Manage episode 284076609 series 2659594
This week we return to the Pacific theatre of WWII, where Dutch steam-ship Rooseboom is in the process of evacuating 500 passengers from Padang to Ceylon.
Written, hosted and produced by Alix Penn and Carmella Lowkis.
Theme music by Daniel Wackett. Find him on Twitter @ds_wack and Soundcloud as Daniel Wackett.
Logo by Riley. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @tallestfriend.
Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network. Network sting by Mikaela Moody. Find her on Bandcamp as mikaelamoody1.
- Allen, T. and N. Vleggeert. (2019). ‘SS Rooseboom (+1942)’, Wrecksite. Available at: https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?17527
- Brooke, G. (1990). Singapore’s Dunkirk. London: Leo Cooper.
- Gibson, W. (2007). The Boat. Burrough on the Hill: Monsoon Books.
- Gladstone, M. (2017). Largie Castle, A Rifled Nest. Southerness: Firefallmedia.
- Kingshott, J.B. (n.d.). Robert William George Kingshott. Available at: https://www.kingshott.info/robert-w-g-kingshott
- Pether, M. (2011). SS. Rooseboom. Available at: https://www.roll-of-honour.org.uk/evacuation_ships/html/s__rooseboom_history.htm
- Pether, M. (2013). ‘SS. ROOSEBOOM – Sunk by Japanese submarine number I-159 on 1st March 1942’, South African Military History Society, May 2013. Available at: https://www.samilitaryhistory.org/diaries/roosboom.html
- ‘SS Rooseboom’. (2020). Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Rooseboom
- The Times. (2005). ‘Walter Gibson’, The Times, 27 April. Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/walter-gibson-m3vb6x9pvnt
- Turner, D. (2019). Be Grateful: Brighton College’s Fallen 1939–45. Oxford: Bloomsbury.
- Weintraub, R. (2015). No Better Friend. New York: Little, Brown.
Alix: Have you ever been really, really hungry?
Carmella: You’re listening to Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast.
A: I’m Alix.
C: I’m Carmella.
A: And now let’s tuck into the gruesome history of this ultimate taboo…
[Intro Music – Daniel Wackett]
A: Welcome to Episode Ten, where we’re telling the story of the SS Rooseboom.
[Intro music continues]
A: So Carmella, we’ve had a lot of fun on land. But have you heard that ‘worse things happen at sea’?
C: Ooh, tell me about these worst things that happen at sea.
A: Well, to start today’s episode, I’m actually going to give our listeners a quick glimpse behind the scenes at Casting Lots. To use the metaphor of the duck gliding along the surface while paddling like hell under the water: that’s us. I went on a bit of a research tangent and now Carmella has to put ‘Cannibalism in Poultry’ on our bibliography.
C: [Laughs] Cool, cool. That sounds– That sounds interesting, actually.
A: I digress.
C: Speaking of digressions, my dad’s chickens ganged up and murdered of one of their own and then ate her head.
A: Cannibalism in poultry.
C: Yeah, it happens. That wasn’t even for survival. They just decided they hated her.
A: [Laughs] They were just bastards! Part of that rapid paddling that certainly never shows up on our polished episode – and definitely doesn’t feature in our blooper reels – can be seen in the preparation for this episode. As we were preparing our sources and stories for Season Two, and about to record some of our first episodes, I turned to Carmella (over WhatsApp, obviously; there’s a pandemic, we don’t meet up any more than we have to) and very casually asked, ‘Hey, you don’t happen to mention the SS Roosboom, do you?’ The trouble when we’re telling each other and our audience these stories for the first time, means we don’t know if there’s any crossover. If you cast your mind back to – haha, ‘cast’ your mind back.
A: If you cast your mind back, we talked briefly about the Battle of Singapore in 1942; its fall into Japanese hands, and the taking of prisoners by the Japanese Army. However, before and in the days and weeks after the fall of Singapore, there were mass evacuations of Allied servicemen, civilians, non-combatants and locals. And we’re going to get on board one of those evacuation ships and tell the controversial story of the SS Rooseboom. I would like to apologise in advance for my Dutch accent. It feels like one of those ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situations. Because, for reasons that will become clear as we move on, I don’t want to emphasise the ‘boom’ in Rooseboom too much. It doesn’t seem very sporting when you hear how she goes down. To give a little more context to the Battle of Singapore and its significance, it’s important to remember that Singapore was a big deal to Britain because… Empire.
C: Yep, we love that Empire. The Brits.
A: As we’ve already covered, the international scope of World War II and the conflict in Southeast Asia make Singapore an important Allied stronghold due to its prominence in the Pacific theatre. Because here in the UK, we only really learned about the Western Front of the World Wars, it can be easy not to know about the sheer scale of the defeat in February 1942. The British forces agreed to the largest surrender of British troops in history.
