Sunk at Pom Pong Island 14 February 1942
[Version 3.3.0, compiled May 2011]
This was 14th February, the day before Singapore surrendered to the Japanese.
Many of the women and children were killed on the ship itself, but even more by continued direct bombing of the sea whilst they were desperately trying to swim the few hundred yards to safety on the shores of Pom Pong Island. Many others were swept away by the strong currents which are a feature around Pom Pong Island and, despite surviving for several days, only a handful made it to safety.
The Captain of the “Kuala”, Lieutenant Caithness, recorded of the moment “…thirty men and women floated past on rafts and drifted east and then south – west, however only three survivors were picked up off a raft on the Indragiri River, a man and his wife and an army officer…”. The bombing continued even onto the Island itself as the survivors scrambled across slippery rocks and up the steep slopes of the jungle tangled hills of this small uninhabited island in the Indonesian Archipelago – once again, Caithness, recorded “…but when the struggling women were between the ships and the rocks the Jap had turned and deliberately bombed the women in the sea and those struggling on the rocks…’.
Several survivors including Able Seaman Gunner, John Sarney, RNZN, (who wrote it in a letter to his wife) recorded that the Japanese planes machine gunned the survivors trying to reach shore - this is disputed by other survivors who say there was no machine gunning.
Once people reached Pom Pong Island, Caithness records, “…the lady doctors and nurses, most of whom were Australian and British nurses from various hospitals in Malaya, carried the wounded to a clearing in the jungle about a hundred feet above sea level …”. He adds”…the scene was one never to be forgotten and too awful to mention…”.
Only the day before this totally unwarranted carnage occurred at Pom Pong Island, the once vibrant city of Singapore had been in its death throes as the Japanese shelled and bombed it into submission on the night of 13 February 1942. Total chaos had reigned as several thousand civilians milled in fear on the wharves on Singapore harbour whilst bombs and shells were falling amongst them and killing many. They struggled and pushed onto the ships in the harbour with no thought of Passenger Lists, so exactly who was on board that day has been a very confused picture ever since.
This document is an attempt to set the record straight.
Author and survivor Janet Lim says that more than half the passengers were women and children.
Probably the most distressing aspect of this incredibly callous act by the Japanese air force was the high death toll of children and babies that resulted - many in cruel circumstances that saw children floating out to sea with no hope of survival (see the notation regarding Donald Forrester aged 8 years) .There must have been 50 - 70 children and babies on board, but very few survived to reach safety in India or the UK. At the extreme, there is the quite incredible story of Patsy Li, aged six years, who was swept away from the “Kuala” on some wreckage and who was reportedly found several years later, thousands of kilometers away; on Guadalcanal as the US troops were fighting the Japanese. Another poignant story is that of James Cairns from Penang and his infant son, Jimmy, who floated at sea for eight hours before being rescued and reaching Sumatra, only to spend the rest of the war together in the Bankinang men’s internment camp.
In the same context, there was the truly horrible reality that when the bombing started and the ship was on fire many women had to jump, with their children or babies, into the sea and its powerful tidal currents and basically try and swim alone through the sea whilst being blasted with high explosive bombs.
One of the few remaining survivors of these events living today, Mr. Stanley Jewkes, powerfully describes in the final chapter of his book “Humankind?”[ISBN 0-7596-8787-0] the true heartbreak and horror faced by mothers this situation and his writing on the whole event in this book is exceptional. Being one of the last people to leave the ship, he describes one single event that in many ways sums up the entire human tragedy of the sinkings of the “SS. Kuala” and the “SS. Tanjong Pinang”;
“… the young mother had probably been in the water for an hour or so, hanging on to the rope with her right hand. Cradled in her left arm, with its head barely above the water, was a baby girl about a year old. A little boy of three years clung to his mother with his arms clasped tightly around her neck. They were not more than five feet from the red-hot starboard bow of the minesweeper. The tide-race, which was now running fast, was dragging the rope out at an angle.
We found them as we rowed the life boat around the bow of the ship looking for any remaining survivors before returning to the shelter of the trees on Pom Pong Island. Japanese planes were still circling overhead, dropping more bombs. Flames had spread through most of the ship, and were playing around the mid-ship depth charges. Ammunition in the ship’s magazine was exploding like Chinese crackers, as it had been for the past hour. We expected a violent explosion to occur at any moment.
