It is important for people reading this manuscript to remember that these are the personal recollections of Mr Ginders. Time and lack of resources have precluded the researching of facts to draw attention to any errors. The views expressed in this oral history are those of the interviewee only and not the NZDF, RNZN, and the Navy Museum.
This is an interview with Mr Bruce Ginders taking place on the 7th July 2004 at his residence 6 Robina Place, Snells Beach, Warkworth. The interviewer is Kelly Ana Morey, Oral History Project Officer, Navy Museum, Devonport, Auckland.
Good morning Mr Ginders, lovely to meet you. We usually start off the Oral Histories by asking a bit about your early life: where you were born, what your parents did, siblings, education and then into why you joined the Navy.
I was born in Wellington in 1920 in Island Bay. I remained in Wellington until I joined the Navy and I never went back there afterwards.
Where did you go to school in Wellington?
I went to Primary School in Seatoun and in Lyall Bay and in Melrose and in South Wellington. When I reached Standard 6sixI was granted Proficiency which enabled you to go to college in those days. Because I could draw a little it was thought I should go to the Wellington Technical College Art School and so I went there for four years until my father decided he had supported me long enough and I should find some work. So I wandered around those that might employ a budding artist and Whitcomb and Tombs gave me an apprenticeship as a printers artist.
What did your father do?
My father was a commercial photographer.
My great interest as a teenager, was in sailing. I should tell you that I am a third generation that has fought for New Zealand. I had an uncle who was in the First World War whom I was very fond of. He had a beach place at Paramatta and sailed fourteen foot racing yachts. I used to sail as bail boy. I loved my uncle very much and got very interested in boats. He was Commodore of the Paramatta Yacht Club, I lived in Wellington and so I didn’t get to sail with him very often. But I joined the Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boat Club and got into sailing P Class yachts.
Were you a Sea Cadet at school?
I progressed through from P Class into sailing Z Class centre board yachts then starting building Idlelongs and raced Idlelongs on Wellington Harbour, mainly for the Evans Bay Yacht Club.
Things were simpler in those days and in Wellington you could go to the Harbour Board and get a licence to build your own boat shed. Along with a couple of my friends we built our own boat shed along the beach not far from Evans Bay Yacht Club and it was a great time.
Now this would have been in the Depression years?
Immediately following. From 1935 to the beginning of the war.
How old were you when war was declared?
I was almost twenty. I was in my nineteenth year. Seven of us were very close friends in the yachting world and two immediately rushed off and joined the Army and left New Zealand with the first echelon, they were volunteers. Two joined the Air Force and two the Fleet Air Arm. I tried to join the Navy and they said come back when you are twenty-one. So I had to sit tight for a year. The British operated a Naval Base at Devonport, it was a training station.
First, when you did finally get your call up, was it your first trip to Auckland?
No it wasn’t my first trip I had been a couple of times. Because of my great interest in sailing I had great admiration for the scale of yachting in Auckland. The Wellington yachties envied Auckland yachting people greatly. So I had been to Auckland previously.
So you came up on the train I suppose?
Yes it was by train in those day’s, fourteen hours from Wellington to Auckland. There used to be two trains, one was 3 o’clock in the afternoon that stopped everywhere and one was seven in the evening and went straight through and that was the better one to be on. Twelve to fourteen hours was about average I think.
You came into PHILOMEL?
Can you tell me a little bit about your early training?
I can’t quite remember the detail. I would have been asked to report to Devonport. My recall of it is we slung our hammocks on the PHILOMEL. The barrack buildings were all along the waterfront and they may still be there.
Can you remember approximately how many were in your intake?
Yes there were twenty signalmen and twenty telegraphists. We all arrived on the same day and we were divided into separate units. We slung our hammocks on PHILOMEL. Training instruction was held in those buildings that were along the sea wall. That lasted for three months and then we were deemed to be useful enough to serve our country. We were informed that we would be taking passage on the Australian Cruiser CANBERRA, which was at Devonport at that time, for Sydney. We left Auckland on CANBERRA and had a wee bit of excitement. You may remember that German raiders had been busy and there were a lot of mines around our coast. The Liner NIAGARA had been lost just out from Whangarei. And a raider had sunk a little coastal vessel HOMEGLEN between Lyttelton and the Chathams. We rounded North Cape to set off across the Tasman and encountered a floating mine and that was our first little bit of excitement as the ship stopped and sank it. It didn’t explode. It just sank.
Did you know where you were heading at that stage?
Yes we knew we were going to Sydney. That was all we did know.
We continued training on CANBERRA. Our first time of hoisting flags and signals at sea. She was a County Class Cruiser, with a very long signal arm that projected well over the sides of the ship. We were informed during training that if you lost the halyards it was your job to go up and retrieve them. Nobody lost the halyards.
We arrived at Garden Island and were put in barracks in Sydney where we stayed for about six weeks. It was an Army place out of town.
What were you doing?
Nothing, no training.
Then quite quickly we were told to get our gear together and that we would be going by train and we would be moving off overseas. We arrived back at the harbour and both QUEEN ELIZABETH and QUEEN MARY were in Sydney Harbour. They were taking troops from Australia to the Middle East. I think the British had sent them as far away from Europe that they could, because they were very valuable ships. I don’t think many people were aware those two ships were in Sydney at that time.
Seven thousand troops were embarked on each of those ships, and we set sail across the Australian Bight.