C: I did not know that.
A: You learn something new every day. And it’s not only about cannibalism. It’s often about cannibalism. Approximately 80,000 Allied forces were imprisoned and Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, imperialist, and racist–
C: Oh, he was Prime Minister? Had no idea.
A: See, I don’t just go after Charles Dickens.
A: Churchill called the Battle of Singapore– I don’t have a Churchill voice.
C: What did he sound like?
A: [In a silly gruff voice] “We shall fight them on the beaches.”
C: That’ll do.
A: [As Churchill] “The worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.
C: [Laughing] That almost started sounding a bit Cockney.
C: Bit [singing] “‘Ow do you do, my name’s Gavroche”.
A:[Laughs] [To the same tune] “Largest defeat in ‘istory.”
A: Hundreds of thousands of people were taken as prisoners of war, and many sought to escape from Japanese occupation. The comparison has been made to Dunkirk. Except while the little boats used to evacuate the Allied forces had to cross 40 miles of English Channel, at Singapore, the Japanese had control of the sea and sky surrounding the city. There was no armed support for the Allies for 500 miles, and a third of the evacuees were civilians.
C: Yeah, so I’m spotting a few differences…
A: Other than getting the hell out of dodge on a ship… I don’t want to say it’s worse than Dunkirk, but there are definitely major issues. The SS Rooseboom (I’m going to pronounce her differently every time) is one ship which joins the evacuation. Rooseboom is a Dutch owned and built steamship and she was built in 1926 as a commercial vessel. During the Second World War, the company she sailed under worked alongside the Dutch, Australian, and British fleets by assisting the movement of troops and supplies. Allegedly aboard her following the fall of Singapore are RAF bombs.
C: Fun! [Pause] Oh… Rooseboom.
A: Traditionally, Rooseboom did the coastal run between Sumatra and Java. However, after the fall of Singapore, and the continued presence of the Japanese army around the Dutch East Indies – remember, everyone’s still got an empire, not just the British – she was ordered to collect both military and civilian refugees from Padang, West Sumatra, and take them to British occupied Ceylon. Padang is pretty much the last remaining Allied outpost following the Japanese attack, and the last part of the escape route out of occupied territory. Because the town’s heaving and, I can imagine, quite desperate, I just have the imagery of Miss Saigon and the SS Roosboom is the helicopter.
C: That’s sort of where I’m going for context on this.
A: I love that scene. Anyway. There are survivors from a number of different and disparate military regiments and engagements. This simply isn’t a mass organised evacuation; it’s down to the wire.
C: Much like these episodes.
A: A lot of sources for this case are quite jumbled. Even key dates in the narrative are unknown or unclear. So I’m dependent very much on two sources: the first hand account published in 1952, called The Boat, and a modern article published by a South American military history society. (Thank you, Michael, you have been a godsend.) The number of refugees taken aboard the SS Rooseboom is unclear. It’s estimated to range between 200 to 500.
C: That’s a pretty unclear range. Yeah.
A: You can safely say it’s a lot, but just not how many.
C: It’s certainly hundreds.
A: In the hundreds.
C: The crew of the ship were a mixture of Dutch officers and Javanese men, hands and engineers, but they were vastly outnumbered by the refugees. The ship was beyond full. I don’t know her actual capacity, but there were men, women and children everywhere. “Every bit of the deck seemed to be crammed with nurses, servicemen and civilians.”
C: Oh, I forgot there were going to be children on this. It’s always worse, the ones where there are children.
A: If it makes you feel better, the children will not feature when it gets really nasty.
C: That implies to me that they’ll just die before the cannibalism happens.
A: You are correct.
C: Okay, well phew! Thank God the children die.
S: The Rooseboom also takes onboard survivors of another rescue ship, which had been sunk earlier that week. And they all appear “all in rags and dishevelled”, going from one disaster straight to another.
C: Yeah, that sucks. And presumably, there’s not much room for them on the Rooseboom.
A: Not much room for anyone. Several sources talk about men, especially high ranking officers, bullying their way onto the ship.
C: Oh, because that’s never happened before.
A: I do feel those are told with a certain amount of schadenfreude.
A: There’s no evidence either way, but– Probable, but can’t be definitively proved. With a possible total of over 500 people on board, I’m going to name only some of the key players.
C: [Laughs] Okay, thank you.
A: This entire podcast is just me reading through a list of 500 names.
C: Just list names. It’ll be like that bit in the Iliad where he just lists ships for a whole fucking chapter.
A: [Laughs] We have Captain Boon, the captain of the Rooseboom.
C: Another Boon.
