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The Truro Man

3½ Years a Prisoner of Japanese

Parents have no news of him but their hope never died.

First letter tells of Exeter’s last battle.

After the last fight of HMS Exeter against over whelming superiority of number in the Java Sea on March 1st 1942, Mr and Mrs Gordon Rowse, of Roseworthy, Allet, near Truro, heard nothing of what befell their son Cecil, who was a member of that gallant ship’s company.

They used every possible resource to get news of him, and never a word came, but they clung to the hope that one day he would return.

Yesterday’s post brought them the tidings for which they had yearned. Their son has been a prisoner of the Japanese these 3 years and a half, forbidden to write home and cut off from the Red Cross.

When he wrote from Macassar Island on August 17th he was expecting to be sent by air to Australia to recuperate from the effects of his long ordeal but hoped to be home by Christmas.

Mr Rowse, who is now 24 years old, was on the staff of Farm Industries before he joined the Navy, in which he is a Supply Assistant.

In this, his first letter home, he tells simply and movingly of the sea battle in which HMS Exeter went down fighting to the last; of many hours of drifting on wreckage in shark-infested seas; of the unrelieved misery of captivity and Japanese brutality; of starvation which made the carcasses of dogs and cats a delicacy; of the many men who died; and of the delirious joy of those who were left when deliverance came.

There are his own words, written on a few sheets of paper he treasured more than two years, waiting for the chance to write home;

The time has at last come when the last bullet has been fired and the world is once more at peace. It was a long time ago that I was with you all, but the end is insight.

I write this letter in the hope that I shall be able to give it to one of our boys, when they arrive to mail, so as not to waste any time in letting you know that I am safe and fairly well. I say fairly well because at the moment I am in the hospital part of the camp with about 200 others, and it may yet be some little time before I quite fit to travel home. Do not be alarmed at the fact, for I am well on the road to recovery after a long run of several illnesses. I have been very fortunate compared to a lot of others and the doctor says that in about a month after having the necessary food I shall be fit as a fiddle.

Practically Starved

The fault lies in the fact that for a long time we have been practically starving, and consequently have not had the strength to resist the numerous diseases encountered on an island which incidentally the equator runs through. I kept very good health right up to January of this year, which is a very good record as things go here, but then contracted malaria for the first time, after this I got it regularly every ten or twelve days right up to the end of April, when I got a disease known berry-berry. This is the worst of the lot, except perhaps dysentery. The body swells to abnormal proportions, I was in a grotesque condition for about a month and finally the tide turned, and left me extremely thin, in fact my weight was 8st 7lb, so you can see just what sort of a mess I looked. In this condition I was unable to walk, due of course, to the general weakness of my body. I am glad to say now that for the past two months I have been putting on weight and can walk fairly well, my legs and hands have very little feeling in them, but the doctor says that with a month’s diet of milk, eggs, etc., I shall be able to play football.

I have a lot to be thankful for especially to a friend I made by the name of Douglas Marsh, who is a married man of about 38 years and whose home is near Wells, Somerset. He is a fine fellow, and we have been together as pals since we entered this prison camp. He was the owner of a fine gold ring given to him by his wife. Well, he got hold of a Jap while out working and managed to trade this for some B vitamin tablets. These were the means of saving my life and I shall always be indebted to him for his great kindness. He absolutely refuses any guarantee of any money when I get home to compensate him for his loss, but insists that I send him a goose which we have often talked about in a joking manner. So get those geese fattened up for I am certainly going to do justice to them when I arrive.

I will now try to related roughly what has happened to me since I left home four years ago this month. As you know I joined HMS Exeter, and had a decent run round to various places in India. Then the Japs came in the war in December and the fun started. On December 10th I was in Singapore issuing rum to the survivors of the Prince of Wales and Repulse. Then our job was escorting ships from Colombo to Singapore with troops and material. February 1942 was the month when we really got our thrills in the way of air attacks, etc., On February 29th we were informed, that we, together with other ships had to intercept a section of Jap cruisers taking part in the invasion of Java. This we did to the best of our ability, but our ships were out numbered by about two to one.

