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Continued from Bill Taylor's Memoir, Part Two

ON TO INDIA


Map of Indian Ocean

No troops were embarked at Durban so there were few preparations needed for us to sail, which we did that night. I checked with Second Officer Crofts and he told me we were going to Bombay, India. The only work to be done was maintenance and cleaning so the boys were finished early afternoon, when they could enjoy their hobbies, mostly playing poker. I worked up at the Officer's quarters and everything was going well.

About half way to Bombay we were looking forward when we saw what seemed to be a gray wall coming straight for us--everything went dark. Orders were given to batten everything down. The "gray wall" was like some type of tidal wave. The ship hit into it and rose up as if it was climbing and then came down with a crash and shudder shaking everything loose. I went down to the dining saloon and saw that half the dining tables had ripped the bolts from the deck and were lying everywhere in the galley-- everything was chaos. The glass locker was a mess of broken glass; pots and pans were everywhere. The forward watertight doors below the bridge were twisted like tin foil and several lifeboats were damaged. We cleaned up and in a few days we were in Bombay.

This was not a very welcoming port, and could not be recommended for its beauty or cleanliness. We got shore leave, but were warned to go ashore in groups. We checked the various places of interest-- Minarets and mosques and various markets. I bought a new suitcase at the leather market. We checked the famous Grant Road to see the cages where the local ladies of ill repute did their business. We dined at the Lights of Asia, a restaurant where all the servicemen went, and the curries were excellent.

Time came for us to load more troops. They were supposed to be a special group. As we set sail, there was a general feeling of tenseness everywhere. I had no idea where we were going (I knew it was not home). I went looking for Crofts (2nd Officer) my usual informant. Again, everything was very secretive and he did not want to tell me, but after I explained we were at sea, miles away from anywhere, he told me under sufferance it was Singapore. This was not very healthy as we had heard of the shocking losses of the battleship, Prince of Wales, and the battlecruiser, Repulse.

HMS Prince of Wales After She Was Bombed 10 December 1941

HMS Prince of Wales

The British battleship HMS Prince of Wales, pride of the Royal Navy, and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sent to Singapore to act as deterrents against the threat of Japanese invasion. Instead, on December 10, 1941, they were both sunk by Japanese aircraft with the appalling loss of nearly 3,000 men.

This photo shows the tremendous rescue effort undertaken by one of Prince of Wales' escort destroyers.
Photo Source: Julian Thompson's The Imperial War Museum Book of the War at Sea (Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1996).

DESTINATION: SINGAPORE

The convoy consisted of about twelve ships, rather a small convoy. The weather was beautiful and I spent most of my spare time on deck. Overnight the convoy split and left just three of us and a square funnel French boat, the Felix Roussel. I did not find out the name of the ship ahead. We headed through the Sundra Straits and amongst the many islands we were last in line as usual. A destroyer was hidden amongst the islands, I presume ready for action, and we had a naval escort with us.

Map India to Singapore

On February 4th, 1942 one day out of Singapore, about twenty seven Japanese planes flew over us a great height, and dropped some bombs, narrowly missing us, damaging lifeboats, etcetera. We knew they would be back the next day to attack us again, and as we were doing hardly any speed, we were an easy target. Next morning, February 5th, 1942, we were only doing about four to five knots, when a naval vessel pulled alongside the bridge, hailed the officers and asked why we were going so slow and were we having trouble with the crew--if needed, they'd put some naval ratings on board. I think it was the Chief Officer who told them that everything was under control, so they sailed off (I do not think he was believed). There was so little steam pressure you could not flush the toilets or get water in the showers. I could not understand the refusal of the offer to help, as we were sailing into certain disaster and they had no control at all. It was a day I will always remember.

THE EMPRESS OF ASIA'S TRAGIC END

About 9:00 am the alarms sounded for action stations. A flight of Japanese bombers were flying over us at high altitude, but did not bomb us. They flew on so we all relaxed. Shortly afterward the alarms sounded and again we were called to action stations. I went to the foyer by the dining saloon entrance and by the hospital. Suddenly we heard the scream of diving planes and the explosion of bombs hitting us. I felt the ship shudder, and I felt as if I had been pushed flat on the floor. I knew we had been hit. Somebody said the dining saloon was on fire. We connected the hoses and went into the saloon. Where the buffet had been was a mass of flames-- we called for the water to be turned on, but all we got was a little trickle. There was no pressure, so we were wasting our time and threw the hose down.

Crofts came up to me and asked me to go to the bridge with him and work the Oerlikon guns. We got out on deck and started running towards the bridge. Every few minutes we had to drop flat as the low flying planes came over us. I am not sure whether they were machine gunning us or if it was exploding ammunition which made the cabins blaze furiously. When we got to the bridge we were alone--everybody, the Captain and Officers, etc., had gone. The records I have read since are a complete lie about the officers staying to the last (see "official version" in R.D. Turner's "Pacific Empresses").

There was no ammunition for the guns. The ship was by now a blazing inferno amidships, and we were now trapped on the bridge. There was a naval vessel touching the forward bow and soldiers were jumping on to it. Also aft another naval vessel touched the after end and men were jumping aboard. I could see a few men in the sea and a couple of lifeboats, the launching of same I do not think had been very successful. One was full of water with three men in it. Others were hanging from the davits with some overloaded, some on fire.