A: Another Boon.
C: It’s all coming together. What does it mean? That there are multiple people called Boon?
A: Well, the one from Season One was an island.
C: It was an island.
A: No man is an island.
C: [Laughs] We’re onto something here.
A: Boon is the captain of the Rooseboom. Doris Lim is a young Chinese woman. Brigadier Paris, who had commanded a brigade in the Battle of Malaya, and had been given special status to leave early. The ultimate PE letter. ‘I don’t have to do war, my mum wrote me a note.’
A: Gertrude Nunn, an ex opera singer, the wife of Reginald Nun, a group captain who claimed to have urgent dispatches. Corporal Walter Gibson. Major Angus McDonald.
C: That’s the boy detective from The Adventure Zone. [Pause] Possibly not the same person.
A: Probably not the same character. I’ve not listened toTAZ, but let me know if there are any similarities as we carry on down. And Lieutenant-Colonel Acworth. There’s also an apocryphal tale that just as a Major was about to board the Rooseboom, Brigadier Paris says, “Sorry, full up”, and just refused to let him on.
C: And that’s not true?
A: And that man was Albert Einstein.
A: There’s no real evidence for that story. There’s definitely no evidence that it was Einstein.
A: This sort of irony carries on as, three days after setting sail, Paris makes a toast to their safe arrival in Ceylon. [In a mocking voice] “Forty-eight hours more should find us in happier and more comfortable circumstances.”
C: Famous last words.
A: Five hours later, the ship was hit by a torpedo.
C: Oh no… Boom.
A: Yeah. It’s 1 March. Well, it’s 11:50pm on 28 February, which doesn’t help with the whole timekeeping/communication information issue. A Japanese I-59 has identified the SS Rooseboom. While she’s significantly slower than the ship while submerged, it doesn’t matter, because she’s armed with eight torpedoes and her aim is true.
C: If you’ve got eight torpedoes, no one’s arguing with you.
A: I mean, the entire history of war at sea…
C: [Laughs] Okay, if you’ve got eight torpedoes, you’re probably arguing with many people.
A: There’s no record that the Japanese Navy picked up any prisoners from the stricken ship. But we do know that that did occasionally happen.
C: For example, the US pilots.
A: It only takes a few minutes for the Rooseboom to sink. The scene that would have played out in these moments is horrible. People woken up in the dead of night by an explosion, being flung from the deck into the water. The screams of the injured, the screeching of the steam engines, and the frantic bellowing of a bullock which had been on board for meat.
C: I’m returning to the Essex with the ‘pigs wouldn’t understand being at sea’. That Bullock does not know what’s going on.
A: It doesn’t understand what a torpedo is, it probably can’t swim. It’s not having a happy time.
C: I suppose the same could be said of the children on the ship as well. So now I feel like areshole.
A: Reginald Nunn, who, while belowdecks, broke through a porthole window, lifted up his wife and pushed her through to safety. Rex (as he was known) would not survive the sinking, and drowned aboard ship. There had been four lifeboats aboard, but the crew hardly had time to launch any of them
C: Because of the torpedo.
A: Because of the torpedo. Yep. Within minutes, it was over. Just people and refuse in the water. For some of the victims, this was their second torpedo strike in as many weeks.
A: Yeah. British records talk of the high seas and strong winds in the area. And this disaster, taking place at near midnight, means that people were struggling in the darkness. They just had to wait until dawn. An exchange on a piece of wreckage. “Do you mind if I share your piece of wood?” “By all means, old man.” So there’s a little bit of fun British– I just love that quote.
A: It feels quite Monty Python.
C: It’s like the opposite of the necessity defence, where if you’re both hanging on to a piece of wood, it’s cool to shove the other one off. Like, the complete polite British reversal of that.
A: Polite Britishness does feature in this story. It winds down eventually.
C: When they start eating each other?
A: When they start eating each other. Later, two (or four) Malay (or Javanese) survivors are picked up by the Palopo, a Dutch ship. Two of these men are named as Jattemo and Dai, but the fact that we don’t know how many of them were picked up from a homemade raft of air tanks and a sarong, shows how – bad pun incoming – at sea we are, when it comes to the facts.
A: The look that Carmella just gave me could have turned me to stone.
C: That was bad.
A: Until the end of World War II, these people are believed to be the only survivors of the SS Rooseboom. But one of those lifeboats had been launched, and it’s to that boat that we’re heading to now. The main body of this story only has one first hand account. There’s only one witness and there’s no corroborating evidence left behind. This is, of course, a little suspicious. Not necessarily that our sole survivor committed all or any of the acts, but that we have no way of verifying any element of the published story – a story which spans 26 horrifying days, and first being recorded in depth ten years after it takes place.