You were on which one?
I was on QUEEN MARY. We did watch-keeping on the bridge. All I can remember about her is that it was eighty-two feet down to the water from the bridge. It was very rough in the Australian Bight and the troops were all very sick. Some of them had come from up country by train and some had been on the train for about three days before they got to Sydney. They got seasick on the ferries going out to the ships and so you can imagine what it was like sailing across the Australian Bight.
We arrived in Trincomalee eventually, in the north of Ceylon, where we disembarked and left the troops who were to go onto the Middle East. We took the train down to Colombo and we were in barracks in Colombo. We were there for another six weeks and it was intensive training.
Was it the twenty of you again?
Yes twenty signalmen, and the twenty telegraphists.
They had a special training school in Ceylon didn’t they?
The Royal Navy had quite extensive barracks in Ceylon in the north in Trincomalee and in Colombo. It was in Colombo that we finished our training.
So you spent six weeks there and then what happened?
We were drafted to different ships at the end of that time. EXETER which had been badly knocked about in the Falklands [River Plate] with AJAX and ACHILLES had gone back to England and then been completely refitted. She had brought a convoy from England out to South Africa. There must have been concern in high places about the East because she came out into the Indian Ocean to Colombo heading for Singapore and we joined the ship in Colombo. About seven New Zealand signalmen and I can’t remember how many telegraphists were drafted to EXETER.
It was our first experience of a large ship other than CANBERRA. Our first mission was out into the Indian Ocean to the Maldive Islands which were being developed as a mid ocean runway for aircraft. It was about halfway between Africa and India. Also it was a staging post for convoys bringing troops to Rangoon. We lay in the lagoon there for about three days and left in haste. The Japanese entered the war, a short time after we had joined the ship and so life changed completely from that point on.
We were escorting quite a large convoy of British and Indian troops and supplies up to Singapore when the news of Pearl Harbour came known.
I will just go back a little. The English had sent the PRINCE OF WALES and REPULSE out to Singapore to bolster the strength of the Navy in the Far East. As I say we had been to the Maldives and we had picked up a convoy and were taking it to Singapore, at the same time that those two ships had gone searching for reported Japanese landings in Malaya. Of course you know they were sent to the bottom by Japanese aircraft. Something that the British didn’t believe was possible. No one thought that aircraft were capable of sinking Battleships. Why the Navy thought that I really don’t know because already in the Mediterranean, Swordfish Torpedo aircraft had sunk large Italian ships in harbour and that was before they lost those two great ships to Japanese aircraft off the coast of Malaya. So they did know it could happen. The word was that nobody really believed those two great ships could ever be sunk by aircraft. I don’t know how much you know about that action.
Just big picture stuff, so anything that you can thread into it. The Oral History isn’t just for me, it is for other people too who might not know. So we try and get as much detail as possible.
What I should tell you is that EXETER should really have been with those two ships. Had we not been struggling along at seven to eight knots with a troop convoy, we would have been with them, but they were sunk before we could join them. So EXETER was left to live a little bit longer.
One wonders whether the British should have known better, because they had sunk the BISMARK largely because Torpedo Bombers managed to cripple the steering and that is exactly how they lost RODNEY and PRINCE OF WALES. Japanese aircraft crippled the steering and the ships were uncontrollable.
We then escorted a number of convoys, as the British tried valiantly to get enough troops into Singapore to save Malaya.
In retrospect now looking back at what happened – the only reason that the Japanese went and crippled the American fleet by surprise was that their grand plan was to dominant the Chinese coastline, Malaya, Philippines, Burma, Indonesia. That was going to be their patch. They saw themselves as an island nation, not unlike Britain. They had a great deal of assistance from the British in building ships and training their Navy, which was structured not unlike the Royal Navy with marines and seamen and the different branches and so forth. Historically they were developing their industrial capacity, but lacked basically all the raw materials: coal, iron, oil, things like that. They had an increasing volume of merchandise to sell and they were getting a hard time by various treaties that came into force after the First World War. Eventually Tojo managed to get enough support to say we are never going to do it by negotiation. We have been planning this for years, we are ready to go, we will do it. The way to do it is by knocking the American fleet out and then we progressively put our plan into action. In three months we will command all the area that we have in mind and that is exactly what they did.
I think the order of things were: they knocked out the Philippines, they were well entrenched in Burma, they had control of the Chinese coastal area, they had taken Singapore and there was only their real goal left which was Java. Java was rich in everything they wanted. You could simplify it, the reason for Pearl Harbour was so that they could conquer Java and all that went with it, Java was the final goal.
In three months they had advanced south from Japan and captured all that territory. They did things with such precision. Eventually when it became clear that Singapore would fall, the remaining allied warships were formed into a striking force in an attempt to prevent or at least delay the landings in Java. There were about 14 allied ships left: British, Australian and Dutch. The Japanese of course had greater numbers by far. They advanced south in three main groups, all heavily escorted. There was little air cover and very little information. These convoys were known to be at sea, but their whereabouts was unknown to the defending forces. Towards the end we came under the control of a Dutchman who was the Senior Naval Officer, an Admiral Dorman.
Can you remember the name of his ship?
Yes DE RUYTER.
The Dutch had two Cruisers: the DE RUYTER and JAVA. The British had EXETER and PERTH and we had a heavy US Cruiser HOUSTON and fourteen Destroyers: British, Dutch and American.
