- Bee, W.A. ("Buzzer")
- Biographies and personal histories, WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Perth I
- September 1987 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
‘AND THE DAWN CAME UP LIKE THUNDER out of Java across the Bay’. These few words echoing an amended version of the famous song ‘On the Road to Mandalay’, seemed very appropriate on that fateful morning of 1st March 1942. The bay in this case too, happens to be Bantam Bay on the north-west coast of Java at the entrance to Sunda Strait where both HMAS Perth and USS Houston now rested after a gruelling night action against overwhelming odds.
Despite the sound of gunfire from ashore and the fact that the Japanese were now consolidating their earlier landing on Java, to many of the 600 or so Allied sailors in the water the beach appeared to be their only salvation. Most of us had our Mae West life jackets strapped on, some were seen to be clinging to all manner of flotsam and jetsam while others including myself, were fortunate enough to find a ship’s lifeboat that just happened to be part of the debris. This small boat bore the name ‘Sakura Maru’, evidently from one of the Japanese invasion transports which we had sunk.
Goodness knows how long I had been paddling about in the water tenaciously hanging on to my piece of timber, when I came up with this boat. In the dark, I was attracted by the sound of a number of voices with familiar accents and the occasional thump-thump of boat noises like oars and rowlocks being used. Luckily, one of my mess-mates in Leading Signalman Ken (Slug) Elliott appeared to have taken charge here and I managed to grasp the holding rope looped around the gunwale, eventually to be dragged inboard. The boat was well down in the water and I guess there would have been at least 30 of us altogether, as many hanging on the outside as there were crammed in the boat, so that headway was just about impossible. We took turns in being inside or out of the boat and anyone carrying obvious injuries was not expected to leap overboard, for which I was very grateful on account of the shrapnel wound to my right leg which bled profusely without the aid of a tourniquet. I was able to do a stint on the oars, however.
Once during the night we became exposed to the full glare of a warship’s searchlight beam and we held our breath as it came closer towards us. Its menacing presence was short lived, however, as after identifying us as non Jap, the destroyer turned away leaving us to our own devices, temporarily at least.
We had been wallowing about in the water for nearly six hours when the hot tropic sun emerged like a giant fireball through the haze on the eastern horizon. Daylight now revealed the motliest looking crew that anyone could lay eyes on, scarcely anyone of us was recognizable, all being covered from head to toe with black oil fuel which had escaped from sunken ships’ bunkers. It was impossible to dodge the stuff while swimming in the water. As the sun grew fiercer so the oil burned and baked harder forming another layer of skin over exposed flesh, including the eyes and eyelids. Hats now became a most urgent requirement and material of any sort was soon pressed into service. This came mainly from items of the sailors’ own clothing because, apart from a pair of oars, the boat contained practically nothing in the way of life preserving or other gear.
There was considerable conjecture as to our exact position in Sunda Strait and as the morning wore on there were plenty of suggestions as to where we should be headed. Sumatra seemed to be a popular choice but with no food or water or provisions of any sort to sustain what could turn out to be a lengthy and hazardous voyage. Slug, on the tiller, wisely kept us heading south in the direction of visible land. Patches of oil still dotted the surface and quite a number of dead fish floated by in the swirling currents which in these parts, can be very treacherous as some of those who tried to swim for it found out to their peril. Torpedoes and other underwater explosions occasioned during the earlier naval battle accounted for the dead fish. These too were covered with oil and every now and again a clean one would be snatched from the water and thrown inboard as a form of insurance against possible starvation. Thirst and the lack of drinking water or the likelihood of a shower of rain, was also becoming a problem.