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Denis Brian Mason R.A.F.V.R. Story

This Article about Denis Brian Mason provided to COFEPOW by his nephew Denis LUFF

Flying Officer D. B. Mason, G.M., R.A.F. V .R.

Wartime Experience

Denis Brian Mason was born on 12 January 1901, and had served as a driver with the Royal Artillery in Mesopotamia and India during World War One. In 1939, he accepted a position under the Air Ministry in connection with the construction of airfields in the Malay Peninsula. When the Japanese invaded Malaya in 1942 Mr and Mrs Mason, and their daughter, then aged five, were at an airfield a hundred miles from Singapore. Along with other British executives working in Malaya, Denis Mason was given a temporary commission in the R.A.F.V.R., dated from 1 March 1942, so that he became a member of the Armed Forces. Mrs Mason went to Singapore, and reached England after a 6,000 miles journey to the U.S.A. Mr Mason, now a Pilot Officer in the R.A.F.'s Administrative and Special Duties Branch, was a member of the Air Ministry Works Department and remained in Malaya until the British were forced to retreat. He then went to Java where he was captured in March 1942, although he was not officially reported as a P.O.W. in Japanese hands until 3 July 1943.

His debriefing reports give a detailed account of his progress from one camp to another and the journeys that he was forced to make; it is also a record of his relentless, unremitting struggle to improve the lot of his fellow prisoners, many of whom suffered and died from the inhuman conditions imposed upon them by a race with a totally different outlook on life. He describes four camps in Java, then a journey on a ship to the Harockoe Islands and, after that, a camp on these islands and four camps on Ambon, two more ships to Celebes, a camp there and a ship back to Java. From there, a further ship to Singapore in January 1945, where he describes three more camps, including the infamous Changi Prison.

On 16 September 1944~ with another British officer, who was paralysed, two Dutch officers and one hundred and forty-six other ranks, he transhipped to the Kaiysu Maru, a 600-ton vessel, for passage to Sourabaya, Java, with, in addition to the Japanese crew, a Japanese lieutenant and sergeant, a Korean interpreter and six Korean guards. Conditions were absolutely primitive, food was at starvation level, the water ration was minimal and beatings were common. As the holds were filled with bombs, arnrnunition, petrol, lice and tinned food, the P.O.W.s were accommodated on the closed hatch covers on deck with only a small canvas sheet as hopelessly inadequate protection against the sun a few degrees south of the equator.

There were no lifeboats, no rafts and only one very small rowing boat, although the Koreans and Japanese each had a lifebelt. There were of course no medical supplies. The, steel ship was steaming in the blazing sun, reeking of petrol all the time and, while at anchor off a small island on 20 September 1944, was attacked by a U.S.A.A.F. Liberator aircraft which set the ship on fire. The Japanese and the Korean guards immediately abandoned ship and, before leaving, cut the rope to the stern anchor and tried to beach the vessel but failed because of an outcrop of coral. The P.O.W.s were in a pitiful state but Flying Officer Mason, with the help of one or two others, succeeded in getting all of the P.O.W.s into the water and to the shore,except for ten men who died.

In the rescue operation which took one and a half hours, he threw each in turn something to hang onto such as kitbags or planks of wood, remaining on board until the last live P.O.W. had left. The ship eventually blew up, becoming a total write-off. Flying Officer Mason then set about the task of trying to improve the situation of his fellow men, all now naked, and managed to obtain some amelioration of their circumstances but, next morning, he was too weak to attend the burial of the British dead as he was hardly able to walk. That evening the survivors boarded another Japanese ship, the Maros Maru in which the paralysed officer died with many others, in indescribable conditions before the ship arrived at Makkassar, Celebes, on 10 October 1944. This ship had held over six-hundred P.O.W.s - again as deck cargo c-- and, during the forty days that it was anchored at Makkassar, one hundred and fifty-nine died. Flying Officer Mason's sustained concern for his fellow prisoners was quite outstanding and involved continuous personal risk.

Denis Mason's own report of this event reads as follows

'Report by No. 145281 F/O. D. B. Mason R.A.F. of journeys made by PslW on two Japanese ships, one unnamed and the Kaiysu Maru. From 9th September 1944 to the destruction of the Kaiysu Maru by United Nations aircraft at Raha Moena (east Celebes) on 20th September 1944.

On the afternoon of 9th September 1944 a mixed party of British and Dutch PslW totalling one hundred and fifty. Party included myself, FIO G. Cranford (Cranford was almost wholly paralysed and died later on the Maros Maru), Capt. Vander-Locke and Capt. Bryan both of the N.E.I. Forces, and one hundred and forty-six other ranks. The whole of this party were very sick except the two N.E.I. Forces Officers. So sick that the majority were paralysed with beri-beri. This party boarded a vessel which was a small Japanese freighter at Amboina town, situated on Ambon (or Ambonina) Island, Lat. 3.40s x 128.35e. Reaching Raha Moena on 16th September 1944 and the whole party then transhipped to a 600-ton vessel named the Kaiysu Maru.