The Japanese convoys were at sea, but their positions were not known. So Dorman [the Admiral] took the fleet to sea to look for them. His plan was to get the transports and prevent the landings. I think he was instructed to do it anyway. So we went to se to search for the Japanese convoys for the attack on Java. After forty-eight hours at action stations, everyone was pretty tired and fuel was low. We were instructed to return to Surabaya to refuel. It was about three in the afternoon and we were just entering Surabaya and were actually in the channel when an American B32 spotted the first of the Japanese invasion forces and they were only about an hour and a half away. So late in the afternoon, low on fuel and very tired we headed off in the direction of the reported sighting and went to the Battle of the Java Sea. The outcome of that was, that all allied ships were eventually lost. The landings in Java may have been delayed for twenty-four hours, but that was about all and the survivors became prisoners of war. The Battle of the Java Sea was a resounding Japanese victory!
Would you like to take us through a little bit of what you saw during the Battle of the Java Sea?
As we were talking about earlier, the bridge is an exciting place to be. We had a sense onboard EXETER that the ship was invulnerable. For the three months that we operated in that area we were never without Japanese aircraft over us, never. The ship was straddled and straddled, but never the once hit. So onboard our ship anyway, there was that feeling that the ship was invulnerable.
Also for me personally, I had been brought up in a British Dominion and I just didn’t believe that the Japanese could ever sink a British heavy cruiser.
So as I say five Cruisers and fourteen Destroyers at high speed with battle ensigns at thirty-two knots heading towards the bearing that we are expecting to find the enemy is quite exciting and quite a sight I might say. Eventually all lookouts spotted little black dots on the horizon and gradually the whole horizon seemed to be dotted with mastheads. There were around about thirty-two ships I think in that action, it was quite a substantial number. So we commenced at high speed and at extreme range. Only EXETER and HOUSTON had the range and could open up at 28,000 yards and the lighter Cruisers couldn’t, they didn’t have the range for five point five or six inch guns. So at first it was only EXETER and HOUSTON engaging the heavy Japanese Cruisers. That went on for some time – I would think maybe a couple of hours.
Were you moving towards each other while this was going on, getting closer?
More or less on parallel courses but at extreme range. EXETER I learnt had claimed hits on a Japanese Cruiser. It [the Japanese Cruiser] did turn out of line and it did disappear and certainly history seemed to indicate that she was damaged by EXETER and turned out of line.
The Japanese Admiral’s, main concern were his fifty two transports which were not far away. He did not want those allied ships to get amongst his transports for the landings in Java. The heavy ships that had been slogging it out for two hours and were getting nowhere and he ordered Destroyer attacks. We had our eyes really opened. The light Cruiser JINTSU and about eight Destroyers launched a torpedo attack. Of course JINTSU with six inch guns was able to open fire long before the Destroyers were within range, they not only launched torpedoes but they opened fire with their four point five inch guns.. So there was some close range action with JINTSU the flotilla leader, which really was a 6 inch gun Cruiser and these eight Destroyers. We saw the torpedoes. I saw one Dutch Destroyer blown in half, which was quite exciting, there was a lot of smoke on the water and I saw this thing sticking out of the water and I thought it was a submarine, it was one half of a Destroyer that had been blown clean in half and the bow and stern were sticking out. We passed quite close to it, and of course you don’t stop. So that torpedo attack claimed at least one Dutch Destroyer. But of course all the cruisers were still afloat. Also we closed the range to bring the six inch gun Cruisers closer to the Japanese heavy ships. At that time EXETER got an unlucky single shell onboard. It did an enormous amount of damage for an eight inch shell. It came through the four inch gun shield and killed the anti aircraft gun crew. It went into a ventilator shaft and down through the ship and exploded in B Boiler room. Onboard it felt as though the ship had been lifted out of the water and there was a lot of shaking and shuddering. Our speed dropped to about seven knots. I only have hazy recollections of what went on at that time. All I can tell you about it is what I saw. JINTSU realised that EXETER was in trouble and came back with the Destroyers. I had to go aft with a signal and I remember looking across and this great big Cruiser seemed so close I could throw a tennis ball at it. It wasn’t that close, but it seemed like that. We had the Australian Cruiser PERTH with us, and through the smoke came PERTH at thirty-two knots with this bloody great battle ensign between us and JINTSU and probably saved EXETER. It was incredible naval sight I saw and it has stuck in my mind to this day. A six inch Cruiser flat tack, with all guns firing and this great battle ensign on the foremast, a great sight.
