The Rescue Yacht

Biographies and personal histories
RAN Ships
October 1977 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)

HMAS PERTH AND USS HOUSTON were sunk in the very early hours of 1st March 1942, after a terrific fight against overwhelming odds. Many of the Perth survivors were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and then transferred to the transport Somedong Maru at Bantam Bay. ‘Here we were joined by various prisoners until we finally numbered 246,‘ recorded Lieutenant-Commander John Harper, RN, in his official report after the war. ‘The other prisoners were mostly from two minesweepers, HM Ships Rahman and Sin Aik Lee, sunk off Bantam Bay on the evening of 1st March.

These two small ships had been requisitioned by the Navy from the Straits Steamship Company, Singapore, and were coal-burning trading steamers of 200 tons gross. Rahman was under the command of Lieutenant Upton, RNVR, and Sin Aik Lee commanded by Lieutenant Brander, RNVR, and I was his First Lieutenant. Most of our crew were survivors of HMS Repulse. The day Perth and Houston left Tanjong Priok they left behind the two minesweepers and also HDL No. 1063, commanded by Lieutenant Innes, another New Zealander.

When we learned of the landing at Bantam Bay we knew our fate was sealed. Two of the captains went round to the Pilot Office for information as Navy Office had been closed. Sin Aik Lee was berthed at the coal wharf and we were coaling ship. A staff officer approached wanting to see the Captain, so I explained that the Captain was away and he told me I had better come with him. On approaching a car in the middle of the coal heaps we found it contained the Staff Officer Operation and some of his staff. I saluted the SOO and he ordered me to sail for Tjilatjap on the south coast of Java at 1700 and wished me luck. I saluted again and said, ‘Thank you Sir, we will need it‘. The car then left for the evacuation port of Tjilatjap.

We had a meeting of officers and decided that we could probably get through Sunda Strait in darkness, if we sailed at 1530, as the Pilot Officer told us that there was an inside passage behind the minefields. Sin Aik Lee was to lead with Rahman following, which would tow the 72 foot schooner White Swan as a rescue ship. The large yacht had belonged to an RAF officer who had sailed the yacht to Tanjong Priok, where he turned her over to Lieutenant Upton. In the event of Java being evacuated Upton agreed to tow the yacht away if possible. If we were engaged then HDL 1063, following Rahman, was to get out of it if possible and come back to pick up survivors. Also the yacht was to be cast off with two men aboard as early as possible, so that it could be used as another escape vessel.

We sailed from Tanjong Priok at 1530 as planned on the 1st March, the last three ships to leave. The now deserted port presented a scene of utter desolation and as we sailed there were fires and explosions, probably from demolition work. Everything went well and we were approaching the island of Babi, which was to starboard of us, the three ships in line ahead. At this stage we were blacked out by a ‘Sumatra’ or storm with fresh winds and rain. These generally last about two hours and occur frequently at certain times of the year. The lookout reported two objects off the end of the island. I checked the chart to see if there were any small islands in that vicinity. As it was now getting dark and visibility almost nil, I suggested to the Captain that the objects could be enemy ships. However, he was doubtful of this. I hurried below to have what was to be my last meal in the ship.

When I arrived on the bridge we were enveloped in light by the searchlights of two Japanese destroyers, which immediately opened fire. The ship shuddered with the impact of the hits. Previously I had the gun’s crew closed up, but the storm had caused them to take shelter in the forecastle. I arrived on the forecastle followed by two seamen, but one was hit coming up the ladder and fell back almost cut in half. The other seaman and myself manned the gun, but we could not get a bearing on the destroyers as the Captain must have altered course. On returning to the bridge I found it was deserted and the wheel had been blown away and the starboard boat smashed. Leaving the bridge I saw our Leading Telegraphist and asked him where the Skipper was, his answer was ‘He’s had it‘. On going below I met a seaman and said to follow me, checking on the engine room. The stokers had just come on deck and steam was coming through the door.

