A Railway on Sumatra Constructed by Prisoners of the Japanese During WWII (1943 - 1945)
Laurence Hurndell was a naval seaman, who grew up in Carterton, New Zealand. This is his story, adapted from an interview recorded in 1995 with the NZ Navy.
In 1941, Laurence, along with his mates, joined the armed forces and he subsequently joined the New Zealand division of the Royal Navy, starting his three month training at HMS Tamaki in Auckland on the 15th of May, 1941. He was posted to Singapore at the end of his training in September 1941 and he was drafted onto a Dutch ship called the Johan van Oldenbarnvelt bound for Freemantle in Western Australia.
Johan van Oldenbarnvelt
Once in Freemantle Laurence transferred to another Dutch ship called the Sybijack, which was headed for Singapore. Once in Singapore, Laurence undertook more training at HMS Sultan obtaining the rank of Able Seaman and was drafted aboard HMS Grasshopper, one of the Dragonfly class river gunboats being used as a minefield patrol vessel off the coast of Singapore.
The first few months of shipboard life was pretty boring; watch keeping and preventing other ships from straying into the minefields. This all changed after Pearl Harbour was bombed in December. The night after the bombing Laurence was on watch aboard the Grasshopper. He could see Singapore's lights in the distance as well as the sound of planes flying overhead. Then in the distance he saw what they called "flaming onions" which were the anti aircraft shells going up. Someone near him remarked, "Ah its for real tonight, it must be a jolly good practice". It wasn't until the next morning that the Captain of the Grasshopper, Commander Hoffman, cleared the lower deck and said, "We are at war with Japan, Pearl Harbour has been bombed and the raid last night was the first raid on Singapore by the Japanese Navy".
From this point on the duties of HMS Grasshopper were extended. They rounded up all of the Japanese fishing boats in the area and brought them in to Changi wharf where their crews were taken into custody by the local police on suspicion of spying. On boxing day morning of 1941 just after Laurence came off watch and was heading to the mess, the sailor who replaced him spotted two torpedoes headed towards them on the starboard bow. The First Lieutenant on duty immediately turned the ship towards them and they disappeared down the side. It was at this point that all hell broke loose as the Captain decided to make an attack on the submarine. The men went to action stations and readied the depth charges. The Captain made his attack at slow speed. He ordered the release of the depth charges and as they detonated below the water, the force of the explosion lifted the stern of the Grasshopper out of the water by two meters. Laurence's action station was in the transmitting station and he had just arrived there as the charges detonated. The movement of the ship flung him to the ground where he was knocked unconscious. He was only out for a brief moment and remembered coming to. There was dead silence aboard the ship and then the tinkling sound of nuts and bolts falling off bulkheads. The ship was in complete darkness because the generator had been damaged. The Captain said "Standby Machine Gunners, we are not taking prisoners". Laurence took his place at the Twin Lewis gun on the starboard side. All that was found on the surface of the water was some clothing, a perceived successful attack on the two man submarine.
The next day the Grasshopper was relieved and headed back to Singapore for repairs in dry dock. The attack on the submarine had caused some damage, popping rivets and causing the plates along the side of the ship to leak. The dry dock was located at the main naval base on Singapore and when the men weren't on watch aboard Grasshopper they were being billeted at the naval base.
Images of the attack on the Singapore Naval Yards (AWM)
The Naval base and the Air Force Base was a target for the Japanese bombers. One day while still waiting on repairs 27 bombers flew overhead. Everyone thought that they were heading for the airfield until they heard the whistling of the bombs falling. There wasn't much Laurence could do apart from flatten himself against the deck of his ship. The bombs missed Grasshopper but some hit the Galley and General Mess at the Naval Base. There were a large number of casualties.
With repairs finally completed, the Grasshopper was towed to Keppel harbour. The work was still not complete though as the men needed to remove the ammunition from the ship, taking 4 inch fixed ammunition shells to the Naval Base Ammunition Depot. The Japanese bombers came over again and they spotted what was going on, releasing their bombs. They fell all around them, with Laurence taking cover in a ditch. There were no casualties in the attack but now new ammunition had to be collected and taken to Keppel harbour and the awaiting Grasshopper. There was chaos and the men including Laurence weren't sure where they were once they reached the dock. The Grasshopper was not at her berth so they were forced to sleep aboard the Ping Wo, an old auxiliary vessel.
