EXETER Kiwi – Mystery Solved

Warrant Officer Electronic Warfare Supervisor Dave Wistrand was on a physical training run out of Ambon, Indonesia when his attention was drawn to a headstone engraved with the names MORRIS J M G Signalman Royal New Zealand Navy HMS Exeter. Dave has wondered ever since just what an RNZN signalman had been doing in the Royal Navy. The answer to that question began with the decision of the NZ Naval authorities response to the Royal Navy’s request for communications ratings during the early days of the Second World War. The original plan was that all the trained sailors would be drafted to their RN ships after they had arrived in UK.

What was unusual was that on the 17th of December, 1941, 15 Ordinary Signalmen were drafted/posted to HMS Exeter, HMS Encounter and another Royal Navy ship whose identity remains a mystery. According to unofficial history, the New Zealanders were required as replacements for Royal Navy ratings who had been drafted to the fledgling British base being set uo on at Addu Atoll (Gan) in the Maldives.

The known members of the draft were:
Ivan L Fortune NZD2934 HMS Exeter b.1919 d.2010
Ian F G Shipman NZD2171 HMS Exeter b.1923 d.1977
Richard J Wagner NZD2409 HMS Exeter b.1921 d.1995
Bruce. Ginders NZD2929 HMS Exeter b.1920 d.2007
John Dobson NZD2939 HMS Exeter b.1918 d.2003
Jeffrey M G Morris NZD2923 HMS Exeter b.1922 d.1945 in captivity Ambon
Owen E. Ludlow NZD2396 HMS Encounter b.1922 d. 5 Apr 2012
Naphtali Jaffe NZD2412 HMS Exeter b.1918 living in Auckland
Charles McEwen
Robert McNeil NZD2398 HMS Encounter b.1920 d.1944 in captivity Nagasaki
William Climie, HMS Exeter
George Devlin HMS Exeter
Robert Horn HMS Exeter

The group left N.Z. on the Aquitania with the Army’s 7th Reinforcements and transferred to HMS Exeter and Encounter at Colombo where the R.N. ships were based as part of the Far Eastern Striking Force. Two months later Exeter set out with the U.S.S. Houston,  H.M.S. Electra, Encounter, Jupiter, two Dutch ships Hr Ms Deruyter and Hr MsJava as well as American and one Dutch destroyer in an effort to halt the Japanese southward expansion.

In the first battle of the Java Sea the Deruyter, Java, Electra and Jupiter were all sunk and Exeter was damaged, losing half her boilers necessitating her putting into Surabaya in an effort to effect repairs. Though her speed was effectively halved, she put to sea again the following day and was engaged by five Japanese cruisers and 11 destroyers with a fire power of 40 8-inch guns to the Exeter’s 6 she put up a fight lasting over four hours. According to reports the Exeter threw everything she had at the enemy until a shell exploded in the remaining undamaged boiler room effectively robbing her of all electrical power for her armament. The crew were ordered to abandon ship and after twice being torpedoed by one of the Japanese destroyers she rolled to starboard and began to sink.  Of her crew of 849, 62 were lost in the battle, which also claimed HMS Encounter and the USS Pope.

Prior to abandoning ship lifebelts had been strapped onto the wounded who were thrown into the sea while the uninjured clung to rafts and wreckage. They were in the water from 4 to 9 hours before being rescued by a Japanese destroyer, though many of them suffered considerably from exposure and sunstroke. Hauled aboard the destroyer they were well treated and as each man came aboard sprayed with disinfectant and then given tea with milk and as many biscuits as he wanted.

The destroyer took the Exeter survivors to Borneo where they finally ended up at Macassar in the Celebes, where they were handed over to Japanese Marines who were nothing more than the worst type of man wrapped up in naval clothing. The captain and senior officers together with about 200 men were separated and taken to Japan. During their trip two officers were drowned when their ship was torpedoed. Macassar proved to be a Japanese hell camp. The men were herded into bamboo huts and slept on clay floors with nothing to cover them. Their clothing consisted of a strip of rag with a couple of tapes and they had no footwear.

Their diet was Spartan in the extreme. For breakfast they received a small mug of watery rice and a cup of weak coffee with no milk or sugar. For dinner a small ball of rice the size of a tennis ball, a piece of cucumber or radish and for tea another ball of rice, a piece of fish and pieces of cucumber. Water was strictly rationed and was meant to be boiled before use. On this “diet” they were made to work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily on aerodromes and road and rail construction. On the road job they had to lay stones in place and then hitch ropes to a steamroller and drag it along to roll them in. They were barefoot and if the “driver” of the roller thought a man was not pulling his weight he would beat him with a bamboo pole. The steamroller was not permitted to be fired up but had to be manhandled to and fro.

In addition to their construction work they had to tend about 10 acres of sweet potatoes and the penalty for stealing these was summary beheading. In his starved condition a man often stuffed a raw potato, dirt an all, in his mouth and ate it. Many suffered from worms as a result. On one occasion some prisoners picked up some pumpkin seeds and they took these to the compound and planted them. The Japs did not take any notice until the plants flowered, when they placed a stick alongside each flower with a notice “Here is 1 pumpkin.” Sometimes the flowers dropped off, sometimes small pumpkins grew, then rotted or the ants got away with them. In every case retribution was taken out on the prisoners for the loss of one pumpkin. When the pumpkins eventually matured they were taken away by the guards who returned the seeds for replanting. The men were desperate for food and killed and ate snakes, rats, cats, dogs or any live thing that came their way.

