Rescued from the sea by the Japanese Navy

HMS Encounter sunk along with HMS Exeter and USS Pope on 1st March 1942, her crew were stranded in the waters of the Java Sea for almost 24 hours.

Sam Falle was an officer on HMS Encounter which fell victim to the Japanese Navy in the Second Battle of the Java Sea on the 1st March, just after HMS Exeter. He had a lucky escape as he abandoned ship as shells still struck the Encounter. He and others were about to lower the motor boat when it was smashed by a shell, and a shell splinter ‘took away’ his binoculars. Moments later he was in the sea. There was only one lifeboat serviceable – he and the remainder of the crew clung to floats and other wreckage. The surviving crew were still in good spirits – they raised three cheers for the Encounter’s commander, Captain Morgan.

A Japanese destroyer approached them in the water, trained its guns on them, and then made off. They were 150 miles from land, there were no Allied ships in the Java sea, there was no lifeboat in sight, they had no food or water. The Japanese had left them. ‘It took a little time for these fairly stark facts to sink in.’:

Dawn came on 2 March 1942, beautiful, clear and dead calm. We had been in the water for about 18 hours, and there was nothing to be seen. We waited in silence and watched the sun climb in the heavens.

Doc had his medical kit with him, complete with syringe and enough morphine to finish us all off. By that time, according to all logic, there was no hope at all, and yet only one of our number asked for a shot. Doc rightly refused and persuaded our shipmate to give it a bit longer. It grew hotter; the sea was calm and shimmered in the sunshine. We became drowsy; I recall that I felt neither hunger nor thirst.

It must have been about midday, for the sun was vertical and we were just south of the equator. About 200 yards away we thought we saw a Japanese destroyer. Was she a mirage? We all saw her, so perhaps she was real, but our first emotion was not joy or relief, for we expected to be machine-gunned.

There was a great bustle aboard that ship, but the main armament was trained fore and aft and there was no sign of machine-guns. The ship’s sailors were lowering rope- ladders all along the side of the ship. They were smiling small brown men in their floppy white sun-hats and too-long khaki shorts.

The ship came closer. We caught hold of the rope-ladders and managed to clamber aboard. We were covered with oil and exhausted. The Japanese sailors surrounded us and regarded us with cheerful curiosity. They took cotton waste and spirit and cleaned the oil off us, firmly but gently. It was – extraordinary to relate – a friendly welcome.

I was given a green shirt, a pair of khaki shorts and a pair of gym shoes. Then we were escorted to a large space amidships and politely invited to sit down in comfortable cane chairs. We were served hot milk, bully beef and biscuits.

After a while the captain of the destroyer came down from the bridge, saluted us and addressed us in English: ‘You have fought bravely. Now you are the honoured guests of the Imperial Japanese Navy. I respect the English navy, but your government is very foolish to make war on Japan.’

That fine officer searched for survivors all day, stopping to pick up even single men, until his small ship was overflowing. An awning was spread over the fo’c’s’le to protect us from the sun; lavatories were rigged outboard; cigarettes were handed out; and by a biblical type of miracle, our hosts managed to give all 300 of us food and drink.

The only order we were given was not to smoke after dark lest ‘English submarine’ should see a lighted cigarette. The Japanese did not know, it seems, that there were no English submarines in the Java Sea. Yet they had continually stopped to rescue every survivor they could find.

Thanks to this destroyer and other Japanese ships, Encounter only lost seven men and Exeter a surprisingly small number also. The survivors from Pope were rescued by the Japanese two days later.

See Sam Falle: My Lucky Life: In War, Revolution, Peace and Diplomacy. George Cooper, also sunk on 1st March was picked up with the crew from HMS Exeter a good deal quicker than Sam Falle from HMS Encounter. He also has very positive comments about their treatment by the Japanese Navy, in marked contrast to his memories of subsequent treatment.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen R Webb April 1, 2014 at 10:24 pm

My father Albert George Webb AB HMS Encounter is my inspiration. He died at 72 of tropical disease related cancer. He was just pleased to have survived despite an ordeal not almost beyond comprehension. He only told us of how they survived by outwitting their captors to get food to survive starvation and the many horrors that I am sure most modern day people would never have survived. The British government did nothing to assist him, his comrades, or indeed learn from those who had survived. Shame on the British government who since so miserably and dishonourably failed these survivors. My best wishes to all those sons and daughters who know the truth and respect these amazing people who felt they were just doing their duty. I reserve my view on how much our government have respected such commitment.

Sandra June 10, 2013 at 8:15 pm

Thank you for this description of the sinking of HMS Encounter. I was 1 year old when my father Able Seaman Cyril (known as George) James went off to serve his country, he never returned being one of the seven men lost when the ship sank. My mother died two years later of TB not knowing if he was alive or dead. It is of some comfort to my siser and I to find out exactly what happened.
Once again, many thanks.

Richard December 13, 2012 at 12:21 am

Thankyou for posting this. I have now found out how and why my Grandfather’s brother (Henry (Sid) Hanwell Leading Stoker) was listed in the War Graves commission records as being on this Ship.
He was on HMS Repulse when attacked and sunk 10th Dec 41.
He must have been re assigned after his rescue from Repulse.
Sid did not survive as a POW like so many others and died in March 1945.
Unfortunately my Grandfather died in 1992 at the age of 100 and always wanted to find out where his brother Sid was buried (also his brother Frank in WW1).
Many Thanks.
Richard.

William R. Arbuckle November 21, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Dear Sirs,
My father, Robert Arbuckle P.O. was serving on HMS Encounter when it was sunk in 1942. Taken prisoner , he survived until March 1945 at which time he died from health problems. He is now buried on Ambon Island. My mother remained a widow and died on Remembrance Day, 11th November 2000, three days short of her 99th birthday. I was only three years of age when he left home for the last time and know little of him. I would be grateful for any information on him.
Yours faithfully,
W.R. ARBUCKLE

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