|One of the most incredible escapes made during World War II involved 12 airmen who sailed in an open boat from Java [now Indonesia] to Australia to escape the Japanese, a journey that took 47 days.Sgt Athol Snook, a navigator in the RAAF was one of the 12 who made the journey, all chosen for their stamina, morale and initiative. The men, from 84 Squadron RAF, made their desperate escape bid after a surprise Japanese raid had captured their base including about 20 Blenheim bombers and all support crew.Four of the officers on the boat were RAF while one officer and seven others were from the RAAF. They were selected
“as it was felt they should be given a chance of reaching their home country,” according to the log of the voyage written by Wing Commander J R Jeudwine.
They survived the journey despite being hit by violent tropical storms, being becalmed for several days, having to constantly bail out their leaking boat, enduring several visits from whales and sharks and an unlikely encounter with a Japanese submarine that let them pass unhindered.
After the Japanese attack, the aircrew had been sent from their base at Kalidjati near Bandoeng to the port of Tjilatjap for evacuation but the expected rescue ship never arrived to pick them up. They then decided to try and escape by sea and looked around for a suitable vessel.
All they could find were two old 9-metre lifeboats without engines, but after one attempt to tow the heavily laden boats, each carrying about 30 men, out of the harbour ended in failure, and the wrecking of one lifeboat, it was decided the surviving boat with a crew limited to 12 men, should try to reach Australia to get help for those left behind.
A search of the port area produced enough food and water for the 12 men to last about 30 days, twice as long as the anticipated 16-day duration of the journey, together with a large quantity of American canned beer which had been obtained from a Dutch canteen.
“This latter undoubtedly largely contributed to the well-being of the crew as the water had to be very strictly rationed and the beer was a food in itself,” W/Cdr Jeudwine wrote in the log. The lifeboat was named Scorpion after the 84 Squadron badge and motto Scorpiones ungent (a scorpion stings).
“It was calculated that the nearest port on the Australian coast was Roeburns, 950 nautical miles (1530km) with Port Headland and Onslow a little further away,” he wrote.
With basic navigating equipment which included a marine sextant, a Mercator’s Projection of the World, a portion of the Nautical Almanac giving declination tables and time apparent noon, a large scale chart of Java and Bali and a general navigation chart of the world (not discovered until after they reached Australia), the men set off full of hope. There was no chronometer and they used the CO’s watch which was the only one working.
“In view of these preparations, or lack of preparations, the following pages show the enormous luck which attended the Scorpion and her crew on the 47 days’ voyage,” W/Cdr Jeudwine said.
They set off on 7 March 1942.
Those selected to take part in the epic voyage were W/Cdr J R Jeudwine (captain), S/Ldr AK Passmore (2i/c and purser), F/O C P L Streatfield 1st (Lt and 2nd helmsman), P/O S G Turner, (navigator) – all RAF and P/O M S Macdonald, Sgts G W Sayer, W N Cosgrove, A C Longmore, J Lovegrove, A C E Snook, P M Corney and P Haynes, all RAAF.
Problems arose even before they left when they discovered an extra man on board, so he was sent ashore. Then strong winds prevented the boat from being rowed out of the cove and it had to be towed. Thunder storms also caused some problems but once these had subsided, the oars came back out.
The following day the rudder came adrift, having been damaged in earlier manoeuvres, and had to be repaired. The crew was beginning to suffer from the cramped conditions and from sunburn and even when they made an awning to protect themselves, the heat was stifling.
On 9 March they had a narrow escape.
“No sooner had we got under way when a Japanese submarine bearing the marking 56 surfaced about a mile astern and steered towards us,” W/Cdr Jeudwine noted. “She closed to within 100 yards [91 metres] and we were scrutinised through a pair of binoculars by an officer on the conning tower. One rating was standing by the 6pdr gun forward and another was manning a machine gun on the conning tower.
“We expected to be shot at or captured but after describing a half circle round us, the submarine made off towards the east and eventually submerged. This was regarded as a lucky omen.”
As soon as the submarine was sighted, each man was given a can of beer to drink in case they were killed or captured or the submarine turned out to be American – and therefore dry.
Later that voyage a heavy thunderstorm enabled them to replenish their water casks which had leaked. Rain was so heavy that a 12 gallon [45 litre] cask was refilled in half an hour.
During the day, crew members took turns at swimming in the sea while the rest kept a look out for sharks. Throughout the voyage they had several close encounters with sharks and a number of whales, so the lookouts always had to be vigilant.
Due to the basic navigation equipment and the unreliability of the only working watch, they were never sure exactly how far they had travelled, while the various currents and winds threatened on many occasions to take them away from their intended destination.
Water rations were replenished whenever it rained and food stocks seemed to be holding out. But the original estimate of 16 days at sea was soon passed and rationing was tightened.
The rudder was a constant problem, regularly breaking away from the boat and having to be repaired. Great ingenuity was used to replace bits that had broken off in heavy seas.
Lunch each day consisted of biscuits and two sardines or a little potted meat and a mouthful of water issued at noon.
From time to time the boat was becalmed while on other occasions storms hit them.
“Another foul night,” W/Cdr Jeudwine recorded in the log. “Pouring rain and no wind. Whisky passed round to keep out the wet and cold and to enable us to sleep in spite of the discomfort.”
