To honour those who lost their lives

“In this their finest hour”

Evacuation Ships

“SS. ROOSEBOOM”

History

Sunk by Japanese submarine number I – 159 on 1st March 1942

[Version 1. 2.1: June 2011]

The “SS. Rooseboom” ( in some records shown as the “Rosenboom’ )was a Dutch steam ship of 1035 tons, built in 1926 by Rijkee & Co., Rotterdam and was owned by the KPM ( translates to Royal Packet Navigation Co.) line in 1942.

The Captain on its last voyage was Captain M. C. A. Boon of the KPM line who had been promoted to the rank of Captain in 1938.

 At the outbreak of war the ship was usually on the coastal run between Sumatra and Java. In February 1942 she was en route from Batavia, the capital of Java, to Ceylon when she was instructed to pick up evacuees in the port of Padang in Western Sumatra.

 According to the site ‘mercantilemarine.org’, the …KPM ship the ‘SS. Rooseboom’ left the heavily damaged port of Tanjong Priok (Batavia) on the 22nd February 1942. It states that “…her ultimate destination was Bombay via Colombo, but first she had to call at Emmahaven (Padang) to pick up a large number of military and civilian refugees…no-one knows exactly how many refugees were crammed on to that little ship but it was probably over 500…the ‘Rooseboom’ left Emmahaven on 27th February… with a number of women and children on board who had escaped from Singapore in the weeks prior to the Surrender…”.

 She appears to have arrived on either the 25th or 26th February and left quickly on 26th or 27th February 1942 (depending on the source used for this date) from the port of Emmahaven at Padang.

Padang had become the last stop on the official escape route for people from Singapore and Malaya as the Japanese closed in around Singapore and the Dutch East Indies.

It is this researcher’s opinion that an estimated 250 – 500 servicemen, civilian men and women and a few children actually boarded the ship at Padang. It was torpedoed several days later  in the Indian Ocean with only six survivors ever reaching land – including Corporal Walter Gibson, Doris Lim and four Malay or Javanese crewmen.

 This left a legacy of pain for hundreds of families of servicemen and civilians who never knew what happened to their loved ones - most without any knowledge that a member of their family had actually boarded the ship.

This document is primarily an attempt to clarify who was actually on board and more precisely determine what happened , and when, to the ‘SS. Rooseboom’.

It is also intended as a respectful memorial to those who lost their lives on the ‘SS. Rooseboom’.

 A harrowing story of the experiences of some 135 people who reached one lifeboat is told in the book “The Boat” (ISBN -10: 981-05-8301-X; first published in 1952 and republished by Monsoon Books Pte Ltd, Singapore in 2007) by the only European survivor, Walter Gibson. Of the 135 on board and clinging around the sides of the lifeboat only Walter Gibson, a young Chinese women named Doris Lim and two Javanese crewmen reached land in the Mentawi islands of Sumatra. They had been in the lifeboat for a month and according to Gibson had drifted over one thousand miles. Two other Malay or Javanese crewmen were also rescued from a raft in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Walter Gibson, in his book, stated that the ship was sunk at midnight on 1st March 1942 and had left Padang “… four days previously…”. Alternatively, although he does not say in his book when the ship actually left Padang, he states that the torpedo struck the ship at ten minutes before midnight on the “…third evening …” out of Padang. He says that the ship left at sunset, so by his account the ship appears to have left Padang on the early evening of the 26 February and was sunk on the night of the 28 February – just before the date turned over to the 1st of March!

In his official statement to British military authorities in 1946 Gibson signed a statement that the ship was “…proceeding from Padang in Sumatra west to Colombo on 27th February, 1942 …”and “…the boat was sunk at 23.50 hours on March 1st 1942…”.

In a document in the UK Archives (CO980/14) there is a short list of names of senior British officers on the ‘SS. Rooseboom’ which is headed “List of personnel sailing from Padang on 26 February 1942”.

Richard Gough in his book ‘Escape from Singapore’ states that the ship left Padang on the evening of 27th February and was sunk four days later.

 So the question of dates is debatable but the departure date of 26th February 1942 seems most likely.