Struck by Shell

However, after we had been brought into action we were struck by an eight inch shell which penetrated one of the boiler rooms, killing 14. This of course cut down our speed to nil for a while and consequently we were a sitting target for the Jap guns. The Japs were pretty hopeless in their gunnery and failed to hit us even although we were a sitting bird. After a few minutes we managed to get the ship moving again, but at a very low speed, which was more or less useless. We were ordered to make the port of Socrabaja in south Java as best we could. This we were successful in doing without any attacks from the Japs who were kept busy by the remainder of out little fleet.

The following day was spent in doing what repairs we could to the damaged boiler room and burying our dead. By night we put to sea with an escort of one American destroyer, the A.S.S. Pope. When we left every man realised that it was touch and go whether we could pass through the Jap lines of ships without being brought to action. We actually saw in the moonlight Jap invasion barges moving in on the coast of Java. Everything proceeded well until Sunday morning, March 1st, when the captain announced over the ship’s speakers that two enemy cruisers were creeping up on our stern.

We knew then that it was a fight to the finish; we opened fire with the first salvo at about 8.45. You must realise that we were disabled and ammunition was very low. The action carried on at a medium rate of fire until after 40 minutes we sustained another hit, this time in our remaining boiler room. This put paid to our chances of making a running fight for it, and after another ten minutes the turret in which my action station was ran out of ammunition.

During this time the Japs were finding our range and registering hits also planes started bombing.

Then came the order to abandon ship and we go to the upper deck. On reaching daylight I was able to observe the mess which had been brought about and the details of which I don’t wish to describe. I was in process of getting overboard a plank with two other fellows when shrapnel came inboard and hit both by companions. This made me look slippy and without more ado I took a running jump over the side. On finding myself floating amid bursting salvos I thought the best thing to do was to strike out as quickly as possible, which I did. I thought the oil tanks of the Exeter might blow up at any second, because she was well and truly on fire by this time.

Saw Ship Sink

I got out of the fracas without harm and shortly I saw the ship heel over and go down. While I was in the water I noticed the time my watch stopped, 11.30 a.m.; so it took the Japs quite a time to cook our goose.

I found a bit of wood on which I drifted round and picked up a couple of other fellows. We were all pretty happy about things, and speaking for myself I was really exhilarated – why I don’t know, for everything had gone and my only clothes at the time were a pair of underpants

After a while the Jap ships came in sight and we counted eleven of them, comprising cruisers and destroyers, so it shows that we never had a chance of getting through. We decided that there was only one thing to do and that was to get picked up as quickly as we could, so we discarded the wreckage to which we were clinging and struck out for the Jap ships. I got within 20 yards of a destroyer which had stopped when it started up and pulled away, taking some of the boys with its propellers, a horrible sight. This happened a second time when I attempted to get aboard another ship. I happened to be unlucky so far as getting picked up was concerned, for they took aboard a few of us and then pulled away, and I am afraid quite a number of our fellows got caught in the screws.

The only thing left to do was to get as much wood and wreckage together and hang on and hope. This we did, and there were 16 of us all told, drifting round in patches of oil fuel some place in the Java Sea. My personal feelings at the time were fairly optimistic, for I felt sure that the Japs would pick up all survivors before night fall, but it was not to be and night descended with the suddenness peculiar to the tropics.

This was the time when I thought things were finished. I cannot hope to describe my feelings that night. I had been through a couple of actions without being really scared, but this time I felt really shaky…I tried to prepare to “cash the chips”. We drifted round all night and all next day, until four o’clock the following afternoon, when a Jap destroyer came into view and finally hauled us out of the water. Out of the original 16, two had died during the night – one had been wounded in the stomach by shrapnel from exploding shells while in the water, and the other had swallowed a lot of oil.