During heavy seas the crew had to keep up constant bailing with the boat in danger of becoming water logged. Steering was hampered by the lack of a reefing device on the sails and it was often difficult to keep the boat moving in the right direction.
After 24 days at sea, food stocks were found to be better than thought and allocations were increased but were reduced again after they were becalmed for several days. The boat was drifting northwards, away from Australia during these calm periods.
“A few more of these calms and we would be up the creek,” W/Cdr Jeudwine wrote in the log.
“During this calm we have rigged the awning after breakfast and organised games competitions between the quarter deck and the fo’c’sle,” W/Cdr Jeudwine wrote. “These have kept us occupied and helped pass the time but we found that the mental exercise made us very hungry and the talking and arguing brought on thirst. These are easier to bear than monotony.”
Throughout the voyage, the men managed to maintain a sense of humour although on 1 April, jokes were few and far between.
“The penalty for April Fools about ships or land was loss of beer ration for the rest of the voyage,” W/Cdr Jeudwine wrote.
But some of the little things took on an importance much greater than normal. On 8 April Commander Jeudwine wrote:
“Smoked last cigarette this evening. Had made a contract with four members of the crew to save their butts. These were carefully saved and kept in a tin. It meant I could have an occasional pipe. Will never again despise old men picking up fag ends from the gutter – I know just how they feel.”
The following day they were visited by a young whale which took a particular interest in them.
“Young whale – about 50- 60 feet long [15-80 metres], surfaced about 200 yards [180 metres] away and decided to give us a close inspection. Eventually came to rest lying in a curve with its tail under the boat and poked its head out of the water certainly not more than three feet [1 metre] from the rudder.
“We could see the eye and mouth under water. We all hope it would not become playful or try to make its toilet in the bottom of the boat, and luckily, after looking at us for about half a minute, which seemed like half an age, it submerged and went to join another whale which looks about four times as big.
“I hope the other one was its mother and she tore him off a strip for going and staring at strangers. When we had regained the power of movement we passed round a bottle of Australian 3 star brandy, which we had been keeping for an emergency, after which we did not care if we saw elephants, pink or otherwise, flying over us in tight formation.”
On 16 April the crew had the first inkling that they might be nearing land.
“Sgt Corney swore he smelt spinifex on the dawn breeze. Soon he had everyone smelling something but personally put it down to the Purser who suffers from flatulence. However, everyone very cheerful. Plans for first meal ashore wildly discussed.”
Commander Jeudwine spent a sleepless night working out times of sunrise and sunset during the past few days then dropped a bombshell to the crew.
“The noon sight was due to my watch – the only one to survive – losing four minutes a day and that it might have lost as much as 40 minutes. This would have put us 600 miles west of Port Headland and about 250 miles west of the westernmost point of Australia,” he wrote in the log.
“Rations, water and beer dramatically cut down and an accurate check shows that we can last for another six weeks on this new scale. We shall all be in pretty poor condition by the end of that time. Thank God the water will last that time, as it is one of the most important items, ranking equally with beer.”
But early on 20 April they sighted land.
“It appeared to be a small island, and as the only island marked on our map was Barrow Island, which was quite a big piece of land, we reckoned this was a spit of the mainland and decided to carry on until we could make certain.”
Soon, they set foot on dry land for the first time in 45 days.
“All members of crew very weak but looked forward to a hot breakfast. Food issued ad lib and cocoa made, but people found that they could not eat as much as they thought, with the exception of the First Lieutenant who proved a fine trencherman. Purser feeling sick, probably reaction but might be the sight of so much food being issued at one meal.”
They continued their voyage after breakfast and sighted an unidentified aircraft high and about 10 miles to the west of them. Their efforts to attract its attention failed and they landed on another small island for the night, enjoying a stationary and soft bed made from spinifex.
Next day they spotted a flying boat, which turned out to be a Catalina of Patrol Squadron 101, US Navy. Waving all manner of clothing, they eventually persuaded the Catalina to land but the crew of the aircraft were still suspicious and kept their weapons handy.
“After exchange of signals, of a sort, I swam over to flying boat, beating all existing records for ocean swimming in my anxiety to dodge any sharks that night be around,” Commander Jeudwine wrote. “Was given a rope to hang on to but in spite of the fact that I was mother naked except for my beard I was menaced by a man with a Colt .45 who would not let me on board until he was quite satisfied that I was harmless. Maybe he was right but someone should have told him about sharks.”
The captain of the aircraft offered to take six of the crew from the boat but only three accepted the offer – the others opting to stay with the boat. However, next day another Catalina landed and picked up the rest of the crew and the boat was abandoned.
“So, after 47 days, having sailed approximately 1500 statute miles, leaking like a sieve but still serviceable, with a jury rudder fitted from the second day out, Scorpion was cast adrift off the NW coast of Australia without the honour of being sailed into port,” W/Cdr Jeudwine wrote.
Thus ended an epic voyage under incredible conditions that enabled 12 men to escape the clutches of the Japanese. Those left behind in Java were all taken prisoner and most served on the Burma-Thailand railway.
Footnote: Athol Snook travelled to Canberra to meet the brother of the captain of the Japanese submarine which had allowed them to pass on the eventful voyage. He presented a frill-necked lizard to Mr and Mrs Ohashi. Athol Snook died about five years ago leaving Peter Haynes of Western Australia as the only survivor of the Scorpion’s crew.