C: Yeah… Well, I guess that we just have to go with the facts that we have. We’ve definitely done episodes based on the less!
A: [Laughs] The wooden lifeboat is 25 feet long by five feet wide. It’s designed to hold 28 people. The morning after the sinking, there are 80 people crammed onboard, with many more in the water, clinging to the sides or floating debris nearby.
C: This is sounding quite Medusa.
A: I have the feeling you’re going to be saying that a worrying amount.
C: Oh, okay. This is sounding like Medusa but depressing.
A: [Laughs] The lifeboat itself has a hole in the port bow. That’s the front left.
C: [Unconvincingly] Uh, I know that!
A: This isn’t exactly helpful. They repair this hole with tins, socks and shirts stuffed into it.
C: Use what you can, I guess!
A: The lifeboat was without a paddle by morning, so there was nothing that the roughly 135 survivors could do but drift.
A: For the people in the water, the circumstances were dire, but it wasn’t really any better for the 80 who’d made their way on board. There was so little room that everyone was standing, else they’d fall. They even had to sleep and doze on their feet, or else they were liable to slip and drown in the gathered six inch bilgewater at the bottom of the boat.
C: I mean, I feel like you’re also liable to slip and drown if you’re trying to sleep while standing up.
A: I have the feeling you’re not going to be surprised by our final survivor tally.
A: Attempts are made to enforce order and discipline to save as many lives as possible. We’ve already talked about the Medusa, so I think we can say that, at least for now, people are trying to do the right thing.
C: Yes, I would say that they’re on a better heading so far.
A: Nice nautical phrasing.
A: I’m very proud.
C: That was intentional.
A: Brigadier Paris, as the highest ranked officer, takes command of discipline. And Boon as the captain of the sunk vessel is given command of the lifeboat and takes up position at the tiller, the only means of steering they have. Paris somehow manages to command respect, despite the fact that he’d climbed into the lifeboat naked.
C: [Laughs] I mean, maybe you’ve got to respect that.
A: Another officer ends up giving him a shirt, and that’s all he’s got to wear.
C: [Laughs] That’s not the end you need to cover.
A: Their ship was torpedoed at midnight; everyone was sleeping.
C: Ah, and he sleeps in the nude. I guess.
A: That’s the logical thing to extrapolate from the facts given.
C: The moral of the story is that you should always sleep completely fully dressed, just in case you get torpedoed in the night.
A: I’ll bear that in mind.
C: It’s what I do.
A: At this point, it’s believed that they are going to be rescued. Their absence will be noted because Rooseboom was expected to make port in Ceylon, so within four days, someone should come looking for them. An inventory is taken – a staple of a sensible survival cannibalism scenario.
C: And always really useful for us because then we can see what they have on board.
A: See, these people are considerate.
C: Thank you.
A: For over 100 people, they have 48 tins of bully beef, two tins of fried rice, 48 of condensed milk, and six bottles of fresh water.
C: So that’s enough to feed them for like a day.
A: They make it last a few more days. Acworth is put in charge of rationing, and orders that each person receive one tablespoon of water at sun-up and a spoonful of milk at night. One tin of beef will be shared between 12 people each day. This does work out for four days.
C: Are they like the big ration tins, or they like the tins you’d buy in Morrisons?
A: More ration tin than Morrisons.
C: That makes more sense. I was like, [Incredulously] ‘One tin for 12 people? Okay.’
A: They’re able to be surprisingly accurate with their measurements. It just so happens that one of the women aboard the lifeboat “produced of all surprising things, a tablespoon”.
C: Ahh, wonderful!
A: Women’s handbags are miraculous places. She also has some “thirst quenching tablets”, whatever they are.
C: Oh, like a Polo?
A: Surely that’s just a mint.
C: I think mints are thirst quenching, aren’t they?
A: Are they?
C: Like, it doesn’t cause you to hydrate but, you know, it just gets rid of the dry sensation because you’re sucking it.
A: I never knew that. It sounds right. For once, these low supplies aren’t the fault of poor planning. Captain Boon had placed supplies of food, water, emergency gear, and a medical kit on each lifeboat. But during the chaos of the night, almost everything had been thrown overboard.
C: And of course you’re expecting way fewer people on the lifeboat than there actually are.
A: Acworth instructs every able-bodied man to spend four hours swimming alongside the boat per day. This is so they can rotate who uses up their energy the fastest and ensures the boat isn’t so crowded and unstable. Men who have been injured during the sinking. such as Corporal Gibson with a broken collarbone, are exempt from this duty. A few eager sharks circle the boat, but the men shout at them to go away.
C: [Laughs] And it works?
A: It works.
C: There you go.