Dorman [the Admiral] realised by then he was in trouble and he manoeuvred the Cruisers to protect EXETER and ordered her back to Surabaya. It was starting to get dark and the action moved away into the night and we limped back into Surabaya with EXETER. The next morning we were alongside fuelling the ship making repairs to the boiler and many Dutch Army Officers and their wives and families with their prams and their pushchairs came down to look at our crippled ship. The action had taken place way outside the entrance to their harbour, almost as though they weren’t part of it. You couldn’t believe it. Anyway we buried fourteen stokers and they did what repairs could be done and so that was EXETER. During that night the rest of the ships had fought a night action. The two Dutch Cruisers were sunk at night. I believe it was quite spectacular. They both blew up by torpedoes. All the Dutch Destroyers and the British Destroyers and the American Destroyers except two were lost during that night. PERTH and HOUSTON survived the night and they were ordered into the Indian Ocean through the Sunda Strait. You have to visualise that this action had taken place down at the eastern end of the Java Sea. The Japanese in the night had landed and the Java Sea was full of Japanese warships and we had to run the gauntlet to the northern end of Java and out through the Sunda Strait into the Indian Ocean. In the small hours of the morning PERTH and HOUSTON arrived at the Sunda Strait. It is quite narrow where you come through into the Indian Ocean between Java and Sumatra. There the Japanese had quite a large number of transports and they were landing troops. HOUSTON and PERTH blundered into this landing and sold themselves very dearly. If you read that story, it is an incredible story of big ships firing at point blank range and the transports sunk. At that point, greatly out numbered, PERTH and HOUSTON were sunk, EXETER crippled at the other end of Java and an American Destroyer POPE and a British Destroyer ENCOUNTER, were the only three of allied ships afloat after the Battle of the Java Sea. The Japs had landed and the fate of Java was sealed and EXETER was ordered to proceed to Colombo. It was deemed her draft was too deep for her to go through the Bali Strait and so we also had to run the gauntlet through the Java Sea to get to the Sunda Strait. We left in the evening with POPE and ENCOUNTER and we saw some Japanese transport, but didn’t open fire on them. I never really quite understood that. I was told several years later the Captain’s orders were to get the ship to Colombo and not to further engage the Japanese.
How compromised was EXETER in terms of its speed, because you essentially lost a boiler?
When we left Surabaya they got her up to fifteen knots and during the night the engineers managed to get her up to twenty-eight knots. So at eight-thirty am the next morning having got through the night and survived the dawn, four Japanese heavy Cruisers appeared on the stern quarter on both sides: two on one quarter and two on the other. They just stood off at extreme range and started firing. EXETER had only two turrets forward and 1 turret aft. So she couldn’t bring the forward turrets to bear. So we had EXETER at twenty-eight knots and two Destroyers and four heavy Japanese Cruisers out at extreme range behind us. That action lasted from about eight-thirty am to eleven am. The ships took a lot of hits and eventually we lost all power in the ship and could no longer fire at al. Without power you can’t do anything. The ship was virtually crippled and Gordon, our Captain, realised there was no way of saving the ship and so he ordered the ship to be abandoned and probably saved a lot of men’s lives. I think we lost something like twenty hundred and thirty casualties on the ship. The rest of us went into the water.
When you abandoned the ship what’s the drill?
You do “abandon ship” drills and “abandon ship” stations.
Do you go in boats?
I will tell you about that. You have two heavy Cruisers on one quarter and two out on the other shelling the ship to pieces and it’s in pretty bad shape. You get ordered to abandon ship and everyone goes to their abandon ship station. My abandon ship station was the Captain’s motorboat, which sat in a cradle underneath one of the two Walrus amphibian aircraft. The Captain’s motorboat sat up there underneath one of those. I proceeded with my friend Jack Dalton down through the bridge to the waist of the ship. We got off the bridge ladder and there were all these shoes, neatly put in pairs along the bulkhead, I thought, perhaps you take your shoes off when you abandon ship and so we took our shoes off and put ours there and walked to the boat deck. The ship was being hit pretty hard by this time. Some Japanese Destroyers had closed in at close range and EXETER was not firing and was incapable of doing anything. I thought, this is not healthy and I started to make my way to the Captain’s motorboat when it disappeared in a blinding flash and I thought that is no place for me. I turned back and met my friend Jack Dobson. There were some fellows trying to launch a cutter and so we thought we would give them a hand to get it in the water. I think the davits must have been cut by shrapnel or something, because it dropped in the water. It didn’t land right side up, but those who were launching it, finished up in the water with it. In actually fact I never really abandoned ship, I fell into the ocean.
Did you ever find out what the shoes were about?
No. I think maybe it was some of the regular Navy who had been trained how to abandon ship and knew it was easier to swim if you didn’t have your shoes on. I don’t know. It was weird.
The first thing is you are conscious of is black filthy fuel. There was no fire, the engines had stopped and EXETER carried away for about half a mile, which drew the fire of the Jap Cruisers slightly away from where we were all in the water. There would have been six hundred men in the water. Some Carley rafts were in the water, none of the boats, some flotation rafts. Having realised that I was in the water and the boat was not there I thought I had better blow up my Mae West. So I blew that up and looked around. You can’t really see very much from sea level. I actually couldn’t see anybody. But out of the blue came a poor fellow and he was drowning. He was probably full of fuel and he attempted to use me for buoyancy, I didn’t want to drown. You get used to being in the water. Down in the troughs you can’t see anything and then you come up in the swell and you will see a few men. Eventually I managed to make my way to some of these flotation rafts. I suppose there would have been perhaps a hundred men on two big flotation rafts. The ship’s boatswain who was a very big man, was doing his best to hold these two rafts together. The ship went down in the morning and the day went by and into evening. Only those who were immediately around you, were all that you could see. There were people spread out all over the ocean quite quickly. During the night we came close to a Carley raft. At least you could get partly out of the water on a Carley raft, but on these flotation things there is nothing you can do to get out of the water. So I made my way to this Carley raft and I managed to get on it. I spent the best part of twenty-four hours on that raft. It was punctured in the front. There were not many people on it. There was: the ship’s Commander and a Marine who had a very badly injured shoulder and was just in front of me, myself and about four or five others on that raft. The thing was sinking at the front and we were on that raft all night. The next morning I saw a very large wooden box and from my yachting days I thought, this raft is going to sink, perhaps we should recover that box. It might be all we have to hang onto. So I swam off to get this box and it must have been further away than I thought. When I got there, I couldn’t see the raft, I couldn’t see anything. I am not a religious person, but you felt you were quite alone, just you and God. I had this feeling that I couldn’t sink. So I was in the water with this box and I felt quite indestructible. I wasn’t concerned at all, I never thought I would sink and I don’t think I thought I would die. Eventually the swells pushed the raft up and I could see it and I got the box back to the raft. I couldn’t interest anybody to get it underneath and when I did get it underneath eventually it was a waste of time it didn’t do much good anyway.
