The Fakai Maru
Written by-Gunner L F Starkey(125 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery.)
When the railway between Ban Pon, Thailand and Moulmein in Burma was very nearly completed, I along with many more comrades who were lucky enough to survive two gruelling years helping to build the aptly named 'Railway of Death' were summoned on to the parade ground at Chungkai to be looked over by a Nippon Medical Officer who was to pick out the most likely ones to take a journey to work in Japan. This was early in June 1944. Being as fit as one could hope to be at that time I was duly picked out to make the journey along with my friend Gunner Stan Redmile of the same Regiment as myself, 125 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA.
Firstly they gave us a little extra clothing to wear as I doubt if we would have survived a Japanese winter in just a 'Jap Happy', which as you all know was the only clothing we had in Thailand.
The time arrived for us to move off and bid fond farewells to some of the lads quite a few of whom, I'm afraid to say, we were never to see again. The first stage of our journey was a four day and night train ride, if you could call it that, to Singapore in trucks formerly designed to transport bananas. We were allotted 40 persons to each truck with a Korean guard on each and as he wanted his comfort it did not leave much room for the rest of us, so you can imagine very little sleep was had by the unfortunate forty.
When we finally made it to Singapore we were marched to Havelock Road Camp to await a ship to take us to Japan and, as you all know, being a group on the move, no rations were allocated to us so we had to survive on meagre rations of rice with a little watery stew at one time made of shark meat.
As the day arrived for us to board a ship, we were marched to the docks whereupon each of us were shown a pile of rubber squares with handles on and told to take one of these and make sure that when we arrived in Japan, we still had the same or suffer the consequences. My mate asked me what they were for. 'Life jackets' I said whereupon if you jump over the side with this around your neck I'm afraid you would go straight to the bottom, never to see daylight again.
As you will probably have guessed by now, yes, the ship was the 'FUKAI MARU'.
We were each allotted a space of approximately 6ft by 2ft which also had to house what kit you had, along with your piece of rubber. So you can see we had to lay down in relays with one crowd on the floor and the others, like myself, on a platform. This platform was about 4ft from the ceiling which was the floor of the top deck. This meant that by day the sun was belting down on the steel deck and it was stifling whereupon a few of the lads went crazy but by night it was bitterly cold.
One thing the Nips had learnt from our trip, as against the ones previously, was the necessity for more latrines. They had hung boxes over the side with a slit in the middle in which you crouched and did what was necessary. The only trouble was that after a while you were too weak to get out so you had to wait for the next customer who helped you out and you helped him in. The only thing that was handy about it was, with paper being so scarce, you could wait for the sea to wash you clean.
During the journey conditions deteriorated and by the time we reached Miri in North Borneo, half the 1500 or so troops aboard were too sick to walk around. As for myself, I was only weak from lack of food. The only water which we were allowed to drink was from a tank centred on the deck which each day was filled up from the sea and filtered through sand and gravel. I can assure you the taste was not so good and after a while what damage it did to our stomachs, only a medical man could tell.
Between Miri and our next port of call, which turned out to be Manila, our ship developed engine trouble so the remainder of the convoy sailed on leaving us behind with one destroyer to escort us. Unfortunately for me and three more of the lads the stokers went sick so replacements had to be found to keep the ship moving. Yes, you've guessed it, we were detailed to keep the coal flowing and that just about finished me off with temperatures in the 100s. By the time we reached Manila I was really going downhill.
One good thing about this job was we were allowed plenty of fresh iced water which was a Godsend. If this had not been available I am afraid I would not have been here to write this little story. We had already been on this Hell Ship now for six weeks and it was now when quite a few of the lads started to die of dysentery which was rapidly spreading through the ship along with beriberi. The only treatment we got was creosote tablets for every complaint. With our ship being too slow for most convoys they decided to take off the ballast of iron so we could keep our position in any convoy and as this process went on for two weeks, day and night, you can imagine what it was like with a donkey engine going non stop and a crane going up and down into the hold with buckets full of iron.
During our stay in Manila Bay, which was to be for a further six weeks, approximately 150 of the lads died and they had to take a further 100 of the worst sick cases off the ship into a prison hospital in Manila.
By now I had become the victim of dry beriberi and was unable to feel anything and my legs were numb so I was unable to walk around. As I was not able to face what food we were given, I lost weight until I was just 6 stones and it was then that I began to think I was going to die if I didn't act quickly.
