March 8, 1918|
January 4, 1991 (aged 72)|
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Lim was working as second steward on the British merchant ship SS Ben Lomond when it was sunk by a German U-boat on November 23, 1942. After a few hours in the water, Lim found an 8-foot square wooden raft which contained some food and water. When the supplies ran low, he resorted to fishing, catching seabirds and collecting rainwater. On April 5, 1943, he was rescued by three Brazilian fishermen as he neared the coast of Brazil. After returning to the United Kingdom, he was awarded a British Empire Medal by King George VI. After the war, Lim emigrated to the United States.
Lim was born in Hainan Island, China, in 1918. In 1942, during World War II, he was working as second steward on the British armed merchant ship SS Benlomond, which was on its way from Cape Town to Paramaribo, Suriname and New York. The ship was armed but slow moving and was sailing alone instead of in a convoy.
On November 23, the German U-boat U-172 intercepted and struck the Benlomond with two torpedoes in position , some 750 miles east of the Amazon. As the ship was sinking, Poon Lim took a life jacket and jumped overboard before the ship's boilers exploded. Benlomond sank in approximately two minutes, allowing only six survivors, including Poon Lim, to abandon ship. After approximately two hours in the water, Poon Lim found and climbed aboard an 8' square wooden raft. The raft had several tins of biscuits, a 40-litre jug of water, some chocolate, a bag of sugar lumps, some flares, two smoke pots, and a flashlight. Lim was ultimately the only survivor of the sinking. Fifty-three of the crew of 54 were lost at sea, including the master, John Maul, 44 crew, and eight gunners.
Poon Lim initially kept himself alive by drinking the water and eating the food on the raft, but later resorted to fishing and catching rainwater in a canvas life jacket covering. He could not swim very well and often tied a rope from the boat to his wrist, in case he fell into the ocean. He took a wire from the flashlight and made it into a fishhook, and used hemp rope as a fishing line. He also dug a nail out of the boards on the wooden raft and bent it into a hook for larger fish. When he captured a fish, he would cut it open with a knife he fashioned out of a biscuit tin and dry it on a hemp line over the raft. Once, a large storm hit and spoiled his fish and fouled his water. Poon, barely alive, caught a bird and drank its blood to survive.
When he saw sharks, he refrained from swimming and sought to catch one, using the remnants of caught birds as bait. The first shark to pick up the taste was only a few feet long. He gulped the bait and hit the line with full force, but in preparation Poon Lim had braided the line so it would have double thickness. He also had wrapped his hands in canvas to enable him to make the catch. The shark attacked him after he brought it aboard the raft, so he used the water jug half-filled with seawater as a weapon. After subduing the shark, Poon Lim cut it open and sucked the blood from its liver. Since it hadn't rained, he was out of water and this quenched his thirst. He sliced the fins and let them dry in the sun.
On several occasions he was passed by other vessels. The first was an unidentified freighter whose crew saw him but did not pick him up or even greet him despite his proficient shouts in English. Poon Lim contended that they would not rescue him because he was Asian and they may have assumed he was a stricken Japanese sailor, although another explanation is that German U-boats often set a "survivor" on a raft as a trap to get a rescuing ship to stop which made it a sitting duck to be sunk. A squadron of United States Navy patrol seaplanes did see him, and one dropped a marker buoy in the water. Unfortunately for Poon, a large storm hit the area at the same time and he was lost again. He was also once spotted by a German U-boat, which had been doing gunnery drills by targeting seagulls.
At first, he counted the days by tying knots in a rope, but later decided that there was no point in counting the days and simply began counting full moons.
On April 5, 1943, after 133 days in the life raft, Poon Lim neared land and a river inlet. A few days earlier, he had realized that he was nearing land because the color of the water had changed; it was no longer a deep oceanic blue. Three Brazilian fishermen rescued him and took him to Belém three days later.
During his ordeal, Poon Lim lost 9 kg (roughly 20 lbs), but was able to walk unaided upon being rescued. He spent four weeks in a Brazilian hospital while the British Consul arranged for him to return to Britain via Miami and New York.