Carefully and with difficulty we lifted the mother and her two children over the lifeboat’s high gunwale. At least they were to have four more days to live before they were sent to a watery grave deep in the South China Sea, at the hands of a ruthless enemy. As we picked them out of the water, I looked at the young mother, who showed no signs of fear or panic, and thought of my own wife, about the same age, and my year old daughter…
The “Kuala” passengers largely comprised a cross section of the Europeans living in Malaya at that time, plus quite a number of Chinese and Eurasian families. Insofar as the Europeans they represented families split asunder by the Japanese invasion – one record has it that 27 men who were soon to be interned in Changi had wives and some family who had left on the “Kuala” (TKD).Many men lost their entire families either in this attack or the later sinking of the “SS. Tanjong Pinang” (abbreviated to “TP” in the remainder of this document) which arrived at Pom Pong Island after a few days to rescue the women and children survivors.
In researching this document it became apparent that, whilst the boarding of the “Kuala” in Singapore was chaotic with little organisation; there were strong group dynamics at work amongst the people who boarded who were in many cases those with strong links and had known each other for years through family ties, sporting associations (such as golf and tennis) in Singapore or through business links. Many of the people on board represented the top echelon of the Singapore business world, the Singapore Municipality and also some of Northern Malaya’s oldest European families who persisted with staying in Singapore in the belief it would never fall.
One of the largest family related groups included the Eames, the van der Straatens, the Hartleys and the Newmans from Kula Lumpur and Singapore where there were several sisters-in-law and many children on board.
The reality of being on board the “Kuala’ has not been recorded in detail by many survivors but there are several insights from Wilhelmina Eames via her three year old daughter at the time , Shirley, ( see under the passenger list for more of their account) which provide some feel for the circumstances “… the Kuala was so suffocated with frightened talking flesh one could barely move without having to step over someone…” and later during this short voyage with food being a priority ( because there was not any) Wilhelmina set off looking for something for the large family to eat and Shirley recounts “… somehow, even in the midst of despair there are acts from fellow human beings that remain hot –wired into your psyche. A Chinese woman, Straits Chinese Mum thought, crouched on the floor with a container of boiled rice, preparing to feed her large family. She looked up at Mum, and then at me, and quietly filled a bowl with rice and gave it to Mum. We did not eat much that night, but we did eat.
Early next morning the ship was bombed. There was said Mum, unbelievable pandemonium…”
One book stated that there were 50 nurses from both civilian and military hospitals of which, it states, at least eight nurses were killed on the “Kuala” and two died on Pom Pong Island from wounds. Nurse Garvin recorded that at least half the batch of QA’s who left Singapore were killed. Molly Watts-Carter stated”…quite 60 women were killed by bomb splinters and blast, the rest of us jumped over board...”. The harsh reality revealed by this research is that there were about 170 nurses and another five VADs who boarded the “Kuala” – of whom at least 130 died. Amongst those who lost their lives either in the bombing at Pom Pong Island, the sinking of the “Tanjong Pinang” or later internment in Japanese camps were about 105 nurses from the Malayan Medical Service, the Medical Auxiliary Service or the Territorial Army Nursing Service, and a further 26 from the QAIMNS.
One of the first bombs to hit the ship at Pom Pong Island killed a group of senior nurses conferring in a cabin on the handling of wounded already on board – this group was reported to be Matron Jones, Mrs. Cherry, Miss Spedding, Miss Russell and Miss West. It also killed Helen Montgomerie and Lorna Symonds (QARANC website).
There is no question that the nurses on Pom Pong Island were very brave, demonstrably unselfish and totally dedicated to their patients. It is notable that several of the QA’s who lost their lives have been awarded “Mentioned in Dispatches” which is a high honour – if awarded posthumously this MID is amongst the highest honours.
Manning the ship – after its local Malay and Chinese crew had been sensibly dismissed of their duties in Singapore since the ship was not returning and had been replaced by Royal Navy personnel (EFSGR) including some from the “HMS. Prince of Wales” and possible the “HMS. Repulse” – were at least eight officers and some fifteen or more crew.
