Tuesday, January 20, 2009

17. Nightmare Journey

Photo Source: americanhistory.si.edu

At that split second my thoughts are at first uncomprehending. Then my horrified eyes witness the working of an invisible, terrible force, bursting the ship asunder in a single jet of fire lasting about two seconds. A fountain of black things flies high up in the air, followed by a broad column of water rising from the ocean and slowly collapsing. The stern and the bows of the ship, torn apart, rapidly vanish into the depths amidst hundreds of little spurts of water from where things fall back into the sea. It is then that the sound of a tremendous detonation reaches our ears, followed by a deep, rumbling echo against the cloud ceiling. Where once a ship was, kept in motion by human beings, each with his own personal worries and hopes, there remains only the sea and the silence. For an epitaph a tall pall of smoke hangs still in the air.

"My God, that was no prisoner ship!" a hoarse voice whispers audibly. None of us speak, dazed as we are by the full impact of what has happened moments before. Then from the bridge comes a loud staccato of commands, and from the corvette the sound of an alarm klaxon. We rush to the railing.

"That's a sub, men!"

"Now we'll be next. Let's jump overboard!"

"Knock it off. Keep your head cool."

"That is why we went southward. They must've spotted that sub, and we're falling back to Honda now to keep out of trouble," says Roel.

"EVERYBODY DOWN BELOW! ALL MEN TO THE HOLDS! MOVE!"

"Goin' to them holds? No bloody fear!"

"You're right. We ain't gonna be drowned like bloody rats!"

"Look, those Nips on the bridge are going ravin' mad!"

"What's that destroyer throwing them barrels in the air?"

"Depth charges."

"EVERYBODY DOWN! I REPEAT, EVERYBODY DOWN BELOW!"

"KOORAH! ALL MEN DOWN!"

Japs are running like mad to the gun, opening ammo crates while one spins the breach wheel. Behind the speeding corvette the sea flattens and shivers, followed by the shattering roar of the depth charges.

"WATCH IT! THERE ON THE BRIDGE!"

"KOORAH! DOWN, DOWN! WE SHOOT!"

A couple of Japs hook up a light machine gun on the bridge railing. The cartridge belt shows large, nasty looking orange-tipped bullets.

"Let's get down, for pete's sake!"

All men now run to the ladder where our C.O. is standing.

"Do not panic, boys. As long as we show them that we are willing to go down below, they won't shoot. I repeat, do not panic! Just take your turn on the ladder and move calmly!"

The Japs probably could not have stopped us from running them down. There would be just too many of us. But before the bridge and that peashooter aft would have changed hands, quite a few would have been mowed down. And who wants to be a dead hero in a lost war?

Huddled closely together in the hold, we listen to the distant explosions of the chase. The air is heavily charged with tension. My heart keeps on thumping and my mouth is dry. Would we hear the hum of the torpedo motor before it slams in? I remember my prayer of a few days ago and try to push the pounding fear down.

There is a sound, the feeble peeling of a bell.

"That's the bell-buoy of Honda Bay! We'll soon be in shallow water. Too risky for any sub. We'll be safe." [1]

Shapes appear at the hatchway, the lower part of the legs, without the feet. Hands lift the planks to place them in position.

"They're locking us in! We'll be drowned like rats! I wanna get out! Lemme go, lemme go!" screams one of the men close to where Roel and I are sitting on the rubber bales.

"Shut up!" screams Roel, his heavy fist crunching on the man's chin. This puts the screamer out cold, before he can throw all into a panic. There is nothing we can do. Running up the ladder will get us nowhere. They can pick us off, one by one, as soon as anyone shows his head above the hatchway.

Plank after plank falls into its place, and with each thud a shiver runs visibly through Rabbit-face's spare frame. His eyes remain expressionless, but every now and then he runs the tip of his tongue over his large front teeth. Most of us by now have learned not to lose our heads in an emergency, but not he. This chappie is going to snap, probably very soon, setting off God only knows what kind of chain reaction among the others. Let's try to calm him down.

"Look at Rabbit-face, isn't he rattled!"

"Can it, Roel. So are we."


