Ex Prisoner of War of the Japanese and survivor of the sinking of the “hellship” Rakuyō Maru, Harold David Martin again attended the Anzac service services at Hellfire Pass and Kanchanaburi in 2018. The following is his story:
Harold David Martin Service Number WX204 of 2/10 Ordnance Work Shops was one of the Prisoners of War who survived the sinking of the “hellship” Rakuyō Maru on the morning of 12 September 1944.
Harold was born at Kanowna, Western Australia on January 1, 1917. Enlisted 11 Dec 1940 enlistment depot 164 Bourke Street, Kalgoorlie, WA. Address at enlistment Claremont WA. Next of kin Emma Martin. Date of discharge 17 May 1945. Rank Private. Post at discharge Second 10th Ordnance Workshop Company. After training the unit embarked Sydney 10 Jan1942. The unit was landed from transports at Borneo and taken from there to Singapore in “pig-boats”* (see below). Disembarked Singapore 26 Jan 1942.
An expanded version of the travel to Singapore is mentioned in DonWall’s book. He stated ‘In all likelihood he (Private Martin sailed for Singapore with many others on the Aquatania. That ship sailed initially from Port Moresby 4 January then to Sydney. Left Sydney 10 January direct to Fremantle arriving 15 January. Left Fremantle 16 January bound for Singapore. Short of Singapore, probably in the Sunda Straits on 20/21 January transhipped to Dutch small vessels (6)* and moved into Singapore.
Soon after landing the group was sent up country in Johore but shortly after returned to Singapore and set up their workshop at the Hume Pipe Works. They remained there till Feb 8th when the works were shelled and they were in Singapore until the capitulation of Feb 15th.
They were sent by the Japanese to the Changi P.O.W. camp and were there for three months. They were employed in the building of a Japanese memorial in Raffles Square in place of the Raffles monument which was pulled down. While at Changi they were fairly well treated by the Japanese regular troops who were the guards but were warned by them that when they were sent up country the treatment would not be good as there were Koreans in charge of prisoners. They were eventually sent to the Thailand Burma railway. Martin was said to be driving a truck at Singapore.
According to the Australian War Memorial, Private Harold David Martin was a POW in Thailand who was returned to Australia after the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru and was discharged on 17 May 1945 as a recovered casualty. He was in A Force. Note:‘The men on the Rakuyo Maru were all ex-Burma men (that is A Force plus Williams and Black Forces)”.
They were at Changi POW camp for ‘three months’. A Force left Singapore in May 1942 and worked along the Railway from the Burma end (Kilo 0 Thanbyuzayat).
Martin was at Kilo 118 (Kami (Upper) Songkurai) at one stage. All survivors of the Railway, including A Force (that had started from Burma), were evacuated from the Thailand end of the Railway some time after the Railway was completed on 17 October 1943. A Force men working on the Railway were passing through the area of the F Force camp of Kami (Upper) Songkurai at Kilo 118. (It is noted in DonWall’s book that A Force’s Commander, Brigadier Varley, had himself gone beyond this point, to Kilo 133 Camp (Neike), by October 1943.)
Harold Martin was among POWs who had returned from the Burma Railway and were on the Japanese transport ship Rakuyo Maru headed for Japan when it was torpedoed by the USS Sealion II on 12 September 1944. He was picked up three days later by another submarine, the USS Pampanito, and subsequently returned to Australia. The highest-ranking Australian POW on the Railway, Brigadier Arthur Varley was apparently machine-gunned in the water by the Japanese. Some POWs including Doctor Rowley Richards, were rescued by the Japanese and taken to Japan, whilst others including Martin, were rescued by US submarines. In November 1944—more than one year after the Railway had been completed—the Australian public learnt through the rescued POWs of many details of the capture, ordeals and fate of the men on the Burma Thailand Railway.
Harold returned home to his wife, Molly, and young son, Ray, in late 1944, and their family was blessed with four more children.
Background to the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru. In May 1942 the Japanese began transferring POWs by sea. Similar to treatment on the Bataan Death March, prisoners were crammed into cargo holds with little air. Many died due to asphyxia, starvation or dysentery, some POWs became delirious and unresponsive in their environment of heat, humidity and lack of oxygen, food, and water. These unmarked prisoner transports were targeted as enemy ships by Allied submarines, more than 20,000 Allied POWs died at sea when the transport ships carrying them were attacked by Allied submarines and aircraft.
