The story of Cornelis de Wolf,
sole survivor of O-16, December 1941

by
A.P. Bussemaker,
son of O 16's commander Lt.Cdr. A.J. Bussemaker


We left the port of Singapore on our way to the gulf of Siam on Saturday, December 6th with a crew of 41 souls. We were scouting out 2 Japanese hunters, but did not undertake any action, as we were not yet at war. On the 8th of December we learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which meant that we were now at war! A Japanese troopship was scouted out during the early hours of December 11. Three torpedoes were launched, but the rain and poor visibility prevented us from seeing whether they had hit. On December 10th we observed a Japanese merchant vessel with its sternlight burning. This blunder allowed us to easily follow the vessel until it entered the Bay of Patani. Commander A.J. Bussemaker decided to enter the bay. He was a fine man and a competent commander with much insight into human nature! That's why he then turned to reserve officer Van Einsbergen, navigating officer of the KPM (a Dutch Merchant Shipping Company), and said: "You take care of the navigation, since you know this area better than anyone."

He piloted the O-16 into the bay with the utmost skill, after which the commander resumed command once again.

There were 4 Japanese ships in the bay in a semicircular formation. We first shot at the bow and then the stern. Six torpedoes were launched, all of which struck home. A direct hit! The ships did not sink entirely, however, because the bay was too shallow, being only 8 to 10 meters deep. The trick was now to get away from the bay unseen. The commander did not set course for open sea, but rather cunningly stayed close to the coast in shallow water because of the presence of Japanese hunters offshore. We managed to get away unseen and set course for Singapore.

Around midnight on Sunday, the 14th of December, I took over the bridge watch as helmsman. There were six of us on the bridge. Everyone's eyes were on beams of light and flashes in the distance. Evidently there was an exchange of fire taking place. At 2 o'clock in the morning, a searchlight could be seen just above the horizon. The commander changed course from 165 to 210 and headed straight towards the searchlight, which had to have been somewhere near the islands by the coast of Malaya.

It happened at around 2:30 a.m. A thunderous blow flung me against the pit. Our faithful O-16 disappeared into the waves in less than a minute. During those few seconds, I saw the commander and senior officer trying to kick shut the turret hatch, while I desperately did my best to get my coat loose from the mine gear in which it had gotten stuck. My coat tore loose and I found myself in the water, all alone. No, this can't be, the other five have to be somewhere around here. I couldn't see anything because of the darkness and high waves and started calling out. I heard vague shouting. I swam towards the cries and saw four others. Commander Bussemaker was not one of them. We kept calling out and heard only a vague response. Unfortunately, he was too far away and we were unable to find him.

There were five of us: Senior Officer Jeekel, Corporal Bos, seamen Van Tol and Kruijdenhof and myself. We oriented ourselves by the moon and stars in order to swim towards the islands. Senior Officer Jeekel swam in front. He asked us often if we were able to keep up. We had all removed our clothes except for Van Tol, who was unable to remove his coat. He was barely hanging on. I couldn't stand to watch his desperate struggling any longer, so I swam back to help him. I was able to be of some help, but not for long. He sank a few seconds later.

The sun was coming up in the meantime. We could make out the islands on the horizon. By eight o'clock it had become too much for Lieutenant Jeekel. He had never complained once and frequently asked whether everyone was able to keep going and encouraged us all to hang on. We spoke briefly about the cause of the explosion. He thought it was a mine.

After he had given up the struggle, I asked Bos and Kruijdenhof whether they were able to keep going. Their brief response said it all, "Thirsty". We could already make out the mountaintops on the islands. Rescue seemed imminent. A British plane circled overhead, but failed to notice our desperate waving. Kruijdenhof sank into the depths at nine o'clock.

Bram Bos and I continued swimming in the salty water with the burning sun above. We were tormented by an immense thirst. The most difficult part of the entire journey lay ahead of us in the churning sea. We estimated that we were only 2 to 3 miles from the islands, but the current was against us and we barely made any progress. A plane circled above once more. This time with Dutch registration letters. They did not see us.

Bram Bos fought desperately against death. He was scared. We sang a psalm together, which calmed him. He made a few more strokes and said: "Cor, if you survive, say hello to my wife and kids." He was a brave soul. It must've been around 5 o'clock; my watch had stopped.

From that moment on I was totally alone and with the night ahead of me. I was never scared, not even to die. Faith gave me the strength to keep going.

You start to despair. I couldn't see anything in the dark. I was worn out and thought to myself, "I've had enough." You start hallucinating. I saw a sloop close by and wanted to rest in it a while. I thought I was sitting up, but then began sinking and was jerked back into reality. I swallowed some saltwater, making the sensation of thirst even more agonizing.

Day broke once more and the sun burned overhead. I was totally exhausted and wanted to simply let myself fill up with water. It's all over, I thought. But I didn't drown. Just when I thought it was over, the current changed.

Finally, on Tuesday afternoon at around 5 o'clock, after nearly 38 hours of swimming, I reached the breakers of an island and was tossed onto the coral reef. My flesh was completely waterlogged. My hands, feet, legs and back bleeding, I lay there dazed.

The glaring sun, the unbearable pain and the agonizing thirst brought me to my senses. Water, water, I must have water. Stumbling and falling down, I dragged myself uphill. No water! I stumbled back downwards and suddenly noticed water trickling down a crevice. I managed to reach the water with my tongue and quench my thirst. I spent that night on the rocks. Something gnawed at my toes. I didn't resist. To this day I still don't know what it could have been.

I pulled myself together as best as possible the following morning and went exploring. I learned that it was an uninhabited island, strewn with boulders and fringed with coral reefs. I suddenly saw a prau with a Malaysian boy of around 12 sail by. After hearing my cries, he came towards me and gave me a young coconut, which I greedily drank. I then ate its soft fruit pulp. I asked him to return to his island and get help.

Rapuli, a man who worked in Singapore at the customs house and spoke English, arrived a day later. He had even brought along a pair of pants, which I put on, but which were much too small. He brought me to his island. All I wanted was to get to the mainland of Malaya and return to the naval base in Singapore. I stayed there for three days. An old Chinese man brought me a bowl of chicken soup every morning without ever saying a word.

The decision turned out to be the right one. Four islanders took me with a prau to Tangarro. A day later we linked up on the beach with a group of 12 Chinese on their way to Mersing under the command of a guide and armed with long axes. We entered the jungle after the guide, using signs and gestures, explained to us which path we should follow. He was retracing his own steps. It was up to us to find the way from that point on, however. I did my best and organized the group in line formation but within earshot of one another.

There was no path, only impenetrable jungle and every so often a swampy area where we sank up to our bellies. After 9 hours of plugging away, barefoot and dressed only in pants, I had no strength left. Just when it seems that things couldn't possibly get any worse rescue appears. A couple of Malaysians who were walking in our direction and clearing the way came across what later turned out to be an Australian soldier. The Australian troops in Mersing had established guard posts in order to signal landings. We entered the encampment via the outpost and I was brought to Singapore from there in a "luxury Ford".


Note The report (1941) by the 2 Dutch naval officers gave reason to assume that the O-16 had struck a British mine a few miles northeast of Pemanggil due to a navigational error. In the 1990s it was proven that O-16 entered a Japanese minefield and not a British minefield as it was widely believed.

Note This "article" is a shortened version of the interview Cornelis de Wolf gave to a local paper in honour of his retirement.

Note This "article" was kindly lent to me by Bram M. Otto, the webmaster of the Dutch Submarines website.


Veterans of the Dutch East Indies Index . Bibliography . Article List . Geographic Names
Copyright A.P. Bussemaker 1999-2000
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942

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