Today, 12 September 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the “Rakuyo Maru” on the 12th September 1944. 541 Australian Army Personnel lost their lives when approximately 700 Australian and 600 British POW servicemen were on board, sailing from Singapore to Japan. The ships carried no Red Cross marking to distinguish them as carrying POWs. Private David Charles Cripps was one of those who lost his life that day.
Conditions on board were horrific, the air below was stifling and very hot. As the ships sailed towards Japan they entered an area known to the American submariners as “Convoy College” where at 5.22am on the 12th September, while most of the men were sleeping, the USS Sealion II fired three torpedoes. The Rakuyo Maru and all on board were doomed.
David Charles Cripps was born the second son of David Williams Cripps and Grace Ridley, on 15th December 1921 in Northampton, Western Australia. Davey enlisted on the 13 August 1941 at the age of 19 with the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion.
Peter Cripps had an opportunity to visit Thailand early in 2013 and came home with the horrific story of what Davey and his fellow serviceman endured during their time as POWs on the Burma railway and their subsequent demise.
Here is Peter’s story written for the remembrance service held at Northampton on the 12th September 2013. Photos of that service are in the photo gallery.
“The 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion were based at Northam under the command of Major A. E. Saggers and performed some arduous training as on one occasion they marched from Northam to Perth.
This battalion was later sent to Darwin as a defence force as the Japanese were further advancing south through Thailand (Siam), Malaya and Borneo with Singapore in their sights. Hence the concern for the defence forces to be based in Darwin. As Singapore became more threatened the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion was ordered to go to Singapore. The battalion left Darwin for Sydney on the “Aquitania” and then went onto Fremantle.
24 January 1942 saw the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion land in Singapore and they were quickly dispersed over the island. There are many stories of intense fighting for the next three weeks until the Japanese forces overcame the allies.
Singapore surrendered on the 15 February 1942 with the surviving allies being taken in as Prisoners of War (Po W) and placed in a number of camps on the island. Changi being one of the notorious.
It was on this day that Eric Francis Osborne WX 16279 and Don Elias Sutherland WX 15967 lost their lives, killed in action.
These men were in camps in Singapore for nearly three months before the Japanese saw that they required a work force to help with their war effort. As Japan was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention they were able to use these men for their work program. The 2/4 Machine Gun Company was under the command of, Major Charles Edward Green WX 3435 while prisoners and each was given a Po W number. Davey’s was 1502, Japanese Administration Group 3, A Force, Burma.
Some 1,017 Po W’s boarded the “Toyohashi Maru” on the 14 May 1942 and sailed to Victoria Point with some sent to work on restructuring the airfield while the others were unloading and sending on materials for the repair work. Once Victoria Point was serviceable they were transported further north to Tavoy to do similar work repairing the airfield. They then went by truck to Ye to construct corduroy roads and eventually on to Thanbyuzayat.
September 1942 sees Green force split into two detachments (one under Green) the other (under Major J. Stringer 2/26 Battalion) working on various sites around Thanbyuzayat and in October 1942 Major Green’s ranks march to Kendau and meet with the other group there. Kendau, known as 4 KILO Camp, is the first construction camp on the Burma side of the Thai–Burma Rail Link.
On the 26 October 1942 Green Force became part of Po W Administration Group 3 under the command of the Japanese 5th Railway Regiment in Burma. Each Po W was given a wooden tag with their Po W number inscribed on it.
This group spent about two months at the 4 KILO camp of Kendau, before marching out in December 1942 to the 14 KILO camp at Thetkaw. David celebrated his 21st birthday in this camp. They worked on this section of the railway until the 28 March 1943 when they marched sixty kilometres to the 75 KILO camp at Meiloe. On the 11 May 1943 they marched another 30 kilometres to the 105 KILO camp at Aungganaung. By this time Green force had been working for a year under the Japanese. It was during this time, the wet season for this part of the world that cholera brought its devastating effects on the Po W’s and the many Tamil workers who were also on the workforce. Dysentery and tropical ulcers also had a horrible impact on the death toll of these men along with the brutal punishment meted out by the guards along with a very poor diet and extreme work load. The doctors in these camps, Lt-Col Albert Coates and Capt. Claude Anderson were responsible for keeping many of these men alive along with the other doctors throughout the many camps along the railway. There are many articles written about the work these men performed and the improvisation they used in transfusions and amputations to help keep many of these men from giving up to the hardship that they were going through. At one of these hospital camps, Lt-Col Coates performed some 135 amputations.
In late October 1943 the railway workforce had connected the rail link near Konkoita. As the rail link was now completed, Green force and other Po W’s in Burma were moved by rail to Tha Makham in Kanchanaburi, Thailand and all had arrived by January of 1944. David spends his 22nd birthday in this camp.
The Japanese were by this time discovering that their work force back in Japan was very depleted so they set about selecting the healthiest from the Po W’s and organised them into 6 Kumis (work groups) numbering from 35- 40 of approximately 150 men in each Kumi. Davey and Ernest were in No. 35. These groups of Po W’s were inoculated twice for cholera and pestis (plague) and once against tuberculosis.
The men had by this time been Prisoners of War for two years and on the 27 March 1944, the 1st three kumis departed Tha Makham for Saigon. They departed in stages through Bangkok to Phnom Penh in Cambodia, boarded a river boat to Long Ho then to Saigon. They were put to work on the docks at Tan Son Nhut and at the civil aerodrome.
On the 24 June 1944 they were sent back to Singapore arriving on the 04 July 1944 and put to work on the dry dock opposite Pulau Damar Laut.
The 04 September 1944 sees a contingent of Australian and British Po W’s crammed onto the “Rakuyo Maru”, a 9,419 ton ship ready for their journey to Japan.
On the 12 September 1944 while sailing through the South China Sea there was a contingent of American submarines and at 5.22am the USS Sealion II fired off her torpedoes and two hit the “Rakuyo Maru”, the first hit amidships and the second 60 metres aft of No. 2 hold. At 5.30pm the “Rakuyo Maru” sank in 2,000 metres of water off Hainan Island.
On this Tuesday 12 September 1944 David Charles Cripps at the age of 22 and Ernest Edward Randall aged 35 succumbed.
There were 11 men from the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalion that survived this ordeal and it wasn’t until the American submarines had rescued a number of men some three days after the attack that these were the 1st reports since February 1942 concerning the treatment of Prisoners of War and the construction of the Thai-Burma Rail link.”
Rest in Peace Davey and the other men that went down with you.
Frank H Taylor; Kokoda Treks and Tours Pty. Ltd. and Australian Military History Tours. www.kokoda.com.au
Rod Beattie, Terry Manttan and Andrew Snow; Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, Kanchanaburi, Thailand. www.tbrconline.com
Murray Ewen; “Colour Patch” the men of the 2/4th Machine gun Battalion 1940-1945
Jenny MacKay; online researcher and document and data collecting
Compiled by: Peter H. Cripps, April 2013 and reproduced here with permission.
Some Websites to help you gain an understanding of what these brave men went through. There are many more along with many books including the Colour Patch and Heroes at Sea:.
Prisoners of Ware of the Japanese 1942-1945 – A True Story