A: This would hurt my feelings if I was a shark.
A: There are only three women aboard: Gertrude Nunn, whose husband pushed her out to porthole; Doris Lim, and “a large, stour, fair-haired woman of thirty of so […] carrying a handbag”.
C: With a tablespoon?
A: She of the tablespoon. At first, there is a little gentlemanly behaviour. The men are ordered to look to the bows when the women need to relieve themselves. It’s not a problem for long, considering the water supply issue.
A: A small raft with four people on – other survivors – is seen: three soldiers and a woman whose leg has been blown off.
A: One of the soldiers, Major Angus McDonald, had a flask which he’d hoped had water, but instead contained brandy.
C: Hey! Still good.
A: So he drank it, which, you know, fair pla. Lieutenant Colonel Douglas swims from this raft, accusing McDonald of “not being in his proper senses–
C: Aka drunk?
A: On account of the “heat, thirst and exposure.” Douglas makes his way to the boat, is given some of their precious supplies. But that night, there’s a commotion. A scuffle. “Put him over before he tips the boat up.” Douglas is ejected into the water. Later, that raft is seen floating empty.
C: Okay, so it doesn’t go well for them past that point.
A: As the first full night comes up, many people – especially those in the water – just start to give up and let go.
A: The next morning, someone comes up with the idea of making a raft and towing it along.
C: Oh, I’ve heard this one before!
A: I told you there’d be a few Medusa-esque elements. Don’t people learn from history? Perhaps this is inspired by the raft that Douglas had swum from, but the idea is to ease overcrowding on the lifeboat. About 20 men, (quote) “including two or three of the Javanese seamen”, gather the materials needed and create a semi-functional raft.
C: What materials do they have that they can use to make a raft with?
A: They’ve still got the debris that’s floated up from the sinking, so there’s quite a lot of random wreckage about.
C: Okay, that makes sense.
A: It’s time for an aside about the snide racism of the 1950s.
C: Always relevant.
A: Our survivor does often take pains to point out the rare efforts of the Javanese seamen. In terms of the numbers aboard the SS Rooseboom, the majority are going to be white refugees, because of how the emergency evacuation of military forces works. So they’re going to outnumber the Javanese sailors from the ship, regardless of the personal opinions of the author. If it seems like the Javanese sailors aren’t pulling their weight, there are significantly less of them aboard than white military. Once the raft is made, it is so heavily loaded that it sits under the waterline.
C: That’s kind of the opposite of what you want a raft to do.
A: Yeah, it’s like one of those noodles when you’re–
C: [Laughs] Yeah.
A: A child in a swimming pool and try and stand on the float under the water. 20 men clamber onto it, and they start to disappear one by one. After three days, the raft is cut away, empty.
A: The last survivor having been pulled aboard the boat and dying that day.
C: So, raft… Bad idea. Didn’t work.
A: Very much did not work, but gave them something to do.
C: I guess if the purpose of the raft was to ease overcrowding aboard the lifeboat, in that case, it did work.
A: Harsh, but fair. Our survivor writes that “the thirst was worse than the hunger”, and by the second day, people had already resorted to drinking seawater and urine.
C: Don’t do that.
A: Such is the power of the human mind, that briefly the men were able to convince themselves that the sea water was fresh.
C: [Laughs] Yeah.
A: It wasn’t. Drinking sea water only hastens their suffering. People aboard the boat who drink too much either go mad or fall into comas. The heat is intense. And while there’s limited relief when taking turns in the water, swimming is exhausting, and some people are left in the water as the boat drifts out of range.
C: Oh, that’s depressing.
A: This entire story isn’t one of our laugh-a-minute episodes. Conditions are appalling. Most people at some point during the voyage hallucinate a ship on the horizon. Others fall further into their own minds. By the end of the first week, Brigadier Paris turns to his aid and says, “I say, let’s go along to the club for a drink.”
C: It’s not funny, because it’s obviously a horrible hallucination, but also– [Laughs] It’s just so British, right?
A: It’s incredibly British. What’s also British is Captain Blackwood, his aid: “Better make it later, Sir.”
A: Paris falls into a coma and dies, and Blackwood falls into unconsciousness the next day and drowns in the bilge water.
C: Oh, nasty.
A: For some reason that– Oh, it’s so much–
C: It’s worse than drowning in the sea.
A: It’s much worse than drowning in the sea. Dirk, the husband of the unnamed woman, sits bolt upr–
A: [Laughs] Leave Dirk alone! Dirk sits bolt upright from where he’d been resting his head in his wife’s lap and shouts that he is “going to swim, find help”, and dives overboard.
C: I’m going to assume that he does not find help.
A: He does not find help.
C: Does he find death?