The relatively small town of Padang had become almost overrun by services and civilians by the time one Rolla Edwardes - Ker, Singapore Royal artillery (Volunteers) arrived in the town at  around the same time that the ‘Rooseboom’ arrived in port. He makes some interesting points about the number of men who had arrived in town and estimates ( which appear to be incorrect) of the number on ships , he says “… there were two ships at the docks ready to embark the British and Australian contingent in Padang numbering 1018 military personnel and some 1200 civilians. The larger ship , the “Rosenboom”(sic) was supposed to take some 2000 military and civilians and make for Ceylon, the smaller ship , the “Domayer van twist” (sic) of some 500 tons, which was to take Australian and navy personnel and members of the Volunteer forces was to make for Java and, if necessary, for Australia after refuelling in Java…” I and the rest of the party were originally supposed to be going on the “Rosenboom” (sic) but Colonel Broadbent asked[us] to come on the “Domayer Van twist” (sic) . The ship was torpedoed not far from Ceylon…”. The “Rosenboom” sailed after us with about 2300 on board…” [Researcher‘s note: this seems to be an extraordinary number of people which has to be seriously discounted!] …we sailed at 04.00 hrs on the morning of 26th February…”.So by his statement the ‘SS. Rooseboom’ must have left on the 26 February 1942.

Around the same time John Wagstaff, Signal Btn, FMSVF, arrived on the 25 February 1942 and notes”… in the afternoon we heard that a ship had arrived and would be taking people that night. This was good news although there was no hope of us being on it … [then on the 26 February he continues] the staff at headquarters [had] pushed off on the ship that sailed during the night and the new OIC, a Colonel Wolfe-Murray, was fortunately a different calibre from his predecessors. One of his first acts was to call for fresh nominal rolls of all persons awaiting evacuation in Padang … he then arranged that priority would be given according to date of arrival in Padang … Australians would be sent on ships bound for Java or Australia and British troops and civilians on ships bound for Ceylon or India…” [Then on 27 February 1942] “…in the afternoon we heard that another ship had arrived, this was the “Rooseboom” and moreover it would be sailing for Ceylon… when later on the warning order for this ship was posted the list included all except two of the British ORs who had escaped Singapore in the tongkang with us . The list also included a few ‘high priorities’ who had just arrived in Padang and but for these some of us might have been on the list. Among the priority passengers for the ship that night were Group Captain Nunn and his wife… it is tragic that the ship never reached Ceylon…”. This places the departure of the ship on the 27 February.

Of relevance to efforts to ascertain who was actually on this ship is that in his story Wagstaff refers to the fact that of the approximately nineteen British “…gunner and sappers from Pulau Brani…” who joined them  soon after their escape from Singapore , all - except the Lieutenant and Warrant Officer ( who appear to have embarked on the ‘ Dumayer Van Twist ‘ from Padang) and two other ORs who remained at Padang with Wagstaff until boarding the ‘SS. Palima’ with he and his party of Volunteers – the “…gunners and sappers…” left on the ‘SS. Rooseboom’. This gives a clue to at least 15 or 16 men on the ‘SS. Rooseboom’.

In his book “Escape from Singapore (Mandarin, 1987, rev 1984) Richard Gough has some rare reports on those boarding the “Rooseboom” in Padang through the eyes of Colonel Warren.

Colonel Warren arrived in Padang to find it almost deserted apart from local residents going about their normal activities. He found that Brigadier Paris, Commander of the 11th Division was the senior British Officer in the town – he had taken over when Colonel Broadbent and his Australians had left for Java. Brigadier Paris “…was also about to leave for Colombo with 600 troops and civilians…” on board the “SS. Rooseboom”.

Warren apparently went to the port at Emmahaven and climbed the ship’s gangway to meet Brigadier Paris… he noticed that the Argylls had taken up firing points all over the ship, determined to fight off any air attacks with Bren guns and riffles. Every bit of deck seemed to be crammed with nurses, servicemen and civilians…” Warren then reported that as they talked “…a lorry drew up on the dockside below packed with nurses, wives, children, soldiers and business men – all in rags and dishevelled…”. Amongst that group were Mr. and Mrs Nunn and Warren learned that they had been rescued from Pom Pong island where the “SS. Kuala” had been sunk. This would answer the question of the fate of a number of the women, children and men who became unaccounted for from the “Kuala” even though they seemed to have survived the sinking of that ship. A somewhat speculative list of people who survived the sinking of the “SS. Kuala” but for whom no fate is recorded is attached at the end of this document – any information correcting or confirming names on this list would be greatly welcomed by the researcher.

Brigadier Paris had been given permission to escape from Singapore and had done so with a sizeable part of men from the Gordon Highlanders in a launch called “Celia”. This group stuck together in their escape across Sumatra to Padang with Major Angus MacDonald and Captain Mike Blackwood and for this reason all ended up on the “SS. Rooseboom”

 Survivor Walter Gibson is reported to have told the War Office (CAS. P. W.)  that “… there were 500 passengers on board, most of whom were soldiers but with some women and children from Singapore who had previously been stranded on Pom Pom(sic) Island …” and then in a written statement dated 3.1.46 to The war Office ( CAS P.W.) he stated “…The “K.P.M. Rooseboome (sic)” was proceeding ………with 500 on board ( mostly Europeans – British Army – but also a number of P.W.D. officials from Malaya and some civilian women and children also from Malaya.  (The women and children had been previously bombed on a refugee ship ex Singapore)…. “.

