The Sinking of the Junyo Maru

A survivor tells his story


Read the Index to get this story in context.

Hans Lüning (1907-1995) writes .....

During the night from l4th to l5th September 1944 we left 10th Bat (Ed: Military POW Camp in Batavia) at 3 o'clock in the morning in complete darkness.

After having tracked along all sorts of secondary roads for about half an hour, we passed by a bazaar which, if I recall it well, was called Pasar Senén and shortly after, we entered a station, where we were taken to a waiting train. Would we be going in the direction of Buitenzorg (and stay on Java), or would we go in the direction of Tandjung Priok? It appeared to be the latter, which clearly indicated that it would be an overseas destination. Thailand, Japan? We did not have a clue.

Towards dawn we arrived at Priok and were straight away instructed to make for the harbour. After a walk of about 20 minutes we arrived at a large shed situated between a road on one side and a quay on the other. We were allowed to sit down on the grassy verge of the road.

Two steamships, painted black, were moored alongside the quay. Although estimating ships tonnage's is not one of my strongest points, I took it that they measured about 7000-8000 ton each. We had to wait for quite a long time whilst the heat constantly increased. There was no shade to be found anywhere and food was not being provided. It was fortunate that we could get some drink-water from a tap along the quay.

During the morning thousands of romushas passed by. It was a pityful sight to see all these poor devils struggling along looking like skeletons. They were all chased into the holds in front of the bridge of one of the ships moored alongside the quay.

During our walk from the station to the harbour, as well as now that we were sitting there looking around us whilst waiting, we were struck by the desolate impression this once so thriving port made on us. Stacks of old iron were lying all over the place: piping, tubing, sheeting, boilers, bridge-railings, fences, shipsmasts, everything mixed up. It was all obviously waiting to be shipped to Japan, but owing to the enormous quantities, it made little progress.

In the harbour nearest to us were, apart from the two black painted ships, another two wooden boats. They were floating high on the water and with their terse shapes, looked heavy and unwieldy. We took them to be Japanese trawlers. For the rest there was, as far as we could see, not a single ship in the whole harbour. There was no trace of the so-called Great-Asiatic Welfare atmosphere.

At 4 o'clock in the afternoon, after having waited about 10 hours in the glaring sun, we were told to get moving and were driven up the gang-plank of one of the moored ships. This gang-plank led to the well-deck behind the funnel. As far as we could discover the ship was not named. The number 652 had been painted in large figures on boards placed on either side of the funnel. After the liberation I happened to find out that the ship was the S.S. "Junyo Maru". The ship was in a state of complete neglect; everywhere the rust had set in and much of the metal had rusted through completely.

Somewhere on board one of us discovered a brass plaque with the inscription "Liverpool 1908".

We were ordered to stack our luggage up against the railings, after which, amongst lots of shouting and brandishing of sticks, we were driven into the holds like cattle. Although I was still carrying my ruck-sack, I managed, round the back of a guard, to get down via narrow wooden stairs. Approximately 2 1/2 m down, I reached a floor covered with tarpaulins. Along both sides of this hold 3 or 4-high rows of bunks had been constructed, all about 2m deep. The distance between the bunks varied from 50 to 80cm.

Notwithstanding the fact that the hold was already completely packed, more and more people were being driven down. At last all bunks were taken and on the floor one could only sit shoulder to shoulder with ones knees pulled up.

The tarpaulins on the floor were covered with a gluey black substance which suggested that the ship had carried sugar before, left-overs of which had melted and on top of which coal and iron-ore had been loaded. In any case, all those who were sitting on the floor, including myself, looked like niggers in less than no time. The heat was unbearable and we, therefore, took off our tunics. We had very little fresh air, as only every other hatch-plank had been removed in order to give us at least a little ventilation. We hated to think of what the atmosphere would be like if all the hatches would have to be closed because of the weather.

