees. Everywhere are sleeping men, spent and exhausted, some of them unaware that they are lying in pools of seawater fallen into the hold at the height of the storm. Let's get out on deck in the open air.

Ah, fresh air, how good it is! I wash my hand at the pump and go to my spot beneath the winch. Bracing myself against the roll, I catch the fresh, salty wind in my teeth. No PT this morning; the weather is too rough. Look at that sea. A great, boundless mass of white-rimmed waves rolling on and away. Judging from the ship's wake it is clear we are going on a zigzag course, against the subs, no doubt. The other ships of our convoy, ploughing on through the tilting sea, bob up and down like tiny toy boats. There is that corvette, thin and low in the water. Fast? You bet she's fast. See the big puff of white spray at her bows. Where would we be? After Borneo we should be heading for the Philippines. A wave of dizziness comes over me. Let's lie down for a minute, here under the winch.

I must have been dozing for quite a while. The sun is high in the sky. I missed breakfast and I am hungry. Someone calls that the holds will be hosed down in a minute or two, to clean up the mess from last night. Everyone to go down and collect his gear.

I find a man lying on my rubber bed, and recognize him as one of those who were overcome with fear at the start of the voyage.

"Beat it. This is my bed."

He gets to his feet without a word of protest. A peculiar, pointed face with great front teeth and yellow-flecked eyes.

I hear the sound of a footfall behind me and a booming voice.

"Morning, Frank. And how's you this morning? You look as if you hadn't enough sleep, hey? You landlubbers are all the same, right down on their butts they go as soon as she starts to blow."

It's Roel, Dutch Navy, towering six foot six, friend of Joop.

"Hey, wait a minute," he continues. "What you got there on your back? Looks like a nasty bite to me."

"Somebody bit me last night, when I tried to push him off my bed."

Out flashes Roel's hand and powerful fingers, grabbing hold of the neck of a frightened man, who unresistingly looks down at his feet. "Did you bite him, Rabbit-face? Hope not, for you, or you'll get them rabbit teeth knocked down your throat, 'kay?"

No reply, not even a tremor in the strange eyes. For a moment the lips are push over the large teeth at the word "rabbit", then they draw back again. Roel releases him and we both watch him silently as we climb the ladder.

"There's bad blood for you, matey. Stick a knife in you just for kicks if he could get away with it."

"Looks pretty scared to me. Maybe you shouldn't have said that to him."

"Scared, my foot. You watch him, right? I promised Joop to keep an eye on you."

"Joop? Where is he?"

"Listed in the next convoy from Singapore. Saw him in Tamuang after you'd gone. Asked me to keep my bearings on you. Said you're a bloke who's likely to get his ass wet. And keep him away from good fishing water, he says. You never caught one, not even in Chungkai. He reckons you've got some sort of a jinx on the fish."

"Listen, I don't need anyone to look after me."

"Right, keep your shirt on, no offense. I'm going to sleep here at the other side of them bales. It's close to the ladder and might come in handy."

The evening reveals that only four freighters are left in our group. Where is the fifth? Roel confirms that there were five ships on the day before, not counting the corvette. We shall never know what happened to number five.

On the fourth day at sea after departing from Miri, Roel declares that never in his life as a seaman has he seen such a crazy course plotted to reach the Philippines. Going zigzag has nothing to do with it. He patiently explains the higher art of navigating without instruments by watching the stars and other things. Joop would have said that it is never too late to pick up some saltwater sense, so I listen attentively. The obvious course to reach the Japanese Islands in wartime would be to sail as closely as possible to Japanese-held territory, as a safeguard against submarines, savvy? Therefore, after Miri, what? The Philippines, right? Now then, yesterday, late in the evening before going down, Roel saw land on starboard which he figured should be Palawan Island in the Philippines group, near Borneo. Well now, any skipper in his right mind should have steered north-northeast for Manila on Luzon, right? He would not have got near Palawan at all! At this point, while he reaches for my tobacco, I ask him:

"How do you know that we are going to Manila?"

"Never mind that, but do you see what we're doing now? We're steaming due south! Go figure that out! Must've damn well rounded the northern tip of the island, 'cause if that's not Palawan again there on starboard, I'll eat my hat!"

"How do you know we're steaming southward?"

"Well, I'll be! See that thing up there? That's called the Morning Star, Venus, and...Aw, forget it, you landlubbers!"

"Watch that corvette racing! Going full steam to that ship there. What's up?" A big bow wave, neatly split in two, shows her speed.

"Looks like she's heading for Number Four to chase her up or something," says someone in our group leaning against the railing. Number Four is the vessel at the rear of our convoy which has been limping ever since we left Miri. Roel has suspected engine trouble.

Punching my shoulder, he suddenly exclaims, "Hey! That there is Honda Bay on Palawan. See, I knew I was right from the start, but why the superflecked hell didn't we get to it from the south instead instead of from the north as we're doing now?" He is visibly puzzled. There is no reply from anyone. Our eyes are all on the sleek watchdog going full steam to the straggler in our convoy dubbed Number Four, though she may not bear that number at all.

Far out, separated at a great distance from the other vessels, she seems like a little toy ship exuding a black wreath of smoke billowing in a slanted column into the sky. Light signals blink madly from her.

"Wish I knew Jap code," says Roel. "With all that smoke, she's doing all she can to get her speed up. Must be in trouble or something."

"Listen, no Yank submarine skipper needs any blinkin' code with that big target pointer," quips someone among us. Nature must be holding its breath as these prophetic words are spoken.

With my arms leaning on the railing, my chin resting on my hand, I get to daydreaming, and see in my imagination how...

Photo Source: pro.corbis.com

...the submarine captain bends down into a squatting position to take hold of the two bars on each side and orders, "Up periscope!" With his eyes pressed against the rubber-cushioned sights, he follows the shaft on its way up until he stands upright. What does he see? First water, just a wall of water, until the slowly rotating tip rises above the waves, speeding through them, its lens quickly blown dry and clear of the liquid film covering it. Almost immediately the glass eye picks up that huge pillar of smoke, like a giant finger pointing down to that poor ship below. With quickening pulse the captain gives his orders in a crisp, restrained voice while adjusting his sights and...

FLASH! YELLOW, SPITTING FLASH! Oh my God, it's for real!

Image Source: johnrobertatule.files.wordpress.com


[1] The identity of the ship is uncertain.  It may have been the Ume Maru 2 (alias Yubi Maru) or the Hakushika Maru (alias Hakuroku Maru). It was part of the convoy SHIMI-05, which left Singapore for Miri, Borneo on 4 July 1944. See:  Japanese Prison Camps: Ume Maru 2, and Departure Database: Hakushika Maru.

The convoy arrived at Miri on 8 July, where it was joined by more ships. Redesignated MI-08, the convoy departed on 10 July for Moji, Japan. The Japanese "corvette" Frank describes could have been the Otori class torpedo boat Sagi, or one of the two minesweeper escorts, W-17 or W-18. All three warships would have appeared formidable in comparison with Dutch Navy destroyers. See Bob Hackett and Peter Cundall, IJN Minesweeper W-17: Tabular Record of Movement, 10 July 1944.

IJN torpedo boat Sagi
Photo Source: probertencyclopaedia.com

W-19 Class minesweeper
Image Source: combinedfleet.com