Also amongst the people on board there was also a very large group on men from the Public Works Department of the Straits Settlement and Federated Malay States governments - one PWD survivor, Jim Hutton, puts the number at 68 men. They were instrumental in the survival of those on Pom Pong Island through taking control of organisation and their efforts in finding fresh water by digging into the ground at “Spring Cove”. Many of these men were also serving Malayan Volunteers. There was another group of 20 men from ‘250 AMES’, which was an RAF Radar unit from Singapore, who had been ordered to go to Java. On the other hand a question of historical fact remains as to whether a group of eight or nine men from the Straits Trading Co. Ltd., who appear to have been designated to board the “Kuala”, actually got on board that ship or at the last minute switched to the “Tien Kwang” - some in fact appear to have been amongst those who were killed crossing the docks to get on board launches.
The men were often stalwart, sometimes heroic, but there appears to have been widespread despair and depression amongst many. The conditions on the Island were desperate – the position appeared hopeless, every one was rationed to half a cigarette tin of water twice a day, there was almost no food, and they faced a very steep, stony inhospitable terrain and jungle plus there was the constant need to hide in the trees all day as Japanese bombers flew over searching for targets. Many had lost their shoes and most of their clothing. There were many wounded people; some obviously dying and these exhausted and dispirited men were faced for many days with the awful task of burying or disposing of the dozens of bodies on and around the Island as the climate of the Tropics took hold.
Amongst the men there was, regrettably, one recorded instance of absolutely dishonorable behaviour when at least some of a small group of Australian Army deserters from the ship “Tien Kwang” (which had also sunk at the Island) , stole precious water supplies from the only real source at “Spring Cove” in “Water Bay”. Arms were distributed to PWD men who mounted guard to counter this appalling conduct.
In the compilation of this record it emerged that only an estimated 300 ( including those who ended up as internees or POWs) of the original 650 - 700 people who boarded the “SS. Kuala” in Singapore ever made it to relative safety via the port of Padang in Western Sumatra. This indicates that some 350 women, children and men who boarded the “Kuala” lost their lives – at least 135 people being killed as a result of the bombing at Pom Pong Island and a further almost 200 losing their lives at sea when the little rescue ship “SS. Tanjong Pinang”, which had picked them up from the beach at Pom Pong Island, was sunk by the Japanese on 17 February 1942 as it raced towards Batavia. Such was the confusion on what had happened during the War it was still officially believed even in 1946 that the “Tandjong Pinang” had been captured by the Japanese ( STA 29.5.46) and this might have been caused by the incorrect report ( which seems to have emanated from British official sources in India in 1942 ) that there had been a Japanese radio broadcast stating the names of many of those who lost their lives on the “Tandjong Pinang” as having actually been captured. However was responsible for either this error ,or possibly inept attempt at propaganda, caused much unfounded hope for survivors during and after the war.
Of the survivors who left Pom Pong Island, some 40 – 50 would later lose their lives in evacuation ships from Padang or during their brutal experience as internees and POWs of the Japanese.
In many cases there appears to be no record of the deaths at the CWGC – it could be surmised that in some cases there were no family left to follow up the whereabouts of the missing person – in several instances it can be seen that where wives are listed as possibly lost in one of the sinkings there is the sad fact that their husband also lost his life as a POW.
Survivors (of the sinking of both the “Kuala “and the “Tanjong Pinang”), or those for whom the situation of whether or not they survived is unclear, are in green font.
No single authority (Commonwealth War Graves Commission or Changi Museum etc.) seems to have assembled anything like the list of, incredibly, almost 700 people who crammed onto the quite small “SS. Kuala” when it left Singapore under bombing at 6.15pm (WNSF) on the night of 13th February 1942. In 1943 an informal style of enquiry started and continued until 1946 in the UK to ascertain who was on the “SS. Kuala” and also who later transshipped to the “SS. Tanjong Pinang”- the various records of this enquiry have been included in this research.
Several survivors compiled partial lists of passengers and survivors, regrettably probably the best lists which were the records compiled by Mr. K .Brundle of the PWD on Pom Pong Island were taken by the informal leader on the Island, Major Nunn, when he later boarded the ill-fated “Rooseboom” in Padang and were lost with him when it sank.