“… A nominal roll of all personnel embarking [on the ‘Rooseboom’] was handed to H.Q. British Troops at Padang…” (CO 980/141). What happened to this valuable document identifying those 500-700 on board is unknown- it might have been handed to an officer leaving on the also ill-fated “SS. Ban ho Guan” which left a day or two later, or destroyed by the Commanding Officer responsible for Padang when it became an open city prior to the arrival of the Japanese forces on 17 March 1942.

Insofar as the sinking, it is perfectly reasonable if Walter Gibson made an error on the date – the trauma he went through in a lifeboat for 26 days without food or water most of the time and then his incarceration as a POW of the Japanese would have made it hard to remember exactly the sequence by the time he wrote the book in 1952.

 He does appear to have been correct about the date the ship was actually sunk being 1st March 1942. In a book title ‘Axis Submarine Success of World War Two’ by Jurgen Rohwer (ISBN 1-55750-029-0; published by Greenhill Books, London ) it is revealed that the author has obtained information from high ranking Japanese naval officers and amongst hundreds of tabulated entries confirms the following about the sinking of the “SS. Rooseboom”.

It was sunk by one of the very large class of Japanese submarines (‘Sensuikan’ class), specifically that numbered I-59 (later redesignated I-159) which had left Penang on 21 February 1942 under the command of a Lt. Yoshimatsu.

 Interestingly it is also recorded quite specifically that the I-59 had actually clearly identified the “SS. Rooseboom”, this could have been either before or after torpedoing – given that it was the middle of the night we must assume that the submarine had been following the ship for at least a day to observe it in daylight to know its identity, or possibly it plucked some unrecorded survivor from the ocean and learned the ships identity that way?

The I-159 had been patrolling the Netherlands East Indies and the north coast of Australia and had covered the invasion of the Celebes during January 1942 before being despatched to Penang. On its way it torpedoed the Norwegian freighter “Eidsvold” at Christmas Island and then on 25 January sank the “Giang Sen” in the Sabang Roads, taking some of her crew prisoner - as was the practice of many Japanese submarine commanders seeking information on naval codes and other information.

After leaving Penang on 21 February 1942 with the intention of “…raiding enemy communications SW of Sumatra…” the next record of the I-159 is the sinking of the “Rooseboom”. By 12 March 1942 the I-159 had returned directly to Penang.

 It is not known whether the submarine had taken anyone prisoner from the “Rooseboom” but this possibility must be kept open because the Japanese submarine fleet had a practice of doing so and had established an interrogation prison in Penang for the purpose of extracting information from ships survivors. It had a cruel reputation that was explicitly evidenced at the joint war crimes trial in 1946 (from trial transcript records in the US Archives in Washington and elsewhere) of a very large group of Japanese submarine Commanders and crew, plus Vice Admiral Hisashi Ichioka to whom they reported. Witness testimonies by Masters, Officers and crew of British and Allied ships sunk by Japanese submarines tell a harrowing story of starvation, beatings, torture and executions at the Runnymede Hotel prison in Penang. Most of these Master and Officers had been taken prisoner from the crew of ships where the Japanese submarine had, after torpedoing their ships, spent several hours methodically ramming the lifeboats and rafts and machine gunning survivors in the water. The book “Blood and Bushido” by Bernard Edwards  is a very good record of the depths of cruelty and  inhumanity reached by Japanese submarine commanders during the War.

 According to Japanese records the ship was sunk at 0150hrs on 1st March 1942 and the map coordinates for the sinking were N00degrees/E 87 degrees. In slight contrast British records state the position as thought to have been N00.15 degrees/ E 86.50, but how British authorities would have known that exactly is unclear. This most likely would have been the position at sea where the small ship “SS. Palopo” which left Padang after the “Rooseboom” and was also escaping to Colombo, came across an oil slick and picked up either two (or four depending upon the source used) Malay or Javanese seamen squatting on a small raft or box who were the only other survivors of the “SS. Rooseboom”.

In the archived document WO106/2579B a report by Major G.P. Richards, 1st Btn Malay Regiment records how the “SS. Palopo” left Padang on 7th March 1942 and on 11th March picked up two Javanese sailors who had been floating on a piece of wreckage for seven or eight days after being torpedoed at midnight on 2nd or 3rd March. The ship is noted as the “SS. Beerbohm” (sic) and that it had 250 troops on board and a few civilians, including a woman and two children.

