… they lined 11 of us before a firing squad of machine guns and rifles
The following is a compelling first hand account of a Christmas Island WW2 story. American, then Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Thomas Alton Donovan (1904-1988), tells how he came to be left behind on Christmas Island just prior to the Japanese invasion, his close call with death at the hands of mutineers and then the inevitable Japanese invasion. The story also includes a first hand account from a ship’s medical officer of the Japanese aerial bombing attack upon three American ships lying offshore from the Island at that time and their amazing escape. He was on one of those ships!
Here is then LCDR Donovan’s story. My own comments in the story are in square brackets. The story finishes with a chilling line!
After the sinking of the USS Langley (AV-3) on 27 February 1942 and the rescue of her crew by the USS Whipple (DD-217) and the USS Edsall (DD-219), the two ships requested permission from ABDA (American, British, Dutch, and Australian) Command in Java to disembark the survivors in Australia. Permission was denied, however, and they were ordered to proceed to Christmas Island—about 200 miles southwest of Java Head—for a rendezvous with the oiler Pecos (AO-6). The Pecos was to take the survivors to Freemantle, and the Whipple and the Edsall were to return to Java following the transfer.
Early the next day, the two ships arrived off Christmas Island, with the Pecos looming on the horizon. As they awaited the arrival of the oiler, the division commander and the commanding officer of the Whipple received word from the Christmas Island pilot that a Japanese submarine had been sighted off the island the previous afternoon. With this information, the officers in charge, including the commanding officer of the Langley, decided to change the original plan. They determined to conduct an under way transfer, with one ship patrolling, while the other transferred survivors. They also felt that any communication to the Pecos might compromise the new plan if the Japanese submarine became aware of the intention. Therefore, they decided to send me in the Christmas Island pilot boat to the Pecos so that I could inform her commanding officer of the change.
Japanese aircraft began flying over and dropping bombs. With their appearance, all three ships scattered out to sea, not realizing that I was still in the small boat. To complicate matters, a line from the boat had fouled the propeller and killed the engine. So the boat—with me as a passenger—was adrift and abandoned.
Once the native crew of the boat unfouled the propeller and started the engine, they headed for a lonely beach about two miles from the town jetty, fearing that a landing there would draw fire from the Japanese. [Somewhere around the Margaret Beach area? 1] So they beached the boat, removed the distributor from the engine for some unknown reason, and ran into the jungle, leaving me alone in the boat. Not caring to follow the natives into the jungle, I sat in the boat on the beach for about two hours, until the boat crew returned. They reinstalled the distributor and started the engine, and, with the Japanese airplanes gone, we all went ashore at the jetty in town.
Since the island was being administered by the British, I reported to the British district officer [Tom Pearson Cromwell]. I learned that the three U.S. ships had not returned. That afternoon, a radio message went out to Australia, informing them of my presence on the island. This communication apparently was never received or acknowledged. The next morning, the Japanese attacked from the air, making direct hits on the radio station and powerhouse, leaving the island with no electricity and thus no communication with the outside world.
The district officer invited me to stay with him until I could leave the island. Things went along smoothly for a time, until sometime between 1 and 11 March 1942, when a boat arrived with seven Australian sailors, survivors of a ship that had been sunk by a Japanese submarine. The island had a fort manned by three British officers, with a complement of about 30 Hindu soldiers and a police force of a dozen Sikhs. At about 0500 on the morning of 11 March, the district officer and I were awakened by two of the Indian soldiers. During the night, the complement of the fort had killed the three British officers [Captain Leonard Williams and his 4 NCOs were murdered] and were in town at that moment, rounding up the company doctor (from the phosphate company on the island), the company manager, and the seven Australians. All of us were to be taken into the fort and executed.
The Indian soldiers marched us into the fort, where other Caucasians from the town soon joined us. As they lined 11 of us before a firing squad of machine guns and rifles, the district officer began arguing with the Indian Subadahr in Hindustani. As long as he kept talking, we stayed alive. The talks continued for about an hour, while we remained lined up for execution. At the end of the conversation, the district officer informed us that the Indians were delaying the execution until they had a chance to discuss it among themselves. In the meantime, they had hauled down the British flag and replaced it with a white sheet to avoid further Japanese bombing.
