Q C Madson
The train trip from Singapore to Penang had taken five days and nights to complete and we were not unhappy to have to walk a short distance from where we had disembarked from the boxcars to the Penang dock. We had at least had an opportunity to stretch our legs after our five days of inactivity.
Two rusty old freighters were anchored out in the harbor along with a smaller armed trawler. This was to be our transportation for the next step of our journey to who knows where.
We were loaded by nationality groups on two flat barges alongside the dock. Two trips were required of one barge towed by a small tugboat to get the Americans and Australians to the Dai Mogi Maru. The other barge was used to transport the Japs, who were to be our prison camp guards, to the other freighter in the harbor and on the second trip the Indonesians and Dutch prisoners were taken to the same ship. On the Dai Mogi Maru the Americans were put in the forward cargo hold, forward of the superstructure and the Aussies were confined to the after cargo hold, aft of the superstructure.
Our sleeping accommodations were similar to those we had experienced on the Dai Nichi Maru which had taken us from Batavia to Singapore and, like the Dai Nichi Maru, the Dai Mogi Maru had a three foot square entrance hole cut in the cargo hold cover to permit us to get into or out of the hold.
As usual, we were very tightly packed in with some of our group having to sleep on the deck as there was not sufficient room for all of us to fit onto the four tiers of shelves on each of the four sides of the hold and the four tiered platform in the centre of the hold. We each put our few possessions in the area we selected as our sleeping area and made ourselves as comfortable as possible.
In late afternoon, our small convoy got underway and so began another leg of our journey to a questionable future.
Outside the harbor the convoy formed up and consisted of only the two freighters carrying the three nationalities of POWs and the Jap Guards and an armed trawler type vessel about eighty feet in length whose armament consisted of a single gun located on the foredeck which appeared to be a three inch piece.
The armed trawler took position on the starboard (land) side of the convoy on the Dai Mogi Maru's beam with the other freighter on the port side of the Dai Mogi Maru.
It is important to note here that on the other freighter the Indonesians (Dutch) had been put into the forward cargo hold and the Japanese guards had been assigned the after hold for this trip.
Convoy speed was quite slow, about seven knots I estimated, as these two prison ships were refugees from the scrap pile. These and many other old freighters had been bought in the years before the war by the Japanese in the expectation of fighting a war. Many of them had been laid up in the various islands of Japan until they were needed for Japan's wartime moving of troops and goods. That these two prison ships had been intended for troop transports was evident by the wood sleeping platforms in the holds.
The Dai Mogi Maru, built many years ago in Scotland, had a black hull, white superstructure and a two-hole outhouse hanging over the rail on the port side of the ship for the use of those of us in the forward hold and another was located aft for the use of the Aussies. These were wooden structures and looked very flimsy.
As might be expected, the seasickness of some led to seasickness in others and, being packed in so tightly with very little ventilation or circulation of air, the hold soon smelled quite bad.
Those men who had selected areas near the three feet square opening had a better quality of air than those sleeping in the far corners.
The Jap guards gave orders that no one was to go up on deck except for the purpose of going to the toilet (or Benjo) and that only three men would be permitted up at one time so every little while I would make the trip up there on the excuse that I had dysentery. I would sit in the outhouse with the door closed for awhile as the quality of air was much better there than down in the hold.
We were fed two meals a day and, of course, the major part of the meal was rice. The morning meal was a rice gruel called 'Pap'. It had the consistency of oatmeal, not too much nourishment perhaps but at least it was something in our stomachs to last us until the evening meal. We were also given a cup of something that looked like coffee but was actually made from the burnt rice from the bottom of the rice pot.
The second meal of the day was boiled rice with a seaweed stew which I detested but ate anyway as the seaweed is supposed to be rich in iodine. We also had a piece of fish and again the coffee substitute.
Several of the Aussies had volunteered to assist in the kitchen area so were involved in the preparation and distribution of our food. For this they were given extra rations in addition to receiving a couple of packs of cigarettes each per day.
Other Aussies, these from the Aussie cruiser Perth, volunteered to shovel coal into the ship's boilers for this trip and were likewise given extra rations as well as the cigarettes.
At the top of the hatch was the ever-present Jap guard, put there not only for security reasons but also to regulate the number of POWs going to the benjo. None of the guards seemed to have a sense of humour or the ability to smile or laugh except in the case of another's misfortune such as some men coming on deck covered with vomit or someone who had dirtied his trousers as a result of the still present and prevalent dysentery.
