On the 9th September 1944 FRUPAC, the US Fleet Radio Unit, Pacific, intercepted a Japanese message about a convoy en route to Japan. As a consequence a US submarine wolf pack, the USS Growler, USS Sealion and USS Pampanito were sent to lay an ambush. They rendezvoused together late on the 11th September and then, in the early hours of the 12th, began a joint attack when the Japanese ships crossed their path.
They were not to know that on board two of the Japanese transports in the convoy, the Rakuyo Maru and the Kachidoki Maru were 2,217 British and Australian Prisoners of War. They were being taken to Japan to be used as slave labour, most of them already having survived the horrors of the ‘death railway’ in Burma – Thailand. The majority of the 1317 men on the Rakuyo Maru were in the hold. A relatively fortunate few were being kept on deck – they had a grandstand view of events:
We were sleeping topside on the Rakuyo Maru. At about 2 o’clock in the morning a two-funneled destroyer was hit by a torpedo and blew up. [This was the attack made by the GROWLER.] There was a lot of gunfire and flares, and then everything was quiet. At about 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. a red flare went up on the port side of a tanker right ahead of us. Then a torpedo struck and the tanker burst into flame, literally blew up, and threw flaming oil high in the air.
Then the ship on the port bow (presumably a transport) swerved in and almost collided. She looked disabled, for she just seemed to drift toward the burning tanker and caught fire aft. In a moment there was a puff of smoke around the bridge and she was in flames forward.
Then there was a thud forward on our ship followed by another thud aft, and the Rakuyo Maru began to settle in the water. The Japs took to the boats at once and about five minutes later we went into the water, too, and climbed aboard some rafts. The tanker was burning fiercely and we tried to keep away from fire on the water. A half-hour later the tanker sank.
The Rakuyo Maru took a list to starboard but looked as if she would remain afloat for a while. Some survivors started back, but before they could get to her she began to keel over and settle. So we changed our minds about getting provisions and water. She sank about 6 p.m.
Shortly afterwards a destroyer picked up Japs in long boats. We were held off with revolvers. Later another destroyer came up escorting passenger-freighters. They rescued the remaining Japs and all three ships steamed off. I believe they were loaded with raw rubber.
This account originally appeared in Polaris , October 1985..
Many men had survived the attack but the Japanese had made off with eleven out of the twelve life boats. There was a struggle to escape from the Rakuyo Maru and build rafts before she sank some 12 hours later. Another account comes from Australian Roydon Cornford :
The first torpedo hit us in the bow at No.1. hold. The explosion nearly washed us overboard. It flooded the hold containing the POW’s causing panic because ten seconds after the first torpedo hit, the second torpedo hit the engine room causing the ship to list and sink ten feet, after which it just floated. I can remember the Japanese in the lifeboats on our ship singing out “torpedoes” before we got hit. I did not see them but some of the POW’s said that they did.
How lucky we were, with a torpedo hitting both sides of the hold containing the POW’s. By now we realised the ship was not about to sink immediately. The POWs in the hold calmed down and climbed the ladder to the deck in an orderly manner. The shock of the water washing us around the deck and water pouring into the hold is something hard to forget. The torpedoes killed a lot of the Japanese, mostly in the engine room and blew those on the gun turret overboard.
The Japanese on our ship had abandoned ship with no word to us. They had taken 11 lifeboats and 2 small punts. Some Japanese just jumped into the sea and any POW’s trying to get into the lifeboats were kept back with guns and bayonets. I saw one Japanese boat drift into the flaming oil and you could hear the screams of men burning and drowning. Since there were lots of Japanese from other ships also in the water, approximately 15 POW’s did manage to get into a lifeboat with about 20 Japanese.
Our ship had settled with a serious list to the port side, sitting about 10ft lower in the water. The POW’s were tossing overboard 6ft by 6ft rafts, hatch covers and anything else that would float, with POW’s jumping overboard to hang onto the rafts. In some cases the English POW’s killed a few of their own men by tossing rafts onto men in the water. These rafts were not made for you to sit on, just to hang on to the ropes on the side of the raft. By now most of the POW’s had left the ship so we left four men to guard the last raft that we had for seven of us while we found water. We all had a good drink, donned our life jackets, tossed our raft overboard and jumped into the sea.
The seven of us paddled and kicked the water to get away from the slowly sinking ship. We had only got about 100 yards away when a Japanese naval escort came back, flashing signal lights when it also got torpedoed and exploded. That torpedo exploding made us sick, causing us to lose all the water we had drunk.
It was now 4am and most of the rafts had drifted close together. A lot of the English POW’s drifted into burning oil and a lot also died after being hit by rafts and hatch covers which were being thrown into the water. The English had been on the starboard side of the Rakuyo Maru. A few men had still not abandoned ship and they found a lifeboat that the Japanese could not launch but which they managed to launch. They also found one terrified Japanese Jig-a-Jig girl still on the ship whom they took with them. Once in the water they met up with a boatload of Japanese and handed the Jig-a-Jig girl over to them.