HMAS Ping Wo
Once the Grasshopper was tied up at the wharf, the shells had to be loaded on board. The shells were carried by hand from the waiting truck down into the magazine of the ship, one at a time. Continual air raids by the Japanese made this a difficult task.
Around this time troop ships loaded with British, Australian, and New Zealand troops were arriving. There was no allied air support and the Japanese dive bombers were attacking at will, with attacks happening every hour or so.
The ship was ready for patrol again but by now everyone knew that the battle was approaching its inevitable end. The Captain ordered the crew to "Standby, we are going to take off survivors". These survivors came from the numerous British troop ships being sunk including the Empress of Japan and the Empress of Russia as well as from Singapore itself.
They waited off the coast during the light of day and in the distance Laurence could see the dive bombers machine gunning and bombing across Singapore incessantly. As night fell Singapore glowed from the massive fires raging through the buildings. Finally at 11pm on the night of the 12th of February the Grasshopper tied up at Clifford Pier to take on the last survivors. By this point the Japanese were just 1km away down the road. The ship was subjected to a mortar attack, with shells exploding all around them but either through good luck or poor aiming from the Japanese the ship took no damage.
The survivors taken on board were mainly woman and children, some army personnel and 10 Japanese Air Force personnel who had been shot down. These men were later shot by the Dutch. The mess deck was packed and the Captain said "That's enough. At midnight we are off" and the Grasshopper left the burning Singapore behind, headed for Java.
As dawn broke Grasshopper found herself in convoy with two other ships involved in rescues; a motor launch and her sister ship HMS Dragonfly. At nine a.m. a Japanese reconnaissance plane flew over the small convoy, and soon after 127 bombers bombed the ships from all points of the compass. The Dragonfly was hit and sank within three minutes taking the majority of her crew and other personnel with her. The Grasshopper was hit in the middle and rapidly caught fire, burning fiercely within minutes. Everyone on board was ordered onto the mess deck to avoid the shrapnel of the exploding bombs. Only the watch keepers were allowed on the upper deck. Laurence was waiting to go on watch when the bomb hit. It entered through the Petty Officer's Mess and exploded on the mess deck. Only three of the men on the deck survived the initial explosion. Laurence was severely wounded in the hips.
Commander Hoffman ordered that the ship be beached on a nearby island. Laurence couldn't walk and somebody threw him into the sea. The Japanese pilots made strafing runs on the ship and its survivors, while tail gunners fired from overhead. Many of the survivors were killed in this way. The majority of the woman and children had already been killed in the initial bomb blast as they had been taking cover on the mess deck. As the aircraft left the ship to burn, Laurence was dragged up the beach by one of the survivors towards the tree line.
Laurence had sustained shrapnel wounds in the hips and was bleeding heavily. Morphine helped to dull the pain and he was placed on a mat under a hut with a few of the other injured survivors; a Malay seaman who had his foot blown off and a British matelot named Wilfred Farley who had been rescued from the Dragonfly. Wilfred had been badly burned down his back, hands and face. He had been complaining of the wounds itching so Laurence told him to sit up. It was at this point that he spotted the maggots crawling on Wilfred's back. Laurence flicked these all off with a stick. These were then eaten by a waiting hen below.
The survivors secured transport from a passing Sampan and were transported to Singkep Island where there was a small hospital located at a Dutch tin mine. A native doctor attempted to remove the shrapnel from Laurence's leg but failed and had not sterilized the probe meaning the wound went septic. Luckily for Laurence, a British doctor, Doctor Kirkwood, operated on him to remove the shrapnel and clean the wound. Laurence stayed in hospital for six weeks. One night he was taken from the hospital with some others and loaded onto a small powered Sampan. He did not know where they were going, but that morning the mainland of Sumatra came into view.
The Sampan entered the mouth of the Indragiri river and proceeded up river until they got to a village called Tembilahan. They spent two nights here, the first being eaten alive by mosquito's. On the second night they were given mosquito nets which gave them some comfort.
After Tembilahan the men were moved further up river to Rengat. Here they were put into another hospital. Doctor Kirkwood met them here, having been on the next Sampan to cross from Singkep Island. It was here, in Rengat, that the able seaman who had been injured at the same time as Laurence aboard the Grasshopper died because of his wounds.
