Tuesday, 8 September 2009

A Special Trip to Pompong Island February 14th 2009

Cprl Stanley Pyke was killed off Pompong Island (believed drowned during the bombing) after evacuating Singapore with fellow RAF radar personnel aboard the Tien Kwang. On the 67th anniversary of the sinking of the Kuala and the Tien Kwang I had the privilege to be part of a group that traveled to Pompong island with his son Stan Pyke in honour of the father that he never met. In fact Stan was born in Scotland after his father had been posted to Singapore and was approximately six months old when his father was killed during the evacuation. It was an emotional but exhilarating trip for Stan and in fact for all of us in the group that joined him on his first trip to Pompong Island. This is an edited version of Stan's recollections of the trip we made on the 67th anniversary:-

As is now well known, due to many cock-ups, lack of equipment etc our forces had been pushed back down Malaya and eventually onto Singapore Island. By the end of Thursday 12th Feb 1942 all the army and RAF radar units had been withdrawn from the East of Singapore Island. On the afternoon of Friday the 13th February (black Friday!!) the AOC ordered all remaining radar equipment to be destroyed and all radar tradesmen to embark in small ships. The first group of 283 personnel, including 17 from the hospital, made their way in groups to Keppel docks and embarked, under continual bombing, onto one of two ships. These were the HMS Kuala and the SS Tien Kwang both of which had been commandeered by the navy during the war. I know that approx 250 radar personnel and their equipment went onto the SS Tien Kwang and that my father was one of them.

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.

We all got through passport control and aboard the ferry on on our way. This it when it really sunk in that we were definitely going to Pompong Island. Up till them it was like walking in a dream, can it really be happening - now it was!

The day arrived, Saturday the 14th February, and what a difference from that day 67 years ago. Everything was peaceful and quiet (except for the calling of muslims to prayer). We got up and had a leisurely breakfast then got our things packed and met up in the hotel foyer. We left Tangong Pinang behind and headed out into the open seas. The sea was as calm as I have ever seen it, hardly a wave to be seen. The only problem we faced that day was the rubbish floating about in the bay, there were some fairly large pieces of wood etc amongst them. But soon after leaving the bay the sea was clear of debris and we made steady progress.

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.

We all gathered round and Ismi took photos of it and of us beside it with our own cameras. It was a very emotional time and I was glad to have so many good people to share it with. So many new friends who I will never forget.

Once we had taken the photos it was about the time that the bombing had started back then. So Maggie and I went for a swim in the sea. We must have been within a few hundred yards in the same stretch of water where my father drowned at about the same time 67 years earlier. That was such a wonderful feeling, emotional, not so much sad but more exhilarating. Just to be so close to where he had died and to be able to put his spirit to rest after all this time. My dad would know I had come to see him, to give him the send off he deserved. I felt very relieved, almost happy. Yes I was happy.

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.

What a wonderful trip - never to be forgotten.