When told no one had ever survived longer on a raft at sea, Poon Lim replied, "I hope no one will ever have to break that record." People have since lived longer lost at sea; three Mexican sailors floated for 10 months in a disabled fishing boat. In a similar situation, José Salvador Alvarenga, a fisherman from El Salvador, was apparently lost for 439 days, floating from Mexico to the Marshall Islands. As of 2018[update], however, no one has broken Poon Lim's record on a life raft.
King George VI bestowed a British Empire Medal (BEM) on him, and the Royal Navy incorporated his tale into manuals of survival techniques. After the war, Poon Lim decided to emigrate to the United States, but the quota for Chinese immigrants had been reached. However, because of his fame and the aid of Senator Warren Magnuson, he received a special dispensation and eventually gained citizenship. The writer Alfred Bester later stated that Poon Lim's ordeal was used in his novel The Stars My Destination, which opens with a man stranded in space.
- Steven Callahan, survived 76 days adrift in the Atlantic.
- Louis Zamperini and Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips, survived 47 days adrift in the Pacific.
- Dougal Robertson, survived 38 days adrift in the Pacific.
- Rose Noelle, trimaran on which four people survived 119 days adrift in the South Pacific. Depicted in the movie Abandoned (2015).
- Maurice and Maralyn Bailey, who survived 117 days on a rubber raft in the Pacific Ocean before being rescued.
- José Salvador Alvarenga, who survived 438 days adrift in the Pacific.
- "In their disabled boat, 3 Mexicans drift 9 months across Pacific". International Herald Tribune. 2006. Retrieved 2008-04-24.
Among other recorded cases of people surviving long periods stranded at sea, in 1942, a Chinese sailor named Poon Lim survived four months alone in the South Atlantic after a German U- boat torpedoed the British merchant ship he was working on.
- "Tells of 132 Days on Raft". United Press in New York Times. May 25, 1943. Retrieved 2008-04-24.
Poon Lim told in detail here tonight how he got that "Chinaman's chance" and lived in nakedness 132 days on a life raft in the South Atlantic after being the only survivor of fifty-five men aboard a torpedoed English merchantman.
- "Miracle Survival - Poon Lim". ancestry.com. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
- "S.S. Benlomond, Allied Ships hit by U-boats" by Gudmundur Helgason, Ed. Retrieved on 27 November 2008
- "Benlomond". uboat.net. Retrieved 2 November 2015.
- Tennant, Alan J. British and Commonwealth Merchant Ship Losses to Axis Submarines 1939-1945. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2001 (page 287).
- "Mexican trio back after 10 months lost at sea". turkishweekly.net. Archived from the original on 11 May 2015. Retrieved 6 December 2016.
- "Poon Lim Awarded Medal for 133 Days on Life Raft". Chicago Daily Tribune. July 17, 1943. Retrieved 2008-04-24.
- [Bester, Alfred. "My Affair with Science Fiction", in Hell's Cartographers ed. by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss, 197]
- Social Security Death Index; Lim Poon; 123-20-0128
- Trivia library
- SS Benlomond
- "Adrift Alone 131 Days on Raft, Chinese Ship Steward Is Rescued". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. AP. 25 May 1943. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
- "Rescued After Over 4 Months Naked on Raft". Schenectady Gazette. UP. 26 May 1943. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
- "Chinese Survivor Of Sinking Tells Amazing Story". The Evening Independent. St. Petersburg, Florida. 21 June 1943. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
- "Poon Lim". The Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. San Francisco Chronicle. 13 November 1943. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
- "KING HONORS CHINESE: Steward Survives 133 Days on Raft After Torpedoing". The Montreal Gazette. 15 November 1943. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
- Higgins, Michael (23 March 1960). "The World's Strangest Stories: The 133-Day Ordeal Of Poon Lim". The Age. Melbourne, Australia. Retrieved 1 April 2016.
- Wright, Frank (9 January 1968). "They Cheated Death: Resourceful Chinese Cook Survived 4 Months at Sea". The Milwaukee Journal. Central Press Features. Retrieved 1 April 2016.