Putting my hand on his shoulder, I feel a violent shudder going through his body before it becomes rigid and hard. The strange eyes turn to me. In an effort to sooth his fear, I begin to talk to him.

"Don't worry, they won't do anything to us..."

He hits me right on my nose. I don't remember having been so made before. Roel has to pull me off, for I want to go on beating him while he lies there on the deck, covering his face with his hands.

Later, when I am calmer, Roel says, "Joop was right. You're a nut."

"Yeah, but I wanted..."

"To help him, but you can't help a mad rabbit. Don't you get it? Look, here comes our C.O."

One plank has been moved aside, making an opening just wide enough for our man to step down the ladder.

"Your attention, men! All the ships are inside the bay. We're safe from any more attacks. There will be no moon tonight, and I understand that they are going to make a dash for it, to Manila, I think. Remember, absolutely no smoking and no lights upon penalty of death. You are allowed to come on deck later, if you keep yourselves strictly within the limits."

"Did they get the sub?"

"Don't know, and I won't ask either. First time I as much mentioned it to them, I almost got punched in the face. Nervous as hell. Anything makes them fly off the handle like that!"

Emerging topside, I notice the absence of the machine gun, but it will be ready at hand if I know the Japs.

I believe there is a limit to everything, even to the length of time a man is able to sustain fear. Trying to keep one's head cool under our circumstances is difficult, but it has become an absolute necessity if I want to come back alive. "Boy," I tell myself, "You're now on the big pond and you've got to react quickly if anything happens, and don't you forget it. All you have is this little kapok pillow on your chest and back, and a canteen of water. Not much, but it's something. If you lose your senses you've got nothing, so lay yourself down here on the closed hatchway and try to relax." I remember that prayer about fear again, and try to pray, but I can't. My fingers keep pulling at a loose strand of the canvas covering the deck.

By and by I become quiet and still. The weather is not bad tonight. Not much wind, just a light breeze. So why does the sea look so hostile all of a sudden? Is it me, the mood I am in? Though it's a dark night, at sea it can never be as dark as on land. All around, pressing on towards us, there is that immensely great quantity of blackish-green water, rising and falling, inhaling and exhaling. Like the breathing of an immeasurably great jellyfish, faintly shining under the stars. Turning my eyes from it, I watch the long, slanting streak of grey smoke trailing from the ship's funnel, from which now and then glowing sparks whirl away into the darkness. Beneath me I hear the thudding drone of the engines going full speed, the pounding sea against the bows and the sound of flying spray falling back into the ocean.

I'm leaning on the railing, watching a red moon hanging low over the water, a strange, calm sea without a ripple. A dead sea, full of small pinpoints of menace. I'm looking at the horizon. Farther and farther my gaze seems to go, lifting me bodily until I am so far away from the ship that I cannot see it anymore. Hovering over the water, I look down at the sea. Then I hear it! Very clearly I hear the claxon of the submarine: "Ahoowah! Ahoowah!" It is invisible in the green depths but the sound is there, louder and louder. My lips move and say softly that now I will see the wake of the torpedo. Right at that instant, a white streak of water bubbles races through the green depths. Where to? To our ship, of course! Suddenly I find myself back on deck, waiting to see the tearing streak, and there it is! "Don't look down or you'll get fragments flying in your face" is the last thought before I jump overboard. Light as a feather I am shooting up into the air, higher and higher, as I hear the explosion below. But it is muffled, not loud at all. Now I am going down and dive into the water. Presently I am swimming, searching the horizon for that funny double crowned tree. There it is!

"No, that is the raft, darling," she says, swimming beside me, her lovely head just above the surface. I lift her out of the water and lay her down on the raft. Her beautiful face, so well known to me, her lips slightly parted to show the small, even teeth. She is laughing, laughing amidst an angry sea with huge, towering waves beneath dark clouds ripped by blue-white lightning. How strangely green are her eyes. Strands of seaweed cling to her hair and to her naked white breasts. Her wet lips draw my mouth against hers hungrily. In my hand I feel the form of her breast, the nipple pressing hard against my palm. Brushing my legs, hanging down from the raft, is the long swell of the ocean, and beneath my feet, though unseen, I am aware of awful shapes moving dimly in the green abyss.