As we were stranded where we were, Crofts said he was going to drop to the main deck (quite a height). I said he would break his legs, but he decided to risk it. I watched him fall and hit the deck--he did not get up again. He had badly broken one of his legs. This I learned when I found him later. I went to the side and looked down. From the bridge to the ocean was a long way down, and I did not swim. I then remembered a couple of days before one of the freezers had broken down and the men had been dumping carcasses of meat etc, and the sea had been full of sharks. This knowledge did not ease my fear. By now I had to make the decision whether to be burned alive, drowned or get eaten by sharks.

Fortunately the bombing had frightened the sharks away. I took off my steel helmet and shoes all I had on was shorts and my quilted life jacket (with a new tears in it). I jumped. I seemed to be going down forever and when I hit the water feet first, I continued going down so far I am sure I must have hit the bottom of the sea. The next minute I was going in reverse up like a cork to the surface. My life jacket had done the trick. I had survived so far, and lay floating around. I could see the ship burning and melting away and soldiers in the water. My luck must have been in, as I saw a raft floating near me, probably thrown from one of the naval vessels. I climbed on and relaxed. Next, one of the ship's firemen came swimming up and joined me--he had a bottle of gin. We started discussing the situation and sampling the gin. I do not understand why I felt so calm in the midst of everything happening around us.

When we saw some wounded in the water and non-swimmers, we pulled them on with us. As the raft was now full we decided that the wounded could stay on and the ones who could swim, would hook their feet in the ropes and the rest of us hold on and paddle, to take the raft to the lighthouse in the bay. We were successful and although it took time we managed to make it. After getting everybody off the raft we went into the Sultan Shoal lighthouse to safety.

There I found 2nd Officer Crofts complete with badly broken leg. (I am not sure whether we took him there on the raft or not as in the excitement it is hard to be sure.) I took care of him the best I could--there were a lot of wounded. When the bombing finished some very small boats came out to us, and I managed to get one to bring a stretcher and take us on board. We were taken to shore and the sailors said they would get him to a hospital as soon as possible.

Map of Singapore

THE SIEGE OF SINGAPORE

I now decided it was time for me to take care of myself. We had been bombed at about 10:00 am and it was now about three or four o'clock. I had only my shorts on, no shoes or anything else. I was hungry and thirsty. I needed a cigarette and was not in a good mood. I met others of the crew and we were all at a loss what to do. No ships officers to organize us or anything. Nobody wanted to know this ragtag crowd. I heard some of the fellows went to the Union Jack Club. (Servicemen's Club), but were not allowed in as they were improperly dressed. Somebody suggested we go to the YMCA, which we eventually found. We did not get a hero's welcome--they did not even want us to enter. They wanted to sell us what we needed, but as we had lost everything, we had no money. To avoid a riot they eventually gave us bowls of soup and bread which was better than nothing. We told them to charge it to Canadian Pacific.

A couple of Air Force officers started talking to me and went and got me food and cigarettes. They said their quarters were round the corner, and if I would go with them, they would find me some clothes and shoes. All the clothes were too big, as I am only 5 feet 6 inches and my weight was about 118 pounds. They were very generous and gave me a couple of tins of cigarettes and I returned to the YMCA. I asked the other fellows if there had been any word from the Captain or Ship Officers--there was no communication at all, and as a matter of fact we never saw them again. Only our boss, Mr. Bert Harris, Second Steward, was with us.

That night some army trucks arrived and we were told we were going to a rest camp. We climbed on them and they took off into the night. Sometime later we arrived at some huts. We were given mosquito nets and were told to do out best until morning, but to show no lights. Just as we went to sleep shells started flying over us for about half an hour. Hardly a rest camp!

A Sergeant came in the morning and pointing to a building across the hills he told us where we could get food. Beyond the hills were the straits to Johor Baharu and hovering over the straits we could see spotter balloons. The Sergeant told us that they were Japanese. He said, "If you go across to get food in your white clothes they will start shelling you, so you must go by the slit trenches and take off your shirts." A lot of the trenches were full of water from the rains, but when you are near starving, you will risk anything, so we did.

For two days we lived like this. At sunrise and sundown we had to go to "stand to" which meant we had to go to the slit trenches on the perimeter of the camp and get into them in case the Japanese attacked us. I suppose we were to fight them off with our bare hands (hardly a very good idea). That night the guns were firing all night long, and shells were flying everywhere. We were told the Japanese were attacking the island through the swamps. A crowd of Guerrillas came and took off their uniforms and stripped to loin cloths; they took their KUKRI knives and headed for the swamps where I was told they would lay in wait for the Japanese coming through and kill them with their knives.

Some army officers called us to a meeting. The Ship's Doctor was there, but no ship's officers. We were told the island was under Martial Law, and that we had to follow the instructions we were given or we would be put into the army or shot. We were asked to go to the hospital to volunteer for work as it was over crowded and most of the staff had run away. We really had no option but to obey--hospital or army. We settled for the hospital.




Bill Taylor's Memoir is continued in Part Four


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