There were many women and children of Chinese or Eurasian ethnicity onboard and it is hoped that perhaps there is somewhere a more definitive source listing those Chinese or Eurasian families who lost loved ones in this bombing atrocity at Pom Pong Island. The story of the Low family is an important example in this context (see NIL) because it illustrates how Chinese faced a dangerous and ambiguous position after escaping and then having to live under the rule of the Japanese – theoretically accepted as part of the new order, but in fact more often cruelly persecuted. Mrs. Low and her children were, with some other Chinese people (and also she records, a ‘Captain Ross’ plus some other some Europeans and Eurasians) taken by a tongkang from Pom Pong island to a fishing village called Ek Chai. The Chinese were left there in the care of the villagers and the Europeans and Eurasians continued to “…a place where there was a hospital…”
A large number of the Pom Pong Island survivors were rescued by Captain Bill Reynolds in the ex Japanese fishing boat (later to become the famous “Krait” which was used by Allied commandos to mine ships in Singapore harbour) he had commandeered in Singapore – 76 people on his first trip on 18.2.42 and a further 96 on his second rescue on about 20.2.42. Others left on Chinese junks including the “Hung Jao”, the 66 ton coastal launch “Numbing”, the 30 foot long, log burning steam launch “Plover”( according to Richard Gough in his book “Escape from Singapore”) and the SHB barge “Heather” - either sent to collect them or which had been just passing by on the way to Sumatra.
Thanks are recorded to survivors Mrs. Brenda Macduff, Mr. Stanley Jewkes, Mr. Ken Hartley and Shirley Eames (as her name was at the time of the sinking) for their first hand memories and access to their records about the voyage and sinking of the “SS. Kuala”; and also Jonathan Moffatt and John Brown for their invaluable assistance with significant sources of information for this research.
Information has been recorded in its original form wherever possible in the interests of not distorting what is known – it therefore includes some historical inaccuracies or uncertainties which are shown in italics where relevant.
One excellent book covering this event at Pom Pong Island is that written by Geoffrey Brooke titled “Singapore’s Dunkirk”, published in 1989 by Leo Cooper, ISBN 0-85052-051-7. Geoffrey Brooke was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and was on the ship the “Kung Wo” which had left Singapore with about 200 men (including at least 100 from the Singapore naval Base) and after being attacked from the air anchored several miles from Pom Pong island some hours before the “SS. Kuala” and was sunk after all aboard (except a Chinese stoker who had been killed) escaped in the lifeboats to a nearby island.
This list positively identifies or recognizes the presence on board of almost all (about 630) of the passengers and crew on the “SS. Kuala” but there appears to be about 30-40 more people yet to be identified. If anyone has additions, deletions or corrections to this material it would be gratefully received in the interests of achieving a high degree of accuracy - would you please email Michael Pether at firstname.lastname@example.org who will copy all the organisations and individuals using this document in websites etc, with the updates. Alternatively the telephone number is - New Zealand 09-5365490; or postal address of 55 Te Pene Road, Maraetai, Manukau, 2018, New Zealand.
ALFSEA = list sent from ALFSEA to Colonial Office just after the conclusion of the War. Note: this list may be unreliable in parts insofar as it includes some people known to have been on other 1942 evacuation ships – such as the “HMS Grasshopper” and “Tien Kwang”
AUF = book “Angels under Fire”
BMP = Personal recollections by (Nursing Sister) Mrs. Brenda Macduff and references in her diary
BPPL = List of people from Singapore and Malaya with their last known situation prepared in Changi prison camp during 1942 by Mr. Jack Bennett ( aged about 45 years and described as a merchant with the General Import/Export Borneo Co., internee # 386 in Changi) from internees in Changi Civilian internment camp and POWs and Internees passing through that camp in Singapore during 1942. The list is recorded in tiny “Pin point” writing on eighteen sheets of ‘Jeyes’ toilet paper that is unreadable to the naked eye. It is held in the National Archives of the United Kingdom and is a unique and invaluable record of the last known sightings of many missing men.
CAS = “Casualties at Sea” file WO 361/462 in National Archives, Kew, UK.
(C….) = The Changi Museum, Singapore – on line database of Civilians (see their website).
CWGC = Commonwealth War Graves Commission website – which contains 87 names of people who were killed in the bombing and sinking of the “SS. Kuala”. For whatever reason there are also quite a number of people whose deaths are recorded by the CWGC but no mention of them being on the “Kuala” has been made
ECEP = European Civilians Embarked from Padang 1.3.42 list held by Rosemary fell
EFSGR = book “The Escape From Singapore” , by Richard Gough.
