Research & Articles by Lt. Col. Peter Winstanley OAM RFD (Retired), JP
Research, Interviews and Articles about the Prisoners Of War of the Japanese who built the Burma to Thailand railway during world war two. Focusing on the doctors and medical staff among the prisoners. Also organised trips to Thailand twice a year.
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Surviving the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru

At Tamarkan (Thailand), a miserable bamboo Japanese Prisoner of War camp on the banks of the River Kwai, a staging camp for the skeleton thin and diseased prisoners of war, dressed in tatters of clothing, some only in loincloth ‘G’strings, bare footed with open sores and ulcerated legs.  These Australians were a portion of the survivors of the ‘Railway of Death,’ the Burma Railway, built through the rugged mountains of Thailand and Burma.  Driven on by sadistic Japanese and brutal Korean guards, the POW’s had worked on starvation rations, refused proper housing and medical care, resulting in the death of around 13,000 white POW’s and over 80,000 coolies.  Word had just swept the camp that ‘all fit up and had to be chosen by a Japanese doctor, who was only a dental student.  Eventually 900 men were chosen. If you had dark skin or bad freckles you were automatically excluded.

The next day we were issued with our first clothing in two years, consisting of a Dutch army shirt, shorts and hat, a Japanese t-shirt and a pair of split-toed rubber shoes.  What a sorry sight these clothes looked on the POW’s skeletal bodies. 

On the 27th of March 1944 I left in a group of POW’s called a ‘Kumi’ of 450 men, which was considered a train load.  The only good part of the Kumi was that Lieutenant Yamada, the only Japanese Commander, who was considered one of the best Japanese officers on the Burma railway, intended to get the POW’s to Japan in as good a physical condition as possible.

We were then lined up and given a speech by a Japanese Commander.  “All men should be honoured to know that they are going to a land of peace and tranquillity where even the birds can nestle on the hunter’s hand and will not be harmed.  Where the snow covers the land in winter and the warm sun of spring melts it, leaving the country clean.  A land of milk and honey.  In Japan it is a sin to eat and not work, so to prevent all men from becoming sinners, we shall put you to work”.

After the speech all POW’s were thoroughly searched for contraband resulting in the finding of nothing.  All men were then marched past a group of Japanese officers and guards, saluting as we passed, later waving to friends we were leaving behind.  We marched for four miles to a railway siding at Kanchanaburi.  There we formed up beside open flat cars, ‘railway trucks’.  The 450 POW’s  boarded trucks with the Korean guards.

After a short journey the train arrived at the Nom Pladuk railway junction in Thailand, near Bampong.  This was another POW camp containing the English and Dutch POW’s.  We stopped here for six days. During that   time the other 450 POW’s joined us. On the first of April we left Nom Pladuk in Kumis of 300 men for the short trip to Bangkok where we camped at the railway yards.  We saw hundreds of Japanese troops on their way to Burma.  They gave us a meal of rice from a rail side kitchen which catered to the Japanese troops.  It was from Bangkok that we thought we were catching a ship but we were wrong, our destination was now revealed to be Saigon in French Indochina.  We were packed into steel cattle cars, after we had cleaned them of straw and manure.  Then 60 POW’s and 6 guards to a truck, we moved off.
We travelled through the night until 8:00am the following day when we stopped at another rail side kitchen where we had a meal of rice and we were given permission to wash under the water pump used to fill the steam engines. We travelled all day and at about midnight we arrived at Phnom Penh, Cambodia where we lay down on the side of the railyard to stretch our cramped bodies. 

At daylight we had rice from the rail side kitchen, then marched to Phnom Penh docks on the Mekong River.  On this march we saw our first white woman and some beautiful Eurasian women.  Cambodia was a French Colony so they claimed to be Vichy French, loyal to the Nazi-dominated Vichy Government.  A few of the women flashed ‘V’ for victory signs and gave us smiles.  Some had   tears in their eyes at the sight of our plight.

At the docks we boarded the Long Ho, a clean and modern river steamer.  We were well fed on the Long Ho and not cramped as we had been in the cattle trucks.  It was actually a very scenic and educating river cruise, taking 33 hours.

After arriving at a modern concrete dock on the Mekong River in Saigon we disembarked and marched to a POW camp which had 200 English POW’s.  This camp was once a Foreign Legion camp and had a tiled roof, concrete floors, 2-tiered bunks, mosquito netting and bugs the Legionnaires left us.  We brought our own body lice with us.  The camp had electricity, sewered toilets, a volleyball court and a miniature golf course. To top it all off, a well stocked canteen with fair prices.  You could buy soap, powder, toothpaste, tooth brushes, fish pastes, tailor made cigarettes and plenty of fruit.  We were paid 5 cents a day working on the railway so most of us had money.  While waiting for the ship we worked on the docks and ate more food than in Burma. All the POW’s put on weight. During the early part of Easter week we were to embark on a ship down river at Cape St Jacques where a Japanese convoy was staged.

On the 9th of April the first party of POW’s boarded motorised barges which took 11 hours to arrive at Cape St Jacques. The barges pulled alongside a large new looking freighter.  We climbed rope ladders and rope nets to get on board and on looking down at the water saw large schools of sharks.  The ship was spotless and the crew helpful and not one bit unfriendly.  We bedded down on the top deck as the holds were full.  The crew gave us a good meal of rice and beans.  We slept the night under the stars and the next morning we were all ordered back to Saigon because the ship’s captain refused to be responsible for so many lives if the ship was torpedoed, as he told us you could nearly walk to Tokyo on the periscopes.  So, back on to the barges we went and back to the camp at Saigon from which we were sent out on small working parties.

One night after lights out, the air raid sirens started their mournful wail and allied bombers were making a low level raid on the ships and docks.  We had no air raid shelters so we went to ground and next day we had trenches dug everywhere.  One bomb hit the tobacco factory 100 yards from our camp, showering the camp with tobacco leaf which next day resulted in POW’s making homemade cigars.  Two days later we received news from the French that the Allies had landed in Europe.

Only days later, we got the order “all men pack, all men go to Singapore”.  So after two and a   half months in Saigon where all men had gained weight and better health we boarded the river steamer ‘Tian Guan’.  However, this trip back to Phnom Penh was not as good as our previous trip on the ‘Long Ho’ because we were below deck, but not below water line.  We had one opening to the water where we could wash.  The days were much hotter, since we were close to the equator, however the crew was good to us.

We disembarked at Phnom Penh and went to a run-down old French Foreign Legion camp where we stopped for three days. Here French men and women smuggled us medical supplies.

On the 27th of June we marched to the railway yards singing French songs but the sight of the closed-in cattle trucks in this heat did not cheer us up.  First, we had to load bags of rice into the trucks, then, pile in on top of the rice; 30 men and your guards to a truck, with the guards taking a position closest to the door.

Eventually we arrived in Bangkok and here we saw lots of damage from Allied air raids. The coolies actually tossed stones at us, blaming us for the work they had to do repairing the lines.

We only stopped for two days in Bangkok.  Leaving and travelling slowly down through Malaya we saw the decline in the economy of Malaysia.  We sneaked a lot of rice out of the bags we were sleeping on and exchanged it with natives for fruit.  On the 4th of July we crossed the causeway to Singapore Island.

From the station we marched through the lifeless streets to River Valley Road POW camp.  We were shocked with the vermin infesting the camp.  One morning, with vicious Korean guards, the Japanese moved the majority of the Australians to the small island off Singapore. Damar Laut, southwest of  Keppel harbour. The island had no water, very little food and a sadistic Japanese commander who we nicknamed ‘The Jeep’ due to his pudgy build. We also called the island after him.  Jeep  Island.  We had to go across to the mainland by landing barge to work as coolies digging a dry dock by pick and shovel.  The Japanese were trying to build a dry dock 500 yards by 100 yards by 50ft deep which would be big enough for a battle ship.  More than 1,000 workers, mostly coolie natives plus ourselves, worked three shifts a day on its construction.

This project had been going on for nearly two years.  I worked mostly night shift and this was the best shift because you dodged the hot sun but you caught the rain.  Luckily this job did not have high priority like the Burma Railway.  The food was bad and we soon started losing the weight we had put on in Saigon.  We could scrounge shellfish around the island, even caught some fish in waterholes and on homemade fishing lines.  One man, Cpl. R. Gorlick died from crab poisoning.  Our first death since leaving the ‘Death Railway’.  We worked a hungry five weeks on Jeep Island, from 27th July to 3rd September and on that morning the pudgy Jeep announced that all men would go to Nippon (Japan).

We left that day and went back to River Valley Road camp.  It was on this day that we received our first and only Red Cross parcel.  Four men to a parcel so we did not get very much but that was not the Red Cross’s fault since there were thousands of parcels at the Singapore docks.  However, the Japanese would not distribute them to the POW’s.  It was here that we also received our first and only mail.  Some POW’s got lots of letters, some got none.  I got five letters.
Now we had 750 Aussie POW’s but only 718 were fit enough to sail to Japan with the British supplying 1500 POW’s.  We marched to the docks, 2218 POW’s in all.  The Japanese had two ships sailing to Japan, the Rakuyo Maru and the Kachidoki Maru.  Both were very old ships, both flew the Rising Sun but neither had a Red Cross or any other indication that they were transporting POW’s.  The coolies were still loading the two ships with rubber and tin so we had to sit on the docks in the sun.

Eventually a lot of Japanese trucks arrived taking wounded soldiers to Japan.  Japanese nurses and Korean and Japanese Geisha girls (prostitutes), Japanese civilians and a few children.  Most of these boarded the biggest ship, the Kachidoki Maru.  Then the Japanese guards had all the POW’s line up, sending 900 British to the Kachidoki Maru, 600 British and 718 Australians to the Rakuyo Maru.  Two Aussies and 1 British not fit enough were sent back and 3 more POW officers took their place- 3 Aussies and 1 American.

We sailed with 2218 POW’s.  As we were being loaded on the Rakuyo Maru each POW was given a 2ft by 2ft cubic block of rubber with a rubber handle to carry on board.  The Japanese told us they were life preservers but we could not see them as that.  Only another way of getting more raw rubber on board the ship.  As we boarded we had to pass a lot of Jig-a-jig girls, prostitutes for the Japanese soldiers.  These girls spat at us so you can imagine what language we used on them.

POW after POW, we shuffled up the gangplank, hurried along by Korean guards with sharp pointed bamboo sticks.  Half of the men were sent forward, the remainder aft.  I went forward where there were three large cargo hatches.  Hatches 1 and 3 were battened down full of cargo, hatch 2 was open and 10ft deep with two decks built for soldiers.  So, we were brutally forced down into this hatch.  Eventually the Japanese allowed half of the POW’s to stay up on deck.  Luckily I was one of these.

After some delays, the two ships pulled away from the docks and anchored midstream.  Then on 6th September 1944 the Rakuyo Maru, the Kachidoki Maru, two cargo ships and two heavily laden oil tankers thought to be brand new slipped their moorings and got under way forming a convoy with four naval escorts, setting a course for the Formosa Straits.  Shortly after leaving Singapore we passed a Singapore bound convoy of transport ships, two oil tankers and naval craft including a queer looking aircraft carrier.

Our convoy steamed steadily day after day in calm weather, every day sighting Japanese air cover.  We were allowed to shower under a salt water hose near the Jig-a-Jig girls who used to sit and watch us, with some holding their hands apart to show what size they saw.  On the fifth night at sea we were given an excess of fresh water but not by the Japanese, it was supplied by the Good Lord as torrential rain fell on the convoy.  Most POW’s danced naked and filled water bottles and lunch dixies, while greedily drinking all they could.  The weather then became very cold and these mates and I crawled under a heap of canvas sails to try and warm ourselves.