Having discussed our destiny, the Indians marched all 11 of us back to the district officer’s quarters, where we were told we were to remain, under guard. We were allowed, however, to walk into town, also under guard, and gather tinned foods. We lived from day to day, with no indication of our fate, until 31 March. Early that morning, a Japanese task force appeared off the island and prepared to land. Japanese cruisers began bombarding the island (despite the white flag flying) and continued for three hours. No one on the island returned fire, and at about 0830, Japanese soldiers appeared. Immediately, the Indians turned us over to the Japanese, who started questioning us right away. They gave us no food and ordered us to bed down in one of the native houses on the island at about 2100.
Early the next morning, 1 April, the Japanese broke us out and marched us to the beach to assist in unloading landing gear. After about a half-hour, a Japanese courier arrived on a motorcycle and asked for “the American,” which, being the only one on the island, I presumed to be me.
He took me to the commanding officer of the landing force, who told me I was to be evacuated from the island within the hour. Since I had no gear to gather, I had to admit that I was ready right then. With that, I boarded a small boat at the landing and headed for one of the cruisers. That evening, we steamed for a destination unknown to me. The Japanese on board told me that I was fortunate to be alive. They had seen the white flag, but they fired on the island anyway. Had anyone returned fire, the landing party had been ordered to kill everyone they found.
Excerpt taken from the original article “An Ordeal to forget” By Thomas A. Donovan, Jr., June 2000 Naval History Magazine Volume 14 Number 3 – used with permission
As mentioned in the introduction to this story, the final sentence in the account above is indeed chilling and it raises a thought provoking question. Had the mutiny not occurred, would Captain Williams have ordered his troops to fire upon the invading Japanese? Any such resistance would have resulted in a massacre of Islanders. Fate often hangs by a thread.
Fate was also kind, for a brief time, to the three U.S. ships lying offshore from the Island. How did they escape the Japanese aerial bombing attack? The Pecos’ medical officer, Lieutenant Joseph Langham Yon (MC), U.S.N., describes what happened:
We came to the harbor on the south side of Christmas Island in the morning about half-past eight. There was a rapid tide. We could see the two destroyers lying offshore. The Dutch pilot came out and was just coming up the ladder when the sky lookout shouted: ‘Enemy planes.’ Looking up, we saw that there were three planes in the flight. They circled in preparation for a run on the Pecos and the two destroyers. As soon as the air-raid alarm sounded, we got under way again and started to zigzag at top speed. As luck had it, a rain squall came up just at that time. Those things happen fast in the rainy season in the tropics. The cloud was low over the harbor, and our skipper kept the Pecos under it, out of sight of the enemy. We weaved about over the harbor like the craziest jitterbug. The planes couldn’t find us. We could hear bombs exploding near by and hoped that they had not hit one of the destroyers. We learned later that the two destroyers had taken advantage of the low clouds and sneaked out to sea. The squall lasted about an hour. When it was over and the sun began to steam on the tin roofs of the little town, we could see the warehouses and shipping along the water front blazing where the bombs were dropped meant for us. The planes were gone, but we figured they’d be coming back soon. It seemed likely they came from a carrier not far off.
Doctors aweigh: the story of the United States navy medical corps in action published 1943
And finally, what became of LCDR Thomas Donovan after he sailed from Christmas Island on that Japanese cruiser? He was initially treated well while on that vessel, even being invited to pre-dinner cocktails with the commanding officer each evening. He finally arrived off the port of Tjanjong Priok. From there he was transferred to a Japanese transport and on the 6th April 1942 was taken to Makassar, Celebes in the Dutch East Indies. As the senior ranking officer he was beaten with baseball bats for infractions by others and coming to the defence of a fellow prisoner. He was then transferred in September 1943 to another more primitive camp near Batavia, Java where the conditions were even worse. He survived his incarcerations but by the end of the war his teeth were rotten due to lack of proper nutrition. Hearing in his left ear was mostly gone from the beatings he had received. He suffered a severe vitamin deficiency and had lost 100lbs (45kg). On his return home it had been five years since he had last seen his family and he required months of medical treatment. He was awarded three medals for his actions during WW2 and eventually retired from the navy with the rank of Rear Admiral.
1. The beach that Donovan writes about may have been in the Margaret Beach area. Taking a boat ride along the coastline, courtesy of Google Earth, it appears there is a small beach roughly 2 miles from the cove. Looking at the surrounding cliffs I’m sure it would not be easy to just “run into the jungle”. You can see the beach here on Google Earth.