When the girl, who I eventually married, became engaged just before the war she bought me a gold ring and I do believe now that it was that ring that saved my life and probably the life of my friend Gunner Redmile.
As you all know, the Nips were forever wanting gold so I thought it was about time I contacted one of them to see if I could get some better food for it. Reluctant as I was to let it go, it was, as I've said before, my life saver.
The first Nip I asked offered me 50 yen for it but as I told him I can't eat money although God knows if I had thought it would have done me any good I would have done just that. Along came another Nip and he offered me around 6 lbs of sugar, 1 tin of condensed milk and 20 yen which I readily accepted.
My friend Stan Redmile by now was dying fast with dysentery so was among the 100 sick cases to leave the ship. Before he left I shared the sugar with him hoping that it would help him along the line but at the bottom of my heart I thought, as we said our farewells as he left the ship, that this would be the last time I would see him. Time proved this to be wrong.
During our six weeks stay in Manila Bay there were many air raids and during each one we scuttled off to shelter in amongst the many islands around Manila. It was during one of these episodes - the meat being non-existent in the watery stew which we were given with the small amount of rice mush twice daily - the Nips decided to go ashore and trade some rice for any meat that was available. When they came back they had two pigs and about a dozen chickens, alive of course. These were allocated a space on the deck to be killed as required but much to our amazement this luxury was only for our right honourable hosts.
Eventually the day came along when the convoy was to assemble and we were to sail for our next stop which was to be Formosa where the Japanese told us there would be plenty of food. That was a lovely thought, but hardly the truth, as the Nips themselves were now beginning to feel the pinch. The date was 20 September 1944, around the time when the USA started their offensive.
We sailed due north all that day but as soon as darkness fell the convoy dropped anchor and holed up for the night amongst the islands just north of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines, so we waited there until daylight, when we set sail again as before going due north. The only difference which I noticed was the number on our funnel which indicated the position of our ship in the convoy. On 20 September we were number 5 but on 21 September we were now number 2 which got me wondering.
It was a lovely summer's day with clear, blue skies as we sailed along but around 9am the air raid alarm was sounded and we were all herded below to what eventually turned out to be an experience I will never forget. As the ack-ack guns were blazing above decks we were all sat below hoping that we were going to survive an attack on this convoy - oddly enough being carried out by our friends and allies, the USA Naval Air Force. After approximately 2 mins of the attack, which seemed an eternity, there was a sickening thud followed by a vivid flash and a terrifying explosion. Within seconds the hold below us was full of water and those who were on this deck were swimming around looking for a way out. Seeing this, I thought it was time I should be getting off.
The main way out to the top deck originally was a wooden staircase in the centre of the hold but with the explosion, this had vanished into the water in the hold below. That left the only exit being an iron runged ladder in the corner farthest away from me. As I looked across, I saw a crowd of the lads around climbing the same and by this time water was coming into our hold. I was beginning to think this was the end. What a way to go after surviving all the suffering of the past 2½ years.
What happened to me during the next 2 mins only God knows because I can't remember leaving my bed space. The only thing I remember was being half way up the ladder with the hold still crowded. It seems that I must have walked over their heads. It was amazing and I still often sit and think and wonder how I got there.
When I arrived out on the deck the ship was very low in the water. I had to wade through water to the rail as the deck was now awash so I had to act quickly but having learned to swim six months previously, I was able to cope with the perils that faced me but as I waited a few more seconds my eyes looked to the skies that were filled with planes, one of them diving towards our stricken ship and dropping a torpedo into the sea which was speeding our way. I was transfixed, waiting for the thud which never came as the dreaded monster carried on then exploded into the side of another ship astern of us.
With the decision now made I took the plunge from the rails into the sea and to the best of my ability began to get as much distance as I could between me and the stricken ship. After completing about 20 yards I looked back to see the FUKAI MARU slide to a watery grave, stern first. It was a sight that will linger with me to my grave. The only regret I have about this episode is the grief I feel for the 1000 fellow POWs that now lay with her at the bottom of the South China Sea.