You wanted to use it for buoyancy and help prop the raft up.
But at least it would have floated after the raft, because the rafts were copper tanks with canvas around them. It capsized a lot in the night and I felt very sorry for the Marine Sergeant who was in front of me who had a badly wounded shoulder and every time he got dumped in the water he was in real trouble.
Anyway the sun came up and there was just us and nothing else in sight whatsoever. It got to be eleven o’clock in the morning and two Japanese Sloops came in sight, one of which picked us up. I had thirty-six hours in the water.
The Sloop put a rope net over and we had to climb over, which was not easy. The first thing I recall is my face came level with the fore deck of this Sloop and there were two Japanese seamen there, with what looked like an over size spray gun and I got sprayed and told to go aft where I joined a lot of others.
They had been going around doing pick ups?
How did you feel when you saw the Sloop, were you relieved?
Yes highly relieved. I quite pleased for anybody to get me out of the water.
I have heard stories about those who appear to have acted very bravely and want to continue the fight, even though they are one man in the water against a large ship. I didn’t have those same feelings at all. I was very pleased to get pulled out of the water.
There were two Sloops and they must have picked up all they could, because they then proceeded to a bay in the south of Borneo near Bandjarmasin. There we encountered the Japanese fleet for the first time at close quarters and we were impressed out of our minds. Their ships were so superior to anything the allies had in the area. There were so many of them. Japanese heavy cruisers at that time mounted ten eight inch guns.
(End of Tape 1)
(Beginning of Tape 2)
And six twin five inch anti aircraft turrets. They all carried at least two aircraft. They were huge and as we had found out their gunnery was extremely accurate.
I forgot to tell you that when action opened in the Java Sea we were quite quickly straddled from 28,000 yards.
When we saw the big Japanese cruisers at close quarters we began to understand why.
I think it was the Destroyers the impressed us most. The Japanese Destroyers were all so modern, large and so well armed. I suppose the allies must have been caught with their pants down, because really the combined allied naval force in the Battle of the Java Sea was no match for the Japanese naval force.
In David Thomas’s book “Battle of the Java Sea”, Winston Churchill had written the foreword, and he called it the “forlorn battle.” And indeed it was. We were outgunned and out numbered, nothing was right on our side. No common signalling system. How does a Dutch Admiral manoeuvre his ships using two different languages, with no common signalling system up against a highly disciplined and highly refined and incredibly well disciplined force? So with hindsight it wasn’t hard to understand why the Japanese secured their objectives so quickly. They had planned it well and they had built the ships to do it and developed the military structure to achieve everything they wanted to do.
I forget the name of the little General they gave the job of taking Singapore, they gave him one hundred days and he did it in seventy.
Amongst the Ships in the bay was a captured Dutch Hospital ship. All the prisoners of war were gathered together on the after deck, in the sun by day and cold at night. That went on for about a week.
Was it just men or were they taking civilian prisoners?
I was mainly concerned with naval personnel and that is all I know about.
There are two things. A Hospital ship is not supposed to be captured. This ship was painted white with green stripes down the side with big red crosses on it and they captured it and used her to accumulate all the survivors from all of the ships sunk in the Java Sea. The injured certainly got the benefit of the medical attention, the rest of us were all on deck. We sat there off the south of Borneo for ten days. I don’t think they quite knew what to do with us, there were so many men. Then we sailed and they took us to Macasar in the south west of the Celebes. We were put ashore there into what had been a Dutch Army barracks. That didn’t last long, we then got moved into a lot less salubrious camp, semi-open bamboo huts with dirt floors. All allied sailors had nothing except the clothes they wore when abandoning ship.
There were about two thousand of you, you said?
In the early days yes.
That is a lot of men.
In the camp were Dutch, British, Americans and Australian Naval personnel, a lot of Dutch Army. A lot of the Dutch Army were Indonesian. I would be guessing, but there might have been eight hundred or a thousand Indonesian militia. The Japanese released them, they had no interest in them at all. They took their uniforms and turned them out onto the street. So the camp was then composed of only military and naval personnel.
We were originally prisoners of the Japanese Marines and they weren’t too bad. The conditions were terrible and all the bad things that you hear about prison camps certainly happened, but under the Marines it wasn’t too bad. They had a regard for the British Navy. After a few months we were turned over to the Japanese Army and things changed dramatically. Savage beatings and cruel punishment became commonplace.
We got to understand the Japanese and how could you not, when you live with them for over three years. It’s a patriarchal system. If the General finds fault with a Captain he is punished by him, then it will be handed all the way down the line until it reaches those on the bottom. Superimposed over the top of that of course are all the right bastards who from time to time had close control of you and who just enjoyed sadistic punishment.
