CRAMPED CONDITIONS: MS Sibajak, 1928-1959
CRAMPED CONDITIONS: MS Sibajak, 1928-1959

POW last seen drifting on raft after Japanese ship sunk

RECENTLY an extract from a family history has been received regarding Gunner Ayrton Gibson (Ben) Sunderland, of Nimbin, who was attached to the 2/15 Field Regiment during the Second World War.

He died as a Prisoner of War in September, 1944, when the POW ship Rakuyo Maru was sunk on its way to Japan.

He had been a popular member of his unit, but the other men could not stand his given names. They called him "Ben".

He had been born at Gunnedah in 1918, the son of Ivy Gibson and Elvira Paterson Sunderland (nee Eaton). His family later moved to Nimbin. He enlisted at Paddington in June 1940.

He wrote home regularly and loved receiving news from home. There were relations in Sydney and he visited them when on leave.

They thought him a fine young man and said all the girls loved him.

He often went to movies with girl friends but, as he was engaged to Nancy back home, there was nothing "serious" about these friendships.

After initial training his unit was sent to Ingleburn to train with heavy guns, old First World War remnants.

Most of the guns, Ben told his family, were older than the gunners!

Later his unit transferred to Holsworthy and in July, 1941, it boarded the troop ship Katoomba for Perth and then transferred to the Dutch vessel MS Sibajak which was thought to be one of the best liners afloat.

On board the Katoomba the men had plenty of room and good food. They found the Dutch vessel completely different.

Instead of bunks they had hammocks slung so close together that if someone had to visit the toilet at night he may not find his hammock again before morning.

The food was not good and many became ill. There was also much sea sickness even though the Sibajak was thought to be one of the most stable vessels afloat.

They arrived at Singapore on August 15, 1941, and on entering the harbour noticed a Japanese Navy tanker at the entrance.

The men were later to remember this and supposed it was there watching Allied troop movements. After a spot of leave training began in earnest.

With the entry of Japan into the war it was not long before they were fighting an enemy.

On February 15, 1942, the men found themselves prisoners of war and two days later they were marching to Changi.

Most of the officers rode in staff cars and an order was given to the men that all other vehicles were to be abandoned except for water carts.

This order was ignored by the men and proved to be a wise decision as food and medical supplies at Changi Prison hardly existed.

A short time later Ben was one of those who were jammed into freight trains and sent to help build the Burma Railway.

The journey took five days and many died from illness or lack of ventilation. One soldier, George Aspinal, had a camera and kept a diary.

The photos and diary were later smuggled out and survived to tell a gruesome tale. In 1944 Ben and some others were transferred from the railway construction to the Rakuyo Maru destined for Japan and the coal mines.

Ben never reached Japan. The family later discovered that Ben had survived the sinking of this vessel by an American submarine and that he was last seen drifting on a raft, quite happy!

Although many survivors were picked up by Allied ships Ben was not one of them. His raft must have drifted away from the rescue ships. (Ancestry states that he died in Iceland - surely his raft did not take him there!)

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