A force of 2,300 prisoners commanded by Brigadier A. L. Varley left Singapore on 6th September 1944. These men had previously worked on the Burma-Thailand Railway. In the group were 649 Australians who embarked on the Rakuyo Maru. Off East Hainan Island the Rakuyo Maru was torpedoed and sunk at around 5:00am on 12/09/1944 by US submarine Sealion and 503 AIF, 33 RAN and 7 RAAF personnel were lost. 80 survivors were rescued by USS Pampanito SS 38.
The log of the USS Pampanito recorded:
“1605. A bridge lookout sighted some men on a raft, so stood by small arms, and closed to investigate.
1634. The men were covered with oil and filth and we could not make them out…. They were shouting but we couldn’t understand what they were saying, except made out words “Pick us up please.” Called rescue party on deck and took them off the raft. There were about fifteen (15) British and Australian Prisoner of War survivors on this raft from a ship sunk the night of 11-12 September 1944. We learned they were en-route from Singapore to Formosa and that there were over thirteen hundred on the sunken ship.
After four days of drifting on makeshift rafts they were in extremely bad shape. Most were covered with oil from the sunken tanker, and had long since used up what little food and water they had with them. Slowly, the story of what had occurred was unveiled by the survivors brought aboard Pampanito.
* “Hell ship” – A hell ship is a ship with extremely unpleasant living
conditions or with a reputation for cruelty among the crew”.
The crew of Pampanito spent four hours rescuing as many survivors as could be found. Volunteer teams were formed to get the almost helpless men aboard. Some of Pampanito’s crew dived into the water with lines to attach to the rafts so they could be brought in close enough for others, on deck and on the saddle tanks, to carefully lift the men aboard. Crew members swam out to rescue the POWs, leaving the relative safety of the sub and risking being left behind if the boat had to dive. It was a tense and emotional period as the shocked crew worked to save as many of the oil soaked survivors as possible. During the rescue many of the crew came topside to help. If an Imperial Japanese plane attacked at that time they would have been left on deck as Pampanito dived to avoid attack.
During the five-day trip to Saipan, the nearest Allied port, the survivors were berthed in the crew’s quarters amidships and on the empty torpedo skids and bunks in the after torpedo room where they were cared for by the crew. Some of the survivors were critically ill and in need of medical attention. Submarines carried no doctor on board, so the monumental task of treating these men became the responsibility of the only man on board with training in medicine, Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Maurice L. Demers who, worked around the clock. dangerously close to total exhaustion.
A message was sent to Pearl Harbor relaying what had happened with a request that more submarines be called in to continue the rescue. The only other boats in the area were Queenfish and Barb; they were ordered in as soon as possible. Both boats were 450 miles west in pursuit of a convoy, but when they received the new orders they dropped the track and headed full speed to the rescue area.
Queenfish and Barb arrived at 0530 on the 17th to begin their search for rafts among the floating debris. Just after 1300 they located several rafts and began to pick up the few men still alive. They only had a few hours to search before a typhoon moved in, sealing the fate of those survivors not picked up in time. Before the storm hit, Queenfish found 18 men, and Barb found 14 men. The boats headed on to Saipan after a final search following the storm revealed no further survivors.
Of the 1,318 POWs on the Rakuyo Maru sunk by Sealion, 159 had been rescued by the four submarines: 73 on Pampanito, 54 on Sealion and the 32 found by Queenfish and Barb. It was later learned that the Imperial Japanese had rescued 136 for a total of 295 survivors.
Those picked up by the Japanese were sent to the Kawasaki group of factories, and Moji and Sakata prison camps.
The story of the sinking of the HMAS Perth, the Burma Thailand Railway, the “Hell” Ships’, the sinking of the Rakuro Maru and the ordeal of the Prisoners of War of the Japanese is one of the more horrific of the World War11 events.
Official Japanese records tell a grim story: of 55,279 Allied POWs transported by sea, 10,853 drowned, including 3,632 Americans. At least 500 perished at sea from disease and thirst. The destination of 90 percent of those vessels was Japan. 106 members of HMAS Perth crew died as POWs. Of a crew of 681 only 214 returned to Australia.