Chilly wind and clanking mess tins bring me fully awake. Men lining up. Buckets with rice and stew. Submarine or not, we must eat, so hurry and get your gear or you'll miss out. A dream it all was, just a dream. Am I relieved? Yes, but also disappointed. She was so real, so warm - green eyes, seaweed and all. When I bend down over the rubber bales, which I call my bed, to pick up my tin, a sudden heaviness of heart takes possession of me, an emotion which all these months I have tried to suppress. This is bad. I want to shake it off, for it is a weakness and I have to be tough to get through this hell. So when I grab my tin and turn to the ladder, I let go with a loud "Damn!" It helps a little. Now for the chow line before it is too late. Damn!

My eyes hurt with the sting of sweat. My head is swimming. Oh yes, we made it, all right; we are riding at anchor in Manila Bay. We beat the Yank sub to it, what do you know! Hurray! And now what? We wait for the other three ships left behind in Honda Bay, I guess. That is, if they are there and not somewhere else. On the bottom of the Pacific, for instance. The heat has sapped whatever strength I had left, and that wasn't much. The pump doesn't offer relief. The seawater is hot and sticky. Few bother about food. Fresh, cold water is what we want, gallons of it, but there is a shortage of that. The Nips say not to worry. In Nippon there will be plenty of it, plenty of everything. Sure, we believe you. In Nippon there will be also plenty of you vermin. Down in the holds hardly a word is spoken. Every one of us suffers from the unbearable heat.

The clang of the steel chain running through the hawser pipe. It is one of the freighters of our convoy, dropping anchor right beside us. The sight of her carries but one message: the Yanks have been active again. We count seven big holes in her, and on the stern where once a gun was mounted is nothing but a mass of twisted steel. It is a miracle that she is still afloat. Roel thinks the Yanks ran out of torpedoes and used the sub's deck gun, but how did the ship get away? Momentarily forgetting the heat, we ask our C.O. to find out what has happened to the remainder of the convoy, but he is not game enough to put the question to the Nips. Nobody blames him, for why should he get belted for something we cannot do anything about? However, later we are informed by the unpredictable enemy themselves: two ships have been sent to the bottom of the Sulu Sea. Were there any prisoners of war on them? Sergeant Hiramatsu says no, but since when does one believe a Jap?

Finally, early this morning, we sail from Manila in a new convoy of several freighters, heavily protected by destroyers and what seems to Roel to be a light cruiser. That suggests a very important cargo, for who would assign all this naval might to defend flea-bitten POW tourists? The terrible heat has gone, which is one good thing. What our lot will be...Stop thinking about that. "Trust God, but keep the canteen full and the kapok handy," is our motto. Our next stop. Only God knows.

The hours and days at sea pass on in an uninterrupted chain of sleeping and loitering. The sea remains calm. Most of us have worn off our thoughts of fear. Even the man with the rabbit teeth is behaving himself like any normal, honest-to-goodness POW bum, says Roel. The best place is on the upper deck, where I can gaze to my heart's content at the unlimited wide horizon, stretching all around, and thus conceive a suggestion of freedom. At dawn the sky is faintly illuminated with the tint and hue of the new day's beginning. One may taste the refreshing tang of early morning air and wonder why this world should be made so rotten by man. When the sun comes up, its brilliance flashing away the dawn colours, we assemble on deck for the daily calisthenics. Ich, ni, san, si, up, down, up, down. Breakfast, and then nothing to do until the next feeding.

Many remain on deck until after dark. Some cluster around the galley to snatch the leftovers from the Jap crew plates, or for a chance to get at the scrapings of the big cooking pans. Others hang over the railing to stare at the sea, to witness the never tiresome spectacle of the fading white light, the return of the colours at dusk, until the sun's glow vanishes beyond the horizon and darkness takes over. Inside the belly of the ship, in the holds, the reality of our condition is deeply felt in an awareness of being boxed in a narrow space of rank human smells and raw tempers. Fist-fights are the order of the day, much to the amusement of the Jap crew, hanging over the hatchway watching the tantrums of the slaves.