With all the holds stowed full, the decks filled to capacity and not leaving a single space unoccupied, some of the men got the idea that they might be better off sitting on the derricks. Even on the hatch-planks across the holds, they were sitting shoulder to shoulder. The legs of these people were hanging down in between the hatch-planks.

Our guards wore lifebelts, but for us they were not available. The only available means for saving our lives, were two very poorly maintained life-boats which were both hanging outboard, one on starboard and the other on port-side, as well as a few life-rafts which were lying along the railings and which were buried under our luggage.

An attempt had been made to free a path round the deck which could be used as s one-way system, simplifying the handing-out of provisions as well as visiting the toilets, consisting of a couple of out-board boxes with a hole in the bottom.

However, these gangways got very soon blocked up. In the event of your needing to make use of one of those "toilet-boxes", as it did happen to me the first night, lots of time and acrobatics were required to get there and it was even more difficult to find your place back again in pitch-darkness. Because of this, it became s habit to find a spot in the hold where one could relieve one-self. Some of our co-travellers, who were sitting on the hatch-planks, made it even easier for themselves, by just letting it all run down on the spot where they were sitting. This normally resulted in protests from those who were sitting on the floor beneath. One can easily imagine the effect this had on the atmosphere in the holds.

And that is how we sat there waiting for our departure. In both holds in the fore-part of the ship (to be indicated 1 & 2) and on the front deck about 4500 romushas were crammed together. Lodged in both holds 3 & 4 were about 2200 P.O.W.s. All told some 6700 men.

We sailed just before 6 O'clock in the afternoon. Not for long though, because as soon as we were outside at sea, we dropped anchor and we stayed there for a full 24 hours. There was not the slightest breeze and all day long the blistering sun baked on the decks. It was virtually unbearable in the holds.

Whilst we were anchored there, an English soldier tried to escape. He jumped overboard and swimming, he tried to reach the coast, a deed of desperation which was doomed to fail. The Japs picked him up with one of our life-boats beat him up and after that locked him away. We were given a warning that every next endeavour to escape would mean death.

I do not recollect when exactly this took place, but all of a sudden we heard a terrific noise and screaming from hold 4 (there was a narrow passage between, holds 3 & 4). It appeared that some of the bunks had collapsed. Some of the men were trapped under the wreckage. There was near panic, but that was prevented, thank goodness. Some of the more seriously wounded were taken to the sick-berth in the aftermost and highest deck of the ship, where our doctors would treat them to the best of their abilities, taking into consideration the very limited means at their disposal.

The grub on board was better than expected. Heaps of cucumbers and vegetables were lying on a specially reserved spot of the well-deck, used as a galley. Supervised by a Jap, the cooking was done by our men, in boilers connected on to a steam-pipe. The meals consisted of rice, vegetable-soup and pickled pork. Owing to lack of space, serving food and drink-water always created great difficulties. We hardly got any sleep.

Towards the evening of the l6th September we sailed in a westerly direction.

We, the passengers of the holds, did not benefit much from the coolness of the night. A sweltering heat remained in the holds, which were contaminated by the smells of sweat and urine. We hardly spoke to one-another. We did continue to try and work out what our destination would be, Singapore? At day-break we were at Strait Sunda. It was the Isle of Krakatau with its vulcano that gave us a lead as to where we were going. On the same day, the l7th, we changed course and then sailed in a North-Westerly direction, at s distance of 15 to 20 miles, parallel to the West-coast of Sumatra. We then assumed that our destination would be Padang.

We were escorted by a corvette and a gunboat. Sometimes they sailed around us in big circles, but most of the time they sailed at some distance behind us, the corvette on port- and the gunboat on starboard side.

From early in the morning until about 4 o'clock in the afternoon one or two fighter-aircraft were flying nearby, obviously looking for sub-marines or enemy planes.

We sailed at slow speed all through the day. You could do nothing else but remain glued to the spot where you were sitting with your knees up against your chin and jammed in between your mates. As a matter of fact, the heat, the stench and the lack of sleep seemed to have drained all our energy. We were filthy, tired and resigned to our fate.

