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Introduction | 016 History | 020 History | The People

The O-20 was one of the first boats in the world equipped with the “snort
system”. This system allows the submarine to run its diesels while submerged
in order to recharge the batteries, ventilate the boat and cover some useful
miles under water. In December 1941, the O-20 was based in Singapore under the 4th submarine division with its sister ship the O-19, serving under the operational control of the British Admiralty. It patrolled in the South
China Sea from 14th to 19th December 1941.

On its approach to the Naval Base on the 12th December 1941, the CO of O-20 reported facing problems of rather annoying technical defects, such as
leaking propeller shafts, a heavily corroded underwater diesel exhaust pipe
and a temporarily repaired vent pipe in tank III. Later when the boat arrived at the Singapore naval base to reload fuel, the defects were attended to, but only minor repairs could be made.

O-2O left Singapore December14th in the afternoon; on the 17th the boat
arrived before sunrise at the newly assigned action station some 10 miles
north west from the port of Kota Baru. The water depth was rather shallow at
only 45 meters. At day-time the O-20 submerged at periscope depth; at night
on the surface ventilating, and charging the batteries.

Japanese reconnaissance activities were intense, including planes and
destroyers. December 19th from 03.00hrs the boat rested on the bottom
keeping listening watch. At 06.00 hrs back to periscope observation. At 11.00 hrs a number of bombs were dropped by plane(s) which took the crew by surprise. The boat went deep, to return to periscope depth half an hour later to be instantly attacked by depth charges dropped by three destroyers
(Ayanami, Yugiri and Uranami) and the boat hugged the bottom.

Each half hour depth charges were dropped (12), a total of some 70. The boat
tried to evade the depth charges by “jumping a 100 meters” and lie down
again. At 18.00 hrs the attacks stopped and the propeller noise of the destroyers became weaker and died out. At 20.00 hrs the boat surfaced in the darkness and tried to get away from the area at high speed. As the hull is
high on the water its diesel exhaust pipe produced a rain of sparks shooting
into the air. These sparks were as good as fireworks in the darkness of the
night. The CO decided not to switch to diesel.

Disaster finally struck. After running for 30 minutes at maximum speed the
0-2O was spotted and caught in a large searchlight. Commander Snippe
decided that there was no chance of escape and thus decided to scuttle the
submarine.He ordered all hands to be up on the deck of the O-20. With an interval of 2-3 seconds main ballast tanks 1 through 6 were flooded. With the diesels still at full speed the submarine disappeared below the surface.

The situation was made worse when the Japanese destroyer wrongly assumed that the submarine was doing a crash dive and thus sailed with a speed of 20kts through the middle of a group of swimming submariners and dropped several depth charges nearby. For fear of getting torpedoed, the Japanese destroyer Uranami did not start rescuing the survivors right away and instead opted to wait for daylight. Nevertheless, the destroyer droped a depth charge now and then to scare the sharks away from the swimmers. Finally, on the 20th December 1941 at 07.30hrs, the Uranami picked up 32 survivors from the O-20 as POWs.

This was the Dutch’s interpretation of the story, but the Japanese war history records claimed that it had not known that the ship was scuttled as it was a dark night, and the Uranami was simply sailing around in its search for the submarine. Though the ship crew did hear something like human voices, they could not see anything or anyone in the darkness. It was only when morning dawned that the Japanese destroyer discovered that the crew members of O-20 were swimming around and rescued them.

After a head count it turned out that 7 men were missing, including Commander Snippe who was not wearing a life vest. Maybe the men were hurt and drowned when the Japanese destroyer sailed through the group of
swimmers, or maybe some of the life vests malfunctioned. As for the
commander, it was probably due to the lack of a life vest that he was lost.

The fate of the missing men remains a mystery: the commander has been seen afloat till the passage of Uranami and the depth charges it dropped; the
other six are not accounted for as having been outside the sub. However,
there is a written statement by the chief engineer who left O-20, together
with the helmsman as the last ones.

He states that around 20.00hrs the boat surfaced and was prepared to run at
maximum speed. After some 30 minutes he noticed that the conning tower was caught in bright light. After another 10 minutes the commander - in person - ordered him a) all hands on deck and b) prepare boat for sinking. Order a) was relayed by him by telephone to all compartments, together with his directive to bring their Draeger vests. Order b) took him some 10-15
minutes. He noticed that all personnel in engine room and centre control
room had left. He reported to the Commander, put on his vest and climbed the ladders to the conning tower were he found the helmsman and together they were swept overboard.

The officers of the O-20 were put in a prison in Hong Kong, while the lower
echelons were put to work in a camp in Kyushu. On the 28th January 1942, 2
of the officers managed to break through the barriers of their prison camp
in Hong Kong through the sewage system, crawling out finally at the beach of
Hong Kong. These men then fell into the hands of a local resistance group
with weapons the resisters were unfamiliar with. The 2 Dutch officers imparted their knowledge of weaponry to the group and in exchange the
resistors arranged for transport to bring the POWs to Mainland China. From
there, they managed to contact the Dutch chargé d'affaires who arranged for
them a transport to Colombo (Ceylon) where both reported on the 18th of
April 1942 and found themselves again on a Dutch submarine a couple of
months after their escape.

From the POW that remained in the camps three died of illness or exhaustion.

At the instigation of the Committee of Relatives of the missing submarines
O-13, O-20 and K-XVI an expedition was launched in 2002 and on the twelfth
of June 2002 O-20 was located near Kota Baru by the team of Michael Lim and Klaas Brouwer, CEO of the International Association of Handicapped Divers.