The Japanese air cover discontinued from 12th September at approximately 2:00am.  Most POW’s were asleep with almost 500 of them top side.  Three mates and I were awake on the port side close to the rail watching a Japanese destroyer flashing code to the rear of the convoy, when we heard an explosion and saw a bright flash of flame.  The Japanese guards close to us told us it was an island on fire from gunnery practice but then there was one loud explosion, a brilliant flash of fire followed by complete darkness.  My mate said “Hell someone has pulled the plug out of the island.”

Map of South China SeaThe Rakuyo Maru was sunk in the South China Sea between Hainan Island and Luzon 12 September 1944.

Examination of the map will reveal the location of the Burma Thailand Railway, Saigon in French Indo China and Singapore.  All these locations are relevant  to the Roy Cornford story.

She was sunk and we all knew it was the destroyer sinking and by now everyone was wide awake with Japanese running to battle stations and manning the forward guns.  Then the gun crew on our ship fired a great bright flare.  It lit up the sky and we noticed Japanese on our ship already sitting in the lifeboats with life jackets on.  We could not see any submarines but could see most of the convoy.

Now there were dozens of kapok life jackets around so the POW’s started putting them on.  I had one, so did my mates but not all POW’s got one (later on in the water they got life jackets by taking them off floating dead Japanese).  The men top side relayed what was happening to the POW’s in the hold.  Later we learnt that the submarine that sank the destroyer lost the convoy when it dived to dodge depth charges from other naval ships.  However, the other three subs were giving chase.

Then one of the oil tankers only 500 yards away from us exploded lighting up the ocean.  I could see the Japanese trying to get away from the tanker.  The tanker lit up the entire convoy.  Then there were two explosions forward of our ship and two transport ships sank.  By now the Japanese escorts were zipping everywhere dropping depth charges.  Then another large ship got hit and it sort of just drifted into the burning tanker and burst into flames just as the second tanker exploded, again lighting up the ocean with burning oil.

It was at that moment that two torpedoes hit our ship the Rakuyo Maru.  The first torpedo hit us in the bow at No.1. hold.  The explosion nearly washed us overboard.  It flooded the hold containing the POW’s causing panic because ten seconds after the first torpedo hit, the second torpedo hit the engine room causing the ship to list and sink ten feet, after which it just floated.  I can remember the Japanese in the lifeboats on our ship singing out “torpedoes” before we got hit.  I did not see them but some of the POW’s said that they did.  How lucky we were, with a torpedo hitting both sides of the hold containing the POW’s.  By now we realised the ship was not about to sink immediately.  The POWs in the hold calmed down and climbed the ladder to the deck in an orderly manner.  The shock of the water washing us around the deck and water pouring into the hold is something hard to forget.  The torpedoes killed a lot of the Japanese, mostly in the engine room and blew those on the gun turret overboard.
The Japanese on our ship had abandoned ship with no word to us. They had taken 11 lifeboats and 2 small punts.  Some Japanese just jumped into the sea and any POW’s trying to get into the lifeboats were   kept back with guns and bayonets.  I saw one Japanese boat drift into the flaming oil and you could hear the screams of men   burning and drowning.  Since there were lots of Japanese from other ships also in the water, approximately 15 POW’s did manage to get into a lifeboat with about 20 Japanese.

Our ship had settled with a serious list to the port side, sitting about 10ft lower in the water.  The POW’s were tossing overboard 6ft by 6ft rafts, hatch covers and anything else that would float,  with   POW’s jumping overboard to hang onto the rafts.  In some cases the English POW’s killed a few of their own men by tossing rafts onto men in the water.  These rafts were not made for you to sit on, just to hang on to the ropes on the side of the raft.  By now most of the POW’s had left the ship so we left four men to guard the last raft that we had for seven of us while we found water.  We all had a good drink, donned our life jackets, tossed our raft overboard and jumped into the sea.