A: He finds death.
A: To make it worse, tempers and suspicions are flaring. Are the rations fair? What about the people that disappear in the night? People just letting go is one thing, but people who had been troublesome during the day start to go missing after the sun sets.
C: Ah, so the people you want to fall overboard are the ones who do? Mysterious.
A: “That was the way it was happening. People just disappeared in the night, and we met their departure with a dull acceptance. No one asked any questions.” Just in case we want this to feel more like a horror film.
C: Yeah, this is pretty isolation horror.
A: Thoughts turn to five men from the same regiment who have banded together. There’s a rumour that they’re deserters, and they’re looking quite suspicious. I’m imagining them with their collars turned up, having shifty eyes–
C: Rubbing their hands together in a scheming fashion?
A: Exactly. By this point, however, most people are pretty much naked, using their clothes instead to shelter their heads from the sun. One of these furtive men is Liverpudlian, and described as, I quote, “not bad looking”, which is a bit of an odd thing to point out in this memoir.
C: [Laughs] Are you going to be doing a Liverpudlian accent?
A: He never speaks. So I’m safe.
A: I didn’t kill him.
C: [Laughs] Oh, so you say.
A: [Laughs] There’s a storm during the third night, and while people try and bail the boat out, there’s panic, struggling and more screaming, because these five men have been a murder gang, throwing others overboard to try and make rations stretch further. And then, on the fourth day, rations are cut. Only hours after the death of Brigadier Paris, Captain Boon, still at the tiller, is in command of the vessel. Especially considering Paris’s death, he is in a period of responsibility aboard the stricken lifeboat.
A: One of his engineering officers stabs him in the chest.
C: Cool, cool, cool, cool.
A: As the murderer jumps overboard, he attempts to grab the remaining rations. He fails. Mrs Gertrude Nunn, by this point, has taken up the mantle of ‘mother of the boat’.
C: Oh, I don’t like that.
A: See, I was thinking about this and it does seem very stereotypical. But then, if trying to help people is something that you want to do to make yourself feel better. I don’t– Do you know what I’m saying?
C: I’m not saying it’s wrong for her to be taking that role. I’m just saying, like, ‘Oh yeah, mother of the boat… Because she’s a woman.’
A: She tends to the sick and the injured and the dying. She probably does more for morale than everyone else combined.
C: So not ‘doctor of the boat’, or ‘First Aider of the boat’. ‘Mascot of the boat’.
A: That’s worse!
C: [Laughs] Okay, yeah. Okay.
A: When her “unhappy boys” – andoOkay, that one you can have – ask her if they’re going to be rescued, she almost chides them, saying, “Of course, don’t doubt it. The one important thing is that we should keep a grip on ourselves.”
C: That is important.
A: Understatement of the century.
A: Gertrude leads the boat in a religious service as, of the debris on the lifeboat, surprisingly there’s a Bible. And Gertrude reads, leading her makeshift congregation in prayer and song.
C: So not ‘pastor of the boat’. I’m getting off– I’ll get off this. I’m not on it anywhere.
A: [Laughs] On the hymn sheet for this day is ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ and ‘Abide with Me’.
A: Quite depressing… No, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’ is the Vicar of Dibley theme, that one’s alright.
A: ‘Abide with Me’ is depressing. Gertrude had been an opera singer. I’m imagining this is quite a spectacle. She’s standing there amid a boat full of starved, shipwrecked sailors, topless, using her skirts to shelter from the heat of the sun, sunburnt and blackened with a hoarse voice, singing.
A: The bit coming up, this is where you want your sexism to go.
C: [Laughs] Okay.
A: [Laughs] You know how you’re talking about Gertrude as the mother of the boat?
A: Just wait. “Each and all of us felt almost physically drawn towards Mrs Nunn”. When this story was told to a prison camp psychiatrist, they said that this was an “urge to return to the safety of the womb.”
C: Oh, very Freudian.
A: I hate that.
A: By the eighth day, they’ve run out of water. Colonel Ackworth just goes missing. And from 135 people, they’re down to approximately 50.
C: I have a theory about where he goes.
A: Is it the sea?
C: Yes, that was my theory.
A: Alright Sherlock Holmes.
A: And then Gertrude dies. Because we’re working from just one source, it’s the death of Gertrude Nunn which gives us our first oblique survival cannibalism reference, as the, quote, “dreadful things that had been happening to the others who died and whose bodies remained in the boat” was known. So Gibson and Doris Lim, quote, “get her over the side quickly […] before the evil band in the bows knew that she had died.”
C: Ah, so she dies, and then they say, ‘Actually, cannibalism has already been happening. We don’t want it to happen to her.’
C: Okay. Selfish. I mean, why withhold a body, but whatever.
