- Book reviewer
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
On 10 May the Australian passenger/ cargo liner Nankin en route from Fremantle to Bombay was sighted, with Thor opening fire at maximum range, scoring several direct hits. Nankin’s crew abandoned ship but not before attempting to scuttle her, however a German boarding party repaired the damage. Renamed Leuthen and under a prize crew she steamed to Japan. Nankin had 75 passengers, many of them women and children who were transferred directly to Regensburg. This placed considerable strain on Regensburg’s resources; accordingly the women and children, 105 prisoners termed non-combatants, and the sick (including David) were transferred to the German ex- passenger/cargo liner Dresden, taking them to Yokohama. They reached the Japanese port on 11 July 1942 where they were temporarily transferred to another German support ship Ramses. By this time their numbers had increased to 137 men, women and children. The last part of the journey was by train to Tokyo; here they changed trains for Fukushima.
Fukushima was a small provincial town lying 250 km north of the capital. In 1935 an order of French-Canadian nuns had built a substantial convent here along European lines. The nuns vacated the convent to accept the internees which were known as ‘prisoners of the German Government being temporarily housed in Japan’ whilst arrangements were made for their exchange. Being remote and the inmates not being official prisoners of war, the Fukushima convent was for a long time unknown to the Red Cross and its inmates had been recorded as missing at sea, presumed dead. It was not until March 1944 that the Red Cross became aware of its existence and five
months later the patient Muriel, at home with the boys in Barry, received a telegram from the War Office advising that David was alive and a prisoner of war in Japan.
Conditions at the camp were spartan and life under Japanese guards was severe, with punishments handed out for the slightest misdemeanour. The males were separated from females and children, but somewhat surprisingly the chapel remained open and could be used for short periods daily, with males seated on one side and females on the other. The greatest cause of unrest was the meagre rations available; although the convent had extensive gardens in which the internees worked; they had very limited recourse to the produce. Four more internees were to later join the camp; two men and one woman died and two children were born there. Tragically a 31 year old stewardess was killed at the war’s end when a canister with welcome food supplies dropped by a low flying American aircraft struck the poor woman, crushing her against a masonry wall.
On 16 August 1945 news came of their release from captivity but for their own safety they were advised to remain within the camp. On 11 September, after 3½ years of captivity, the now free men, women and children of Fukushima were given 1½ hours to pack their meagre belongings and be ready for the journey home. They were taken by train to Shiogama to board the hospital ship USS Rescue, but only to be medically checked and given clothing, a warm bed and hot breakfast. The next day they transferred to the Australian destroyer HMAS Warramunga which overnight had berthed alongside Rescue. Then after a 10 hour passage they were back in Yokohama to transfer to the British light aircraft carrier HMS Ruler which took them, plus more from other camps (a total of 445 passengers) to Sydney, arriving on 27 September. Here the ex-prisoners of Fukushima went their different ways. David returned to the UK in the troopship Andes, finally to be re-united with Muriel and his much older boys on 5 December 1945.
Readjustment for David and the family was difficult. He returned to sea and a year later the family migrated to New Zealand where David gained employment with the Meteorological Office. Andy was to follow his father’s footsteps, joining the Royal New Zealand Navy. Muriel died at Keri Keri in August 2003 and David died there three months later on 4 December 2003 after a marriage lasting 67 years.
Two other significant events occur which interplay with the narrative. Firstly on 30 November 1942 after refitting at Yokohama, the Thor was nearing readiness for sea after being stored and re-ammunitioned from the supply ship Uckermark with Nankin/Leuthen lying nearby. A spark caused by dockyard work aboard Uckermark resulted in a massive explosion in her fuel tanks with fire engulfing and destroying all three ships and a Japanese freighter. A total of 66 German sailors were lost in the fire. Secondly the well built Fukushima convent withstood a number of earth tremors during the time it was used as a prison camp and, although spared Allied bombing, it was pummelled by well meaning American air drops. Sadly the devastating Fukushima 9.3 magnitude earthquake and tsunami which occurred in March 2011 resulted in irreparable damage to the buildings, which have recently been demolished.