I will tell you a little bit about Yoshida. Yosh, was a Japanese Sergeant of Marines. He was little and extremely fit and a right sadistic bastard, you couldn’t describe him any other way. When we were eventually freed, Yosh was shot on the say so of the British Officers. Yosh appeared to be totally undisciplined, there was no one above him, he had the rank of Sergeant and there was no one above that rank. He had complete control, he could do what he liked and he did what he liked. So the Sergeant was the Camp Commander.
I thought they would have had someone slightly higher up?
We started out that way and we started out with an Officer of Marines and Marine guards. The Marines passed us over to the Japanese Army. The Japanese Army originally had Officer Commanders too. They had realised, I think the war had started to go badly and they needed all their own good people. They only needed a bastard sergeant to look after a lot of prisoners. Yosh surely enjoyed having total control, being able to do what he liked. No question.
Our typical diet most of the time was a little ball of cold rice in the morning, it was full of husks, but that saved us, because the only goodness in the rice was in the husks. We didn’t know that at the time. You got another one of those in the evening. If you worked you got one at lunch time. They quickly got us to understand if you didn’t go out to work you didn’t get fed. So it didn’t pay to get malaria or anything that could make you unable to go to work. Yosh’s first contribution was to cut the rations down to the minimum that would keep us going. He encouraged the guards to use force. Some of the guards that we got to know weren’t bad fellows at all, but while they were working for Yosh… So Yosh was the dominant force in our prison camp for about two and a half years. He had no respect for officers. He treated everyone exactly the same. He used to get on the saki and was often drunk.
We used to go out to work early in the morning. I will tell you about the camp routine. You got up early. At six o’clock they would sound reveille and they count you. Everybody out, and you stand and be counted. Then you would have your breakfast of rice and then you would fall into parties and then off you would go in trucks to do all sorts of things. Yosh would then have only the sick and the officers in the camp. He put them all to work in the camp garden so that he would have opportunities to belittle people. I count myself lucky, I was always able to work out of camp. I always went out and I think I avoided most of the bad things that happened to some guys. Everybody got thumped around. So you would go out and work and would do all sorts of things. Provided you could keep going and did more or less what you were told you might get through the day with nothing more than a couple of whacks with a baseball bat or a rifle butt or something like that. But at night you would come back to the camp and every working party was lined up in front of the guard house and out would come Yosh with his little crew of guards. He had been on the Saki all day and there was a lovely lot of prisoners to have fun with.
We used to sneak things into the camp because you were always hungry. Yoshoda’s chief joy in life was to catch someone smuggling something into the camp. You get very clever at hiding things on your body. The rice used to come in a box and we quickly learnt to put a double bottom in the box. We arrived in trucks and in the truck there were all sorts of places you could hide things.
Yosh would walk up and down the rows and he had the most glittery, evil brown eyes. He would stand and look straight at you in your eyes. He could tell from people’s eyes if they had anything. He would call them out and then they would strip search that man and they would find something.
The guard house had coconut trees around it. They used baseball bats to beat us. Anyone who was caught with anything was tied to a coconut tree by the guard house and we all stood there from two to four hours while they beat the shit out of whoever they caught. That was Yosh. That was why he was moved on when the Australians heard the story.
What about your Red Cross parcels were they getting sent?
We had nothing. I was reported missing presumed killed. The camp was an unregistered camp. Not until the allies began to push north and American Army reconnaissance started to pick up prison camps, did they even know there was a prison camp in Macasar.
They just used to carve them out of the bush and it became a prison camp?
We were talking about Yosh and tying up guys who were smuggling food.
It was sadistic treatment, the Japs didn’t like us and they used every opportunity that they could to belittle. They, the Japanese genuinely believed that they would win the war. They genuinely believed that they would be the ruling nation and they acted that way. I think they, just as we had a poor opinion of them, knew that western people did have a poor opinion of them, now they had their chance to do something about it.
I will say that not all the guards were as sadistic. Yosh was the boss man, perhaps he was chosen because of those qualifications, but he really was the most sadistic little bastard I ever met.
There seems to be a pattern of that with Camp Commanders.
We, the British, had our Captain, Commander and Lieutenant Commander in the camp. They took the Captain and the Commander and a lot of British naval personnel from Macasar to Japan and they left George Cooper, who was the ship’s First Officer as the head. George was a Lieutenant Commander, he was tall and unrelenting in his disregard for the Japanese. He just despised them and made it abundantly clear and Yosh did his best to beat it out of him and he never succeeded. It was a Sergeant maltreating a Lieutenant Commander and he used to beat the hell out of him with a spade and make him stand still and punch him and generally try to knock him down and he never succeeded. He never got George down. George was like a God in the camp and he was the personification of what we all imagine the British to be.
You need someone like that to keep everybody else going.
I had lost touch with George, but I had the good fortune to get in touch again just a few years ago. He made it back to England and they gave him command of a Destroyer and he finished his naval career and he went ashore and he had children. One of his sons married a lady just along here at Snells Beach. The son came to visit us and I started to write to George and he was quite pleased to hear from us. They had an EXETER reunion in England and there is an EXETER memorial window in Exeter Cathedral, which I have visited and a little chapel devoted to EXETER.
Not all my time was spent in Macasar. They took work parties all over the place. They called for volunteers. Mostly people were glad just to get to somewhere else. It might be better or it might be worse. What’s to be lost?