In another document (CO980/217, report no.14, p.452) a Mr. McKay in Australia records “…they were surrounded by much wreckage and many bodies seen: all too decomposed for identification…”. As pointed out by Mr. Ted Crawford in his research on this event - after the ship went down the survivors were not very dispersed after even a week, let alone by the morning after; in this context it is interesting that the two Javanese seaman did not comment on seeing the lifeboat which was the subject of Walter Gibson’s book “The Boat”.

 In his research Ted Crawford found the CO 980 141 file on the Rosenboom (36 documents) p.87 in which there is a report (undated) of the two sailors’ interrogation in Colombo by a Lieut Rendle. The position was said to be 0015’N 8650E approximately, about 2/3 of the way to Ceylon -- figures presumably derived from the Palopo. They said that the only lifeboats were destroyed in the explosion and there were no other survivors as far as they knew. They heard no cries for help or saw anyone else in the darkness and rough water. It was pitch-black dark, they were sleeping on deck and thrown into the sea, the boat went down immediately, they had got hold of wreckage and, finally, each separately came across a little kapok raft which they used and in the morning when they saw one another they paddled together. They then lashed the two little rafts together. They had no difficulty getting water for the 7 or 8 days as it rained heavily at least once a day and they managed to collect enough of it in their palms to drink. The interrogator said the Javanese seamen were “good intelligent types”, decent men. He says they could see dimly in the night. He says they nearly all died of thirst. It is stated at the end of the interrogation that in the view of the local RN people it sounded as if the ship was not torpedoed but that the boilers exploded.

The facts are that by the time they were picked up by the “SS. Palopo”, the Javanese seamen had drifted along with much of the wreckage of the “SS. Rooseboom” - and, sadly, the remains of many passengers - some 31 nautical miles from the spot where the submarine recorded the sinking.

The set of coordinates recorded by both the Japanese and the Allies are interesting and suggest that Captain Boon was taking a longer but more cautious sea route to Colombo as opposed to a straight line between the two ports. He appears to have swung quite a distance south in his voyage probably, but unsuccessfully, to avoid Japanese submarines lying in wait on the direct route. The fact that the “Palopo” came across the oil slick and survivors also suggests that this was a route discussed amongst captains out of Padang ( or determined by British authorities ) since finding two men on a box in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean  stretches the credibility of coincidence.

Sadly it seems that the Japanese had also worked out the sea route between Padang and Colombo.

 By the researcher’s estimate the “SS. Rooseboom” had travelled some 750 - 800 nautical miles which at a sped of 14-15 knots meant that the ship must have left Padang on the sunset of 26 February 1942 – this is based on the calculation that a ship travels one nautical mile per knot of speed per hour - and was sunk after some 55 hours at sea.

To date this research has identified only  some 53 out of the estimated 250-500 people on board.

If anyone has any other names or information relating to the sinking of the “SS. Rooseboom” or the people on board , the researcher, Michael Pether, 55 Te Pene Road, Maraetai, Manukau .2018, New Zealand – or email mncpether@xtra.co.nz – or phone New Zealand 09-5365490 -  would be extremely appreciative of receiving such information, would treat it sensitively and would amplify this document appropriately.

Reference Sources;

  • “Boat”/ “The Boat” – book authored by Walter Gibson
  • ‘combinedfleet .com’– website authored by military historians Robert Hackett ( USAF Retd.) , USA and Sanders Kingsepp, linguist and researcher of Estonia.
  • CWGC – website of the Commonwealth war Graves Commission
  • Crawford, Ted – researcher, UK.
  • Edwardes-Ker, Rolla – speech he gave in 1985 ( Australian War Memorial archives PR87/138)
  • “Escape from Singapore” – book by Richard Gough
  • JM/Jonathan Moffatt – author and researcher , see alsio “Malayan Volunteer Group” website
  • Mercantilemarine.org – website
  • Rohwer, Jurgen – author of “Axis Submarine Successes of World war Two”, Greenhill Books, London ; ISBN 1-55750-029-0
  • Rollofhonour.co.uk - website
  • STA - archives of “The Straits Times” Singapore on the website of the National Library of Singapore
  • Thehendrys.freeserve.co.uk – family genealogical website
  • United Kingdom National archives files on the War Office (WO) and the Colonial Office(CO)
  • Wagstaff, John – the story ( unpublished) of John H. Wagstaff an engineer in the P&T, Singapore and in the Signals Battalion of the SSVF “ ‘Lucky Seven’ or ‘To Ceylon in Time for Tea’ – an Escape Story”.

 

 

 

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