A: Gertrude Nunn is buried at sea. The accusation of cannibalism is very much charged at the murder gang, being the only people aboard who at this point have had any inclination towards cannibalism.
C: I love ‘murder gang’. They sound cool.
A: They’re the murder squad. Murder gang. The implication being that many of the bodies which had remained on the boat had suffered a similar fate to the fate imagined for Gertrude, and that perhaps some of the struggles overheard in the night had been murder for food. By now, all of the Dutch officers of the Rooseboom have been lost and there are no senior army officers. Corporal Gibson took over control of the rations since the death of Blackwood. It’s now that the Javanese sailors – presumably from Rooseboom, although perhaps there were Javanese civilians also fleeing from the invading forces – were the only people on board with any maritime experience.
C: Good, this is going to go well.
A: The oldest of them takes over control of the tiller after Boon’s death, and there is no opposition to this.
C: I like the idea that they didn’t do it based on merit. They just did that classic board game thing of the oldest goes first.
A: [Laughs] So not the Cards Against Humanity rule?
A: The horror film vibes continue. The murder gang getting stronger, more powerful and more daring. In broad daylight, one of them uses a broken bit of beef tin to slit a man’s throat.
C: Pretty daring.
A: “They had, as far as we knew, tried to drink the blood of the people who had died, and had found it impossible. Now they were trying butchery.”
C: It’s happened before. You gotta drink.
A: ‘As far as we knew’.
C: That’s true.
A: And so a ‘them or us’ attack is organised on the murder gang. A struggle ensues, resulting in the murder gang – I’m doing this so dramatically – resulting in the murder gang being pushed overboard, their clinging fingers to the boat being hammered until they let go.
C: They died doing what they loved. Being murdered.
A: Good for them.
A: Even more than in the rest of the story, days haze and merge into each other. “It was just a case of another man fading out,” as recorded in The Boat. The survivors are given one moment of good fortune: it rains.
C: Yay, water!
A: They collect fresh water in the empty bottles, and then they are able to catch some sea birds, with seven gulls being caught and eaten raw.
A: “Nothing left but feathers”. From 80 survivors crammed onto the open boat, there are now seven.
A: Two British soldiers; Doris Lim; and four Javanese seamen. In what is recorded as an unprovoked attack, the British gunner, “a fine, wide-shouldered fellow”–
A: Another Bills & Boon candidate – is killed by three of the Javanese.
C: [Laughing] That was a rollercoaster. ‘Ha ha. Fine and broad shouldered! He’s killed.’ You make me feel bad for objectifying these people in our survival cannibalism narratives, Alix.
A: Life’s a bitch.
A: He’s killed using the rowlocks – the U-shaped bits that hold the oars in place when you go boating.
C: Oh yes, I know the man. [Pause] I know of them.
A: And then he was cut open with a tin can knife. This bit’s a little bit nasty, pre-warning. The murderer “plunged his hand into the wound… and pulled out something dripping with blood, into which he dug his teeth […] Blood dripped from their faces as, still chewing, they grinned horribly at us. One of them shouted and proffered something he held in his hands. All we could do was shake our heads.”
C: Yep, yep, yep of course. That old gem.
A: A likely story. That night, the oldest Javanese man, who had been described as “kindly”, dies.
C: He was the one who was in control of the boat?
A: He was the one in control of the tiller. While his fellows mourned him, Gibson throws the rowlocks overboard. Gibson and Doris try to keep a watch over the remaining three men, but at some point during the night, Gibson is woken up by one of the Javanese men. Not with violence, but because he’s indicating the shallows and the sound of surf breaking over corals.
A: After drifting over 1,000 miles, taking nearly 28 days and costing hundreds of lives, the lifeboat makes land. The island they’ve reached is a mere 100 miles from Padang, their starting destination.
A: The five of them stagger to shore, animosity seemingly forgotten, and one of the Javanese men drowns in the surf. Although they don’t know it yet, they’ve made their way to Sipura. The two remaining Javanese men disappear off into the jungle. Doris and Gibson are first spotted by members of the Mentawais tribe, who take them by canoe to a Malay village further down the coast. For six weeks, Gibson and Doris are fed and sheltered, before a Japanese contingent arrive and take them captive.
C: So they didn’t avoid the whole thing they were trying to avoid in the first place?
A: 79 days after they left Padang, they return as prisoners.
C: That really hurts.
A: During interrogation, Gibson is told that Doris has been shot for being a spy. And it does appear that the 19-year-old was a spy; she’d been working for British Intelligence in Northern China.
