THE HELMUT RUGE STORY
PART FOUR -- ESCAPE and CAPTURE, JUNE 1941 to DECEMBER 1941
SHIP TO JAPAN
We eventually managed to escape from Chile on the 'Rhakotis' when it sailed from Antofagasta in April 1941 to
meet up at sea with the 'Osorno' to take on fuel, together with the 'Quito' and 'Bogota', who had also sailed from
Coquimbo. All four ships then continued to the Marshall Islands where to get more fuel from the 'Elsa Essengerger'
to enable us to continue to Japan. The 'Rhakotis' was a cargo vessel of around 4,000 tonnes with accommodation
for about 20 passengers. Because of the number of passengers carried the 'Rhakotis' had to have on board a
doctor. This man had the most incredible memory for Spanish vocabulary, yet was unable to speak a word,
although he knew virtually the whole dictionary and could tell you what ever word you wanted in Spanish.
When we reached the Marshall Islands, Heinz left me to take a job as a radio operator on the 'Elsa Essenberger'.
Heinz finally also get to Japan after I had left and took my job for a while at the German Embassy. He eventually got
back to Germany on the 'Osorno' when she returned to Europe from Japan and after the War studied to become
and became a successful architect in Bonn. I was to meet him many times after the war until he died in 1995.
I continued on the 'Rhakotis', together with the other three ships to Yokohama. On the way we were struck by a
tornado, a frightening but interesting experience to see these columns of water circling around the ship. Later, the
'Osorno' suffered engine failure and was left drifting helplessly between the Marshall Islands and Japan, unable to
call for assistance because of the dangers of breaking radio silence. They eventually were forced to send a distress
message and the tiny 'Bogota' in response went in search of the 'Osorno' and on finding her took the 'Osorno's'
anchor chain and attached it around the superstructure of the 'Bogota' and towed the 'Orsono' to Japan. When they
arrived in Yokohama two weeks later, the rear superstructure containing the bridge and crew quarters on the
'Bogota' had been twisted around and almost torn away from the rest of the ship through the weight of towing the
We finally reached in Yokohama in Japan in June 1941, where we were met by officials from the German Embassy
and taken to Tokyo.
The vessels that had brought us from Chile were refuelled and repaired, if necessary, and then tried to sail back to
Europe to the French channel ports, now occupied by Germany. As a result of the effective blockade of the French
channel ports by the British, the 'Rhakotis' was to be torpedoed by a British submarine as she was entering Le Havre
harbour; all the crew, with the exception of the 3rd officer, luckily being rescued by German PT Boats.
I was on my own in Tokyo until I was presented to the Attache who said that I was welcome to start work
immediately as a radio operator at the embassy. Apparently they had only two operator having had to send one
embassy operator to serve on a ship returning to Germany. They required three operators to work three 8-hour
shifts, two 12-hour shifts with two operators being too long. I worked in the German embassy in Tokyo under
Captain Trentel as a radio operator for about 2 months between June and August 1941.
When I was in Germany after the war a member of the group I was involved with in the 'black market', Alfred
Lesseig, had been a cadet in the German Navy and he also had been stationed in Japan under the command of the
same captain Trentel that I had worked for. He had been a cadet on a ship that went between Yokohama and the
East Indies supplying submarines based in the area after being occupied by the Japanese. A small world.
At that time members of the German forces who had escaped from the allies to Japan were repatriated to Germany
on the Trans Siberian Railway from Vladivostock to Moscow, and then onward to Berlin. The procedure was for only
five or six people at one time to be sent back by this route. When my turn came there were too many waiting to
return to Germany this way. We drew straws to see who should go. I chose the short straw and was left behind,
While those selected men were returning to Germany on the Trans Siberian Railway, Germany declared war on
Russia on 21st June 1941. Those men were never to be seen or heard of again.
For a second or is it a third or fourth time my life had been spared. I felt that whatever happened from now on, every
new day was a bonus in my life.
While working in the Embassy I met the infamous Dr .Richard Sorge, a German journalist working at that time in
Japan. He was later to be shot by the Japanese as a spy for the Russians. It was he, it is claimed, who told the
Russians that the Japanese attack would not be directed at Russia when they made their first strike against the
Allies, but directed south at the American administered territories in the Pacific and the Pacific and Indian Ocean
territories held by the British, French and Dutch. This was to have a profound impact on the future of the war, as the
Russian war effort was in a critical situation in Europe, needing all their troops. This information enabled Russia to
withdraw most of its troops on its Far Eastern frontier and send them to reinforce the Russian troops fighting the
Germans in Europe where these reinforcements enabled the Russians to halt the German advance and to
ultimately turn the tide of war against Germany.
