Stories about and by Submariners: 
WWII - Submariners save P.O.W.'s

SUBMARINES Rescue P.O.W.s in WWII

(Edited from U.S. SUBMARINE OPERATIONS, WW-II, U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE)

In March 1944 the Japanese at Singapore were cheering the completion of a railroad which had been built by the slave labor of British, Australian and native Prisoners-of-War. This iron trail had cost the lives of 22,000 POW's, abject victims of the Tojo treatment which included a starvation diet, brutal floggings and finger-snap medical care. The survivors of this barbarous railroading were worked from March to September on the docks at Singapore, while the Japs waited for ships, delayed by the submarine menace, to transport them to Japan. There they were to slave in the Emperor's factories and mines.

On September 6, a convoy of six ships with five escorts left Singapore for Japan. Crammed aboard RAKUYO MARU were 1,350 English and Australian captives.

Some 750 of their fellows were stuffed like cattle into the holds of another ship. Of the four other ships of the convoy, one was a heavily-ladened transport, another was a large freighter carrying rubber and rice, and the remaining two were loaded oil tankers. Several days after sailing, this group was joined by three passenger-cargomen and two more escorts from the Philippines. On the night of September 11-12, the convoy was proceeding northward in three columns, three ships to a column, the DD SHIKINAMI leading the center column and three small escort vessels riding herd on each flank.

This was the convoy that fell prey to the torpedoes of "Ben's Busters":

GROWLER (CDR T.B. Oakley), PAMPANITO (LCDR P.E. Summers) and SEALION-II (CDR E.T. Reich).

Between 0100 and 0130 on the 12th, all three submarines contacted the convoy by radar some 300 miles off Hainan. The submarines swung into action.

  • At 0155 GROWLER attacked from the convoy's starboard side, and put a torpedo into KIRADO, the leading escort vessel on the starboard bow. This craft, a frigate, blew up amidships, burst into flames and sank within a few minutes. The sky began to flash, reflecting gunfire from the other escorts, and Oakley's submarine withdrew to make an end-around and a second attack.
  • At 0524 Commander E.T. Reich drove SEALION-II into attack on the convoy's starboard side. In two minutes' time, Reich slammed two torpedoes in the passanger-cargoman NANKAI MARU in the center of the formation, another torpedo into a large transport leading the right column, and two more into RAKUYO MARU. The Japanese aboard RAKUYO MARU immediately abandoned. The unfortunate prisoners, left to fend for themselves, somehow got free of the ship and into the water.
  • At 0653 GROWLER attacked and sank the destroyer SHIKINAMI. Then NANKAI MARU went down about an hour later and RAKUYO MARU sank late in the afternoon.

During the day, most of the Japanese were picked up by escorts, while the prisoners in the water were held at bay by rifles and pistols. By nightfall the miserable men, abandoned, were swimming desperately, or clinging helplessly to mats of wreckage. Nearly all were smeared from head to foot with the crude oil which covered the water's surface.

After sundown the prospect of survival seemed slim indeed. But these castaways were to have an unexpected deliverance.

Throughout the day PAMPANITO had tracked the convoy, but had been unable to attack because GROWLER and SEALION-II were attacking and because the convoy changed course and fled toward Hong Kong. But PAMPANITO hung on doggedly as her captain directed the chase.

  • At 2240, the submarine was in position for as surface attack. Summers fired nine torpedoes at the four remaining merchantmen. Seven torpedoes hit home. One salvo sank the tanker ZUIHO MARU and another sank the passenger-cargo carrier KACHIDOKI MARU. Now more POW's struggled desperately in the water as PAMPANITO evaded the escorts, and cleared the vicinity, the submariners unaware, as were those aboard GROWLER and SEALION-II, that allies were in dire need of help.

On September 14 GROWLER departed the area. But SEALION-II and PAMPANITO remained. On the afternoon of the 15th, PAMPANITO, passing through the waters where she made her attack, discovered a crude raft loaded with men. Summers sized up the situation at once abd PAMPANITO began picking up survivors as fast as she could locate them.

Her patrol reports tell the dramatic story:

"As men were received on board, we stripped them and removed most of the heavy coating of oil and muck. We cleared the after torpedo room and passed them below as quickly as possible. Gave all men a piece of cloth moistened with water to suck on. All of them were exhausted after four days on the raft and three years' imprisonment. Many had lashed themselves to their makeshift rafts which were slick with grease; and had nothing but life belts with them.

All showed signs of pellagra, beri-beri, immersion, sal water sores, ring-worm, malaria, etc. All were very thin and showed the results of under-nourishment. 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 Nips."

"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."

  • At 1710 of the day (the 15th) PAMPANITO sent a message to SEALION-II asking help. From that hour forward, the submariners raced with darkness. SEALION-II gave a hand, and the two submarines combed the area, picking up survivors.
  • By 2000, no more men could be safely accommodated aboard the overcrowded submarines. The two headed full-speed for Saipan.

