The Story of De Ruyter survivors,
the flagship of Admiral Doorman, February 1942

Adriaan Kannegieter & George Visser

The voyage of the whaleboat with 30 wounded of Hr. Ms. Cruiser De Ruyter

After our flagship had become totally defenceless on February 27 at 23.30, the first priority for our squadron commander was to prevent a mass drowning by the wounded on board, before the De Ruyter would sink into the depths. Rear-Admiral Doorman personally supervised the only whaleboat that could be lowered without electricity, was filled with wounded and some other ratings who could still row, and was pushed off.

After pushing off, the men rowed to a distance of 500 metres from De Ruyter with regard to the not-imaginary danger of the rear-ammo-magazine exploding, as the ship was ablaze from the AA-deck to the stern. Some swimming persons were picked up, for whom there was apparently no room on the rafts.

The USN liaison officer who was also swimming was asked to come aboard. The officer however refused this (which cost him his life) and only pointed out the course to take.

Because the whaleboat was overcrowded (appr. 30 men) and because of the fatigue of some of the lightly and non-wounded sailors, they could only proceed with six oars. The rowers set course for the Southern Cross, to try to reach shore on the northern coast of Java.

The supplies aboard the whaleboat were not equipped for a lengthy journey. Only the water in the tanks had been refilled the day before. There was no compass, so they would have to sail by guess during the day.

A heavy swell broke out, and continued for about an hour. The image of the burning, sinking flagship soon disappeared behind the rain. The sea became turbulent from the hard wind coming from the south east. This made the rowing tough and it was difficult to maintain at least some speed. The men rowed in shifts and relieved each other every hour. A lot of water hit the small boat, but the men bailed continuously; lack of a bucket forced them to use an English helmet as substitute. The night was uneventful and passed by, but it became more difficult to maintain their heading during daytime, lacking the Southern Cross as aid.

The water ration was determined at half a can a day, per man. The improvised drinking glass was the lid of a gasmask-cylinder. The thirst and the exposure to the scorching sun have always been the most devious tortures for sailors, more than the lack of food was.

On Saturday afternoon, so on February 28, a periscope suddenly appeared four degrees to port, which made a large circle around the whaleboat. A conning tower of a submarine soon appeared on the surface and a hatch was opened; from there, an officer first searched the horizon. The rest of the submarine surfaced soon afterwards. It turned out to be an American submarine. An order came from the submarine for the American and British signalmen, which had maintained contact with the other ships of the squadron during the fight, to come over to the submarine. The Americans gave some bottles with a total of ten litres of icewater, together with some cans with fruits in water, tomatoes with juice and some small cans with sausages, in total 64 cans. So the men finally had something to eat since the last meal aboard De Ruyter at 20.00 hours the previous day. Already a week before the men had been at sea almost continously, trying to find the enemy at sea. Then they had worked two straight days as hard as possible, until finally the trial came. Luckily, the several dozen survivors, mostly wounded, had something to eat and some more to drink.

While dividing the supplies, it turned out each three men could be given a can of fruits or tomatoes; the wounded however were given one can per two men. While pushing off, the officer on the conning tower was asked to send a telegram to the Naval Commander in Soerabaja, so he could send ships or aircraft to the location where the two Dutch cruisers had gone down. There were probably many more men adrift since last night. The USN officer agreed and the submarine disappeared beneath the surface.

Besides two heavily wounded, there were several others with severe injuries. Some, mostly native raitings, were, although not wounded, not able to row, which is not surprising after the hardships and emotions. It was warned not to eat the sausages in the cans for the time being, with regard to the salt and fat in it. Some disregarded the advice and ate from them anyway (even the Mohammedans), with the result that some asked for the water sooner than agreed, of course without result. In situations like that (and for the benefit of all), some harshness is required and the leaders announced that everyone, that did not agree with the measures, could at all times grab his lifejacket and leave the boat. This helped.

