The KUALA and the Tien Kwang sailed from Singapore on Friday the 13th February 1942. The HMS Kuala under the command of Lieutenant Caithness had approximately 500 to 600 evacuees on board, mainly nurses but also Public Works Department personnel and various other civilians. The SS Tien Kwang was commanded by Lieutenant W Briggs, RNR and had mainly RAF radar and army personnel with a few civilians on board. They left Singapore at approx 18.15hrs on route to Batavia (now Jakarta), Java via the straits of Rhio, Barbala and Banka. At 05.45hrs on the 14th they anchored off Pompong Island which is approx 70 miles south of Singapore. The Kuala was in front approx 300 yards from the shore with Tien Kwang about the same distance astern and slightly closer to the island. Boats were sent ashore to collect branches in an attempt to camouflage the ships.
At approx 11.00hrs Japanese aircraft were seen bombing the Kung Wo which was about 3 miles behind the Tien Kwang. It was still afloat after being bombed and abandoned the previous night but this time it was sunk. The planes then spotted the two ships off Pompong Island, circled round and attacked the Kuala scoring a direct hit then turned and bombed the Tien Kwang. Many were killed and injured in the bombing and many drowned, trying to get to the island, or were washed away by the strong currents. My father was believed to have drowned even though he was a strong swimmer.
After almost two hours there it was in the distance - Pompong Island. We were almost there. What would I do, how would I feel after all this time, all this not knowing. All the unknown pent up emotion. The father I never knew was killed here exactly 67 years ago, a place that never existed in reality, a place I had always thought I would never see. We got closer and closer and then as we approached we circled the island to get a better idea of what it was like. Finally we came round the South tip and there was the beach I had read about in so many reports. The beach where so many injured people had sought refuge all these years ago. The beach my father never reached.
We headed towards the beach and ran the bow into the sand. At this point I was about to go ashore when Major Tan put a hand on my shoulder to stop me. I turned to see that in his other hand he had the pole he had been carrying around. As he handed the pole to me I saw there was a Union Jack tied on it. I was to plant the flag on the beach as is customary when you take over a beach during an invasion. And we were taking over the beach again as they did a long time ago. So we went ashore and I planted the flag in the sand. It was a great feeling to be there, on that beach, I felt the emotion, I felt the tears well up. I had managed to come here and put my father's soul to rest after all these years. I felt it for my mother too as she had known and been told so little over these long years. I felt it for his brother Tony and sister Brenda who also knew so little about his death.
The flag was flying on Pompong beach and I placed a memorial notice, I had made to leave on the island, at the foot of the flagpole for the moment.
Maggie and I then went for a walk along the beach and noticed the unusual colour and texture of the rocks. I have seen rocks of a similar colour at St Cyrus but not the same texture. I thought it strange that nobody had mentioned it in any of the stories about Pompong, but them they had more important things on their mind - survival. We explored the trees near the beach and eventually found a suitable tree to put the memorial poster onto. I doubt if there will be anyone, except the local fishers, around to find it but you never know. Anyway if someone does find it they will know he died there and that he will always be remembered.
In the survival stories there were many reports of strong currents just off the shore and many strong swimmers and people on rafts being carried away from the island. While we were there David and Anders went snorkeling to see if they could see the wreck of the Kuala. The shore there has a gentle slope for a bit then there is a steep fall to about 30 meters. While swimming they were ok till they got to the edge of the shelf, when all of a sudden they were being pulled away by the current. Fortunately they are both good swimmers and were on the edge of the current but it still took them a long way before they managed to get back in shore. That just backs up the old stories from back then and they were lucky both of them were ok.
David had taken a metal detector along with him so he went off to see if he could find anything that had been left there. There could have been belt buckles, cap badges, buttons or any other objects lost in the mayhem. Unfortunately he drew a blank on that but had a good look round part of the island. I remember seeing Ollie having a look around the rocks just south or where we landed. We all had a good browse about, interested to see where these poor survivors had marooned. An island with virtually no water and no food to help survival. A very hostile place back then never knowing if the Japs would return or if they would be rescued. After all who would know they were even there?
The boat crew took advantage of their break to collect small cockles which they took home in jars. They also did a bit fishing with lines they threw into the water and Ismi joined in with this also. A few years ago there was an attempt to salvage some parts from the Kuala which isn't too far of shore in about 30 meters of water. There is a wooden framework left that they used to pull the parts onto shore. I have not heard of any attempt to locate the Tien Kwang.
Well all too soon it was time to load up the boat and return to Tanjong Pinang. The return trip was uneventful and KC got us back ok and in good time. We went straight onto the ferry to Singapore and were back late evening, exhausted after a very eventful day - one I will never forget. One very nice thing happened on the way on the ferry. Everyone had signed the chart that KC used to navigate to Pompong and back and this plus the Union Jack were presented to me as a memento of the trip we all made to Pompong Island. I will treasure them as long as I live. I thought it was a lovely thing and typical of Major Tan, he thinks of everything.
On the Monday as a thank you to all who came on the trip I took them all out for a meal . There are some wonderful people in this world and I have been luckily enough to have met probably more than my fair share.