Laurence Hurndell's path to Rengat
A small Scottish man, Jimmy Malcolm, who had been a manager of the Singapore Traction Company, managed to escape with a large amount of money. He said to the other survivors, "The Japs aren't getting my money, we are going to spend it". He spoke, in perfect Malay, to the Malay orderly at the hospital and a little while later the orderly returned with a various assortment of alcoholic liquor. Jimmy said, "We cant drink it like this", and somebody mentioned the babies bath in the hospital laboratory. All of the bottles of alcohol were emptied into the bath, creating 'the most horrible coloured liquid you had ever seen', and those surrounding it proceeded to drink until they fell off their little stools they were seated on.
The next morning all of the men had hangovers and to make matters worse the Japanese walked into the hospital. The officer in charge walked up to Laurence first and pressed a pistol against his temple. The officer asked what was wrong with him and Laurence responded. Laurence then thought, "This is it, Goodbye Mum and Dad". Nothing happened. Laurence opened his eyes and saw the officer doing the same thing to the next man in the group. He did this to all of them and when he was done he stood back and said, "You are prisoners of war from now on".
Laurence and the other men stayed in Rengat for the next 6 - 7 weeks until the Japanese decided what to do with them. They were separated from the woman and food became very scarce, resulting in continual hunger. Their captors would occasionally drop in bread rolls for them to eat but there was little else. The Japanese withdrew their guards and left the Indonesian Police to guard them. They were not allowed outside of the hospital compound.
One morning the Japanese rounded up all of their prisoners from the hospital and put them on the back of trucks and transported them from Rengat to Padang on the west coast of Sumatra. They stayed there over night and this was Laurence's first experience of sleeping on concrete with no clothes. The next morning they were transported from Padang through central Sumatra, a three day journey, to Belawan, the port city of Medan. Here they were meant to board ships bound for Thailand but due to submarine activity in the Malacca Straits it was decided to keep them in Medan. Laurence would spend two years in Medan at the Gloegoer POW camp.
The Road from Padang to Medan (NOID)
The main camp was very large and the men were billeted in log huts. The huts were part of a commandeered Dutch Army Barracks. It was filled mainly with Dutch, but it also housed Australians, British, and five Kiwis, almost 2000 people in total. Each man was allocated a sleeping space on a hard board that was 2 feet x 6 feet.
The men were put to work each day doing various jobs. Some of these jobs included filling barrels with petrol from rail tankers that were shunted along a siding. Laurence and the other men used to sabotage the fuel when they could with sugar, rocks and anything else that they could find. Other jobs included loading scrap iron at Belawan onto ships, creating a garden for the camp commander, building a racecourse, and establishing a cattle ranch. While clearing the scrub for the cattle ranch, Laurence and the other men caught large snakes in the area and took them back to camp to supplement their rations.
One day Laurence was caught with vegetables that he had stolen for the hospital and was tortured. He had his hands tied behind his back and then tied to a pole above him so that his toes were only just touching the ground. He fainted due to the pain and apparently Doctor Kirkwood cut him down and took him to the camp hospital to heal.
Gloegoer POW camp (Atlas of Japanese Camps, Volume I)
There were five New Zealanders in the camp including Laurence. The others were Charlie Hood off the Monowai, Ivan Pardoe off the Dragonfly, Noel Betley off the Grasshopper, and Guy Mcleod, a Malay volunteer who had been a teacher in Malaya before the war. Charlie Hood died later when the ship he was on was torpedoed en-route to Pekanbaru, and Ivan Pardoe died from illness while working on the Pekanbaru Railway.
Guy Mcleod operated a hidden radio that had been built by a prisoner from the British Air Force. It was built from parts that had been raided from the empty Dutch homes in the area. Laurence and the others would listen to the news reports that came through. Guy used to climb into the rafters of their hut to operate the radio which was wired into one of the lighting sockets in the roof. If it had been found he would have surely been shot.
The Road Constructed by the Aceh Party
Towards the end of 1943 the Japanese wanted to build a road in North Sumatra into the province of Aceh where the rebel Malay groups were stationed. A group of POW's were selected to help with this construction and Laurence was among the men picked. They were transported by truck for two days and then walked a further three days until they reached the foot of a mountain and a primitive village. The men were forced to sleep outdoors and when it rained they slept in a little creek as the water trickled past. The food at this point was nearly non-existent. The men never stole off each other but would steal food from the local villages and the Japanese if they had a chance. On arriving at their final stop they set up camp in a paddy field. The men had to build their own huts and slept on bedding cut from scrub and bracken fern.
Once their job of clearing the road of trees was done, they then scraped all of the mud off the surface to get to the bare earth below.