When all the hullabaloo had died down I looked to find any of the wreckage which would help me to keep afloat a little longer, so I collected some bits of wood and made a little raft whereupon I was joined by a friend, Joe Wilbur from the 88th Anti Tank Regiment and he became my partner for the next few hours. Between us we tried to paddle our little raft towards a small island we could see in the distance but as the hours went by we seemed to be getting no nearer and we were both in a sorry state. By now I was suffering from sickness and diarrhoea and with being practically naked I was shivering with cold as it was now 4 pm and we had now been in the water for 7 hours. Just about this time, when all seemed lost, some small Japanese fishing boats came around picking up any survivors and, from a distance of approximately 40 yards, one called out to us to swim out to it to be picked up. The way I was feeling I didn't think I would be able to make it so I told Joe Wilbur to go and leave me and when he was on board they would probably come closer to pick me up. I watched him swim to the boat and be pulled aboard. I was glad for him but a further shock was in store for me because shortly afterwards they set off and sailed out of sight.
This I thought was the end for me and I began to wish I had tried to swim to the ship and, if I did not make it, better to die making an attempt than die without. Once again I had to set about trying to get to the island I could see but the more I paddled the further I seemed to be going away. The tide was going the wrong way.
By now it was becoming dusk and I was wondering just how much longer I could last. My thoughts drifted towards home and oh, how I longed to be there at that moment but again lady luck was with me. Another small fishing boat appeared out of the gloom and I was beckoned to swim to it. This time regardless of the distance I set off to swim towards my saviours and reached the smack. I was very tired and sick and when I was pulled aboard (please forgive me all you FEPOWs), I never thanked a Japanese person so much in all my life and meant every word. I was so grateful for being saved.
The last person from our unit that I saw as I left the ship was Gunner J Rochester and I say here and now that it was his urging me on that kept me going over the last few days on that dreaded ship so I partly owe my life to him. I am sorry to say that I was unable to help him when he needed it most.
Naturally the first thing the Nip fisherman gave me to eat as I lay below decks was a bowl of plain rice. I was so sick of the stuff by then that I could have hit him in the face with it, but I was so grateful at being saved that I took it with a smile.
As night fell we waited in amongst some small islands for daybreak then set off for a destination we later found to be Manila again. As we sailed along we heard the roar of planes once again and as the ship opened up with its small ack ack gun, the plane dived low with all its guns blazing and straffed the boats ripping open one of the boats killing some of the lads who had only yesterday been among the lucky 150 survivors from the FUKAI MARU. What a way to die at the hands of our American friends.
We arrived at Manila about midnight and had to stand on the dockside on what was a very cold night and as the majority of us were completely naked, I can assure you that I, like many others, felt really ill.
Eventually they brought round some mail bags and took us to a warehouse to wait until morning whereupon an American medical man came to look us over. He gave me a slip of paper and along came two orderlies and took me by stretcher to a waiting transport and on to a prison hospital.
From a fellow POW in this hospital I learned it was Bilibid Prison, Manila and, much to my surprise, the next day I was told by one of the orderlies that my friend, Stan Redmile, was in the next building recovering from his illness and said he was pleased to hear that I was one of the few survivors.
As the weeks went by I started to pick up, not that the food was any better than any other camp; in fact it was much less than most, just 3ozs rice mush twice a day. Then when the rice became scarce it was maize made into a mush and nothing else. The one thing that kept us going was the many vitamin tablets that the Americans seemed to have and were issued every day.
With Christmas and 1945 not far away we tried to make things seem a bit more like home and the Nips sent in some parcels which were opened and we all had a little extra to help try to forget about what was happening around us.
With my weight now just over 6 stones I was finding it difficult to walk around but the satisfying thing that kept me going were the rumours going around in the New Year that the Yanks were planning an invasion of Luzon, the island on which Manila was the capital, and with all the aerial activity going on, it seemed to be very logical.
By the beginning of February things were certainly starting to hot up. They were bombing Manila day and night so you can understand why we were all sat with fingers crossed, so near but yet so far from freedom.
On the Saturday evening, 4th February, I was talking to some friends when we heard rumblings and the sound of gunfire close by and what we thought must be fires nearby and with things getting much worse we sat below the wall of the room wondering what could be happening. What we heard was the sound of tanks fighting just outside the prison and this went on all through the night until dawn, when it seemed as though the tanks withdrew again. I can tell you now it was a little frightening, wondering if at any moment a shell would rip through the walls or that the Nips would come in and shoot us all in revenge.
The next morning the Nips were still patrolling the perimeter walls, but by 10 am Sunday 5 February they had all gone and a little later we were told to assemble outside on the parade ground where a message was to be read out to us and it was to be what we had all been waiting three years to hear. It said:-
'We are leaving you now. In a short while your American friends will be here. If you stay within these walls you will be quite safe, but to leave just yet would be most foolish.'
We were free men once again.