The Sinking Of Rakuyo Maru
The Sinking Of Rakuyo Maru
Published in POLARIS October 1985
In the South China Sea on September 12,1944... In what Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, described as "one of the most sensational stories of the war," four U.S. submarines on war patrol rescued 159 British and Australian prisoners of war, already the victims of three years of harsh Japanese captivity, from certain death in the Pacific, and brought the survivors to Saipan in the teeth of a fierce typhoon.
The Allied soldiers were more dead than alive when located, some in a coma, all suffering from the ravages of tropical diseases, undernourished and the scorching, unmitigated rays of the sun. Under the aimed pistol of the Japanese they had been committed to the mercy of the sea when the S.S. Rakuyo Maru, bearing them and 1,300 other prisoners taken after the fall of Singapore, was sent to the bottom by torpedoes from the USS SEALION.
Seven of the rescued men, picked from the water, patches of oil, tangles of debris and rafts, improvised from wreckage, could not be kept alive despite the heroic efforts of the pharmacist's mates on the submarines. Their bodies were committed to the sea. The sufferings the men underwent during captivity, revealed when their stories were pieced together, led last November to an official protest by the British Government to the Japanese.
The dramatic rescue extended over a period of five days after the Rakuyo Maru sank.
It was enacted against a background of undersea warfare, deep in enemy waters, which saw the four submarines, the USS SEALION, USS BARB, USS QUEENFlSH, USS PAMPANITO, with a fifth submarine, the USS GROWLER, attacked two convoys and sank at least 10 sizeable enemy ships, including transports, tankers, freighters, destroyers and a 22,500-ton aircraft carrier of the Otaka Class. The QUEENFlSH, SEALION, and BARB have received Presidential Unit Citations for extraordinary accomplishment, including the rescue of the British and Australians.
The Rakuyo Maru was in the first convoy that was hit as it was bound from the Straits Settlement to the Japanese mainland. She was hit just before dawn in the attack on the convoy which began shortly after midnight.
The first strike was a down-the-throat attack on an enemy destroyer, a thrilling incident of war that the Commander of Submarines in the Seventh Fleet, Rear Admiral Ralph Waldo Christie, praised as "one of the most daring attacks on record." The squadron commander said the attack, made on the surface, "is believed to be unique in submarine warfare."
It was pressed home by the USS GROWLER, under command of Lieutenant Commander Thomas B. Oakley, Jr. The GROWLER was reported over-due from patrol and presumed lost on February 1, 1945, and Commander Oakley is listed as missing in action.
The moon was lust rising when the GROWLER spotted the convoy, three columns of ships with escorts ahead, on the bow and on the quarter. The GROWLER maneuvered into position to fire on a good-sized ship in the center column when her lookouts observed a large destroyer swing from the starboard side of the convoy and bear down on the submarine with the apparent intention of ramming.
The GROWLER, running on the surface, headed directly for the enemy destroyer on a collision course. It was win or die. If the GROWLER'S torpedoes missed it was planned to submerge, but time and distance were short. Less than half a mile of open water was between the enemy and the challenger when the men on the GROWLER heard a hit timed for their first torpedo.
"The destroyer," recorded Commander Oakley, "exploded violently but beautifully amidships. She took a 50-degree list and turned hard right. The flash of the explosion was seen in the conning tower. There was a great sigh of relief from the GROWLER.
The exuberant skipper yelled below to his men, "You're the best fire control party ever seen!"
Now shells from the enemy escorts fell around the GROWLER as she fired on two freighters. She continued to move in and passed the destroyer, which was burning fiercely and listing 70 degrees. A horde of Japs. recorded Commander Oakley, "clambered up the deck, the bridge and the foremast of the destroyer commenced her approach to Davey Jones' locker."
Flames lighted up the GROWLER's conning tower as the destroyer went down, leaving a small fire burning on the surface. The GROWLER continued to move in for the attack on the convoy despite the gunfire from other enemy escort vessels. In a few minutes torpedoes from the GROWLER hit two freighters. On one there was an explosion. On the other columns of smoke could be observed between the bridge and the stack.
Enemy patrol craft spotted the GROWLER and gave chase. As she maneuvered, her men could see the flash of explosions from attacks by other submarines. The GROWLER evaded the patrol craft, hearing a rumble of blasts that were taken for exploding depth charges. Her men could see fires burning on a tanker and a cargo ship, the Rakuyo Maru.
The GROWLER fired on another enemy destroyer and heard the hits register. Other enemy craft moved in to depth charge the GROWLER and for several minutes her men could hear a series of explosions. Later they reported their target, the destroyer, was breaking up and sinking. The GROWLER then withdrew from the area.
