On April 5, 1943, a family was fishing off the coast of Brazil when they spotted a Chinese man in a small wooden raft. He was waving his shirt and jumping, plainly in need of help. The family picked him up, and the group landed at a town called Belem three days later. The man’s name was Poon Lim, and he had been lost at sea for an astonishing 133 days.
Poon Lim had been born on an island called Hainan in the South China Sea in 1918. When Lim was 16, his father sent him to work alongside one of his brothers on a British passenger freight. Lim’s father sought to both improve his prospects and prevent him from being drafted to fight the invading Japanese.
At first, Lim did not enjoy his stint as a cabin boy, as he was often seasick. While he eventually adapted, Chinese crew members, in general, lived and worked in grim conditions. The were given the worst assignments and the most cramped quarters.
When he was around 19 or 20, Lim moved to Hong Kong and enrolled in mechanics school. He soon went to sea again, for the Japanese were about to invade Hong Kong. One of his cousins persuaded him to sign on the ship where he was serving. Lim thus became a Second Steward serving on the SS Benlomond.
The SS Benlomond departed Cape Town on November 10, 1942, and was headed to a Dutch colony called Suriname on the way to New York. A Nazi U-boat torpedoed it on November 23. The ship sank in two minutes. Of the 56 men aboard her, only Poon Lim survived.
Poon Lim was not a strong swimmer. He, was, however, lucky enough to grab a life jacket. He then swam away from the doomed ship as quickly as possible. After floating in the ocean for about two hours, he found a life raft. The wooden raft was eight square feet and shaded by a canvas roof. Even better, it had provisions: a jug containing 40 liters (10.5 gallons) of water, pemmican, several tins of hardtack and biscuits, lumps of sugar, malted milk tablets, lime juice, chocolate, a flashlight, and two flares.
Lim made a water-catching receptacle out of his life jacket and part of the canvas roof. He caught fish with a fishing hook made from the wires in the flashlight and part of a biscuit tin. Lim also devised a way to trap seagulls by making a fake nest out of seaweed he found on the raft’s bottom and baiting it with a fish. Lim also tied himself to the raft with a piece of hemp rope in case he fell overboard.
During his months lost at sea, Lim battled storms and sharks. On one occasion, he actually caught a small shark and ate it. Lim saw ships three times; the second ship carried American airmen who dutifully investigated. Unfortunately, a storm blew up before they could rescue him.
After his rescue, Lim spent a month recuperating in a hospital while the British Consul arranged transportation to the UK. King George VI awarded him with a British Empire Medal. The Royal Navy was even more impressed and incorporated his story in their survival techniques manuals.
After the war, Lim emigrated to the United States with help from Senator Walter Magnuson. He died in Brooklyn in 1991 when he was 72.