The Man Who Survived 133 Days Adrift At Sea on a Wooden Raft, WW2
Chinese native Poon Lim was a cabin boy on a British passenger freight, the Ben Lomond, during World War II that was traveling from Cape Town to Surinam.
The Germans intercepted the boat 750 miles east of the Amazon, and in just two minutes, a pair of torpedoes sank the ship. Of the 53 on board, Lim was the only one to survive the attack. He would hold the world record for time spent surviving as a castaway adrift at sea.
The ship that Lim was on was armed but slow moving, and was sailing alone. The German U-boat U-172 intercepted it on November 23 and attacked the ship with two torpedoes. As the ship was sinking, Poon Lim was able to grab a life jacket and jumped overboard before the ship’s boilers exploded.
After about two hours in the water, he came across an eight-foot square wooden raft and climbed onto it. The raft had provisions on it - several tins of biscuits, a forty-litre jug of water, some chocolate, a bag of sugar lumps, some flares, two smoke pots and a flashlight.
Lim initially kept himself alive by drinking the water and eating the food on the raft, but he later resorted to fishing and catching rainwater in a canvas life jacket covering. He could not swim very well and often tied a rope from the raft to his wrist, in case he fell into the ocean. He took a wire from the flashlight and made it into a fishhook, and used hemp rope as a fishing line.
For larger dish, he dug a nail out of the boards on the wooden raft and bent it into a hook. When he caught a fish, he would cut it open with a knife he made out of a biscuit tin and dry it on a hemp line over the raft. Once, a large storm hit and spoiled his fish and fouled his water. Poon, barely alive, caught a bird and drank its blood to survive.
He also tried to catch sharks using the remnants of a bird he killed as bait. The first shark to pick up the taste was only a few feet long but hit the line with full force, but Poon Lim was prepared. He had braided the line so it would have double thickness and had wrapped his hands in canvas to enable him to make the catch.
The shark attacked him after he had it on the raft, so he used the water jug half-filled with seawater to subdue it. After, Poon Lim cut it open and sucked the blood from its liver. It had not rained for days, and he was out of water; the blood quenched his thirst. Then he cut the fins and let them dry in the sun – a Hainan delicacy.
Aside from sunburn and seasickness, Poon also had to suffer the agony of watching boats go by. A freighter and then a squad of US Navy patrol planes went past him. Poon thought it was because he was Chinese that they didn’t offer help. However, it should be noted that at the time U-Boats often offered ‘dummy’ survivors to ambush their enemies. A German U-Boat also saw a stricken Poon but did not help.
Poon counted the days by tying knots in a rope, but after spending so long at sea, he decided that there was no point in counting the days and began counting full moons instead. Miraculously, after more than four monts at sea, three Brazilian fishermen discovered the raft.
He had lost 9kg and spent four weeks in hospital but made a full recovery. To this day no-one has spent longer at sea in a raft. As Poon said about his record before his death, “I hope no one will have to break it.”
He was bestowed a British Empire Medal (BEM) and the Royal Navy incorporated his tale into manuals of survival techniques. After the war, Lim decided to live in the United States, but the quota for Chinese immigrants had been reached. However, because of his fame and the aid of Senator Warren Magnuson, he received a special dispensation and eventually gained citizenship.