The seven of us paddled and kicked the water to get away from the slowly sinking ship.  We had only got about 100 yards away when a Japanese   naval escort came back, flashing signal lights when it also got torpedoed and exploded.  That torpedo exploding made us sick, causing us to lose all the water we had drunk.

It was now 4am and most of the rafts had drifted close together.  A lot of the English POW’s drifted into burning oil and a lot also died after being hit by rafts and hatch covers which were being thrown into the water.  The English had been on the starboard side of the Rakuyo Maru.  A few men had still not abandoned ship and they found a lifeboat that the Japanese could not launch but which they managed to launch.  They also found one terrified Japanese Jig-a-Jig girl still on the ship whom they took with them.  Once in the water they met up with a boatload of Japanese and handed the Jig-a-Jig girl over to them.

Now quite a few POW’s swam and paddled back to the ship and climbed back on board.  By daylight the ocean was heavily dotted with debris, POW’s on rafts and lifeboats. There were also a lot of Japanese on rafts.  By now we realised that the ship was doomed since it was slowly sinking into the water.  However you could still see men walking around the decks. While all this was going on two Japanese naval ships appeared on the horizon and slowly nosed their way through the oil and floating debris.  Our spirits soared, after spending so long in the water, thinking rescue had arrived. The frigates picked up all the Japanese from the lifeboats then lowered a motorised lifeboat which moved among us picking up all of the Japanese and Koreans in the water.  While this was going on an old Japanese transport ship also arrived but did not do any rescuing.  The lifeboats the Japanese left in the water were soon filled with POW’s, 350 or so spread evenly between the 11 lifeboats. Luckily, I did not get in one. By now it was late on the first day with the two Japanese ships and the transport ship still close by when our ship suddenly went down nose first, tossing blocks of rubber high into the air and generating great spouts of water.  Men who had remained on the ship went down with the sinking ship.

The two Japanese naval ships and the oil transport ship just sailed off and left us floating around in the water.  It soon became dark so we tied two rafts together and pushed bamboo and bits of timber under them.  Eighteen of us could sit on the rafts and the kapok life jackets took the rest of our weight.
During the first night the rafts drifted apart and our two rafts were 100 yards from the next raft. There were   lots of rafts and men spread all around the ocean, with dead Japanese and POWs floating around in life jackets. Any POW’s who did not have life jackets took one off a  dead Japanese.  We spent the first night floating around listening to   POW’s calling  out  for friends.

On the second day all of  the POW’s who had managed to get into the abandoned lifeboats had set out to try and row to land.  We later learned that they had been sighted by a Japanese naval vessel which opened   fire on them, killing all 350 POW’s in the lifeboats.  We did not know of this until after the war.  The POW’s who had launched the last lifeboat from the Rakuyo Maru had rowed in a different direction and they were sighted by a different Japanese vessel which picked them up and took them to Hainan Island.

Back on the rafts during the second day we lost three men.  They just sort of drifted away.  There was nothing we could do to save them. We saw lots of dead POW’s floating around.  We floated upon a big freezer box with one POW sitting on top.  He told us it was full of boxes of dried salted fish.  We got a box of fish but you could not eat them because they were too salty.

We drifted away paddling with boards we had found floating about.  We were covered with oil and the blazing sun burnt your arms and face, the only parts of your body not covered with water.  We took life jackets off the dead Japanese and busted them open to use the kapok to wipe the oil out of our eyes and off our face.  I was lucky I had a hat and a Japanese t- shirt on but had badly burnt arms and face.

Our rafts used to go up and down on the swell of the China Sea.  On the rise of the sea swell we could see black dots which were rafts far in the distance.  We saw sharks but did not see any sharks attack any POW’s.

During the third night some POW’s drank salt water and became deliriously happy, singing and telling great stories of what they could see.  During this period we saw lightning, then  it started to rain with all of us looking up to the sky with open mouths to catch any water we could.  By cupping your hands to your mouth you could get a fair amount of water.

