Chinese Only Survivor of U-Boat Attack : Book Recounts 133-Day Ordeal on Raft
Ruthanne Lum McCunn, an Amerasian educated in Chinese, British and American schools, is particularly qualified to write the story of Poon Lim, a Chinese sailor who survived 133 days adrift in the Atlantic after his ship was sunk during World War II.
The author has written two other books about Chinese, and is currently working on a fourth.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Poon’s ordeal on a raft with a small supply of food and water, is the longest on record. He is now living happily in Brooklyn, N.Y., near his four children.
McCunn sought out Poon, interviewed him at length, documented the sinking of his ship by a German submarine, and has narrated his adventure in the form of a novel, “Sole Survivor,” published recently by Design Enterprises, San Francisco.
“It could have been done as a real life adventure,” the author said in an interview, “but for my own personal scruple.
“After all, you are reconstructing something that happened 40 years ago. It is colored by what has happened since. I interviewed him in detail, but, recounting what happened 40 years ago--for an author--one puts a different face on things.”
She discovered, for example, that while Poon told her it was an Italian submarine that sank his ship, the fact is it was a German submarine, the U-272, which sent the British merchant ship Ben Lomond, to the bottom on Nov. 23, 1942.
Poon, a 24-year-old steward aboard the ship, found himself alone on the raft. He could hardly swim and had little knowledge of the sea. But he learned how to shape a fish hook from a piece of steel, weave a line from gunny-sack material, and pounce on birds which chose his raft as a resting place.
“I think he was able to survive because he came from a village where people had to scratch out a living all the time,” said McCunn. “All the people in Asia are scratching to survive all the time.”
Violent storms threw the raft around in the ocean. Poon was sick. He had terrible sores on his body. The survival rations on the raft--never intended for a protracted period of time--gave out.
When the fishing was good, Poon provided ahead by drying some of the catch in the sun. When there was rain, he caught it in a tarpaulin on the raft and replenished his tank.
At times he resorted to sucking the spinal fluids and juices from fish bones and drinking his own urine.
Seen by Passing Ship
On one occasion, early in his adventure, according to this account, Poon was seen aboard his raft by officers on the deck of a passing ship. He used a smoke device on the raft to be sure he was seen, but the ship turned away. At another point, an airplane pilot saw him and dropped a dye marker in the ocean near his raft so that he could be found. But then a storm came up and he was lost again.
Eventually, Poon’s raft floated into a bay on the coast of Brazil and he was rescued. He was in such good shape that the British consul insisted he pose for a photograph before being taken to a hospital for examination.
McCunn, perhaps because of her own experience as the daughter of a Chinese mother and American father, sees in Poon’s story a racial message. As a Chinese he suffered discrimination on the Ben Lomond. He survived, the author says, out of determination to overcome “the stereotype of Asians as people who have no value for life.”
In one of the interviews for the book, Poon told the author: “The sea does not know the difference between the yellow man and the white man. And so all of us who sail in ships and face the perils of sea should have equal conditions. If my days on the raft call attention to this fact, I do not regret my strange experience.”