During the time they were imprisoned they did not receive any mail or news of kind other than what the Japanese dispensed and they did have a good propaganda system. The day after the Featherstone shooting incident they knew all about it and they sought out all the Kiwis in the camp. The men only escaped torture or worse by getting away with an excuse that they were born in England and happened to be in N.Z. when war broke out. On another occasion a paper was produced showing a photograph of a city in shambles, described as Wellington. It was stated that while the Japs had not been able to get to New Zealand the gods had been pleased to reduce the city to ruins by an earthquake!

The prisoners were continually guarded and brutally knocked about about on the least pretext. Guards prowled through the huts at night and frequently attacked a sleeper “for laughing”. Whistling and singing was strictly forbidden. If a guard imagined a prisoner had done something to offend him he would immediately knock him down. If he rubbed the spot where he was struck he was hit on the other side. If blood came he was told to rub dirt in the wound to stop bleeding. Generally, if a guard struck a man twice he completely lost his temper and called for his bat and went berserk. The bat was a common weapon of torture. An autographed baseball bat weighing 8 pounds was a favourite weapon in the camp and the person on the receiving end collected anything from five to 200 blows with it. One English sailor received a record 207 blows but still had to work the next day.

To attempt an escape was impossible. Three Dutch prisoners and eight natives tried it. They were beheaded. As a warning, all prisoners had to witness the floggings and tortures. Of medical supplies there were none. The camp included about 1500 men and held, besides the Exeter crew, Dutch and American prisoners of war. Among the Dutch was a well-known medical man who did wonderful work for prisoners and Japanese. They allowed him to retain his instruments and her performed all sorts of operations but was not provided with any anaesthetics. When the doctor took ill no attempt was made by the Japs to save his life and he died. A dentist in the camp had all his instruments taken from him and had to perform any extractions with a pair of pliers. Sickness was rife and 38 per cent of the prisoners died.

There was plenty of food on the island but the Japs begrudged giving any to the prisoners. The camp was a total blackout until an air raid came when the lights were put on and bombs came. On one occasion they counted bombs, thinking each one spelt happy days for them but they were fated to see the thing though and it was not until Japan capitulated that they received any relief. Then it came from the Australians who parachuted food supplies to them pending arrangements for the evacuation which came about speedily.

The only act of kindness remembered during their three and a half years in the camp came from some Italian merchant seaman who had been on convoy duty for the Japs but were interned when Italy collapsed. Th Italians sent along some packets of tea. The prisoners greatly appreciated the sympathetic feelings of a German family on the island, whose members spoke to them whenever possible. Each Christmas they displayed a Christmas tree on their verandah for the men to see and they marched past to work. Signalman Wagner spent his 21st birthday in the prisoner of war camp which cost him five stone in weight.

Signalman Ivan Fortune was a carpenter and was sent to work at Maros in the carpentry shop which was over the road from the main camp and next door to the guardhouse. Unfortunately, this was not to last and later he was moved back to Makassar where he worked building roads and runways. He recalls that anything that required energy was beyond them and they knew that they would need all heir energy just to survive. Certainly the Japs would not have agreed to any form of amusement. Our chief nightly occupation was together in one hut or Another with out particular friends and talk of home, future plans for ideas, past lives, daily occurrences and food. OH!, the food. What banquets we could dream up, but always the same empty bellies ended up on our hard beds searching for the oblivion of sleep.

Finally, during one afternoon we were paraded and then a short speech told us that Japan had decided to end the war. The reaction was mostly silence, disbelief that we had made it and a rather subdued mob that shuffled off to our huts, getting a bit more vocal on the way. Things moved a bit faster and it was not long before the frigates arrived and ferried us out to HMS Maidstone, a submarine depot ship, which was en route to Fremantle. It had ample accommodation and we were no problem. So it was goodbye Makassar and the 146 who did not make it from the original 600.

On returning to N.Z. Ivan Fortune was discharged from the Navy on the 12th of April 1946 and received a pension of 15 shillings per week, but it was not long before it was cut off. Later on, after further medical examinations he was awarded a permanent pension of seven shillings and six pence per week. .

4 Responses to EXETER Kiwi – Mystery Solved

  1. Dave Wistrand says:

    I still remember this well was running with COPGI Jack Donnelly at the time and didnt think a lot of it. But later on wondered why there was no ceremony or recognition from the Waikato it was one of those “just forgotton about” incidents that can easily get lost. Thanks to whoever did the research.

  2. Jim Dell says:

    Over 6000 RNZN personnel served in the RN during WWII.

  3. Frank Rands says:

    Dave, Thanks for giving me the little bit of information which opened up a whole lot more when digging into the Exeter Mystery. For your information two of the Signalmen who were on the Exeter with Sig Morris are still alive and kicking. One Owen Ludlow lives in Christchurch and the other Naphtali Jaffe lives in Auckland.

    • David Lamb says:

      Hello, Frank
      Do you by any chance have any contact with these to gentlemen that were on the Exeter? My Uncle William Lamb was also on the Exeter (Corporal) but was one of 14 KIA during the first major hit to the Exeter on the 27th Feb 1942

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