It was very difficult to hoist my hind quarters out of the water, and when I did I found that my legs were so thoroughly water logged that I could not stand. This inability did not go well with Churchill’s “funny little yellow men”, who proceeded to plant a few rather hefty kicks in the ribs just by way of a greeting. This action quickly formed my opinion as to the nature of these people.

“However, I got planted on the forecastle of the ship with about 100 others who had been picked up previously. While sitting here I noticed that our guards were going round taking the rings, watches, etc., off the fellows.”

Mr Rowse through his own watch over the side. “This action was observed by one of the guards, who gave me a wallop over the head with a rifle butt and laid me out, so I started this prisoner life in quite a boisterous manner.”

We were issued with two ship’s hard biscuits through the evening and some water.

Crowded Under Hatches

After spending the night on the upper deck shivering with the cold (it can be cold in the tropics at night) we were all transferred to a Dutch hospital ship and crammed down below. We were allowed on the deck for two hours a day while the ship was lying off the coast of South Borneo, and during those spells we were able to observe numerous sharks nosing round the ship’s sides. These were whoppers, and I still don’t understand how we managed to get away with all night in the sea without becoming a good meal for these fellows.

We left our anchorage and arrived at Macassar on March 10th, where we were marched about three miles bare footed over red hot roads in the middle of the day. We must have presented a lovely sight, with the captain in the front rank and us trailing behind, looking very bedraggled, with oil covering us, etc. We had received no clothes as yet, as some of the fellows were negative trousers. It seemed to be the policy of the Japs to humiliate us as much as possible, and it has been all through my prison life. For this attitude I can never forgive them…

In the camp, which was formerly a Dutch army barracks, we were herded, and here I spent 10 months. It was a fine place but the trouble was that four months we had only the clothes that we were able to loot from the various buildings round the camp, and for the first two months the food consisted of two meals a day of rice and, maybe once a day, some dry salt fish. After this starvation period the meals were increased to three meals a day and we began to get coffee for breakfast. We were sent to work in the town loading ships with coal, and in bare feet this was no joke. No footwear was issued to us during the 3 1/2 years here.

After ten months of this particular camp I, with 400 others were drafted inland to build a road, and an aerodrome. It was hard work and we were all very thin and hungry. Most of us had only a pair of shorts and a shirt. This we slept in and our working gear was merely a piece of cloth tied around the waist by a string and passed between the legs. In this rig we were all very sunburnt. I myself was as black as the niggers with which we often found ourselves working. I cannot hope to describe the life, but I was very fortunate compared to the most of the rest. I kept good health and never a day sick. Many of the rest were ill and were sent back to Macassar and another batch sent up. Hunger was the main trouble and some of the things we used to do would amaze you, in fact I doubt if even you would believe it, but all these things are as true as the stars. I have eaten cats and dogs and can thoroughly recommend them, especially the cats. The dogs are a bit strong. (I had my last cat only three evening ago; it made quite a meal for two of us).

After spending 18 months away from Macassar we were all returned, and it was just after this that the trouble started. The Japs cut the food down to the minimum on which a man could live, leave alone work, but we were forced to carry on, and there was a lot of hard work such as loading and unloading ships with rice, etc., and consequently the health of the camp broke up”.

Mr Rowse wrote of the ravages of dysentery among the prisoners in the rainy season, when many died. “It was terrible”, he wrote, “and I never want to see anything like it again”.

Everything seemed so hopeless what with the lack of medical supplies, etc. One interesting point – during the whole of the three years five months I have been in captivity I have never received a letter or been allowed to write one and we have never seen any aid from the International Red Cross. It has been a great mental strain not to be able to have any communication with you at home.”

Mr Rowse slept only two hours in the first two nights after his release – the emotional disturbance was too great. “You should have seen the camp when we were informed that the war was over. Some were crying, others laughing and some fainting away completely. Everybody went mad. I never thought that full grown men could have acted in such a manner. We have not left the camp yet (this was August 17th) but things are pretty good here now. There is plenty of rice, and it is good to feel full even if it is rice.”