Meanwhile the USS SEALION, under command of Commander Eli T. Reich, had joined the attack on the convoy. For some time she underwent and evaded fire from the deck guns and machine guns of the convoy escorts and, shortly before dawn, closed a large tanker and fired upon her. The tanker bust into flames.
The blaze on the tanker lighted the Rakuyo Maru. In a matter of seconds torpedoes were streaking from the SEALION to the transport. There was an explosion as the SEALION submerged to avoid countermeasures. After dawn, Commander Reich looked through his periscope and could see a large vessel, presumably the Rakuyo Maru, burning well down in the water. From the distance only her spars were showing.
The SEALION withdrew from the area with the target zone obscured by smoke and fire. She continued on patrol, unaware that there were Allied prisoners on the transport.
On the night following the attack the USS PAMPANITO, under command of Commander Paul E. Summers, came upon a group of ships remaining from the enemy convoy. The night was dark. There was no moon. The PAMPANITO defied the enemy escorts and closed for an attack.
Ten minutes after her torpedoes struck home, the PAMPANITO observed a large transport and a large freighter disappear beneath the sea. More torpedoes, and the lookouts on the PAMPANITO saw the deckhouse of another freighter go sky high and smoke pour from the doomed ship. Damage inflicted on a fourth freighter could not be observed because of the haze and smoke.
The enemy escorts closed the PAMPANITO and at least one depth charge shook the submarine from stem to stern. Random gunfire came from the convoy.
Two days later both the PAMPANITO and the SEALION observed a large freighter still aflame. Flames were bubbling from the surface of the water. The freighter was so far consumed by flames that the commander of neither submarine considered it a worthy target. It appeared just a matter of time and the freighter would join the other three ships at the bottom of the Pacific.
Later in the afternoon of the third day after the attack on the Rakuyo Maru, the PAMPANITO sighted considerable debris floating wreckage and what appeared to be men on a raft. Believing that the men were Japanese, the PAMPANITO maneuvered toward them while some of her sailors stood on deck with small arms, prepared in the event the supposed enemy attempted any surprise actions.
The curly hair of one of the men on the raft was the first indication to the PAMPANITO's men that the survivors were not Japanese. At about the same time the men on the raft decided that the men on the submarine were not Japanese because they were tall men.
Commander Summers recorded that the men on the raft were covered with oil and filth and "we could not make them out. Black curly hair didn't look like Japs. The men were shouting but we couldn't understand what they were saying. Then we made out the words, 'Pick us up, pleasel' There were about 15 men on the raft."
The survivors were taken aboard, some being transferred with great difficulty. They were taken to the after torpedo room and each was given a piece of cloth moistened with water to suck on.
"All were exhausted," said Commander Summers, "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."
Next the PAMPANITO found a second raft with nine men. Nine minutes later six more survivors were found and brought aboard. Another nine minutes passed and six more were saved. About a half-hour later 11 more were picked up. At that point what was thought to be an enemy plane was sighted and the PAMPANITO's commanding officer was amazed to see the "dead come to life and scurry below." Six more were found. Then five more.
As the light was fading a single survivor was rescued. It was complete dark as the PAMPANITO took the last group of ten men aboard. "We felt we had everyone in sight and knew we had all we could care for, if not more." In all, the PAMPANITO had taken 73 men aboard. (The complement of a U.S. submarine is about 90.) She had meanwhile sent word to the SEALION, requesting help.
Though now on an errand of mercy, the PAMPANITO had to keep at the peak of fighting efficiency because she was deep in enemy waters. Lieutenant Ted N. Swain, took supervision of the survivors. He tried segregation until he had some idea of their health, because in cramped quarters an epidemic might become uncontrollable.
Pharmacist Maurice L. Demers, worked without let-up. Commander Summers said that "undoubtedly his unstinted effort saved many of the survivors' lives." After the survivors were given emergency treatment, the long process of cleaning them of oil and grease was begun.
Despite all possible attentions one of the British soldiers died the next day, possibly from internal injuries. He had been unconscious continually since his rescue. He was buried at sea with honors. Two days later, with the storm beginning to set in, the remaining survivors were reported much improved and some were able to move around the PAMPANITO.
Several hundred miles from Saipan the PAMPANITO was met by the USS CASE, under command of Lieutenant Commander Robert S. Willey. The sea was now so rough none of the survivors could be transferred to the CASE, but the destroyer sent a medical officer to the submarine, Lieutenant Commander Paul V. Waldo, and Chief Pharmacist Lynn I. Wilcox.
