FORTUNE, Signalman Ivan

Signalman Ivan Fortune tells a story of agony and survival in one of the worst prisoner of war camps during World War Two.




Signalman Ivan Fortune tells a story of agony and survival in one of the worst prisoner of war camps during World War Two:

‘The cell was lined on two sides with wooden platforms reaching about six feet out from the walls and about 15 inches off the concrete floor.  These were on which the prisoners slept.  But the place was designed for 35 prisoners, not 130.’

Ivan Fortune was posted to HMS Exeter on 17 December 1941 as an ordinary signalman.  Exeter was acting as an escort ship for a convoy destined for Singapore and consequently involved in the Battle of the Java Sea.  The Battle of the Java Sea, called by Winston Churchill as the ‘Forlorn Battle’, due to the fact the allied forces were out gunned and out numbered – ‘Japan had 40 ships each carrying eight inch guns against our 15 ships.’  This left no doubt regarding the skill, power and efficiency of the Japanese Navy.

In the Pacific the enemy was closing in.  The Battle of the Java Sea began on 27 February 1942.  With Signalman Fortune onboard, Exeter received injuries which nearly incapacitated the ship.  However she was repaired sufficiently to go to sea again the next day and continue the battle.  Exeter could not use the shallow eastern channel out of Soerabaya.  She, along with the RN Encounter and the last American destroyer the USS Pope, were ordered to sail north for some distance, and then turn west for the Sunda Strait.  It was a forlorn hope as Exeter’s speed was 16 knots.  The three ships sailed at dusk on the 28 February, and the splendid repair work on of the Exeter’s engine room soon enabled her to work up to 23 knots.  At 7:30am warships were sighted ahead.  Evasion was tried, but by 9:40am four enemy cruisers and a number of destroyers were closing in.  Escape was no longer possible. Exeter was badly crippled in the battle, the ship was sinking and they were told to go to their abandon ship stations.

‘At about 1100 hours one single shell came inboard, penetrated `A’ boiler room and the engine stopped.  All power to the turrets faded, which put them out of action and left us a sitting duck.  Well not quite sitting, the ship was still underway and going at a spare speed.  The order was given to sink ship, followed shortly by abandoned ship.  Most wristwatches stopped about 2320 hours.  I rushed to the quarter deck to my abandon ship station just in time to see a Carley float go over the side.  And as there were not many going with it decided it would do me.  As the ship was still doing a fair speed, the float was nowhere to be seen when I came to the surface, but another was and so I headed for it, and on arrival found three others around a wooden float about three foot square, with rope grips around the side.  The immediate concern was that one of them would insist on trying to climb on top, which made it capsize, giving us all a ducking.  He eventually declined with a bit of persuasion.  The water was warm being near enough to the equator.  Not that I can remember thinking about it at all.  Visibility was only possible when one was lifted up on a swell and that was not for long.

I saw nothing of the Exeter, most likely facing the wrong way.  I can’t say I felt very perturbed that there we were in the middle of the sea with no land in sight and not a clue in what direction the nearest was.  But after some time a Jap destroyer was seen hove to some distance off, which kept going ahead every now and then and stopping.  When nearer we could see she was picking men up as they drifted down to her and eventually she was near enough to us to swim to her and climb the rope ladders hanging over the side.  No mean feat after our spell in the water and no assistance was given by any of the Japs I saw.  Our blow-up life-belts were taken off us and thrown in a heap and we were herded amidships starboard side.  The first thing I saw on climbing aboard was one of our stokers burnt from head to foot with skin hanging in ribbons all over his body, not a cheering sight.  The deck was of steel and hot, being over the boiler rooms, but the boiler suit I had on and which I was unable to shed in the water as the life-belt was tight over it, helped to insulate me.  After some time we got underway and were thankful to accept a small cup of tepid water, which tasted like so called nectar, what ever that is like.  I think we also got a hard biscuit.

Night fell not long after I got onboard.  I guess I would have been in the water about five hours. Some time during the day we were given a small cold ball of what looked like barley and rice, tasteless and un-appetising, but I managed to get it down.  The hunger pangs had not really taken hold yet. We ploughed on through the night, while most of us fell asleep – it had been a hard day.’

On the same day 1 March 1942 that Vice Admiral C.E.L. Helfrich of the Royal Netherlands Navy, commander of the Dutch forces in Java resigned, the enemy had landed at both ends of Java and a week later the Allied land forces surrendered.  The Japanese were now in complete control of that immensely wealthy island, and had achieved the major part of the first phase of their vast scheme of conquest.

Ivan Fortune along with others who required medical attention was transferred to the Op ten Noort [6,076 ton merchant ship captured March 1942] a Dutch hospital ship the same night.  The ship had gone out in the night of the 27 February to attempt to pick up the crews of the ships that had been sunk, but was taken by the Japanese.  Later on at the insistence of the guards the doctors were forced to cull the number of ward patients, Ivan fortunately was not one of them.  The rest of the crew were disembarked and taken South-west of the Celebes and interned in a Dutch Army barracks.  Most had very little clothing and no footwear.  In fact some were just about naked.  The crew were forced to run and stagger over rubble and the damage done to their feet was terrible and in some cases never healed.