When I met Dr. Sorge he was a good friend of the German Air Force Attache, Von Gronau, at the Embassy and
used to stay occasionally over night in the Attache’s rooms on the upper floor of the Embassy. I have often
wondered whether it was on these nights that he would copy secret documents for passing on to the Russians. Von
Gronau told of working with those who had crossed the Atlantic by plane from Ireland to the USA, with Fitzmaurice an Irish officer, the first crossing
of the Atlantic by plane from east to west. April 12-13, 1928
It was Dr Sorge who also introduced me to the delights of (Homoko?), a town near to Yokohama, where there were
the most sophisticated and incredible brothels. These were housed in high quality immaculate hotels or apartments
where on arrival, your clothes were taken away, you were provided with a Kimono and then entertained by beautiful
girls versed in the 'arts of love' for the night. You were supplied with whatever food you wished to order throughout
the night and in the morning your clothes were returned to you washed and pressed. The experience was quite
different to anything that I had known and I have to, shamefully or perhaps happily, admit that much of my money
and time while I was in Japan was spent in Hamoko and the beer halls. In fact when the Embassy suggested that I
should not draw my naval pay while in Japan, because all my costs were covered by the Embassy, but let the pay
build up for me in Germany, I refused to agree and insisted that I collect my pay, where I misspent most of it on the
ladies of Homoko!
As the route to return to Germany via Russia was no longer possible, I was eventually signed on in August 1941 as
radio operator on a German merchant ship, the 'Odenwald' returning to Germany which sailed from Japan on the
20th August, prophetically the same date that the 'Spee' had also sailed on what was to be her final voyage. In order
to escape sinking or capture by the British Navy, the 'Odenwald' sailed disguised as an American merchant vessel
named 'Wilmoto', even going so far as replacing 'Odenwald' with the name of the American vessel and also flying
the American flag.
After almost three months, including sailing around Cape Horn with gales, freezing temperatures and huge waves
that lifted the stern of the ship out of the water causing the propellers to make the ship tremble like an earthquake,
the 'Odenwald' was intercepted in the South Atlantic 00°40'N, 28°04'W on the 6th November 1941 by a cruiser of the United States
Navy called the 'Omaha' (CL-4), an old First World War 'three stacker' (funnels), and a destroyer 'Somers' (DD-381) on joint Atlantic patrol
with the British Navy.
By another of those strange chances in my life the 'Omaha' unfortunately, or was it fortunately, had an officer on
board who bad sailed on the 'Wilmoto' and realised that our ship wasn't what it claimed to be. When the 'Omaha'
sent a boarding party, we quickly hoisted the German flag and the captain ordered the ship to be scuttled.
The 3rd officer, Voss, and myself got the order from Capt. Loertsd to send a telegram to Norddeich radio with the text, more or less, " Odenwald being captured by American units, will sink ship" etc. We were giving the message with a 40-watt transmitter ; by a miracle Norddeich answered immediately, At the same time, we felt and heard a strong explosion and, leaving the radio operations room, I saw the two boardside boats about 50 metres away, with all the officers, including captain, drifting in the quiet sea. Mr Voss decided to jump overboard and swam to the boats, while I decided not to jump, but to say "Hello" to the first of the boarding party knowing that the party would not let me go down with the ship.
The explosives charges were placed in the propeller shaft tunnels Unfortunately the
explosives had been placed in a part of the ship that could easily be shut-off by watertight doors, which is exactly
what the Americans did as soon as they boarded the 'Odenwald'. The boarding party was extremely well organized as
I could watch them taking the precautions, etc., until I left for the 'Omaha'.
They also passed a tarpaulin around the ship
to seal up the damage made by the explosive and forced 2nd Engineer, Willi Seidek, by threatening to
shoot him, to start the ship's engines.
After looking on the starboard side boats, one was hanging in the davits with broken lines, while the second starboard boat was tied along side with 4 crew-members waiting -- the captain's steward, the cook and two more .While the boarding party hurried all over the ship, I decided to go down to the boat and we together rowed to the 'Omaha', where we climbed up the rope ladder and were cordially received by a Lieutenant. About half an hour later the two other boats arrived and we were comfortably accommodated.
Photo is from South Carolina Historical Society
Helmut is not on the picture, "because I was wearing shorts and a white shirt; furthermore I had arrived on the Omaha ahead fo the gang."
See US sailor's story of the capture.
See Helmut's expansion on this.
The 'Odenwald' was then sailed by an American crew to Puerto Rico for repairs and eventually, I imagine to take
part in convoys supplying food and arms to enable Britain to continue the fight against Germany.
We were taken on board the 'Omaha' where our treatment by the American crew was magnificent. We ate with the
American officers in their mess hall, where the food was excellent, especially after the sparse diet available on the
'Odenwald' which had been supplied by all the ( ? ) of vessels in Yokohama. We were accommodated in 2 bunk
quarters made available to us by the American officers and were also permitted to use the superb facilities on the
'Omaha'. I for example took the opportunity to have my teeth checked and treated by the fully trained dentist on
The 'Omaha' called in to Trinidad to refuel and we were told by the captain, who was of German descent, to stay
hidden below decks, as he would not be able to save us from being taken Prisoner of War if the British authorities
found out that German sailors were on board.
The 'Omaha' then continued on to Puerto Rico where we were interned for a short time, but finally were transferred
to an American freighter, much to our concern that we might be sunk by a German U-boat, for onward
transportation to New York.
Whilst at sea on the way to New York, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Sunday, 7th December1941. As a
result the United States immediately declared war on Japan and, as Germany and Japan had signed a treaty of co-operation, Germany automatically declared war on the United states. As a result, I and my fellow German crew
members would now become interned by the United States once we reached New York. I became an internee
rather than a prisoners of war because the 'Odenwald' was a merchant ship and, not knowing that I was an NCO in
the German Navy, it was assumed that I was a sailor in the German merchant marine, the same as the rest of the
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