Two more days passed and the PAMPANITO arrived at Saipan. She moored alongside a tender, the USS FULTON, under command of Captain Arthur A. Clarkson, Doctors came aboard. Fresh fruit and ice cream were given to the survivors and their transfer to the military hospital began. Then the Fulton's men undertook the refitting of the PAMPANITO, furnishing decontamination, new dungarees, skivies, new blankets and new mattress covers.
When the SEALION received the quest of the PAMPANITO to aid in the rescue she proceeded to the area at flank speed. She arrived near the scene of the sinking shortly before dusk on the third day after she had torpedoed the Rakuyo Maru. Bodies were floating amid debris. There were heavy oil slicks. Then the SEALlON sighted men on rafts and began taking them aboard. In all she rescued 54, but four later died on the way to Saipan. Two of them were not identified, for they were continuously in a coma.
One of the survivors told this story to Commander Reich:
"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."
The Pharmacist's Mate on the SEALION, Roy J. Williams, Jr., was praised, along with other members of the crew of the SEALION, for their untiring, unselfish efforts to nurse the survivors back to health during the trip to Saipan. The SEALION also took aboard medical men from the CASE, Lieutenant Commander George N. Schiff, and William A. Cumpston, Pharmacist's Mate, First Class, who helped the survivors until they were taken to the General Hospital.
The two other submarines, the BARB and the QUEENFISH, had also received a request to aid in the rescue. They had to travel so great a distance that despite flank speed they were unable to reach the scene until five days after the Rakuyo Maru went down.
En route to the scene they encountered another enemy convoy. Their first mission was the rescue, but the commanding officers judged that they would not be able to effect any rescue except in daylight, and when they spotted the convoy they calculated that they would have a leeway of a couple of hours to work on the convoy. There was no moon. They moved in for the attack.
The BARB, under command of Commander Eugene B. Fluckey, hit a large tanker and the ship exploded. Commander Fluckey reported that there was a ball of fire 500 feet in diameter shooting up into the night sky. Then, just before midnight, a 22,500-ton aircraft carrier was spotted. "Ye Gods, a flat top!" exclaimed the submariners. Torpedoes went "flying."
The BARB submerged to avoid being rammed. While submerged her men could hear depth charges, heavy underwater explosions, whistlings, cracklings, the sounds of a ship breaking up. It was the end of the enemy flat top. Then the BARB resumed its mission of mercy.
"As an after thought," said the Commanding Officer, "having seen the piteous plight of the 14 survivors we rescued, I can say that I would forego the pleasure of an attack on a Jap Task Force to rescue only one of them. There is little room for sentiment in submarine warfare, but the measure of saving one Allied life against sinking a Jap ship is one which leaves no question, once experienced."
The BARB searched the farthest possible area considering the tide and the wind. She passed frequently through wreckage and passed floating bodies. Then came upon men on rafts. The men were covered with grease and oil, a disguised blessing that saved them from being hideously burned by the sun. All of the men were 25 to 30 pounds underweight and were suffering from malaria, dysentery, pellagra, sores and ulcers.
"The at first dubious, then amazed, and finally hysterically thankful looks on their faces, from the time they first sighted us approach them, is one we shall never forget," said Commander Fluckey. "Several were too weak to take the lines thrown them. These were secured by the valiant efforts of Lieutenant Commander Robert E. McNitt, Lieutenant James F. Lanier, and Traville S. Houston, Motor Machinist's Mate, Second Class who dived after them.
"Too much credit cannot be given to the crew for their superb performance and willing efforts in the production line we had formed from the deck party who picked them up stripped them, and passed them on to the transportation gang to get them below, where they were received by the cleaners who removed the oil and grease, then to the 'doctors' and 'nurses' for treatment, thence to the feeders, and finally to the sleepers who carried them off and tucked them in their bunks."
He praised William E. Donnelly, Chief Pharmacist's Mate. "Through his untiring efforts, working day and night, these men were brought over the hump without the loss of a single life."
"The appreciation of the survivors," said Commander Fluckey, "was unbounded. Even those who couldn't talk expressed themselves tearfully through their glazed, oil-soaked eyes.
One survivor remarked, "Matey, we're in safe hands at last!"
Another said, "Three years without a drink of brandy; please give me another."
Still another said cheerfully, "Be sure to wake me up for chow."
