Sinking of the Tamahoko Maru
24 June 1944- survivors to Nagasaki

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Report of Draft sent from Java to Japan and information regarding the Tamahoko Maru

Original at Australian War Museum and copy at NARA
Prepared by:
Lt. John Hickley, RN, Senior surviving English Officer
Lt. Van Oortmensen, RNEI Army, Senior surviving Dutch Officer
Lt. Lance Gibson, AIF, Senior surviving Australian Officer
Sub-Lt Philip Cranefield, RN

This draft was formed at Adek Camp Batavia and began assembling there on 9th May 1944, the company officers being transferred from Cycle Camp on 10th May: the men were drawn from Cycle Camp, Kampong Macassar, Adek and Buitenzorg. Major J.D. Morris A.I.F. was in command; and the final draft consisted of four companies of 150 men and 1 officer, a company of 125 men and one officer and a H.Q. company of 48. These last two mainly consisted of a special medical party of 30 doctors and 60 medical orderlies, 2 men acting as priests were included in H.Q. The total number was 41 officers and 737 men of which 197 were English 42 American 258 Australian and 281 Dutch. The draft was completed in nine days and was supplied from a Red Cross consignment with shoes and adequate medical supplies - a feature of the draft was the almost complete lack of sickness.

The draft embarked a.m. on 19th May in "Kiska Maru" of about 3,500 tons, one Dutchman being left at Tanjong Priok with dysentry [Tanjong Priok was the port for Batavia, now known as Jakarta]. The ship sailed for Singapore via Banka Strait and arrived in Keppel Harbour at 1600 on 22nd May [1944], the prisoners being transported in lorries to Havelock Road Camp. (A German U-boat of about 2,000 tons with a closed bridge was alongside and provided some interest as she had two shell-holes in the stern). Indian troops were in the remainder of the camp and, under a Lieutenant R.I.A.S.C., supplied the party out of their own rations. A "glass rod test" was held during the stay here, as a result of which 1 Australian and 4 Dutchmen were detached from the draft.

At 0800 on 2nd June 1 [1944], 772 men marched from the camp to the docks and were taken out in landing barges to the ship lying in the Roads. She was a vessel [name unknown] of between 4,000-5,000 tons, loaded with bauxite, and the prisoners were put in the forward between-decks under Nos. 2 & 3 hatches- as 300 men slept on deck, everyone was able to lie full length at night. The ship sailed on 3rd of June and formed [into] one of a convoy of 11 ships, 3 of which were carrying prisoners of war, escorted by 4 small corvettes. Naturally all were apprehensive of submarines, and this feeling was accentuated when the leading corvette was torpedoed on the night 6th/7th June.

Kapok lifebelts were provided, but the sergeant of the guard would not allow them to be issued to the prisoners, but on 8th June Major Morris at last succeeded in having them issued. On 11th June the convoy arrived in Manila Bay anchoring off the town and stayed 2 days, sailing on the morning of 14th as a convoy of 10 ships escorted by 3 corvettes, a minelayer and a whaling ship for Formosa. We proceeded close inshore northward along the west coast of Luzon for 2 days and on leaving the N.W., point ran into a heavy storm during which the ship received damage, and on arrival at Takao on 18th June, began [to] immediately to discharge her cargo.

The following morning, the draft was transferred to a larger cargo ship of 6,700 tons [Tamahoko Maru]which was loading quarter cargo of rice and sugar and which also carried about 500 Japanese servicemen aft, all of whom bore the appearance of survivors. The accommodation consisted of the forward between decks which extended from forecastle bulkhead to the bridge under Nos. 1 & 2 hatches. About 300 men again slept on deck forward, 20 cooks abaft the bridge and the remainder below decks. The Korean guards were also below, occupying a space on the starboard side level with No. 2 hatch and the officers slept round the foremast. Life belts were again provided, but not issued, despite protests, and were stacked against the ship's side forward of the guards. Access to the hold was by wooden ladders under each hatch. There were a number of balsa rafts on deck secured to the guardrails.

