November 23, 1942, 750 miles off the Amazon coast of Brazil: British armed merchant ship SS Benlomond traveled without convoy from Cape Town, South Africa, en route to Paramaribo, Suriname, six days from her destination. Accounts vary on the crew numbering around 55, including 25-year-old Chinese sailor, Second Stewart Poon Lim.
German U-Boat U-172 intercepted the SS Benlomond at 11:45 a.m. firing two torpedoes. They struck the engine room and the Benlomond took on water. As the ship sank, Poon grabbed a life jacket. He and five of his crew mates—from the gun crew—abandoned ship moments before the boilers exploded. Within two minutes, the SS Benlomond disappeared into the ocean with the rest of the crew.
Poon lost sight of his five crew mates and their raft—carried away by the current. After two hours in the water, he spotted an 8’ square wooden raft and swam to it. The raft contained several tins of biscuits, a 40-liter jug of fresh water, some chocolate, a bag of sugar lumps, two smoke pots, some flares and a flashlight.
He rationed out the rafts supplies for 30-days. When his supplies ran low, he resorted to fishing, catching birds and catching rain water with the canvas cover of the lift jacket. He crafted a fish hook from a wire in the flashlight. He used hemp rope to make the fishing line and he dug a nail out of the raft to make a hook for larger fish. Then he made a knife from one of the biscuit tins, which he used to gut fish.
Because he gutted the fish on his raft and hung them to dry, sharks were attracted to the blood. He used his larger hook to bring a small shark into his boat. After quite a struggle he bludgeoned the shark with his water jug, partially filled with sea water.
To keep his physical strength up, he would swim in the water twice a day whenever sharks weren’t around. Occasionally the sharks would knock his raft around looking for a free meal.
Several ships passed him, but none stopped. He assumed they wouldn’t rescue him because he was Asian or because German U-boats would put out “survivors” as bait for other ships to stop where they were easy targets for sinking.
American airmen spotted him in the water and dropped a buoy near his location for rescue. A storm blew in and moved him miles away from the buoy.
On April 5, 1943, about ten miles from the coast of Brazil, a fisherman picked up Poon. He was starving and had lost 20 pounds. They fed him from their supplies and 3 days later landed at Belem, Brazil. He was able to walk off the boat under his own power. He spent four weeks in the hospital before the British consul arranged his passage to Great Britain. He was the only survivor.
So impressed with his accomplishment, King George VI awarded him the British Empire Medal and the Royal Navy incorporated his survival techniques into their manuals.
After the war, he wanted to emigrate to the U.S. He was initially denied entry because the Chinese emigration quota had been met for the year. Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington State, so impressed with his survival, wrote special legislation allowing Poon Lim entry.
To this day he still holds the record for the longest time a lone person survived adrift on a life raft. When told, he replied, “I hope no one will ever have to break that record.”
He passed in January 1991, a resident of New York, New York.
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