A less pleasant encounter

At 17.20, a large number of smokes appeared over the horizon on the starboard side. When they came nearer, it emerged as a large Japanese convoy, about the same size as the one the Allied squadron had been looking for the day before, so about 80 transports and warships. The direction it came from indicated that it must have sailed through Karimata Strait. A destroyer was sent towards the boat. This ship ordered the boat to stop and to come alongside, at least this is what the men expected. The whaleboat was brought alongside. Fear was visible on many of the faces. Would they now be slaughtered, like many had been in the three months before? A lieutenant, who had escaped the flames from the 40 mm-deck miraculously, was ordered to come aboard. The tension began to fade away, as Japanese sailors lowered kettles with hot tea, which was received graciously. The enemy apparently didn't have the intention to massacre them....

After the return of the lieutenant, the whaleboat pushed off again. The officer had received orders to steer a steady course and get out of the convoy's path, as no ship would try to avoid them. Four oars were added, so now ten of them propelled the small boat, while there were also others paddling in between. This gave the boat quite some speed, which was maintained for aboard forty-five minutes; then the boat was clear of the convoy. The energy faded away. After the convoy had disappeared, the boat came back on her old course.

As night fell, the men saw that the southern horizon was light, which indicated a fire. Perhaps there was a fire ashore, but it could also be some Japanese transports, ablaze after attacks by the last few Allied aircraft. At daybreak, the men caught esight of a mountain range straight ahead, whch later turned out to be the Moeria mountains. They therefore sailed in the direction of Semarang. They paddled with high speed from 0800 onwards, to get to shore as soon as possible. They estimated that after about five hours, they could reach their destination. A seaplane passed over, circled a few times and then disappeared. This was an omen on this beautiful Sunday morning. If only they had paddled harder the time before, then they could have been ashore sooner and out of range of the Japanese. Maybe some of them could have joined the fight at land, or could have been evacuated to Australia.

In enemy hands

At 1100 hours, three clouds of smoke appeared over the horizon over the port side. They turned out to be three Japanese destroyers. The same occured as the day before. The order to come alongside, the lieutenant going aboard the destroyer. But now the officer didn't return, but a Japanese officer did, who ordered all to leave the boat. The boat was sunk after all had gone aboard the destroyer. It was tough, being prisoners of war. At the same time were their pockets emptied, and their possessions commandeered. This happened so fast, that some suspected that some of the Japanese had had another occupation before the war... They set sail in the direction of Bawean, where the British cruiser Exeter, the destroyer Encounter and the US destroyer Pope were enegaged in their last fight, but this was unknown to the Dutch. After half an hour, four sailors were sighted, trying to keep hold of a table. They were survivors from the destroyer Jupiter. She had been torpedoed on Friday night at 2100 hours, near Toebak. The prisoners were gathered on the quarterdeck and were given warm drinking water. The wounds of seriously injured were treated, while other wounded also received medical treatment. When a Catalina passed over at high altitude, the air-raid-warning was given. The prisoners were ordered to gather on the starboard side, after which the Japanese returned their possessions, with the exception of sharp objects. The treatment aboard was excellent, perhaps even ideal in comparison with the POW-camps they later entered. The men received a ball of rice in the afternoon and at night, with some canned meat. At breakfast, two men received one of those balls of rice with some kind of beef-tea. The next day, Monday, each man was given a pack of Japanese cigarettes. They could smoke one on the port side in groups of four each time. During one of these "shifts", something strange occured. A Japanese petty-officer, who passed through the prisoners, arrived at the place where two of our heavily wounded were lying, one of them with only mouth, ears and eyes visible. Our men watched stupified at what happened. The petty officer lit a cigarette, kneeled down and put the cigarette in the mouth of the injured man, each time giving the man some time to breathe and smoke. So far so good, and everything seemed far too good for this world. But one of the other, sitting prisoners thought he could now also smoke, and lit a cigarette. The Japanese petty officer jumped up towards the careless man and slapped him. Then the Japanese returned to letting the wounded man smoke without saying a word. Our prisoners blinked a few times, but they had to recognize, that the treatment of the wounded indicated a humanity, which they would never encounter again during their days as POWs. The slapping of the careless smoker was only a small indication of what was to come. On Tuesday, March 3, the POWs were brought ashore by a Japanese landingboat. And thus ended the stay of our men with the Japanese navy, only to enter the brutal asian hands of the Japanese army.

Veterans of the Dutch East Indies Index . Bibliography . Article List . Geographic Names
Article contributed by Adriaan Kannegieter and George Visser
Edited and translated by Jan Visser

Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942