The anchor chain rattles in a port of Formosa. We have made it again. If this keeps on we shall be getting there all in one piece! Sergeant Hiramatsu goes onshore to return with bottles of American tomato ketchup, which are distributed among the passengers. The evening meal becomes a repast worthy of Lucullus, as we all agree that this Jap must have gone mad. How on earth otherwise could this beast in human form do such an astonishing thing? It is because the defeat of Japan is close at hand. This act is meant to appease our anticipated anger and vengeance, so conclude those who always know the answers. During mealtime a sudden commotion occurs in a corner of the hold. Two gentlemen are beating each other up with gusto, one using his mess-kit, the other using a tomato ketchup bottle. The reddish stuff is flying all about. In one of them I recognize a former director of a large business concern in the Indies, and the other I know as a lawyer of a respectable firm. Behold the white man in captivity. Let's get on deck.

On my way to the ladder my eyes fall on a couple of imitation leather bound books, gone through many hands, with frayed backs and stained coverings. The title of one is still discernible, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I had bought two tickets for Lisa and myself on the opening night of the four-hour feature starring Clark Gable and Vivian Leigh. Seats could not be booked. Though we arrived well before the start of the film, all we could get were two seats right in front of the screen. When the lights went out she took the paper bag with the popcorn out of my hand, because I always made so much noise with crackling the paper, she said. It embarrassed her; she believed that people would become annoyed by the disturbance. We were too close to the screen and had to keep our heads titled upwards all the time. I don't remember now what the story was about, only that to me it was a pain in the neck.

I am struck by a wave of dizziness and feel weak. Who wouldn't on this diet? Upstairs, into the fresh air with you, my lad. But my way is blocked by a couple of Japanese sailors hurrying down the ladder, probably to do some work in the lower hold. When I lie later in the sun on the upper deck, the sight of their typical footwear lingers on in my vision.

Photo Source: ebay.com

For some reason or other, I have always found the odd looking canvas shoes with one separate sheath for the big toe to be vaguely repulsive, alien. Now I see them again, projected against the dark reddish screen of my closed eyelids, in two, ten, hundreds of pairs. They grow larger and larger, blending together into huge, black, menacing clouds of strange forms - "cloven hoof, bird's claw, omen of malevolence," I hear myself saying. What is the matter with me? Are these hallucinations the result of the body becoming weaker? I open my eyes and the monster clouds dissolve quickly in the clean blue-white morning sky.

But a certain feeling I had in the past, long since pushed away by time, comes again to me with a jolt, felt as keenly as before. It is the stinging awareness of irreparable, disgraceful defeat, subjection and servitude to the whims of an alien race of imitators, borrowers of Western ideas and inventions. Little chaps from a faraway country, the former hissing and bowing barbers, shopkeepers of cheap merchandise, sporting long swords and kimonos, sticking knives into themselves when they lose face. Who had the unspeakable effrontery to challenge the white lords of the Far East and kick them out of their smug, long held positions of prestige and money-making. Then to display them on lorries in a triumphant exhibition of a new race of white coolies, the bedraggled remnants, has-beens of a once superior nation of tuans, sahibs and masters. The ashes of defeat, tasting so bitter ("Aw, you gimme the creeps. You think too much. No use crying over spilt milk." Andre, where would you be? It is as if I hear you right here beside me, my good friend). Shall I borrow Gone With the Wind?

Under the winch, with the book on my knees, I am soon wrapped in the capers of Scarlet and Rhett. I meet Ashley and Melanie, and remember how Tara looked in the movie with its tall columns of the colonial front of the stately O'Hara home. I read it slowly, for to me it is not just another story. It is a way to escape from the hopelessness of the present which is bearing so heavily on me. That book is my medicine, my opium, a fascinating world into which I hurl myself every morning after breakfast. It is to me so real, as if it is me basking in the sun of Tara, hearing the cries and the laughter of the picaninnies, the deep singing voices of the Negro slaves. I witness the arrogance and bravado of their young masters at the gay barbecue and hear the clattering hooves of a galloping horse, the bearer of fearful tidings - the dramatic start of the Civil War. Our transport ship and the brooding imminence of the sea have disappeared to make way for my pursuit of Scarlet in her struggle to preserve the family plantation and her dilemma with the men in her life. The story is about a generation long since dead and gone. Nevertheless it appeals to me so much because it all happened in a free world. The people to whom Scarlet belonged were defeated, but at least they were conquered by men of the same race, not by a breed of hostile, ranting bullet-heads.

