The Modjokerto Mystery


On the same day the gallant Dutch Rear-Admiral Karel Doorman and his men fought the Battle of the Java Sea, many merchant ships left the port of Tjilatjap on the southern coast, with instructions to wait a few hundred miles south of the island. The Dutch at the time did not know that a strong Japanese fleet, the bulk of which was formed by four battleships and four carriers, was waiting for them. The result was a carnage among the fleeing and defenceless merchants.

Loss of life was heavy, since some of these ships had already been loaded to the mark with refugees. Not much has been written about this black chapter in naval history. Each ship and crew deserves their share of attention, but I intend to single out one: The loss of the Dutch freighter Modjokerto.

Modjokerto was built in 1922 by W. Gray & Co Ltd. for the Rotterdamsche Lloyd, one of the largest Dutch shipping companies. She was 8806 gross registered tons, with a service speed of some 14 knots. During the first two years of the war, she plowed through the raider-infested waters between Java and New York, delivering raw materials from the Netherlands East Indies to the United States. On the return trip, she carried all kinds of defence materials.

On February 4, 1942, she arrived at Tjilatjap on Java's southern shore, an emergency supply base with only limited facilities. Unloading her cargo proceeded at a snale pace. On February 27, together with 22 other ships, she leaves port in the evening, with a course for a waiting position some 400 miles south of Java. No one could suspect that of these 23 ships, only 11 would ultimately make it to safe haven.

When disaster struck

What happened next can best be narrated by the distress signals [1] her radio operator sent during the morning of March 1. Around 10.00 that day [2], the Dutch merchant ships Van Spilbergen, Siantar and Tawali picked up the first of a series of signals sent by Modjokerto. The first was brief but ominous: the ship was being chased by a Japanese aircraft in position 12°.40' N - 106°40' E, some 330 miles SSW of Tjilatjap.

More than twenty minutes later (around 10.20 hours), the second signal reported a warship chasing her [3]. Neither Van Spilbergen nor Tawali picked up any signal after that, but Siantar did. Thirty minutes later (around 10.50 hours), the radio operator of Siantar logged a signal which included the word "sinking". It was by chance that this signal was picked up, since it was sent using the ship's emergency transmitter on a rather unusual wavelength. One can conclude the primary transmitter had already been destroyed by then.

The last note we can add to this flurry of signals is an account by the harbor pilot [4] of Tjilatjap, Mr. Droste, who had the fortune to escape Java at the last moment. At the time, he was a passenger on board the passenger ship Zaandam, which had also reached open sea on February 27th. He wrote a book about his journey through the Indian Ocean, and mentions the loss of the Modjokerto. The radio operator of Zaandam informed him about incoming radio signals. At one point, the pilot was told that Modjokerto was torpedoed and gunned by a submarine.

That was the last the outside world ever heard from the ship. Her crew was never heard from again, and the gruesome fate of those who initially survived was not revealed until 1946, when a mass grave was opened near Kendari, on Celebes. Company insignia identified several of the bodies as crewmen of the ill-fated ship. [5]

Twenty-five of these men, including the master and most of the officers have known graves on Ancol and Kemang Kuning cemetary on Java. [6]

Click to enlarge

Modjokerto probably during peacetime, with the characteristic green and white paint scheme of her company. Note the "Maier"-bow, which was probably fitted when the ship was lengthened in 1934. At the same time, the ship was converted from a steamer to a motor ship. Her sister Siantar did not have the "Maier"-bow.

Photo: Nedlloyd, scanned from K.W.L. Bezemer (see sources)

Mysterious Modjokerto?

Now, over sixty years later, what can we find about the ship's final fate? The result is somewhat astounding: There is no consensus about what happened.

  • Jürgen Rohwer's "Axis Submarine Successes of World War II" is generally regarded as the best source on the subject of German, Italian and Japanese submarine claims. His book clearly and unambiguously identifies the submarine I-54 as the culprit. Unfortunately, this book doesn't go beyond supplying only the most essential data.