As I said they took a big group up to Japan who we never saw again. They took another group to Java who we never saw again which included George. They took parties over to mine copper over on the other side of the island. I joined a group who went inland on the plateau and we built a Japanese airfield, a wartime airstrip and a bypass road. Generally things were better up there. We lived in appalling conditions, but the Indonesians who were all around us, we were able to trade for all kinds of stuff and so I guess I was lucky in that respect.
Also I didn’t get much malaria. Most fellows got malaria. I avoided it for two and a half years and then I did get it and I have a whole week of my life with absolutely no memory. I can remember being put on the truck to go back down to Macasar. I can remember waking up on a marble floor on a thin little mattress, nothing else, in a pool of perspiration, soaked. I wasn’t expected to live. I was unconscious for a week. Then we had a small amount of quinine and so I got over it. I didn’t want to be down in the main camp, I managed to persuade them to send me back up to the bush.
Eventually the attitude of the Japanese changed as the war progressed. We were able to judge to some extent from their behaviour that something was not going quite as well for them and we began to see bombing raids in the camp.
I have a little regard for the accuracy of the American bombing, even though they generally managed to miss our camp. On one occasion there were three Japanese Cruisers tied up alongside the breastwork in Macascar, broad daylight, midday and very little anti aircraft defence from the ground and they went up and down the dock and they never planted a single bomb on those three ships, I couldn’t believe it.
We lost people from dysentery, malaria and beriberi mainly. The wet monsoon which was November/December/January, was when most people died. The first wet monsoon not so many got sick, the second and third quite a lot and they [the numbers dying] were growing and growing, by the third wet monsoon. I think if we had to face our fourth wet monsoon not many would have lived.
Then there came the day when we were called back top the main camp at Macasar and the Japs were acting in a very strange way.
How long before people actually came in and started getting you off the island and giving medical attention?
About six weeks.
The Australian 9th Army had almost finished the occupation of Borneo. They recovered the oil wells and all that stuff was in their hands. That was the Australian 9th Army under a Lieutenant Brigadier Doherty. I have never forgotten his name. Six weeks after the surrender the Australian 9th Army finally arrived in Macasar.
Did you guys know at that stage that the war was over?
George had come back from Java and he was instructed to maintain civil order in the town until such time as the allies reoccupied it. Being one of the fitter ones I became one of the town’s policemen. We used to patrol by night and by day. The beginning of Indonesian Nationalism was starting to emerge. They called themselves Hey Hoes. They were young nationalist Indonesians who had been indoctrinated for three and a half years by the Japanese virtually to take over when the war ended. They began to make our life very uncomfortable. So the fitter of the prisoners of war, under the guidance of British Officers, kept civil order in the town, particularly at night and that went on for six weeks.
Then came the day when the 9th Army actually arrived and I had the honour of being one of the guards of honour to welcome Brigadier General Doherty.
Shortly after that they started to get you guys back home?
I can’t remember how long it took. The Australians came over from Borneo escorted by two Australian Sloops who ferried us all out to HMS MAIDSTONE. We sailed back down to Fremantle where we bunked down for a night and then finally managed to get as far as Adelaide. That is a funny little story. There were only seven New Zealanders amongst all the Poms at this stage. The Poms had no problem, the MAIDSTONE took them all home and left us stranded in Perth with no way of getting home. The RAAF treated us very kindly. They had a bomber delivery, an aircraft going from Perth to Adelaide and so they took the seven of us to Adelaide. It was as cold as hell and very noisy. We were up in the front of this wearing Air Force greatcoats. This thing landed in Adelaide at twilight and we dropped down on the tarmac out of it. We were walking over in these greatcoats and these Australian station guards all saluted and we realised that we had officer’s coats on. Anyway we bunked down in Adelaide. We finally got to Sydney and we bunked down there. I think it took me thirteen weeks to get home.
Your parents must have been beside themselves when they eventually heard that you were alive?
I was engaged to be married when I left New Zealand in October 1941 and only my wife [to be] and my mother had the strength to believe that possibly I might come back. I have got some cuttings out of the paper where we were listed as missing presumed dead. Nothing arrived at our camp ever. We did hear afterwards that the Australians turned up some medical supplies in one of the warehouses down at the wharf, but none of that ever made its way to the camp.
We did have an excellent sick bay fellow, an English Sergeant Sick Bay man. He had Mercurochrome and he had a little amount of quinine, those were the only two things we had.
In reflection looking at those war years – I was a descendant of British people, colonial through and through. I told you my grandfather fought in the Boer War and my uncle in the First World War, and there was never the slightest hesitation amongst any of my friends [about going to war]. Britain was in trouble and that was it. I think Peter Fraser who was Prime Minister at that time used the phrase, “Where Britain goes we go”. That certainly was the feeling amongst my generation.
There was no hesitation whatsoever. We were too young to understand what was going on. The British had virtually monitored the world for three centuries. The Japanese had an insular policy from the time of Marco Polo. They were a little offshore, they were secure because of it and they became insulated for centuries while Britain was expanding. Then came the industrial revolution and the Japanese began to realise that they were going to have to open the doors. The world was rapidly catching up with them. So they patterned themselves on Britain. What was not widely known was, they started planning straight after the Russian/Japanese War back in 1905. They set about patterning themselves on Britain. They fought on our side in the First World War. The treaties after the First World War limited the size of navies and air forces by country and the Japanese were positioned so that they might not become too powerful, but powerful enough. They armed far in excess of their treaty limitations.