Now quite a few POW’s swam and paddled back to the ship and climbed back on board. By daylight the ocean was heavily dotted with debris, POW’s on rafts and lifeboats. There were also a lot of Japanese on rafts. By now we realised that the ship was doomed since it was slowly sinking into the water. However you could still see men walking around the decks. While all this was going on two Japanese naval ships appeared on the horizon and slowly nosed their way through the oil and floating debris.
Our spirits soared, after spending so long in the water, thinking rescue had arrived. The frigates picked up all the Japanese from the lifeboats then lowered a motorised lifeboat which moved among us picking up all of the Japanese and Koreans in the water. While this was going on an old Japanese transport ship also arrived but did not do any rescuing.
The lifeboats the Japanese left in the water were soon filled with POW’s, 350 or so spread evenly between the 11 lifeboats. Luckily, I did not get in one. By now it was late on the first day with the two Japanese ships and the transport ship still close by when our ship suddenly went down nose first, tossing blocks of rubber high into the air and generating great spouts of water. Men who had remained on the ship went down with the sinking ship.
The two Japanese naval ships and the oil transport ship just sailed off and left us floating around in the water. It soon became dark so we tied two rafts together and pushed bamboo and bits of timber under them. Eighteen of us could sit on the rafts and the kapok life jackets took the rest of our weight.
During the first night the rafts drifted apart and our two rafts were 100 yards from the next raft. There were lots of rafts and men spread all around the ocean, with dead Japanese and POWs floating around in life jackets. Any POW’s who did not have life jackets took one off a dead Japanese. We spent the first night floating around listening to POW’s calling out for friends.
Read the whole of Roydon Cornford’s account at Prisoners of the Japanese.
Meanwhile the Japanese convoy continued and the USS Pampanito set off in pursuit. After dealing with a ‘hot running torpedo’ – a torpedo that began running inside the torpedo tube on the submarine – the USS Pampanito was in position to attack:
2240 Fired five torpedoes forward; three at large transport and two at large AK…. Swung hard right and at 2243 Fired four stern tubes; two at each of the two AK’s in the farthest column. Saw 3 hits in large AP, two hits in large AK (Targets No. 1 and 2) and one hit in AK (farthest column) heard and timed hit in fourth AK (Leading ship in farthest column)….
In all, seven hits out of nine torpedoes. From the bridge we watched both the large AP and the large AK (one with two hits) sink within the next ten minutes, and saw the after deck house of the third ship, on which we saw one hit, go up into the air with the ship smoking heavily.
The fourth ship could not be observed… because of much smoke and haze in that direction. A short interval after the seven hits, the escorts started dropping depth charges at random, but for once we didn’t mind.
Amongst these ships hit was the Kachidoki Maru with 900 British Prisoners of war on board. It appears that there were very few survivors, probably only men who happened to be on deck. They were taken on board the Kibitsu Maru, which was to successfully complete the journey to Japan.
It was only as the USS Pampanito returned along the route she had taken that three days later that she came across a number of men in the water clinging to rafts, most of them were covered in oil and very weak. With the sudden realisation that they were too tall to be Japanese, the Pampanito launched a rescue operation and summoned the USS Sealion back to the area to help.
Captain Summers, commander of the USS Pampanito:
All were exhausted, after four days on the raft and three years of imprisonment. Many had lashed themselves to their makeshift rafts, which were slick with grease. Some had nothing but life belts. All showed signs of pellagra, beri-beri, immersion, salt water sores, ringworm, and malaria. All were very thin and showed the results of undernourishment.
Some were in very bad shape, but with the excitement of rescue they came alongside with cheers for the Yanks and many a curse for the Japs. It was quite a struggle to keep them on the raft while we took them off one by one. They could not manage to secure a line to the raft, so we sent men over the side who did the job.
The survivors came tumbling aboard and then collapsed with strength almost gone. A pitiful sight none of us will ever forget. All hands turned to with a will and the men were cared for as rapidly as possible.
There is another account of the action at Maritime Org.
Film of the rescue taken on board the USS Sealion:
Not all who survived the sinking of the ship were able to survive their time in the sea. Albert Albury was one who survived but gave this account of the last hours of John Chalmers, one of the Australian Army Medical Officers who were amongst the PoWs:
Late in the afternoon of the fourth day Ted and I came across the doctor drifting alone on a hatchboard. He was delirious. He had dysentery, and I could see that he was dying. We pulled him on the raft and sat either side of him so that he could not roll off.
He kept asking for water. His bottle, of course, was empty . I dipped my hand into the sea and let a few drops splash into his mouth. It would make little difference to him now if he drunk it or not. Once or twice we had to hold him down as he found a little strength in his ravings.
But as darkness came he lay quiet, unmoving. In the torpor that came with the night we forgot he was there. Throughout the early hours of the next morning I kept on falling across him, forgetting who or what his body was. It was something to rest my head on.
At dawn we found he was dead. And as I looked at him, his mouth agape, his face a thousand years old, his eyes still fixed with pain and delirium, I remembered all he had done for me, and for so many others. And for a few moments I became a human being, and was filled with sorrow and compassion. He was one of the finest men I had ever known
….We rolled his body off the edge of the raft
See Prisoners of War of the Japanese, for more on John Chalmers life. See also Roll of Honour for a list of casualties. Also available are the war patrol reports of the USS Sealion and the USS Papanito and Australian War Memorial has more details of other accounts.