‘There were many more in the camp in the early days as both regular Dutch Army and local defence forces were all rounded up.  Many of the later were local natives who were later released after a short time and some joined the local police force organised by the Japs, swaggering around with a cutlass at their waist and becoming not too popular with the locals.  The remainder left in camp would be at least three to four times the number of British prisoners of war.  The final number of deaths I believe, were in the upper 300’s, so that at a 140 odd the British had a higher proportion of deaths than the others.  The main reason I believe was the condition of our men on entry into the camp against the Dutch being well fed and well kitted out with clothes and also some of our work parties were more arduous than most of theirs.’

The camp in Makassar had been shifted from the army barracks to a new one on the outskirts of the town and not far inland from the sea.  The place had been built of bamboo framing with banana or such like leaf laced to bamboo batons for the roof and plaited material for the walls.  All was done by prisoners.  Floors were of brick laid close together on the ground and in the monsoon soaked up the water like blotting paper and became wet and slimy.  Each hut was about 20 feet wide and 22 yards long with openings at either end and in the middle.  Wooden bed boards about six feet square raised about a foot or so above the floor were spaced along each wall with a little space between, three to a board.  A road in the shape of a cross divided the camp into four quarters, with two being taken up with huts for the Dutch and English, about ten either side.  The square by the main gate contained the guard house and the officer’s hut, while across the road, a hut for the Americans and huts for the so called hospital with the chance of any one being cured in it were virtually nil, the big majority dying.  In the camp dysentery, Malaria and a host of tropical diseases soon took a hold, helped along by malnutrition.

Ivan Fortune was a carpenter and was sent to work at Maros in the carpentry shop which was over the road from the camp and next door to the guard house.  This was not to last and later he was moved back to Makassar.  He also worked building roads and runways.

‘One reads of German camps with their libraries, drama groups, lectures, football etcetera, but in a Jap one there was none of these, at least in ours and any others I have read about.  The only concert was at Maros was the Christmas of 1942 and that happened because of a more enlightened guard, who happened to be in charge of the camp at that time.  But the same guy could be just as vicious as any other when beating a helpless prisoner when under orders.  There were a few lectures I believe in the earlier days of the main camp, but I saw none or heard none of them.  Anything which required energy was soon beyond us and we knew by then that we would need all the energy that we could muster just to survive.  Certainly the Japs would not have agreed to any form of amusement.  Our chief nightly occupation was to gather in one hut or another with our particular friends and talk of home, future plans for ideas, past lives, daily occurrence’s and food.  Oh the food!  What banquets we could dream up, but always the same empty bellies ended up on our hard beds for the oblivion of sleep.

At least the rain did bring down the temperature a few degrees, but left us really cold, as any fat we had was gone long ago.  I did have my boiler suit which proved a godsend, not only for the cold, but to ward off mosquitoes as we sat at night.  Actually it lasted for three and a half years and before aid arrived it was to be torn into two and traded for food from the natives, who were not well off themselves in things such as clothes

Two things helped to make life a bit more bearable.  Shortly after my arrival I spotted a bucket with rusted out bottom on a rubbish heap and with a bit of ingenuity managed to shape a wooden bottom, which I jammed in place and hey presto! I was the envy of the camp, and it was just ideal to get a shower of washing water.  The other I built myself a chair, with a shaped seat and the back and seat made up of bamboo slats, spaced apart for coolness.  Lovely to sit in at nights and reminiscence of days back home, ideas for the future and a host of other things, which usually ended up with something eatable.

One day returning to camp out in front of the work party was a stoker named Dodds, who we learned had a couple of eggs in his possession, having foolishly ignored our officer’s warnings to lay off smuggling such things.  The up shot resulted in him being badly beaten, ending up in the cells in the guard house, where he remained for some time.  At least 50 others were also beaten with all the British having to stand at attention and watch and it was about 11:3pm before we were dismissed to eat our miserable portion of rice.  It was only after arriving back at our bed board that I discovered that Putty had been one of those beaten, having volunteered to replace a fellow petty officer who was older and very unwell.  A Christian act that very few would have done as a beating was something carried out with gusto, using such things as a pick axe handle, a baseball bat and by the time 30 strokes were given, one was not in a very good state as I found out with Putty whose baggy shorts were baggy no more, but filled tight with swollen flesh.

It must be remembered that by now we had very little flesh covering our bones and certainly no fat whatsoever.  I doubt that there was any water for bathing and any way it was pitch dark out there.  So it was lie face down in an exhausted sleep and erase things for a while

It was work as usual in the morning and no excuses.

During the afternoon we were paraded and then a short speech told that Japan had decided to end the war.  The reaction was mostly silence, disbelief that we had made it, tears and a rather subdued mob that shuffled off to our huts getting a bit more vocal on the way.

Things move a bit faster and it was not long before the frigates ferried us out to the HMS Maidstone a submarine depot ship, which was en route to Fremantle.  It had ample accommodation as the sub crews lived aboard in between cruises, so we were no problem.  So it was goodbye Makassar, and the 146 who did not make it out of original 600.’

One prison guard in particular, whom the POW’s named Goldie had a vile temper and was extremely cruel for often no reason and after the war ended was taken to Java along with other remaining officers from the camp, tried in Singapore and sentenced to death with other war criminals.

On returning to New Zealand Ivan Fortune was discharged from the navy on the 12 April 1946 and received a pension of 15 shillings per week, but it was not long before it was cut off.  Later on after further medical examinations he was to receive a permanent pension of seven and six per week, that is 75 cents.[1]

[1] Roskill, Captain S.W., The War At Sea 1939-1945: Volume II The Period of Balance, London: HMSO, 1956.  See also Ivan Fortune Personal Reminiscence (DLE0110) held at RNZN Museum.