BLACKMAN, Harry Edwin. Private (6141461)
2nd Battalion, East Surrey Regiment
Died 12 September 1944, aged 26
Harry was born in Q4 1918, the first child of Harry Edwin Blackman and Cecilia Fanny (née Chapman - they had married Q1 1918). Both their marriage and Harry's birth were registered in the Sevenoaks District. The parents had three more children - Derek (Q3 1922), Daphne (Q3 1927) and Denis (Q2 1929) - all of whose births were registered in the Lewes District.
By the time of the September 1939 Register, the family had moved to the Borough and were recorded living at 54 Parklawn Avenue, Epsom. 44 year old Harry senior is listed as a "GPO Clerk" and 45 year old Cecelia with the conventional "Unpaid Domestic Duties". Harry junior was not at home since he is likely already to have been in uniform. 17 year old Derek is listed an "Errand Boy", and the 12 and 10 year olds were at school.
Harry's WW2 service was in the 2nd Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment which, in 1941, was stationed in Malaya. It suffered very heavy losses in seeking to repel the Japanese invasion and was eventually overrun. The survivors - including Harry - were taken prisoners of war. It seems clear that, as a PoW, Harry was forced to work on the southern end of the notorious Burma-Siam railway. This Japanese project to improve support for their large army in Burma was aptly called the "Death Railway". During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted locally.
While Harry survived that experience, the East Surrey Regiment's Roll of Honour records not only was Harry a prisoner of war but also notes that he died on 12 September 1944 in the loss of the Kachidoki Maru. There is a particularly tragic story here.
After the Burma-Siam railway was completed in in late 1943, many of the POWs and conscripted local labour were, even though suffering from the effects of severe malnutrition and tropical diseases, selected to be transported from Singapore to jobs elsewhere. In Harry's case the destination was Japanese-held Formosa (modern-day Taiwan). He and others were transported crammed into the holds of ships, where the horrendous conditions were described as worse than those of previous centuries' slave ships.
The ship on which Harry was being transported, the Kachidoki Maru, was built in 1920 as a combined passenger and cargo vessel for the United States Shipping Board at New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden, New Jersey. Originally called Wolverine State, she was renamed President Harrison in 1922 and, after a year operating around the Americas, was transferred to the Dollar Steamship Lines and sailed on their round-the-world passenger service.
In 1941, the ship was requisitioned by the United States Navy and, in late November was used to evacuate the 4th US Marines from Shanghai (which was under Japanese occupation since the 1937 Battle of Shanghai). Having transported them to the Philippines, she was sent in early December to Chingwangtao (near modern-day Beijing) to pick up about 300 Marines of the Peking and Tientsin Legation Guards plus some 1400 tons of equipment for return to Manila.
In the early hours of 8 December 1941, when the President Harrison was passing Shanghai, it received a signal about the attack on Pearl Harbor and the state of war that thus existed between Japan and the USA. By mid-morning, the ship was being pursued by a Japanese vessel and harried by aircraft. Later that day, the President Harrison's master, Captain Orel Pierson, deliberately ran the ship aground on Shaweishan Island at 16 knots to rip her bottom out and deny her use to the Japanese. While the impact ripped a hole 90 feet long, the ship did not sink before settling on a nearby mudbank. The crew were taken prisoners of war. The Japanese made the President Harrison seaworthy again and took her to Shanghai for repairs to the hull. Eventually renamed the Kachidoki Maru, the ship was then used by the Japanese for the transport of both people and cargo as part of their overall military operations.
The SS President Harrison as the Kachidoki Maru.
On 6 September, the Kachidoki Maru set sail from Singapore as part of convoy HI-72 bound for Japan. As well as PoWs, the ships were carrying important supplies for the Japanese war effort, including oil, rubber and bauxite, making the convoy a target for Allied attacks.
Late on 12 September 1944, when the convoy was in the Luzon Strait, it was attached a wolfpack consisting of three US submarines (Growler, Pampanito and Sealion). Presumably unaware of the PoWs on board, USS Pampanito (SS-383) torpedoed the Kachidoki Maru which led to its slow sinking. While over 500 PoWs and crew were picked up by the Japanese escorts, 431 PoWs - including Harry - 45 troops and 12 crewmen were killed. (Another ship in the convoy, Rakuyo Maru, was torpedoed by USS Sealion and sank with 1,159 PoWs killed.)
American submarines later returned to the area and rescued 159 survivors who gave the Allies the first eyewitness accounts about conditions in camps on the Thailand-Burma railway.
Harry is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial, which stands in the Kranji War Cemetery, some 13 miles north of the city of Singapore. This carries the names of over 24,000 casualties of Commonwealth WW2 land and air forces who have no known grave.
The Singapore Memorial (rear) in the Kranji War Cemetery
Picture with thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Roger Morgan © 2018
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