A: However, she hadn’t been shot – this seems to have been said to demoralise Gibson. Her eventual fate isn’t much better. Spy and shipwreck survivor Doris Lim will be murdered by her husband. Gibson is a POW for the rest of the war, before returning to the UK and giving testimony as to the fate of the SS Rooseboom, and publishing the book The Boat. For those back at home, the lack of news and the slow spread of information was devastating. In a fitting, if depressing example, Mary Gladstone’s Largie Castle, which tells the story of her uncle Angus McDonald, gives and anecdote of post office workers drawing lots to see who will deliver the telegrams to military families.
C: So there is some casting of lots in this episode!
A: There is.
C: Just not about cannibalism.
A: Just not about the cannibalism. The question, however, remains: what happened on board the lifeboat? There’s only one source, the memory of Gibson.
C: And of course Gibson didn’t do any murders or eat any people or do anything wrong ever.
A: Well, he did do that murder of the murder gang, but he had to defend everyone else.
C: That was a justified murder, that was self defence, right?
A: Yeah. Although he does put in his own memoir some of his less reputable actions – I’ll paraphrase this, but it does say he’s struck by a ‘manly urge’ at some point and stops because Doris says “please let me die in peace.”
C: [Horrified] Oh God!
A: He puts that in writing in his own book.
C: So he does not think that’s that big of a character defamation…
A: It doesn’t get very far, according to him, but–
C: That’s… awful.
A: Yeah. Gladstone is very cynical when it comes to Gibson, pointing out that he claimed to be of a higher rank and published his story for financial gain. She asks “who is to know if Gibson joined in” with the cannibalism, and raises the fact that Gibson took command of the rations.
C: Hmm, very good points.
A: Did I mention that Gladstone is the niece of Major McDonald, and is really, really, really unhappy that Gibson published any account at all? [Pause] I hope she doesn’t listen to this podcast.
A: The reason she’s so unhappy is that Gibson’s account doesn’t sugar-coat any of the suffering, and I want to say that it’s not a moral failing to suffer, to die, to have an ignoble end. I actually think it’s disingenuous to the very real suffering and the real bravery and tragedy and horror not to tell that real story.
C: Yeah. You don’t want this whole [posh voice] ‘Oh, stiff upper lip, British chaps on a boat die nobly’.
A: That’s the reason I included that little exchange between Blackwood and Paris, and then contrasting it with Blackwood’s horrible, tragic death.
C: [Agreeing] Hmm.
A: There is disconnect in the few surviving records, though. For example, Australian documents make it clear that when the small group of raft survivors are collected, “they were [quote] surrounded by much wreckage and many bodies seen”, yet the lifeboat wasn’t in sight and these men never made reference to seeing one.
A: In fact, because we only have Gibson’s account, we can’t with any certainty say what happened, when, how; we can’t confirm who led, who gave up, who persevered; who had British stiff upper lip. We just don’t know. Gibson alleges that, before he died, Brigadier Paris was going to recommend him for a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
C: Oh of course, of course.
A: And we can’t know exactly how the survival cannibalism went down. Let’s remember from the Essex and the Donner Party about exo- and endo-cannibalism, that pre-existing communities (be they ethnic groups or friends) support each other. So it’s not surprise that men from the same regiment would band together, or that Javanese sailors would look after their own interests. But that’s not quite the same thing as the only people who murder or do cannibalism are the ‘Others’ on the boat.
A: There is no way of knowing. Gibson died in 2005, Lim was murdered, and the two surviving Javanese men were never found or identified. I don’t have a fun ending for this one, but a full – or nearly full – list of all of those who are believe to have been on board the SS Rooseboom can be found on the South African Military History Society’s article, which will be in the show notes. There are a lot of names.
[Outro Music – Daniel Wackett]
C: Thank you for listening to today’s episode on the SS Rooseboom. Another reason not to spend World War II in the Pacific.
A: Join is next time for an unfortunate colony and Carmella’s patented French accent.
C: Which is also unfortunate!
[Outro music continues]
A: Casting Lots Podcast can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr as @CastingLotsPod, and on Facebook as Casting Lots Podcast.
C: If you enjoyed this episode and want to hear more, don’t forget to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, and please rate, review and share to bring more people to the table.
A: Casting Lots: A Survival Cannibalism Podcast, is researched, written and recorded by Alix and Carmella, with post-production and editing also by Carmella and Alix. Art and logo design by Riley – @Tallestfriend on Twitter and Instagram – with audio and music by Daniel Wackett – Daniel Wackett on SoundCloud and @ds_wack on Twitter. Casting Lots is part of the Morbid Audio Podcast Network – search #MorbidAudio on Twitter – and the network’s music is provided by Mikaela Moody – mikaelamoody1 on Bandcamp.
[Morbid Audio Sting – Mikaela Moody]