We sort of dozed and slept half sitting and half lying on our mates until daylight. On the fourth day we only had seven men left out of the original eighteen.  With the rafts nearly floating now it was hard to sit on them because they were greasy with oil.  I can remember seeing a  dead Japanese floating near us with a water bottle around his neck.   I swam to him, got the bottle and was nearly too weak to swim back to the raft.  The bottle was full of salt water.  It had no cork in it.

We never once talked about not surviving.  Late on the fourth day we could see only a few rafts well away from us.  We could hear a sort of engine drone and thinking it was an aeroplane we kept looking to the sky but could not see anything.  The grind of an engine still haunted us.  Then once when we rose on the swell we thought we saw a small ship going to a raft.  It seemed like hours, watching this black looking dot going to rafts. It was then we realised it was a submarine.  Then we noticed it was coming our way.  Eventually it came close to our raft and an American sailor dived into the oily water with a rope and pulled us alongside the submarine with many eager hands to help us on board.

I can remember lifting my hands up pleading with the sailors not to grab my arms because they were just blisters and sores.  They got us on deck and surprisingly we could walk.  They told us to drop all our clothes off and as we did we heard a short “planes, planes”.  So the sailors just grabbed us, dropping us down the hatch onto a big plump sailor’s stomach.  Then we heard “all clear.”  They were only large sea birds.

By now it was close to dark and the submarine only found one more raft with one man on it.  Our submarine, the Pampanito, had a crew of seventy two and they picked up seventy three POW’s.  Sadly, one man died on the first night.  The Pampanito was the first submarine to sight us in the water and radioed three more submarines in the area.  One submarine arrived the same day to pick up some survivors, the other two submarines arrived on the night a typhoon sprung up which would have finished off any hope for more survivors.

the Rakuyo Maru
The four submarines which rescued us were the same submarines that sank us and were on their return from chasing the remainder of the convoy.  They had sunk nearly all of that convoy including the other POW ship.  Our submarine set its course for Saipan and on the second night surfaced to meet an American destroyer to transfer us to it.  Unfortunately the seas were too treacherous for them to try and move us, so we set off for Saipan taking five days.

The four submarines which rescued us were the same submarines that sank us and were on their return from chasing the remainder of the convoy.  They had sunk nearly all of that convoy including the other POW ship.  Our submarine set its course for Saipan and on the second night surfaced to meet an American destroyer to transfer us to it.  Unfortunately the seas were too treacherous for them to try and move us, so we set off for Saipan taking five days.

The sailors gave us small drinks of water and fruit juices at first.  They even gave us their bunks and with us black with oil and water crinkled skin, what a mess we made of those sailors bunks and bedding.

At Saipan we went into a big American tent hospital where we were cared for by lots of American doctors and lovely American nurses.  I spent six weeks in this hospital and cannot speak highly enough of the sailors who rescued us and gave us back our lives  and  the way the nurses nursed us back to health.

God Bless America                    Roydon Charles Cornford Private 2/19 Battalion NX 44955

A lucky survivor.

Roy Cornford returned to Australia from Saipan by air in October, 1944 and was discharged from the army on 24 May 1945, coincidentally his birthday.   He married Joan Lees in 1947 and they had 3 children.  He retired from work when he was aged 55. Together with Joan he established a Plant Nursery and they donated the proceeds of this enterprise to various charities.  Some of the charities which have benefitted have been Camp Quality around $3,000, ex-POW Welfare around $10,000 and Legacy around $9,000.  In fact, today they still send the odd additional donation away.  In 2009 they reside in their family home in Vincentia, New South Wales.

The submarine Pampanito is on display at Pier 46 San Francisco (See picture above)
Roy wrote his account of his survival of the sinking of the Rakuyo Maru in 1982.

This article was kindly provided to me by Roy Cornford as the result of my contact with the widow of another ex POW- Doug Whalley.                                                                                      
The article was retyped by Jean Hartz and subsequently proofread by Beryl Wood (Roy Cornford’s daughter).                      Lt Col (Retired) 

Peter Winstanley OAM RFD JP
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