The Japanese decided to open up a quarry to mine a white marble like rock. At first they tried to do it themselves but they had no idea what they were doing. They used to put the sticks of gelignite into a hole and just a cloud of dust would go up. An English Sergeant said, "No you don't do it that way", and so the Japanese gave him the job as he knew how to use explosives. Laurence and the other men would then take this rock that was blasted out and break it up into smaller pieces. It was then loaded into baskets and another group of men would carry this down the road to where it was needed. Then men with large logs with handles attached would ram the stone into a packed surface.
After ten months toiling in Aceh the road was completed. The men walked day and night back to a village at the base of the mountain 100 miles away. When they arrived the Japanese had just shot a wild pig and they gave it to the men. Laurence and the others cooked it up and slept. The next day they were transported in lorries back to Medan where they revieved a few days rest.
A Road Through the Mountains in Aceh (NOID)
The rest did not last long and the men were piled back onto trucks and driven south, through central Sumatra, arriving at a railway branch line at around midnight on the 3rd of November, 1944. This became camp 14a. The branch line was part of the railway built from Pekanbaru to Muaro and was intended to extract the coal mined at the Sapar and Karoe mines up the Tapi river.
The Japanese engineers on this railway were the same engineers that had built the Thai-Burma Railway. After a few months of laying rail the men were required to build a large curved viaduct across one of the side tributaries of the Tapi river. This was done by stacking logs on top of one another and using improvised pulleys to pull each log higher.
While building the viaduct a Japanese guard, nicknamed 'The Gorilla' by Laurence and the other men, used to walk across the bridge with a hammer in his hands. He would then drop the hammer intending to hit a POW below. Luckily the men always kept a lookout for this and would yell, "lookout" every time they saw him do it.
One day Laurence went down to the river for a wash and there in the sand were the footprints of a tiger. The jungle surrounding the coal mine and the railway was full of tigers at this time and it wasn't uncommon for people to go missing. The Japanese were extremely afraid of the tigers and even more so after one of the guards nicknamed "Pig Head" was mauled by one.
A Cutting on the Branch Line to the Coal Mine
Once the branch line was complete Laurence and the other men were moved from camp 14a to work on the main railway around camp 8. All the building was done by hand with picks, shovels, and hoes. The soil was carried away in baskets and re-purposed to create the embankments that the rails sat on.
Gangs were drafted for cutting down the trees, cutting the sleepers, laying the rails, and hammering in the spikes. The job of cutting down the trees was mainly given to the Australians. To make their job easier they would cut down the Kapok trees which were very soft. The problem with this was that the first time a train passed over them they were crushed flat. The Japanese grew wise to this trick very quickly and made sure that the men were only cutting down hardwoods.
The men in the rail laying gang had to lift the steel rails off the flat carriages on to their shoulders. By now the men had no clothes and used small bits of matting on their shoulders to stop the heavy rails from digging in and burning them as they had been sitting in the tropical sun all day.
POW's building the railway (Ben Snijders) Courtesy of Henk Hovinga
After the rail was laid on the ground a group of front spikers would come through and hammer the first spikes in to hold the rail in place. The back spikers would follow and spike the rails into position. There would be six men continuously loading up baskets of spikes and dropping them along the track for the spikers to hit in. The rails were bolted together and a Japanese engineer would follow along with a group of POW's and they would use crowbars to straighten the rail.
One day Laurence was bolting the sections of rail together working opposite to another POW. The other man had been rushing and had left the joiner plates loose. A Japanese sergeant came along and said, "That plate is not tight". Laurence replied and said, " That is not my side, This is my side". The guard just looked at him and then smacked Laurence in the head with a pick handle that he had been carrying. Laurence was left unconscious on the side of the railway. A medical orderly finally managed to wake Laurence after three hours.
In the final four months of building the railway the men never saw their camps in the daylight. They were up before dawn and ate something that resembled glue. They then worked all day without food and then when they got back to camp in the dark they were fed their glue again. The men were dying at an alarming rate but the railway had to be finished. Once the rails were joined the Japanese had a large ceremony to commemorate the accomplishment. Laurence and the other men waited for four hours while the Japanese ceremony took place. Eventually they took Laurence and the others back to camp and said, "tomorrow you rest". This was the 22nd of August, 1945.
When they got back to camp the normal guards were doing their rounds outside the camp. A group of men had been out cutting the wood for the cook house and came back to the the huts. One of the men, Jimmy Roo, an able seamen from the Dragonfly came in and exclaimed, "Hey this Jap guard is talking about the war being over". There were rumors across the whole camp that night that the war had ended.