The convoy, consisting of 12 ships escorted by 2 corvettes a minelayer and the whaling ship, left Formosa 20th June, the next few days being pleasantly cool after the tropics. At 11:50 pm on 24th June 1944, in approximate position 40 miles S.W. of Nagasaki, we were awoken by an explosion as another ship in the convoy was torpedoed and within seconds another torpedo hit our ship just forward of the bridge on the starboard side, blowing the covers off the hatches. This explosion must have killed many men sleeping on them and numbers of others on deck are known to have been struck by falling debris. Also there were now two large holes in the deck of the hold and many men, rushing for the ladders which had been blown away, must have fallen into the cargo. Other men rushed toward the life belts and were so trapped. Escape by those below was made by means of the iron ladders under the hatches, or, for the most part, by being washed out by the sea. It has been estimated that the ship sank in less than 2 minutes.

The balsa rafts were cut adrift by the late Gunner J. Brookes (35th AA Regt RA), possibly assisted by the late Chief Engine Room Artificer C. Mellish R.A.N. (HMAS "Perth") who throughout the draft was most efficient as disciplinary N.C.O. [Cedric Erryl Bell Mellish, RAN, of Armidale, NSW, died in sinking of Tamahoko Maru, 44.06.24]

Finding themselves in the water, most prisoners managed to gain these rafts or other wreckage and settled down with the Japanese survivors to wait for dawn, all nationalities helping each other. Fortunately no depth charges were dropped nearby by the escort and at dawn a corvette lowered her boats and picked up Japanese, leaving the prisoners on the wreckage. At about 0700 the small whaling ship came up and lowered rope ladders. On receipt of an order from her bridge, the prisoners were allowed on board and were put on the forecastle deck under a small gun-platform. This craft specialized in picking up prisoners and was most efficiently handled during the process. Some men were picked up by boats from the corvettes and put on board the whaling ship; 2 aircraft also co-operated. 7 prisoners were picked up by a corvette which later came practically alongside when they were thrown back into the sea to swim to the whalecatcher, but unfortunately two non-swimmers were drowned. A thorough search of the area was made, and as far as could be seen, no one was left in the water. Four Korean guards were also saved including one who all along had been most helpful to Major Morris and this man proved very useful as interpreter during the rescue and subsequent proceedings.

The. ship with 211 prisoners arrived in Nagasaki at 12:30 pm and after a cold hungry wait the prisoners were landed at 1800. During this period a Japanese doctor and two nurses came to treat the sick, but their sole equipment was Mercurochrome and their attention most perfunctory.

Lorries transported the prisoners to Fukuoka 14 camp, in the Mitsubishi factories, where a hot meal, clothes and sleeping mats were provided. A further survivor was brought in two days later and later still the ashes of a Dutch doctor and an Australian private - so it must be presumed that the remaining 560 men lost their lives in this disaster.
* includes 13 men of the S.S. American Leader per George Duncan

A Captain Takata of the Japanese P.O.W. Information Bureau later visited the camp to secure a signed statement of the sinking from the surviving officers. Advantage was taken of this opportunity to criticize several points, chiefly the entrusting of a draft of this size to the whim of a sergeant, and his subsequent refusal. to issue life belts which might have saved more lives, and also conditions, health etc. in Fukuoka 14 - subsequent improvements in the camp may well have been due to this visit.

For six weeks, the party lived in crowded conditions in the camp after which they joined up with the old camp and started work in the factories. During this period the camp staff were fairly sympathetic, though comforts and medicines were scarce.

/S/Lt. John Hickley, RN, Senior surviving English Officer
/S/Lt. Van Oortmensen, RNEI Army, Senior surviving Dutch Officer
/S/Lt. Lance Gibson, AIF, Senior surviving Australian Officer
[Lance Aldworth Gibson, 2/3 Aust Machine Gun Bn]
/S/Sub-Lt Philip Cranefield, RN