On the next day the BARB continued to search for survivors. But the typhoon was moving in. The wind was up to 35 knots and the seas were very heavy. Commander Fluckey believed it was impossible for any other survivors to last the night. Finally, when the wind picked up to 60 knots, the BARB pulled away. En route to Saipan the crew of the BARB passed the hat and raised $300 as a stake for the survivors.
The QUEENFISH, under command of Commander Charles E. Loughlin, sent torpedoes into a large transport on her way to the rescue scene. There was a terrific explosion and its flash lighted up the horizon. The submarine proceeded to the rescue scene and arrived shortly after the BARB. By late afternoon she had picked up 18 men.
Commander Loughlin's report said: "By this time the sea and wind began to pick up, making the rescue work extremely hazardous. Only in a few cases were the weakened and emaciated survivors able to assist in their recovery and the officers and men on deck did yeoman service in lifting them bodily from the water. In one instance Lieutenant (junior grade) Edwin A. Desmond, Jr., plunged into the water to tow back to the ship a raft on which sat a survivor who was too weak to reach for a heavy line that had fallen at his feet."
Commander Loughlin also highly praised the rescue work of Lieutenant John E. Bennett, Robert J. Reed, Coxswain, Laurence F. Nadeau Jr., Torpedoman's Mate, Third Class, Otto B. Hendricks, Chief Quartermaster, Thurmond E. Milliren, Seaman First Class.
The QUEENFISH continued to search for survivors despite the heavy sea, but only empty rafts and lifeless bodies were sighted. The wind rose and water started coming in the conning tower.
"The rough weather," said Commander Loughlin, "effectively sealed the fate of any possible remaining survivors and materially added to the discomfort of those on board. Not one word of complaint was heard and it was with the utmost feeling of respect for their courage and fortitude we later transferred our passengers.
Every consideration was given survivors. They were placed in the forward torpedo room. Lieutenant (junior grade) John H. Epps. and Harold Dixon, Chief Pharmacist's Mate, were in charge of the group giving individual attention to the survivors.
Commander Loughlin said, "Very little could be done for two who were recovered with great difficulty, and who remained in a coma until they died, but the remaining 16 reacted almost immediately to water, food, hot baths and medical treatment administered by Dixon. It is interesting to note that not one word of recrimination was uttered concerning the sinking, but only fervent gratitude that they had been rescued."
Seven days later the survivors were transferred to the hospital from the QUEENFlSH, terminating the rescue. After hospitalization, the Australians were taken to their homeland direct and the British were taken to Pearl Harbor and thence across the United States to their homeland.
(The Sinking of Rokuyo Maru by an unknown Navy author is from the "Commissioning Program" of the USS FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT at the New York Navy Yard on October 27, ?945.
--- submitted by SubVet Peter J. Keenan who did his submarining in USS MINGO (SS 261).
ADDENDA, Submitted by: Becca Kenneison
I was very interested to find the account on your website about the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru, and I hope you don’t mind, but I have printed off two copies. One I have given to an elderly friend/relation, George, and one I have kept for reference.
One of the men who did not survive the sinking was a lad of about 20 named Ronnie Seimund; after the war, his cousin married my cousin, and before the war, he was close friends with George.
Both Ronnie and George were born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya – now Malaysia – into the Eurasian community, and they were both members of the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force. They belonged to the Light (Artillery) Battery and, with their close friend Willy, took part in the Malaya Campaign.
At the Fall of Singapore they were both marched off to Changi Prison. George is very dark – he looks like an Indian – and on the third day he saw a group of Indian labourers who had been working in the jail being taken out. Thinking quickly, he asked Willy to look after his kit, wrapped his shirt around his head like a turban and slipped out with the labourers. He couldn’t take Willy as he was very fair for a Eurasian and would have been picked up at once by the Japanese; and he couldn’t take Ronnie because he was nowhere to be seen at the crucial moment.
George’s adventures were by no means over, but he survived the war; he ended up with Force 136 only to find that one of the officers was his childhood mate and my father’s cousin, Jeffrey. Jeffrey was killed just after the end of the war, but George is still going strong: he is now a great old guy of 86.
After the war he found out that Willy had died whilst on grave-digging detail in Singapore, and that Ronnie had been lost at sea. You can tell when he talks about it that he still feels bad for leaving them behind in Changi.
One man who did survive the sinking – I’m not sure if he was rescued by a sub or by the Japanese – was a Russian musician called George Koodravsev, who had worked pre-war in Singapore. Post-war, he returned to Singapore where he met and married Jeffrey’s widow.
I just thought that might interest you, and if it does, please take it as a thank you for putting the Rakuyo Maru article up on the site. I suppose you know that there is some cine footage of the rescue on YouTube?