I started my life in the merchant navy on 24-12-1929 as a Deck Boy on the Union Castle Line, East and South Africa. After 44 trips on Union Castle vessels, I decided to see a bit more of the world. A trip to Australia and then to the West Indies followed with two other companies before I returned to the Union Castle Line for eight more voyages. By now I was signing as a Bosun’s Mate.
On the 18th June, 1939, I signed on the S.S. Mataroa for a trip to New Zealand. On the way home, war was declared on September 3rd while we were loading cargo in the West Indies. Seventeen days later after a trip across the Atlantic, we were home.
Two more trips in convoys to Australia, then on my fifty eight trip I joined the Ben line and signed on the S.S. Bennevis. (Description of Voyage: Foreign. 4-9-40. Signed on in Poplar, London.) I didn’t sign as Bosun on this trip but as the Bosun was taken ill, I was asked by the chief Officer to deputise for him. So it came about that I was able to order members of the crew to stay aboard ship while I went ashore for the evening. (Richard, you have a report of this and know the result*). A friend and I went to the cinema in Leicester Square and while we were talking during the interval, one of a group of gentlemen in front of us turned around and said, “You are doing a good job, lads. Keep it up.” It was Winston Churchill. About half an hour after that, the first night of the Blitz started. My friend and I walked back to the docks and found the Bennevis had been bombed.
(*Damaged by air attack while in Port of London – 7th Sept 1940, 9 crew lost their lives. Richard)
We sailed from London to Newcastle for repairs to the ship and on the way we were attacked again by German aircraft but were lucky not to be hit. We all bedded down in the holds.
When the repairs were done we set sail for the Far East via Australia and Singapore. I remember the incident with the mine off of the Australian coast mentioned in one of Val Harland’s letters. (By the way, we didn’t sink that mine – I think that happened on the next and last trip we all made).
We arrived back in London in June 1941. According to my discharge book, which I still have today, the Bennevis sailed for Japan on the 1st July 1941. This cannot, in fact, be correct as I was married on the 4th July 1941 and sailed from Leith on 6th July. I was now Bosun of the Bennevis. We arrived in Hong Kong at the beginning of December 1941. After unloading our cargo, we were rushed out by the Navy to tow a large Admiralty barge to Singapore. Off the coast of Hainan Island, two Japanese destroyers sailed up, one on each side of us at about 3am in the morning and we were prisoners of war. My discharge has the date as 9th December, 1941 though I always thought we were captured the day before Pearl Harbour as we had not had any news of war being declared on our wireless since departure from Hong Kong. At that time, Japan was at war with China and often stopped ships sailing down the coast to see if they were carrying arms for the Chinese forces. We thought at the time that was the reason why we had been arrested and didn’t think we had become POWs, or maybe it was just me who thought that. In one of Val Harland’s letters, he said we were captured on the December 8th.
The Japanese navy took us to Hainan Island and turned us over to the Imperial Army as prisoners of war. We had to wait there until the Navy sent somebody from Hong Kong to question us and decide what to do with us. If I remember correctly, the army let the Chinese crew members go and told us we were not prisoners of war because we were on a Scottish ship and Japan was not at war with Scotland. (Enclosed find a copy of a photo that was taken on Hainan and was sent to me after the war, I think by Gilbert Naysmith who was Chief Officer on the Bennevis).
Eventually the Japanese navy officers arrived from Hong Kong and we were shipped to a POW camp in Wooshung (spelling?) and Shanghai on the mainland. This camp had a lot of prisoners and had been running for some time with mostly US prisoners from Wake Island, Guam, Pekin Marines and the sailors from the British gunboat Petrel which had fought a one-sided battle with the Japanese Navy on the river at Shanghai. The governor of Hong Kong, Sir mark Young was also there. In this camp, the crew of the Bennevis stayed together mainly but after this we got split up to different camps, or if in the same camp, in different barracks. In Shanghai camp we worked on a project which the Japanese claimed was going to be a war memorial. We also made a burial ground. We were lucky in this camp because the British Internees in Shanghai managed to send some food in. I can’t recall the dates of changing from one camp to another.
From Shanghai we were shipped to Hong Kong and then to the Tsumari camp in Osaka, Japan. In the Osaka camp we worked long hours in a shipyard. With walking back and forth from the yard, it was about sixteen hours a day. Val Harland died in this camp as you know. I wouldn’t agree with the cause of death being pneumonia but more likely overwork and malnutrition.
The move from the camp in Osaka to another already established camp in Aomori, in northern Honshu. This camp has US and British POWs. Some of the work was digging ore from quarries but I worked in a steel foundry. The hours were about the same as in Osaka but here it was 4pm till 8 am with a walk there and back. The first residents had named the camp Aomori hall.
I have read of POWs in Japan being paid for their work but I never knew of anyone getting paid.
When the war ended the Japanese guards just left the camp and warned us all not to go walkabout. American planes flew over the area dropping food and medical supplies. Most missed the camp so we did indeed go walkabout. The locals were mostly friendly and helped us gather the parachutes and loads scattered around in the hills.
Aftrer about three days, I think, the Americans arrived and we had an all night train trip to Yokohama. Here we were deloused, medically examined, fed and clothed. A friend and I were included in the first plane load of POWs to be repatriated to Britain. We were flown to Okinawa and a plane was waiting there to take us home. On take off, the front landing wheel fell off so the pilot had to fly on to Karachi and do a crash landing there. When we got there, there were ambulances and fire engines waiting but the pilot made a good landing. What an anti-climax but great relief all round. We waited in Karachi for two weeks before a replacement plane was sent so we didn’t end up being the first POWs back from Japan.
My last trip to see was one I never meant to make. I sailed on the S.S. Empire Kent from 2-9-46 to 25-11-46. When I was married in 1941, I agreed with my wife that if I survived the war, I wouldn’t go to sea again but after I returned from Japan we had a disagreement and I went on one last trip while my wife cooled off!