The senior Japanese in charge of the party was Lt. Kureshema assisted by Jap Sgt. Mori and Korean interpreter Kasama, with about six Korean guards. Water was issued twice a day consisting of a total of one halfpint. Food was issued twice a day of a total of 100 grammes (31/2 ounces) of rice pap with nothing else. P.O.W.s had no lifebelts or other form of lifesaving equipment. The only boat the vessel carried was a small row boat capable of holding four persons, in a smooth sea. No liferafts of any description. Firefighting equipment nil.

Living conditions were rather grim on this ship. A few of the PslW just could not possibly squeeze into the area allotted in the hold so they went on deck forward. They all received a terrific bashing from Sgt. Mori including Capt. Van del' Locke. On boarding the Kaiysu Maru it was discovered that it was the same vessel that we PslW had just previously loaded in Amboina with bombs, ammunition, petrol, rice and various tinned foodstuffs. This was all stowed away in the holds and the hatch covers in position.

We PslW now had accommodation on top of this hatchway and the Japs provided one small tarpaulin as sun protection. This sheet was hopelessly inadequate however, so the majority of thePslWhad tojustlay and roast in the sun. This state of affairs was pretty grim as for thefirst twenty-four hours no drink of any kind was issued. This was a steel ship reeking with petrol fumes from the cargo in the hold, also the ships position was only just south of the equator. The water position improved slightly the second day and for the twenty-four hours issue each PIW was given approx one half pint.

Food consisted of one meal a day offifty grammes of rice pap. The Japanese had no excuse for this short ration as we knew that the food was in the ship's hold, also the J aps on board used to take sacks of rice and cases of dried vegetables, etc. from the hold and exchange with the natives ashore for eggs, fruit, fresh meat, etc. J ap Sgt. Mori had very little chance of carrying out his usual brutal treatment on this ship as almost the whole of the PslW were in such a shocking physical condition that they could hardly crawl let alone stand up, to be bashed about by Mori.

I must say that the Jap ship's captain kept his head and just before he abandoned ship, he cut the rope to the stem anchor and tried to beach the vessel, but this was not successful owing to the outcrop of coral. However, I succeeded in getting all PslW successfully off the ship except for two dead, throwing each one in turn something to hang on to, such as a piece of wood or kitbag, etc.

On check-up on shore, I discovered that the total loss ofPslW casualties were nine (sic) dead and several wounded. The whole rescueoperation took me one to one and a half hours, and the ship eventually blew up and was a complete write off. The Japs eventually took us to Raha Moena and we stayed one night and a day at a ban•ack. All the PslW were naked. The Japs made no effort to supply clothing or blankets although we saw a lot of Jap forces on shore. Surely where there are forces then there are usually supplies.

Our total food for the twenty-four hours we were on shore was two balls of steamed rice each of seventy five grammes and one sardine fish. Water supply for the same period was half a pint perPIW. I appealed to Lt. Kureshema and to Sgt. Mori for more water and more food. Also some form of headdress, clothing and a blanket each, but nothing

On the evening of 21 September 1944 we all boarded Jap ship Maras Maru, a total party of one hundred and thirty-eight P.O.W.s, Lt. Kureshema, Sgt. Mori, Kasama and the Korean guards. On the morning of the 21 st, Capt. Van del' Locke was gi ven permission to bury the dead. I regret to report being unable to bury the British dead, as I was so weak I was hardly able to walk.'


Flying Officer Mason was awarded the George Medal for his courage and selfless devotion to duty in the aftermath of this attack. His award was announced in the London Gazette dated 1 October 1946, in which Gazette was also published the notification of the award of a Mention in Despatches 'in recognition for services rendered during the operations in the Far East 1941-42 for his conduct aboard the M.V Empire Star during the evacuation from Singapore to Batavia in February 1942.'

The unpublished citation for his George Medal reads:

'Flying Officer Denis Brian MASON (145281), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

This officer behaved with great gallantry and coolness on 21 September 1944, when he was the only fit British officer on board a Japanese ship, carrying sick and wounded prisoners of war from Ambon to Java. Off the south coast of Celebes, the ship was attacked and eventually sunk by allied aircraft.

The Japanese, both Army and Merchant Marine, abandoned the burning ship and the prisoners. Flying Officer Mason, with the help of one or two other prisoners, assisted those who were less sick to jump into the sea and swim to the shore, lashing the more helpless cases to planks. Flying Officer Mason remained in the ship until everyone still alive had left although it was on fire and its cargo included explosives and petrol.

The cowardly behaviour of the Japanese might well have resulted in the majority of the prisoners losing their lives but thanks to the courage and coolness of Flying Officer Mason, the casualties were remarkably small, as only 10 British prisoners were killed.

Apart from this incident, Flying Officer Mason did sterling work in various prisoner of war camps, notably at Karoeke, in improving the appalling housing and sanitary conditions. He invariably conducted himself with resolution and efficiency.'

He was released from captivity in September 1945, and released from the Service on 19 February 1946.

‍Medals awarded to Flying Officer D. B. Mason, G.M., R.A.F. V .R.