Yes, Gone With the Wind is to me like a beautiful landscape painting, with the birds, the brook and the country road winding through the rolling green. A picture of freedom.

We sailed from Formosa a week ago. I hardly noticed, for I have gone a second time through the happenings of Margaret Mitchell's creation with as much absorption as before. The reading has lifted my spirits. The future doesn't look so grim anymore. Even the sea appears friendly. In an almost joyful mood, I go down the ladder to get a smoke and run into an ex-school headmaster whom I had once called a rumour-making idiot. On an impulse to make up with him, I offer him a smoke which is snatched from my hand.

"Good, my boy, so you've finally understood. See here, whatever you wish to discuss about the coming end of the war, just ask. Naturally, I can only offer my personal views for what they're worth, though I flatter myself..." So he rambles on for at least ten minutes. I listen politely, patiently, with concealed annoyance, to the rot and drivel from this self-made war expert and conceited snot.

It happens in the deep of the night. Some claim there were first a few dull explosions, then running feet on the main deck. A shrill voice shouting an order from the bridge, the sound of planks being thrown into their grooves, and before any of us are fully awake it has happened again. The closed hatchway means that we are sealed in like sardines in a can. Only a small opening is left at the top of the ladder. The lamp in the hold is kept burning because there are no open portholes to give away the gleam to a searching periscope.

At the first sign of alarm, Roel and I have quietly but with utmost speed gone to the top of the ladder, just beneath the opening. We are not a moment too early, for the whole length of the ladder is in a matter of seconds cluttered with men clinging to it, like flies to a candy stick. Somebody shouts to come down and put the life-jackets on, but nobody pays attention except for those who have to remain below because there is no more room on the steps. The air is charged with tension but the men remain calm, phlegmatically calm it would seem. It is mainly the British soldiers among us who again set the example with their remarkable sense of discipline in a situation like this. In spite of the low state of humanity they, like us, have been reduced to, they immediately obeyed the order to control themselves instead of screaming for help as some did at the start.

From above, I look down at the silent throng in the well of the hold, standing packed together, especially at the base of the ladder. Many have taken their shoes off, for one swims better without them. The jaws of some work feverishly on food which originally had been tucked away for an emergency like this. Others chain-smoke their tobacco. You cannot take it with you where we might be headed for.

I decide to take a look at what is happening topside and raise my head through the opening, above the rim of the hatch. The first thing I see is a low overhanging cloud, blood-tinged from the red-orange glow cast by what appears to be a burning tanker. That ship seems a blazing inferno, partly screened off by the funnel of our ship. Except for the fire the rest is all dark about me, but I hear the sea sweeping by, hissing and boiling.

A boot is placed on my shoulder and I feel the point of a bayonet grazes my cheek. "Koorah! Inside!" I retreat hastily. Roel whispers that we should wait for now, but if our ship is hit we are to rush on deck. None of the Japs would be thinking of anything other than saving his own life. At least that is what we would be gambling on. The air in the hold has never been good but now it is really bad. The stench of the faeces and urine of fear. There is now a solid mass of men cramming the well, for everybody has crawled out of the 'tween decks, the surest death trap, to join the others. There is not yet much talk but the stillness is fraught with an enormous force, unseen, held at bay by Heaven knows what, until it will be unleashed by a shot fired on deck, another explosion or any loud report. And when that happens the mob will rush upward on the ladder, shedding any form of humanity, murdering if need be with bare hands to get up on deck, snarling beasts flying up the steps. I'll be better out on top and over the side before that starts.