LCDR Reich expressed the feelings of the submariners as he wrote,

"It was heartbreaking to leave so many dying men behind."

PAMPANITO had rescued 73 and SEALION-II 54.

As soon as he received the word, ComSubPac ordered BARB and QUEENFISH, then in Luzon Strait, to proceed to the rescue area and hunt for survivors. By the afternoon of September 17, these two submarines were combing the waters where the derelicts had last been seen. BARB had sunk a Japanese escort carrier the day before. But Fluckey was always ready for the sort of assignment involving a rescue.

He wrote:

0100 (17th). Received orders from ComWolfPack to proceed to survivor area.

"I heartily agree. As an after thought inserted here, 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 any one of them. There is little room for sentiment in submarine warefare, but the measure of saving one Allied life against sinking a Jap ship is one which leaves no question, once experienced."

Rescue parties, consisting of crack swimmers, hauling-out, delivery, and stripping parties, had immediately been organized. BARB and QUEENFISH ran a race against the threat of enemy attack, heavy seas, and wind which was whipping up to typhoon velocity. Incredibly enough, survivors were found and picked up. Swimmers took lines to those who could not be reached from the deck or were too weak to hold fast. The hauling-out parties hoisted the oil-coated, half-conscious men to the deck, where the delivery and stripping parties peeled their wretched clothes and led or carried them below. The search went forward until the afternoon of September 18, when a 60-knot wind forced the two submarines to discontinue and head for Saipan.

By that time, it was certain that no living survivors remained.

When BARB and QUEENFISH completed their rescue mission, 32 more British and Australian survivors had been rescued. Altogether, 159 were picked up by the four submarines, but seven died before the submarines reached port.

Concerning their condition and the care given them, LCDR Summers of PAMPANITO wrote:

"The problem of habitability was an acute problem with the seventy-three survivors aboard plus our complement of eighty officers and men, but by careful planning and supervision the situation was kept under control and all hands fared very well. The survivors were long used to being in cramped space and even the small space allotted them brought no complaints. The crew was crowded too but cheerfully stood their regular watches and "nurse-maid watch."

All survivors, except six of the more critical cases, were berthed in the after-torpedo room. This required ingenuity in devising bunks from torpedo racks and deck space, but with two in each bunk and three or four in each torpedo rack most of them made out better than you might imagine.

All men were infected to various extents with beri-beri, scurvy, malaria, and other skin irritations. Strict segregation from the crew was necessary. Two officers were assigned to manage the problems and a two-man "nurse-maid watch" was kept in the after torpedo room in addition to the Pharmacist's Mate and two volunteer assistants (one Ship's Cook and one Seaman) who were working continuously.

The first problem was getting the men on board. In their weakened condition and due to the fact that they were covered with heavy crude oil, the actual recovery was quite a task.

Many of the men could help themselves but the majority had to be lifted bodily on board."

"The next problem was to make an attempt to clean some of the oil off before sending them, below to treat their immediate medical needs. Several required hypo shots but for the most part a little oil wiped from their eyes and mouth, a wet rag to cool their parched salt-sore lips and throats, and a strong "Yankee" hand to help them get below were sufficient.

"While still topside their clothes were cut away and they were given a diesel oil sponge bath to remove most of the heavy crude oil. Getting the weakened ones down the hatch was quite a job until in the middle of one recovery operation, three planes were sighted (turned out to be false contact).

You should have seen them run for the hatch when the words "Jap planes" were passed. Once below, the main problem was further examination to determine their injuries and sicknesses. Water was their most acute need and they were given plenty (in small amounts at first). Hot soup, tea and broth followed, and they were soon sleeping the sound sleep of thoroughly exhausted men."

BARB's CDR Fluckey, inimitable stylist, wrote:

"A word on the survivors. All were covered with a heavy coating of oil received when they drifted through an oil slick their second night on the rafts. This undoubtedly save their lives. They were in the water or on their small wooden life rafts for a period of five days before being picked up. This in addition to 3-years of prision life under the Japs which included bashings, beating, starvation (all survivors were 25-50 pounds under weight), malaria, dysentery, pellagra, sores, ulcers, etc., had left them in terrible physical condition.

The at first dubious, then amazed, and finally hysterically thankful look on their faces, from the time they sighted us approaching them, is one we shall never forget. Several of them were too weak to take the lines thrown them. These were rescued by the valiant efforts of LCDR R.W. NcNitt, LTJG J.G. Lanier, and Houston, G.S., MoMM2c who dove in 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 on 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."

"The appreciation of the survivors was unbounded. Even those who couldn't talk expressed themselves tearfully through their glazed, oil-soaked eyes.

We regret there were no more, for we had found it possible, by taking over every square foot of space aboard ship, sleeping three to a torpedo rack, etc., to accommodate a hundred."