During the night of l7th to l8th September it was pouring with rain. In less than no tine all those on deck were wet through, whilst the wind made them feel icy-cold. The rain was just streaming from the hatch-planks down into the holds. Only those in the bunks remained dry. The grit on the floor turned into a dirty black substance. When dawn broke and the rain stopped, we hardly recognised one-another.

Then the 18th September 1944 started, a day we would never forget. The monotony of the day was only broken by the handing round of food and drink and somewhere there was a start of a fire, which, however, was quickly extinguished.

At 4 O'clock in the afternoon we had, once again, had our food and drinks. There was a slight breeze and the ship bobbed gently up and down on the waves of the ocean. The planes had disappeared.

At about half past five we were roused from a light snooze by a dull and the trembling of the entire ship, my first thought was: an explosion of one of the boilers. We all jumped up which caused an enormous scramble for the only steps leading to the deck. A few seconds after the first explosion there was another bang, which appeared to be much more severe than the first one, and gun-powder smoke came into our hold through the adjoining No.4 hold. The ship's sirens started blaring and then we realised that we had been torpedoed. A panic followed. A shouting crowd of people thrust forward in the direction of the small pair of steps.

I found myself right in the middle of the hold and realised that it might take a long time (quite possibly too long;) before I would get on deck this way, I looked up and thought that, but for a few inches. I would be able to get hold of the lower flange of the double T-joint on which the hatch-planks were resting. By climbing on a bunk I was able to get hold of one of the flanges. I could not get any further than making a "birds nest" but someone gave me a push and before I could say "Jack Robinson". I was standing on one of the hatch-planks on deck.

I looked around. On my left was the upper-deck (behind the funnel), from which our transport-commander Captain Upton, an English naval officer, was giving orders that the luggage covering the life-rafts along the railings should be removed at once and thrown overboard. Many hands started to follow up these orders.

Frightened out of their wits, our guards were aimlessly running up and down the deck and most of them jumped overboard still carrying their guns. On the high centre-deck the Japs were busy getting both life-boats ready. I saw one of them fall down. The Japanese ships captain was nowhere to be seen. The sirens was still blaring.

In the meantime the gunboat circled around us at high speed, firing depth-charges. The corvette started to pick up people floating in the sea. It did not take long before I saw the first life-raft go overboard.

Our ship was still high up in the water, but without further thinking, I went to the railing jumped into the sea.

It swelled ages before I reached the surface, right next to a raft which had just been thrown overboard. About 15 men were already clinging to the raft and I also grabbed one of the rope-nooses which were hanging from all sides. As more and more things were being thrown overboard, it became perilously dangerous to remain where we were. We, therefore, decided to swim away with the raft as quickly as possible. I think it must have been about 200m away from the ship, that we decided we had reached a safer spot and that is where we took a bit of a rest.

By now the ship was already deeper in the water and started to lean down towards the stern. She must have turned round, because we could see a big hole in the ship's hull, more or less in line with the front-mast, as well as another hole near the stern. We estimated these holes to be about 7m big.

They were still throwing luggage, rafts and all sorts of other items, such as bales of kapok, planks and beams overboard. We also saw men continuously jumping from the poop into the sea. There were cries for help all around.

At the bows the romusha's were standing bundled together like one compact unit. Only now and then one of them would jump into the sea. It looked as if they were completely benumbed. Some of them had climbed into the mast, as if that could save them from drowning. The poop-deck was still full of P.O.W.s, but more and more jumped overboard. Thick clouds of smoke came from the funnel. The ship went down steadily, the stern was sinking deeper all the time. When we heard another explosion, we took it that it was one of the boilers.

All around the ship we saw people in the water, shouting for help. We saw a bunch of Japs in s holed life-boat, which was full of water. If one of the drowning men tried to grab hold of the side of the life-boat, the Japs threatened him with an axe.

Just for a moment when the corvette came close to us, we noticed that they mainly picked up Japs, who were immediately noticeable because they all waved a small Japanese flag. It was obvious that this formed part of the kit of each Jap who was dispatched overseas. However, we also noticed that some of our men were taken aboard as well.

