A Railway on Sumatra Constructed by Prisoners of the Japanese During WWII (1943 - 1945)
S.S. Junyo Maru. Photograph by Walter E. Frost
The Junyo Maru was built in Scotland in 1913 by Robert Duncan & Co. It was 123m long, 16m wide, and 8.3m deep and displace 5,065 tons. The ship was built for Lang & Fulton of Greenock as SS Ardgorm. It passed through a few more shipping companies before being sold to the Japanese in 1926 and renamed as the Junyo Maru.
During the war it was converted into a POW trasport and became one of the Japanese "Hell Ships". To transport the prisoners the ship was fitted out with extra decks constructed of bamboo and divided into cages using more bamboo. Prisoners were also kept on deck.
H. Menne, 1944-1945
Before Junyo Maru departed port, one English prisoner made a desperate attempt to escape by diving overboard and swimming for shore. He was captured quickly by some of the Japanese crew in a small boat, beaten, and returned to the ship where he was locked up. The prisoners were told that If anybody else tried to escape, the penalty would be death.
Junyo Maru sailed from Batavia on September 16, 1944. Turning west through Sunda Strait, passing the volcanic island of Krakatoa the ship set a course northwest, parallel to the western coast of Sumatra. On the 17th, she was still steaming on toward the port of Padang, about halfway up the coast of the island. That night came a torrential rain storm, soaking the men on deck and streaming into the hold onto the prisoners below.
The ship was steaming around 30km from the coast, escorted by two vessels, described by a prisoner as being a corvette and a gunboat. During the day the ship was also covered by one or two aircraft. While the escorts sometimes circled the freighter, they spent most of the voyage trailing behind, one on each side.
British Submarine HMS Tradewind
At about 3pm on the 18th of September, the officer of the watch aboard "HMS Tradewind", reserve Sub-Lt. P.C. Daley, spotted a tiny plume of smoke through the secondary periscope, about 12km to the south. Lt. Cmdr. S.L.C. Maydon accordingly ordered a course correction and sped toward the target.
Tradewind’s skipper could see that the freighter had two escorts, one to her starboard, and the other on her port quarter. They were identified in Tradewind’s patrol report as motor launches and his crew picked up their radar echoes. In spite of their presence, Maydon pressed his attack, guessing his target’s speed at about 8 knots. His target was zig-zagging, but obligingly zig-zagged back to her original course. A little before 4pm, Tradewind was in position at a right angle to the freighters course and about 1.6km away.
Tradewind fired four torpedoes at 15-second intervals, then dived and turned away. About a minute and a half later, her crew heard an explosion with a second following 15 seconds later. Junyo Maru’s escorts began a depth-charge attack, dropping three charges, but by this time the submarine was deep beneath the surface and moving away. A little over a quarter of an hour after the strike of the last torpedo, Tradewind’s asdic picked up the crackling sounds of the target breaking up.
De Sumatra Spoorweg - H. Neumann
The torpedoes that sunk the ship had struck at both ends. There was panic in the crowded holds. The prisoners down below had only a single iron ladder for escape, and the men struggled and fought to reach their only way out. Others climbed high enough to pull themselves up by the braces supporting the planks covering the hatch. Men already on deck helped others out of the hold. An English captain was giving orders to clear debris away from the stacks of life rafts and get them over the side. Meanwhile, the Japanese guards ran aimlessly back and forth, some jumping into the sea still carrying their rifles.
De Sumatra Spoorweg - H. Neumann
POW's began throwing into the sea not only life rafts, but pieces of timber and anything else that might float. More and more of them began to jump overboard as the sinking freighter settled deeper by the stern.
As the gunboat circled the area dropping depth charges, the corvette began to pick up survivors. Some prisoners were saved, however most of those rescued were Japanese, each of whom waved a small Japanese flag, which was part of their equipment.
The terrified Romusha huddled together toward the bow. Only a few of them tried to save themselves by jumping overboard. A few tried to climb the foremast to escape the rising water.
As the ship settled deeper in the water, her bow rose more sharply into the air and the group of Romusha began to slide toward the stern. As the angle of the deck increased, men began to lose their grip and fall into the sea. The freighter then slid quickly beneath the surface, her bow having risen almost vertical, leaving the surface of the ocean littered with struggling men.
Night fell and the survivors clung to rafts and debris while their strength held out. All around them other men were dying in the night, crying for help in the darkness, but there was no help to come that night. At daybreak, the Japanese corvette returned, and some of those still living were pulled from the water. The rest were gone.
Sinking of the S.S. Junyo Maru
There were only 680 survivors of this disaster all of whom were taken to Pekanbaru, where they were put to work on the railway. Only around 100 of these prisoners from the Junyo Maru lived through the construction of the railway to make it home at the end of the war, having the highest average attrition rate of any group.
The ship had been carrying approximately 6500 prisoners at the time of the attack, mainly Romusha (4200), but also 64 Australian and British prisoners, 8 Americans, and 1,377 Dutch. The sinking was one of the worst maritime disasters of WWII.
On the 4th of June 2000, a ceremony took place to commemorate the sinking of the Junyo Maru, held directly above the spot that the ship had been sunk 56 years earlier. Three Dutch frigates, one Belgian supply ship, and an Indonesian war ship took up formation to formally pay their respects to those who died. The wreaths that were placed in the water contained the names of all of those who were known to have perished.