On the foredeck of the old Dai Mogi Maru was an ancient-looking gun estimated to be about a three inch piece. A similar gun was located on the afterdeck and these were the sole defensive armament on this floating antique.
The Japanese crew of the Dai Mogi Maru and the guard detail were quartered in the superstructure or deckhouse located midship, below the bridge, and between the forward and after cargo holds. The guard detail consisted of an estimated twenty men and the ship's crew numbered about thirty.
On the second day out of Penang, enemy (Allied) planes were sighted and the word was quickly passed throughout the ship. At the time Huffman, Yarbro and I were taking our turn at the benjo, which is how it happened that we were the only ones on deck at the time.
The gun crews of the two Dai Mogi guns ran to and manned their guns and the guard, who had been stationed at the top of the cargo hold, left for parts unknown so we three POWs hid behind the steel hatch, not wanting to be stuck in the cargo hold if a bomb hit the old Dai Mogi Maru.
Soon the three ships comprising our small convoy were subjected to an air attack by three American Army planes of which two were B-17s and one a B-24, identified as such by Yarbro.
The planes made a bombing run from the port side of the convoy, their first target being the other freighter, the Nitta Mei Maru, carrying the Jap guard detail and the Indonesian (Dutch) POWs.
One or more of the bombs on this run landed in the after cargo hold killing about five hundred of the seven hundred or so members of the Imperial Japanese Army who had been quartered there.
The ship was damaged to such an extent that it started to sink. Luckily she did not go down quickly and as the stern sank deeper and deeper into the water, the Indonesians from the forward hold were able to get up on deck and then jump overboard. In the process about thirty-two of the Indonesians were lost.
Meanwhile the planes continued on their course in the direction of the Dai Mogi Maru and we knew that we, too, would be under attack in a few moments. The Japanese gun crews on the Dai Mogi Maru commenced firing at the planes while those of our guard detail had started to swing out the starboard lifeboat which was hung on a pair of davits alongside the superstructure and which was located one deck above the main deck and aft of where we (Yarbro, Huffman and I) were crouching.
Some of the Japs were in the lifeboat and whether they were preparing to rescue those Japanese in the water from the sinking ship or if they were concerned only with their own safety, we didn't know.
As the planes came closer with their bomb bays still open, we could see the bombs begin their descent, each of them appearing to be a certain hit on us. The forward gun of the Dai Mogi Maru fired another shell which hit either the radio antenna or the wire stays of the forward cargo boom resulting in the detonation of the shell. The fragments of the exploded shell pierced the front of the superstructure and the pilot house in a hundred places shattering all the windows, killing the helmsman and another crewman on the bridge and wounding the captain.
From our vantage point on the main deck, we three prisoners watched the spectacle unfold before us. For sure we would have been shot had not the Japs been so involved with the attacking planes and their clumsy attempts to lower the lifeboat. We were just as sure that we did not want to die in that stinking, lousy cargo hold should the Dai Mogi Maru sustain major damage from a bomb hit. It would have been a madhouse with about two hundred and fifty men, all trying to claw their way topside at the same time through a three foot square hole.
The planes passed overhead from port to starboard and as they did, the bombs began landing in the water. The first bomb landed ten or twelve feet out from the starboard side of the ship and each successive bomb landed further away from us, each exploding with a loud boom and resulting in a black, oily plume of smoke and much sea water being thrown high in the air, some of which landed on us laying on deck. We were sure the ship would not last much longer.
The bombing run completed, and having missed the Dai Mogi Maru, the planes turned around ignoring the armed trawler on our starboard side and started back over us again, this time making their approach from the starboard side.
As the planes got closer and closer, we could see the bombs tumble out of the bomb bays once more and continue their descent towards us. The first of the bombs landed about thirty feet out from the starboard side of the ship and then each successive bomb landed closer. In all, eight bombs were dropped on this run and again, as each bomb exploded, it resulted in a large plume of oily, black smoke and much seawater being hurled skyward. Again we on deck got soaked but that was unimportant.