The after falls of the port boat had been cut and it was hanging by the bow. Calling for a knife I had to cut the falls as they were jammed. The boat slipped stern first into the water, half filling up. The bowline broke when it started to take up the strain. I sang out ‘Every man for himself‘ and then went over the side. The first thing I did was to release my belt and dispose of my .45 Colt. There was enough air in my Mae West to give buoyancy without impeding swimming. Three of us made the boat about the same time. It was easy to get in as it was half full of water. Luckily the bucket was still in it although an oar and the rudder were missing.

While we were bailing out the boat I looked round and saw Rahman appear to blow up, and shells were still dropping around us. Two men came paddling alongside on a small Carley float we had picked up earlier in the day. By this time the shelling was over and using a paddle from the float, which I used as a rudder, we got underway and at the same time we kept the boat up into the wind to try and hold position and look for survivors. We could hear voices in the darkness and managed to pick up eight men. There were now 13 men in the boat out of a crew of 28.

Then silence, still trying to hold the position and keeping a good lookout. I noticed a dark object away to leeward and suddenly realised it was the yacht. Then I realised one part of the plan was working, and making our way to the yacht, we finally came alongside. As far as I can remember the whole of Rahman’s crew were in the yacht with the exception of one man. Assuming Rahman had the same complement as ours, which was 28, that would make a total of 41, and that is as near as I can get to Commander Harper’s figures.

After HDL 1063 had been shelled we got under way in the White Swan under power and began to bend on the sails when two destroyers shelled us at point blank range. In fact, we were so close that they could not depress their guns low enough to hit us, the shells passing about three feet or more above the yacht. The shelling suddenly stopped and they asked who we were over a loud hailer. We answered ‘survivors of the ships they had sunk.’ With that they went away and we carried on to Sunda Strait. Daylight found our rescue yacht about half way between Sumatra and Java. Then another destroyer coming out from Merak stopped us and enquired who we were. So we gave them the same answer as before and then the destroyer went back to Merak.

We drifted through the Strait as there was no wind, but a strong tide gave us steerage way and then we picked up an Australian Flying Officer, Brian Fahey and his gunner, who were trying to reach Java in a dug-out canoe. Fahey had been forced to ditch his Blenheim off the coast of Sumatra. That would bring our tally up to 43 aboard the White Swan. We drifted past the island of Sangien, which blotted out the port of Merak. Then we started the engine and keeping the island between us and the port, we headed for Krakatoa. Our idea was to get out in the Indian Ocean as far as possible in the dark, then head for Australia. However, late in the afternoon a destroyer approached from Sumatra and another from Java came up and signalled us to heave to.

A boarding party came aboard and took everything that appeared to be useful to them, such as tools, etc. The officer asked us if we knew where Bantam Bay was and on our replying in the affirmative, he then said, ‘You will sail back to Bantam Bay or your ship will die.‘ He then gave us a note for the Japanese Commodore there. We sailed through the night, being shadowed by a destroyer. In the morning we entered Bantam Bay and steamed through the Jap ships as if we were entering Sydney Harbour. Several ships showed the effect of the conflict with the Perth and the Houston. A big passenger ship was sitting on the bottom, her deck just a few feet above the water and a red cross on her side. Two other ships were sitting on the bottom and two others were beached. After steaming around the fleet we found the ship with the Commodore.

We were ordered to tie up astern and Lieutenant Upton went aboard to see the Commodore. He asked for a doctor to attend to our wounded. On returning he said a doctor would be coming and that we would be going to anchor by a small island out of the way. The doctor and an orderly came aboard and took one man’s arm off above the elbow and sewed up another’s stomach, who had been cut by shrapnel right across. We had fixed these two men up as best we could with the bandages available in the yacht. We then went to our anchorage and stopped there for two days.

Orders came for us to go to a transport, which turned out to be the Somedong Maru and here we met up with the Perth men. I got a shock when I looked into the hold. Staring up at us was a sea of unshaven and mostly unclothed men and some were still covered in oil. After we settled down and had a yarn it was decided to try and get some food and also mosquito nets and what was left in the first aid box, and this we were able to do.

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