What I couldn’t understand about British and American intelligence was that you do not build a fleet with a dozen great Battleships with thirty knot aircraft carriers with forty or fifty heavy Cruisers and God knows how many light Cruisers and Destroyers. You do not do all of that without someone realising what is going on.
Japanese Commander General Tojo had the fleet for the assault on Pearl Harbour at sea in the North Pacific and they had been at sea for a week and nobody detected it. They assembled an army of seven million men. They tried very hard to re-negotiate the treaties and they failed and as I say Tojo in the end managed to persuade the politicians, to go to war after years of planning. On the day everything in place undetected.
So here is little old me thinking Singapore was impregnable.
In the prison camp were fourteen New Zealanders who served on British ships. We lost one, he died in the camp and the rest of us came home. Now we’re in our eighties – we have never bothered with the war or anything to do with it or had much contact with one another – but we have been having a little get together down in Invercargill every year for the last three years, that is the survivors and their wives. The reason we go down there is because Ivan Fortune who is one of us is so ill he can’t travel. We have lost another one now. My life long wartime friend Jack Dobson has died.
Considering physically what you went through in camp has to have a toll on your bodies and your general health.
Head of Veterans, Affairs, Jessie Gunn, has taken interest in the seven of us. She has made the comment, “you all seem to have done well and you have all kept your health”. I often wonder about that. I think if you could handle the illnesses: the dysentery and the beriberi and the malaria and all the other horrible things. If you get through all of that your constitution will stand a lot. You can get incredibly fit with very little food. I was very lucky with both malaria and dysentery. I had both, but not nearly as bad as most. You have nothing. You come out of the water in a pair of Navy white shorts and a Navy tropical top. You arrived in a prison camp ten days later. You get a handful of rice and you eat that with your hand, you start with nothing. The whole war went by with virtually nothing. The only things I had were a Dutch Army bowl about six inches round and about four inches deep and a spoon and a Dutch Army jacket and trousers. The trousers were cut down to shorts very fast. Most New Zealanders cut theirs down. The jacket got patched and patched. We got issued with one little thin blanket after about eighteen months. We slept on bamboo on a dirt floor. When we were up at the airstrip the hut had a concrete floor but it was open and it had a bamboo roof over it. We used wooden shutters to lie on. You have got absolutely nothing. We felt very envious of the Dutch military people who surrendered to the allies. They marched into camp with nice new uniforms and kit bags full of stuff, which they weren’t over anxious to share.
I am surprised they were allowed to keep them.
Although we lost the ship defending the Dutch, they weren’t very outgoing with sharing what little there was, around.
Everyone has a different war and during my short time in the water I didn’t think I would drown and I didn’t. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, but I was quite pleased when I found myself back on shore. It really didn’t matter to me what was going on, I was back on shore. I remember marching into that camp and thinking if there is only one person who is going to come out of here, it’s me. I think I lived, in a way, in isolation all my life. To this day I have got resentment, because when I finally got back to New Zealand, which was four years later, nothing had changed. I thought why hasn’t it changed? Life isn’t the same for the whole world, I no longer fit into life in my own country.
This little group of seven of us came from all over New Zealand, we were all on different ships and we all ended up in the same prison camp. We all went our own ways until recently and at the end of our lives we have become like brothers, which I think is marvellous. The wives all somehow have got involved with it and are completely relaxed in the group.
I think our war experiences are so ingrained in us, that, whenever we meet, it is as though the intervening period didn’t exist. That is how it is when we get together.
Do you find your group falling back into a language that perhaps only the seven of you understand?
Thank you very much for your interview.
End of Interview
Abandon ship 8
American Fleet 5
Australia 3, 15
Australian 9th Army 14-15
Australian Bight 3
Battle of the Java Sea 6-7, 10
Battle of the Java Sea (David Thomas) 10
camp (POW) 11-15
Churchill, Winston 10
Colombo 3, 7
DE RUYTER 5
Disease 12, 14, 17
Doherty, Brigadier General 15
Dorman, Admiral 5, 6, 7
Dutch Army 5, 6, 7
Dutch Hospital Ship 11
Evans Bay Yacht and Motor Boat Club 1
EXETER 4, 5, 6-8, 14
Food 12, 17
German raiders 2
HOUSTON 5, 6-7
Indonesian Nationalism 15
– aircraft 4, 6
– army 11-15
– convoys 5
– industry 5
– invasion force 5-7
– landings 4, 6, 7
– Navy 5, 6, 7-8
Java 5, 6
Java Sea 7, 10, 11
JINTSU 6, 7
Maldive Islands 4
P Class yachts 1
Paramatta Yacht Club 1
Pearl Harbour 4, 5, 16
PERTH 5, 7
PRINCE OF WALES 4
Prisoner of war 10-15
Proficiency Certificate 1
Punishment 11, 12, 13, 14, 15
QUEEN ELIZABETH 3
QUEEN MARY 3
River plate 4
Singapore 4, 5
sinking (EXETER) 9
Sunda Strait 7
Surabaya 5, 8
telegraphists 2, 3
Tojo, General 16
Wellington Technical College Art School 1
Whitcomb and Tombs1
Work detail 12, 14
Yoshida, Sergeant 11, 12, 13