I wrote a while back about David Castle who died at Tobruk during the Second World War. He grew up with his cousin Dick, who also served and also died. Dick was the youngest of three boys, the apple of his mother’s eye; in looking through his family photo albums you can see the sudden change in his mother’s face from pre-war happiness to sorrow. She died of a heart attack only six years after Dick.
Dick had been planning to go to
. His older brothers had followed the family path to university studies, and rather looked down on their baby brother's less academic aspirations. But I think Dick was lucky – his brothers having fulfilled family expectations, he was free to do something different, something he really wanted to do. (Maybe I’m just projecting!) Agricultural College
Aircraftman 1st Class RF Salter (1921-1944)
on leave at the family home, Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, 1941
Anyway, the war came along and instead Dick signed up with the RAF. He served as Aircraftman 1st Class with 62 Squadron and was posted to
, where he was taken prisoner by the Japanese when the island fell in February 1942. For the next two years he was (I believe) put to work in a series of Japanese POW labour camps, in the sort of conditions portrayed in the film “Bridge Over The River Kwai” about the building of the Singapore railway. Burma
In September 1944 he was on board the unmarked SS Junyo Maru, a ship carrying English, Dutch, Australian and American prisoners along with enslaved Javanese workers. The Japanese were transporting them to begin work on the Pakanbaru-Muara Railway in
Sumatra. Prisoners and slaves were packed onto the ship like sardines; extra between-decks of bamboo were installed to maximise the ship’s capacity, and in some areas there was standing room only. Conditions were as bad as on the notorious sailing ships which transported African slaves 150 years earlier, and these Japanese ships were known as hell-ships.
At on the evening of
18th September 1944, the Junyo Maru was sunk by two torpedoes from the British submarine HMS Tradewind. Those on deck stood some chance of survival; those below decks virtually none. Dick, as a survivor reported, was sick and weak, and going blind from malnutrition, and was almost certainly below.
Of the 6500 captives crammed into that ship, 5620 (including Dick Salter) died in the sinking. It was one of the three worst maritime losses of life in the Second World War. Many of the recaptured 880 survivors perished later while working on the Sumatra Railway. Most of those who died were Javanese; of the western victims the majority were Dutch, and on 4th June 2000 a flotilla of Dutch, Belgian and Indonesian ships laid wreathes above the wreck.
Dick is also remembered
Far East Prisoners of War Pavilion
in the National Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire