On September 12, 1944, the USS Pampanito, was part of a submarine “wolf pack” patrol along with the USS Growler and USS Sealion. Coming upon a convoy of ships, the Pampanito fired upon and sunk a transport ship, a tanker and badly damaged a third ship. When she moved back into the area of the original attack three days later, her crew found men clinging to makeshift rafts. After moving closer to the debris field, the crew of the sub realized the survivors were shouting in English. The Pampanito picked up 73 British and Australian survivors, and called in three other subs, the Sealion, the Barb and the Queenfish, to assist them with the rescue effort.
The survivors had been in the water for three days, clinging to debris from the sunken ships, having watched Japanese rescue ships pluck the Japanese survivors out of the water. Most of the POW’s were left behind to die. The Japanese could have requested safe passage for these transport ships, but this request was never made, nor were the ships marked in any way to indicate they were transporting prisoners of war.
The story of the attack and subsequent rescue is supplemented by the stories of the prisoner’s initial capture when Singapore fell to Japan in 1942. Such unimaginable hardships and abuse were endured by these POW’s as they were forced into slave labor building the infamous “Railway of Death” that connected Thailand and Burma. For almost two years, these men hacked through the jungle and leveled mountains to lay rails for their brutal captors, using the most rudimentary of tools. An estimated 12,000 British and Australian prisoners died from jungle disease, starvation, lack of medical care, abuse and overwork in the building of the Thai-Burma railroad. The transport ships were moving workers who had completed the railway to the copper mines in Japan.
It’s difficult to imagine what these men must have looked like when brought aboard the Pampanito. Two years of slave labor, no medical care, a handful of rice to eat each day, 18-20 hours a day of backbreaking labor, beatings and jungle diseases, added to three days and nights spent floating in the burning oil slicks left behind by the sinking ships.
The crew of the Pampanito documented the survivors stories, encouraging them to write them down, and writing them down for survivors who were too ill to do so themselves. This book is based on this treasure trove of writings, photos and the memories of all involved.
This book is not the kind of book one reads for entertainment; rather it’s an important story about courage and compassion. Even though the survivors know that they are in this situation because of the Pampanito, it is remarkable how grateful the POW’s are to the submarine crew.
“Perhaps the most valuable perspective in this debate is that of the survivors themselves—the victims of the Pampanito’s torpedoes. How did they feel about Pampanito’s actions? Of those who have commented on this issue, most do not hesitate to state outright that they understood why the submarines torpedoed the hellships and, it being wartime and the hellships being unmarked, that they believe the submarines were entirely justified in doing so. That the submarines returned to attempt rescue is proof enough that of their intentions and good will. Furthermore, many interpreted the subs’ actions not as an act of violence toward them, but as, ultimately, an act of liberation.”I was drawn to this book because my neighbor, a really wonderful older man, served on a destroyer named the USS Hoel in the Pacific during WWII. Two hundred and fifty three men died when the ship sank, and another 15 died during the two days and nights they were in the water, awaiting rescue. My friend doesn’t say too much about it, but when I realize he was just out of high school when he survived this, I find it an amazing story. The story of the USS Pampanito was equally fascinating. An honest look into a difficult time, and courage, bravery, pride and compassion are all part of the story.
Lucky 73: USS Pampanito’s Unlikely Rescue of Allied POW’s in WWII is by no means a light and entertaining story. But it is an important story, one that, thanks to the author, Aldona Sendzikas, will not be lost to the world once that generation passes on.
Review copy provided by NetGalley.