But the night wears on without further incidents. God is on our side. The early morning finds us asleep on the steps and in the well. My legs are numb, my throat parched. The light shaft through the narrow ladder opening is suddenly broken by the head and shoulders of the Jap sergeant, who delivers the message that we have passed through the danger zone. The ladder is to be cleared and everybody is to return to his assigned place. Until this order is carried out there will be no breakfast or fresh water, so we'd better "speedo" to it. Back on the bottom of the hold I am breathing through my mouth so as to notice the stench as little as possible.

Ten days later another alarm is given, again while we are asleep, but this time I hear it too late. I cannot get to the ladder in time and find myself in the middle of the mob, waiting and listening. Standing on my bed, which is higher than the deck, I can keep my head well above the throng. Others join me until there is no more room left on the rubber bales. Soon I am liquid with perspiration stinging my eyes and running in great globules into the corners of my mouth.

Hours later, there are no explosions. In fact nobody knows why the alarm was given. The hatchway was suddenly closed, and that was all but enough to start the misery all over again. My, the stench is horrible! Do I smell like that too? Gosh, I'm thirsty! Where is Roel? Oh, there he is, right up on the steps, but what is he doing with his canteen? He is shaking it to a face peering down from above through the ladder entrance. When the owner of the face keeps on staring at Roel, he yells, "Water! We want water, you bastard!"

Suddenly I see Rabbit-face in the throng before me, his strange eyes wide and unmoving. Another voice yells, "Water!" That sets it off. Uttering a thin scream, he cries, "No water! I'm dying, I'm dying!" Whipping out a knife, he slits his wrist, at the same time bringing his mouth to the flow of blood. It all happens so fast, and where did he get that knife? My mind needs a few seconds to register what I'm seeing. But when he draws his bloody mouth back to bring it again to his wrist, and I see those large front teeth push his lips aside to settle on the wound, that is when an instinctive dislike I had all the time, and tried to suppress, bursts out in blind hatred. Throwing myself on top of him, I hit him where I can, as I did before. Milling arms. Clawing fingers. My head jerks backwards. A stinging pain explodes in my nose. I feel blood flowing into my mouth. They throw me on the deck where I land among their legs.

"Don't panic, you idiots! There's nothing wrong, no subs, no nothing!" comes Roel's voice from above. I get up and lean against the iron ladder post, filled with a profound sense of shame. The planks of the hatchway are rapidly taken off, one by one, until the night sky grows wider and wider, and the stars look down on us. My nose hurts awfully. There is blood on my chest, from Rabbit-face and from myself. He had not struck a vein and does not have to die, but I feel that he hates me now more than ever before. And I? I detest him but I don't know why.

The day has come when we see land on starboard. Kyushu Island, in Japan. On the tenth of August 1944 we land at Shimonoseki, on Kyushu, and step down the gangway of our floating nightmare which took us all the way from Singapore to Japan in thirty-nine days. That is a long time for any ship to reach her destination. But that does not matter. We are still alive. That is important. [2]


Footnotes
[1] Convoy MI-08 anchored at Kimanisu Bay, Borneo on 11 July. Evidently the POWs mistook this for Honda Bay, Palawan. From there it sailed to Manila, arriving on 16 July. See Hackett and Cundall, but this source does not record the loss of a ship between Borneo and the Philippines.

[2]
The hellship reached its final destination either on 10 August (if the Ume Maru) or 13 August (if the Hakushika Maru) . Examining Frank's account, POW scholar Roger Mansell (Centre for Research, Allied POWs Under the Japanese) remarks: "When the hellship arrived, it went into the port of Moji on the south side of the Shimonoseki Straits. Moji was on the island of Kyushu. At that time, the men would have to walk about one mile for the train for the Fukuoka camps...or if going up to Honshu, a short walk to the ferries. Today the strait is spanned by a bridge." Frank mentions the ferry trip to Honshu in the second paragraph of Chapter 18. Click on the photo below to see the relative positions of Moji (her harbor crowded with ships) and Shimonoseki.

Wartime aerial recce photo of Moji and Shimonoseki, Japan
(Place names added by editor)
Image courtesy of Roger Mansell
Centre For Research, Allied POWs Under the Japanese