A miraculous escape
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A miraculous escape

A new book details the homeward journey of Thai students on Japanese military transport ships targeted by US submarines

Miraculous Escape From The Perils Of War: 204 Thais Returning Home From The Philippines In 1942. Photos: Woraphat Arthayukti
Miraculous Escape From The Perils Of War: 204 Thais Returning Home From The Philippines In 1942. Photos: Woraphat Arthayukti

More than 200 Thai students were studying in the Philippines when the Pacific War broke out on Dec 8, 1941. But when Thailand signed a military alliance with Japan, several of those students were arrested by the Philippine Constabulary as members of a Fifth Column.

Some were released only after a few hours of detention, although one group spent a night at Bilibid prison in Manila before being released. Prof Francis Bowes Sayre, the US High Commissioner to the Philippines, a close friend of Siam, played a role in making sure Thai students would not be interned.

On the first day of the war, soldiers were sent to safeguard all the banks, and large withdrawals were not allowed. Manila was in total chaos, and some were leaving in vehicles full to the hilt while others left on ships towards the south. The streets were full of military vehicles with combat equipment going to unknown destinations and most people were reading newspapers that reported heavy bombings in the north.

On the first night of the war, Manila experienced its first Japanese attack when nine bombers accompanied by fighter planes targeted Nicols Field in the suburbs of Manila, which caused the population of Manila to wake up at 3am to take shelter.

Then on Dec 10, bombers accompanied by fighters attacked Manila targets in early afternoon, with 27 bombers destroying the US Cavite Naval Base. Pacha Osathanond, the assistant to the American superintendent of the Thai students, was having lunch when he saw these bomber formations over Manila. He thought that would be his last day on Earth, as he did not think he would survive. But fortunately, the planes were not targeting the civilian population.

Everybody in Manila was stocking food for their families, and prices rose. As the student office was unable to give the stranded Thais their stipends, they had to sell things like their watches, cameras and other personal items to pool their money and live together to save on expenses.

The Thai students witnessed Imperial Japanese Army soldiers, riding bicycles, capture Manila on Jan 2, 1942. They then lived under Japanese occupation for six months until being repatriated. After the capture of Manila, Japanese military visited the Thai student office, and staff there requested living expenses from them. The stipend they received helped them survive until their repatriation to Bangkok.

The students boarded a Japanese army transport in Manila on June 22, 1942, along with 300 Japanese soldiers, bound for Takao Harbor in Formosa.

Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram welcomes the Thai students at Government House, in 1942. photo:

On the morning of June 25, while in an 11-vessel convoy, the Kunitama Maru in which the students were travelling was hit by two torpedoes, but they did not explode. Once in Takao Harbor, the students were moved to the Aden Maru, another army transport, before heading to Penghu, in the Pescadores Islands, to pick up another group of Japanese troops heading for the Philippines.

The Aden Maru returned to Manila before the ship left for Saigon with only the Thai students on board. They encountered bad weather and heavy seas. On July 26 on a Full Moon evening near the French Indochina coast, Japanese on watch duty saw four torpedoes coming towards the Aden Maru.

The captain was able to turn the ship so the first two torpedoes missed her, but the second pair headed directly towards the ship. Those on board heard the torpedoes scrape the hull and pass by without exploding, after which they saw a school of sharks following the Aden Maru. The ship finally berthed in Saigon and the students disembarked to be greeted by Thai Consul General Luang Prasert Maitri, who had organised for them to be repatriated overland by truck and train to Bangkok.

The students arrived at Hua Lamphong train station on the evening of Aug 3, 1942 and after being greeted by Luang Wichitwathakan, the minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Rajthani Hotel within the train station, they were joyfully reunited with their families who had been unsure of their fate following the news that the ship they were on had been torpedoed and sunk.

Miraculous Escape From The Perils Of War: 204 Thais Returning Home From The Philippines In 1942 will be released by Siam Society on Aug 3.

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