The last bomb of this run landed in the middle of the still swung-out, still unlaunched lifeboat and killed or seriously wounded all the Japs in and around it, leaving only the two ends of the lifeboat swinging crazily from the davits. The bombs which landed in the water just before the one which landed in the lifeboat, were only seven or eight feet from the ship's side and the shrapnel from these last two bombs pierced the ships side in numerous places causing some flooding in the engine room spaces until the holes were stopped by means of driving wooden plugs into them.
Miraculously, not a single POW was killed or wounded in these attacks with the exception of Yarbro who received a minor shrapnel wound in his back as a result of the shell hitting the rigging of the ship.
As the planes passed over us and were proceeding away from us, the guns of the Dai Mogi Maru were still firing and the after gun exploded killing most of the men of the crew. Almost simultaneously, there was a hang-fire on the forward gun (a hang-fire occurs when an attempt is made to fire the shell and, due to a defective primer (igniting charge) in the base of the shell, it does not fire when struck by the firing pin). The breechman opened the breech of the gun to eject the faulty shell, which was caught by one of the gun crew, and the shell exploded in his arms killing most and seriously wounding the rest of the gun crew.
After the bombing run the planes left the area and we assumed their bomb load was expended for which we were understandably happy and twenty-six minutes after being hit, the Nitta Mei Maru finally sunk.
The Captain of the Dai Mogi Maru returned to the area of the sinking in order to rescue survivors and rope ladders were hung over the port side of the ship to enable the survivors to climb aboard our ship. By a stroke of good fortune, only about thirty-two of the Indonesian prisoners were lost due to the sinking, the Japanese losses being much heavier due to the one or more bombs going off in the cargo hold in which they were quartered. Only about 200 Japs survived the sinking and were picked up by the Dai Mogi Maru and many of these were wounded.
One of the Indonesians came aboard clutching a fish about two feet long in his arms, the fish having been killed by the concussion of the exploding bombs while another came aboard with his cat which was perched atop his head. Needless to say the name of the cat was changed from whatever it had been to 'Shipwreck'.
After rescuing all the survivors, the wounded captain continued on towards his destination. In the evening we could see on the horizon either two or three ships burning, another sign that the Japs were no longer having everything their way in this part of the world. We were all looking forward to it being a short war. Ever optimistic!
The preceding account of the attack on the convoy differs in many ways from other reports of the attack made by others involved in this episode. In defence of my account, which I believe to be the most accurate, I can only state that I was one of only three POWs who were on deck during the entire attack and was in a position to see everything that went on, as it went on, with the exception of the explosion of the gun on the stern of the Dai Mogi Maru. That part of the story was told to me by some Aussies who were in that part of the ship at the time.
In the report submitted to the Navy Department by Ensign Smith, after our return to the United States, there appear many differences between his account and mine. This can best be explained by the fact that he was in the cargo hold at the time, not able to see events as they transpired, while I was one of the few eye witnesses and wrote notes on what I had seen a short time after the event.
Other accounts I have read are also mistaken as to the composition of the convoy, there being no naval vessels with us as an escort on this voyage. Another error noted in a different account of the attack on the convoy was that all POWs were permitted topside for fresh air and sunshine. Not so! Only three men from the forward cargo hold were permitted on deck at any one time and then only for the purpose of going to the benjo. That is the reason the Jap guard was at the exit of the cargo hold to restrict the number of POWs on deck at any time. This explains why only the three of us were on deck during the attack.
After the survivors of the other ship were brought aboard, there were many more topside as there was absolutely no room for any more down in the cargo hold. The Indonesians finished the trip up in the fresh air.
The day following the attack, there were three air raid alerts which proved to be false alarms. On the first of these, three Indonesians rescued the previous day, jumped overboard. Whether in an escape attempt or out of fear I don't know. In any case the ship turned around and stopped to pick up the three men. We were still in sight of land but it would have been a hell of a long swim to reach it.
As punishment for jumping overboard and causing the ship to be delayed, the three men were given a severe beating by the guard detail who were all in a nasty mood anyway due to the events of the previous day.
Continuing our journey without further incident, we arrived at Moulmein, Burma on January 17th 1943, four days after leaving Penang. The prisoners disembarked from the Dai Mogi Maru and were relieved to do so. We were marched through the city so the native population could see the ragged remnants of the white man's army and the might of the invincible Nippon and a short while after we arrived at the Moulmein Civil Prison where the sturdy steel gates clanged shut behind us.