We considered whether it would be advisable for us to swim to the corvette, but as we deemed the possibility great that she might also be torpedoed, we decided to remain hanging on to the raft, thinking that would be safer. An illogical train of thought, which is very easy to conclude by hindsight.

The stern of the SS Junyo Maru sank deeper and deeper, raising the stem more and more. We could clearly see the mass of romusha's who were standing closely together on the bows, starting to slide down.

Only a few still climbed in the wast or jumped overboard. At about half past six, the ship's stern suddenly started to sink still deeper, the ship's keel appeared above water and within minutes the ship in an almost upright position, sank into the depths of the sea. After which the sea-surface closed itself peacefully. There were still a few bubbles, but these also ceased soon.

It was hard to imagine that at that very moment, 1600 P.O.W.s and 4000 romusha's, together some 5600 human beings, perished. I saw it all happening with my own eyes and yet ... ... at that moment the enormity of the drama that enacted its self there, never affected me any more than when I would have been looking at a similar scene on a film.

With this disaster over, we came to our senses again and we started considering what to do next. 17 Men were already clinging to the life-raft, which could not take anymore. It was impossible for all of us to sit on it, because it did not have sufficient carrying-capacity. We, therefore, had to get away from the drowning men, who were spreading themselves over a wider area all the time. We took off the few things that we were still wearing and decided to swim to the coast with the raft. By hindsight a nonsensical idea.

In the meantime night had fallen and from: a bright sky full of stars we could take our bearings. We started off quite hopefully, but shortly afterwards the sky became overcast. The wind increased and the swell became more severe. We could no longer orientate ourselves by the stars and decided to wait until the morning. As we were getting cold, we now and then swam round the raft. One moment nearby and the next moment further away we heard cries for help all around us. I will never forget those cries in the pitch dark night, especially the "tulung , tulung" of the romusha's.

Two of our men became exhausted during the night. One of our hardiest chaps climbed onto the raft and together with him, we pushed the two exhausted chaps onto it as well. The weight of these three men almost completely submerged the raft, which made the first man put the heads of the two exhausted chaps on his thighs in order to keep their heads above water. After a while we offered to take over from him, but he would not hear of it.

Every time when we heard cries for help coming closer, we swam away from those calls with the raft. One man more could have meant the end for us all. One moment the cries for help were quite close and remained close whatever me did. Most likely they could hear us talk and were trying to contact us. We, therefore, had to do something. We could not continue to swim with the raft.

I then decided to go out scouting for the sound. We agreed that a certain signal of mine, would be answered by the same signal, which would enable me to find the raft back again. I found two Dutchmen clinging to a bale of kapok end it was obvious to me that they could not keep this up much longer. I suggested that they would swim with me, together with their bale, to the raft and that there our men would take turns in floating on the bale. This agreed, I gave my signal end going in the direction of the sound of the reply, we found the raft quite easily. A rope about 5m long we found attached to the bale of kapok. That we tied to the raft, which prevented us losing sight of the bale at night. One could not help swallowing sea-water, which sometimes caused us to vomit.

Remarkably enough we remained in good heart. I don't believe that anyone of us was really afraid, which was amazing, because the danger of e.g., sharks was quite feasible, but I have an idea that nobody ever thought of things like that.

The night swelled endless. Suddenly, at daybreak at a distance of 20 to 30 meters the corvette appeared out of the mist. Some ropes were hanging from the poop and a few Japs were busy pulling some men, who had been able to get hold of one of these ropes, on board ship. I did not hesitate for one moment. I let go of the raft, swam towards the corvette, got hold of a rope and was pulled on board.

So far I have always refrained from going deeper into my observations, but now I feel the need of making an exception. How was it possible that from the moment I saw the corvette, I forgot all about those people who were sitting or hanging on the raft? And that, even when I had safely boarded the corvette, I never once looked back, or even for one moment gave them a single thought.

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