- Collins, R.A.C., Able Seaman, RAN
- Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Perth I
- December 1975 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Able Seaman Bob Collins was captured in March 1942 after the sinking of HMAS Perth and USS Houston at the Battle of Sunda Strait. After working on the Burma-Siam Railway, Collins was sent to Indo- China, then Singapore and was finally shipped to Japan in one of the Hell Ships in September 1944. The entire convoy was sunk by United States submarines.
THE DAY CAME when we were moved back to our old camp in Singapore, and told that we were to be prepared to move down to the docks to board ship for Japan. As we approached the docks, the leading file of Australians turned right and boarded the Rokuyo Maru. I later learnt the Japs wanted us to board the President Harding, a captured American ship of the President line, but our boys weren’t having any. The Rokuyo Maru was bigger than the President ship.
The date was 1st September 1944.
We cursed and sweated at anchor in Singapore Harbour for three days. On 3rd September we sailed, thankful to get some sort of breeze from a ship under way. ‘Stowed thick and lousy‘ is an old Navy saying, and it was no exception in this ship. There were roughly 1,300 men in this ship, made up of Australians and British. President Harding carried 800 British prisoners. They were battened down but it was impossible to batten us down, although it was tried several times without success. Among my travelling companions was Sergeant Noel Day, RAAF, who had worked with me on the Burma Siam Railway.
Six days out of Singapore we were attacked by a pack of American submarines operating out of Saipan. I have often read communiques which stated that ‘Units of the United States Navy engaged an enemy convoy off so and so. US Navy losses were nil. The entire convoy was sunk.‘ It was not that I didn’t believe them, but they seemed to be too smug or something, I don’t know. Now I knew. To the best of my knowledge, every ship in our convoy was sunk in two attacks by five submarines. Rokuyo Maru fired a few rounds at shadows, and then after the second torpedo had struck home, the crew abandoned ship. All of our chaps got into the water, some on ancient rafts that were practically useless except for morale value, and others with kapok life jackets. Unfortunately, there were not enough of these to go round. This was the second time in my young life that I had been sunk, so I had a few clues. ‘Keep your hats on, make sure you have your water bottles and don’t go over the side until I give the word‘, I said to two Army mates who were sleeping with me on deck.
Grabbing one of the tiny wooden floats and giving my mates a yell, the three of us jumped. So far so good. Now to pull away from a blazing tanker that was on fire from stern to stern just off our port quarter. Getting out of her way, we drifted away from our ship. I felt it was a pity to abandon her so prematurely, when she was holed fore and aft.
When I made this suggestion to an Army Captain, I was threatened with a court martial if I did not obey his orders and abandon. Later some returned to the ship ‘to organise something‘. But I said ‘No‘, when they asked me, because I considered the distance too far to swim. This was the last we saw of them.
At first morale was high but as the days passed our numbers became fewer. I was still in a small party of the originals with whom I had left Singapore. Things were getting desperate. A Jap merchant vessel was sighted bearing down on us during the late afternoon of the third day and our hopes rose accordingly. ‘About time that bloody ship got here to pick us up‘. However, to our dismay it turned away. I watched it as long as it was still visible, wishfully thinking that it was bound to turn back any minute. It did not and my thoughts sent it to the bottom with an American torpedo in its guts.
During the night several of my mates died. They were there one minute, and the moment you seemed to take your eye off them, they were gone. Morning brought a pretty desolate scene. There was about twenty of us left. There was no talking, just a mumble from someone in the last stages of delirium, and in all a very dejected bunch, when along comes a chap on a ship’s hatch board, about eight feet long and two foot six inches wide.
There was a mild skirmish to get on his ‘raft’, but he held off everyone. Sergeant Noel Day calmly surveyed the bunch of hopeful faces pointed in his direction and out of his Army and Air Force mates in the crowd, said ‘I’ll take Bob Collins‘. Me of all people. I couldn’t understand it.
The joy of sitting in the water and not hanging in it by your chin, suspended by your kapok lifejacket, is best appreciated if tried for some time. We picked up a piece of ship’s lifeboat, probably one of the strakes, and I scratched on it with a pencil, ‘Left to perish by the Japs, September 12th 1944‘. Also our names and addresses with some forlorn hope that some day someone might pick it up, and part of the story of what happened to about 600 AIF and a few sailors and airmen might be known.
Some time later I was paddling the raft, when Noel Day said, ‘You’re a Navy man Bob. What kind of ship is that?‘ ‘Submarine‘, I replied, not really interested. We had been in the water five days now, and I think my resistance was a little low. Noel shouted a few Australian adjectives at the man topsides on the submarine and that dispensed any ideas they had that we were Japanese.
Five days later we were landed at Saipan, and tucked into cots by nurses of the 148th General Hospital, who were also attending marines of the Second Division, who had hit the beach head a short time before.
Months later, back in Sydney, I looked Noel Day up and over a middy asked him ‘Why on earth did you pick me up, when you had all your other mates to choose from?‘ He replied, ‘Do you remember the dollar you loaned me to buy those boots? I may not have been here if I hadn’t bought those boots. I never forgot that, the day you loaned me that dollar. That’s why I picked you up.‘
The US submarine, Queenfish, rescued a total of four Perth survivors – AB Bob Collins, AB Arthur Bancroft, AB Jack Houghton and Stoker L. Munro. After the survivors had been questioned by Commander C.R. Reid, RAN, it was possible to publish the first account of the loss of HMAS Perth on 1st March 1942.