  • Chris Shores' "Bloody Shambles", a book describing the air war over Malaya and the Netherlands East Indies between December 1941 and March 1942, attributes the sinking to I-58. Unfortunately, no further information is given.

  • Lacroix & Wells' "Japanese cruisers of World War II", clearly identifies the heavy cruiser Chikuma, assisted by two destroyers, as the assailants. The account by in this book is based upon the action report of the 8th Cruiser Division, to which Chikuma and her sister Tone were attached. An article in Warship magazine by Hans Lengerer, Sumie Kobler-Edamatsu & Tomoko Rehm-Takahara titled "Tone class: modifications and war service" validates the information, and adds more detail.

    Comparing alternatives

    The last is by far the most interesting, since it is in direct contradiction to what is generally believed. Lacroix and Wells' account is based upon the action report of Cruiser Division 8 (heavy cruisers Tone and Chikuma):

    Around 1125 on March 1 [7], CruDiv 8 sighted a merchant ship in position 12 S - 106.40 E. At 11.43, Chikuma opened fire with her main battery of 8-inch guns, and sank the ship with a total of 49 rounds at 11.55. [8]

    When we compare times, of course taking into account the time difference, we find that it is almost a perfect match. Modjokerto reported she was being chased by a warship at around 1020 and 1030 hours, around the same time CruDiv 8 spotted a lone merchant ship. Chikuma's target sank at 1055 hours, about the same time the Siantar reported picking up the last distress signal, with the word "sinking".

    Even though time and place match almost perfectly, there are still many questions to be answered. For example: where do the submarines I-54 and I-58 fit in? We know from I-54's Tabular Record of Movement that she claimed two ships sunk during this period, but no details are available. I-58 made no claims as far as is known. Droste's account seems the confirm the involvement of a submarine, but the harbor master apparently wrote his account after the war, and there are more factual errors in his book.

    And how did the survivors of Modjokerto end up at Kendari? There may be an easy answer to this question. IF it was the Japanese surface force which accounted for Modjokerto, there is a strong possibility they picked up survivors. After operations south of Java ceased, the ships returned to their staging base at Staring Bay. Both Kendari and Staring Bay are situated on Celebes's eastern peninsula, in close proximity.

    I welcome more information on this subject.
    [1]: This article followes the lines of the book by K.W.L Bezemer about the history of the Dutch merchant fleet during World War II "Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Koopvaardij in de Tweede Wereldoorlog", volume 1.
    [2]: This time is also mentioned in Lloyd's war losses. The signal "chased by an aircraft" is time at 0940 (Z). Perhaps this signal was not picked up by the Siantar and the other Dutch ships?
    [3]: As far as I know, Dutch ships used Zone times. In this particular case, the area in question lies between the meridians of GMT+7,5 and GMT+8. Japanese warships used GMT+9 regardless of their geographic position at this stage of the war, which will account for the one-hour difference between Tokyo Time and Z ("Zulu") time.
    [4]: This book is called "Tot Betere Dagen" by C.B. Droste, published in Amsterdam in 1946. Unfortunately, I haven't had the opportunity to read it myself. The information from this source is used in Bezemer's book.
    [5]: Bezemer "Koopvaardij".
    [6]: Information from the Oorlogsgraven Stichting (
    [7]: I assume the times in Lacroix and Wells are Tokyo Times, GMT+9 (1125 Tokyo Time translates to 1025 "Z"-time)
    [8]: Also present in the area were Battleship Division 3 (BB Hiei and Kirishima) with elements of DesRon 1, but these did not open fire. The Tabular Record of Movement for the destroyers Shiranui and Kasumi, available at the website mention their involvement in this case. How they exactly fit in is unclear. Perhaps they picked up survivors?






  • Sources
    K.W.L. Bezemer "Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse Koopvaardij in de Tweede Wereldoorlog", volume 1
    L.L. von Münching "De Nederlandse Koopvaardijvloot in de Tweede Wereldoorlog", volume 1
    Tabular Records of Movement available at

    Thanks to Tony Tully and Thomas Weis for supplying information.

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