Evans = report by Sister Margaret A. Evans, QAIMNS, in May 1942 in India with list of QAIMNS and their fate. Information supported by Miss Bryant, T.A.N.S.
FTB = book “Facing the Bow: European Women in Colonial Malaya 1919-45” by Jean Teasdale
IWMDM = Story of (Nursing Sister) Marjorie de Malmanche lodged at IWM
IWMM = Story of Dr. Marjorie Lyon lodged at IWM
IWM-S = Edith Stevenson diary lodged at IWM
JPB = Japanese Propaganda Broadcast, publicized in a 1943 edition of the Malayan Research Bureau bulletin, of a list of people ostensibly ‘captured’ on the “SS. Tanjong Pinang” after it had picked up around 208 survivors of the Kuala” sinking from Pom Pong Island. This is also recorded in the book “Singapore to Freedom” and the MRB bulletin in the Imperial war Museum and the National Archives of Australia. As can be seen from the correlation of names in the list below, this has proven to be a very accurate list ( they even have the first names of several people on board who are listed by the CWGC with only initials) of people on the “Tanjong Pinang”.
A private letter (from someone in the Survey Dept., Singapore) to the widow of Captain Basil Shaw, captain of the “TP”, after the war questioned whether this Japanese Broadcast ever happened and attributed it entirely to a list compiled by survivors of the “kuala” gathering names whilst on the beach of Pom Pong Island – after the “TP’ had left with its complement of women and children. The reference source title has been left as “Japanese Propaganda Broadcast” because of its historical occurrence in documents of the time.
This conclusion is backed up by the finding, during the compilation of this research, that the JPB and the list recorded under the name of survivor Mrs. Luba Ruperti are almost exactly the same – including errors and matters of fine detail. It seems that what happened was in fact that the Malayan Bureau, GHQ. India chose to issue this list under the guise of it originating during a Japanese Broadcast. At that time they would not known that the “TP” had been sunk with almost total loss of life.
McCormick = interview by author and war time Malaya historian Audrey McCormick of survivor Raymond Frazer, 250 AMES, RAF in 2002.
MVG = Evacuees list on Malayan Volunteer Group Database
MS = book Margaret Shennan “Out in the Midday Sun: The British in Malaya 1880-1960”
MH = Mary Harris (comprises confidential personal accounts given to Mary on these sinkings)
Moffat = Jonathan Moffatt, author and Malayan historian
NIL = Low, Ngiong Ing 1973 book “When Singapore was Syonan-to”
MRB = Malayan Research Bureau bulletin
MVDB = Malayan Volunteer database of John Brown
PBD = Nurse Phyllis Brigg’s diary
PODC = Presumption of Death certificates issued for people who died on “Kuala”– list in PRO
QH = “Quiet Heroines” book by Brenda McBryde
QARANC = official website of the Queen Alexandra Nursing organisation
Ruperti = list provided by Mrs. Luba Ruperti to Malayan Bureau in 1943 (PRO)
TKD = book “Life and Death in Changi” the published diary of Thomas Kitching
SDGB = book “Singapore’s Dunkirk” by Lt. Cdr. Geoffrey Brooke, DSC., Royal Navy ISBn0-85052-051-7
SE = Shirley Eames correspondence
SIA = book “Sisters in Arms”
SJ = Mr. Stanley Jewkes, of Florida, USA. Mr. Jewkes was working for the PWD in Malaya and was a survivor of the sinking of the “Kuala”. He has had a most distinguished international career as an Architect and Engineer, including studies for the World Bank and United Nations, and is the author (under the pen-name ‘ARCAS’) of the book “Humankind? Plant Earth’s Most Enigmatic Species” ISBN 0-7596-8787-0.
STA = the internet archives of the ‘Straits Times’ newspaper
STF = list in book “Singapore to Freedom” by Oswald Gilmour
Wang = letter dated 11. 4.43 from Mr. Wang Hau-nan to the Chinese Embassy, London (lodged at PRO)
WSF = book “When Singapore Fell” by Joseph Kennedy
WNSF = World Naval Ships Forum website.
WBTW = book “Women beyond the Wire” A story of the Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45, by Lavinia Warner and John Sandilands