On Saturday June 24, 1944, the American submarine USS Tang had in its sights a convey of 11 Japanese ships escorted by four corvettes.
Submarines, hunting in wolf packs, were now the American’s main weapon against Japan and their supply lines.
Despite the Americans being aware of the convoy, its locations etc., it is unlikely that they were aware that as part of the convoy were three vessels carrying prisoners of war.
Among this convey was the Tamahoko Maru, a vessel of 6780 tonnes with 772 Allied prisoners of war housed in the forward between-decks under No. 2 and 3 hatches along with a cargo of bauxite and 500 Japanese soldiers.
The number of Allies included 41 officers and 737 other ranks.
Among these were 267 Australian soldiers including 65 Tasmanian members of the 2/40th Battalion and a further seven members from Victoria.
Early in 1944, the Japanese authorities decided to send 10,000 of their fittest prisoners of war to Japan to boost their labour force – working in factories, mines and on the wharves unloading ships.
By May members of the 2/40th Battalion were scattered among several different camps in Java.
This did not stop the Japanese rounding up men for the next draft and on May 19, 105 men left Tanjong Priok (Jakarta) for Singapore destined for Japan.
The draft embarked on the Kiska Maru on the morning of May 19, 1944 sailing for Singapore via Banka Strait and arriving at Keppel Harbour three days later.
Here the men were transported on lorries to Havelock Road Camp where they remained until June 2 when they were marched back to the docks and loaded onto the Tamahoko Maru.
On the way to Manila Bay, their next port of call, one of the corvettes was torpedoed on the night of June 6, leaving all very apprehensive of being attacked. At Takao the cargo of bauxite was unloaded before leaving again for Formosa on June 20, 1944.
Kapok life belts were provided, but not issued despite protests. Access to the hold was by wooden ladders under each hatch.
At 11.50pm on June 24, about 40 miles south-west of Nagasaki ,the men were awoken by the explosion as another ship in the convoy was torpedoed.
Within seconds another hit the Tamahoko Maru just forward of the bridge on the starboard side, blowing the covers off the hatches.
Many were on board were killed in the explosion or by falling debris with the men below decks being washed out to sea.
It has been estimated that the boat sank in less than two minutes.
On board were John and Fred Cooper and Bruce and Maurice Keating. Two sets of brothers from the 2/40th Battalion.
Wilfred, or Fred, Cooper was a farm labourer at Lower Wilmot who had enlisted on July 4, 1940. His older brother Jack, a share farmer from Wilmot enlisted 12 days later. They were the youngest sons of Peter and Harriet Cooper of Wilmot.
Maurice Keating, who was just 19 years of age, enlisted on September 16, 1940.
At the time of enlistment, he stated that he was unemployed, which may have provided the motivation needed to enlist.
He was not joined by his older brother Bruce until May 19, 1941.
Bruce was employed as a builder’s labourer. He was the fourth of 10 children born to John and Sarah Keating of Campania.
The day after the sinking of the Tamahoko Maru, an escort picked up the Japanese soldiers leaving the prisoners of war in the water. The survivors would later be picked up by a small whaling boat.
Just 212 survivors were later taken to Nagasaki and then to Fukuoka 14 to work. Among survivors were 24 from the 2/40th Battalion, the remainder, including the Cooper and Keating brothers, drowned.
They were among 25 sets of brothers who enlisted and served with the 2/40th Battalion, 51 in total including three Burr brothers. Four were killed in action on February 21 and 22, 1942. Four managed to survive and return to Australia by mid-1942.
Forty-three of the brothers would be taken prisoner of war – out of this number 17 died while prisoners of war.
Apart from the Cooper and Keating brothers, a further 13 from this group drowned when the boat they were travelling on was torpedoed, with four either dying of illness or wounds while a prisoner of war.
John and Sarah Keating and Peter and Harriet Cooper were not the only couples to lose both sons. Eight other sets of brothers died either killed in action or while prisoners of war.
Trevor Gill died at Tai Camp from cardio beri-beri on August 12, 1943 and was later buried at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery Thailand.
His younger brother Malcolm arrived in Thailand in May 1943 and on September 14 died either from cholera or dysentery and was also buried in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. The family at Exeter were not notified of the deaths of the brothers until mid-February 1945, when they received a letter from the Officer in Charge Tasmania Echelon and Records.
The 2/40th Battalion lost 264 of its 920 or so members during the war. Of the 264 men who did not survive, the vast majority died after being captured. Along with this number was a further 82 men who had served with Sparrow Force.
A memorial to those who drowned on the Tamahoko Maru can be found at Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore.
- Andrea Gerrard OAM MA is the curator of the 12/40ths Royal Tasmanian Regiment Collection