The next morning the Dutch Commanding Officer told the men to go into their huts. He came in and said that he and the Commanding British Officer had crossed the river and confronted the Japanese officer in charge of the camp. The officer responded, "You are free". The emotions were indescribable in the camp that day.
The men woke up the next morning to find all of the Japanese gone. Laurence and the other men were told to go and cut palm leaves and lay them as arrows pointing to the camp. Not long after, the first plane flew overhead, a liberator, it circled and came back, with another plane following. As they passed over they started dropping supplies.
It wasn't long before the men including Laurence were boarding the train and heading for Pekanbaru. It was a long journey on the rickety rails that they had constructed. They left before dawn and didn't arrive until well after midnight. By this point the RAAF were dropping supplies continuously into the camp at Pekanbaru. A South African paratrooper, Major Jacobs, arrived and said, "I don't want you guys to do anything silly. You are confined to camp, you are not going outside the camp, no raiding the natives, there is food coming in, we are parachuting stuff in. You have come this far and you want to go home".
The senior officers put Indian guards on guard duty to ensure that the men did not leave the camp. The men were weak and they all had tropical diseases. Beriberi, ulcers, and dysentery.
Lady Edwina Mountbatten speaks with the POW's (Argus Collection)
One day a shout went up around camp, "Women in the camp". The men had never moved so fast. Most were naked, wearing only loin cloths. Lady Mountbatten had arrived in her own plane, a silver DC3 which had landed on the airstrip in Pekanbaru. She arrived with an entourage of high ranking officers and nurses. Laurence and the other men were listening to Lady Mountbatten speak when a Colonel accompanying her pulled out a cigarette from a silver case for himself. Immediately he realized what he had done and offered them around the men. When Lady Mountbatten left she took the sickest of the men with her.
The day after her visit the RAAF started flying the POW's to Singapore and three days before Laurence's 23rd birthday, on the 16th of September 1945, Laurence was flown out to Singapore. Sadly his best mate, Ducky, died the day before Laurence left camp. He was buried along with many others in the cemetery at camp two. Ducky had been the leading signalman aboard the HMS Prince of Wales. After it was sunk he had been draughted to HMS Grasshopper. He had made it through all of the camps and died the day before he was to fly out. His full name was Elfred Charles Drake, but Laurence had only ever known him by his nickname.
Freed POW's wait to board a DC3 to Singapore (Argus Collection)
Laurence was flown out on one of the first planes to leave Pekanbaru. Claude Thompson, an RNZAF Pilot who had also been building the railway organized the departure and had convinced an Australian pilot to take them out. Claude, along with Ron Reid, another New Zealand Pilot, had been captured when Java fell to the Japanese. They had been transported by boat to help with the railway construction.
Laurence, Guy Mcleod, Noel Betley, Claude Thompson, and Ron Reid boarded the plane and as they made there way down the runway the flight sergeant said, "Get forward until we get the tail up , you will be right then". The men were flown to Kalang Airport in Singapore. When they arrived no one knew what to do with them. An Australian officer said, "Put them in with the Australians, they are going to St Pats". Laurence and the others were taken to St Pats High School in Katong, Singapore, which had been converted into the 18th Australian General Hospital. They stayed here for six weeks and were de-loused, given new clothes and recuperated. They were allowed six small meals a day and were able to eat malt, marmite and peanut butter.
Once the men started to put on weight they were allowed to leave and were flown back to New Zealand by a pilot named Jack Register. They landed at Whenuapai Air Force Base after five days of travel; travelling via Borneo, Morotai, Darwin, and Brisbane.
The men said their goodbyes on the runway and like that Laurence and Noel were alone. A lady arrived in a car and told them, "I am to take you to Devonport". They jumped in and headed towards the Navy base. Along the way she asked, "Would you like to first taste New Zealand beer?". The men responded that they would love to and so they pulled into a little pub and she brought 3 pints, one for each of them. Laurence thought that the beer tasted beautiful. They continued onto Devonport where they were met by Naval Doctors at the Philomel Base Hospital. They stayed the night and the doctors told them that they were fit enough to go home. They were issued with survival gear and a suitcase. They awoke at five o'clock the next morning to catch a plane to Wellington, landing in Paraparaumu. There was a car waiting for them and they were met by a chief petty officer. His first question was, "Why aren't you in naval uniform?" Laurence responded, "I haven't had a bloody chance yet". The petty officer responded saying "You are supposed to be in naval uniform". Thankfully for Laurence and Noel a Lieutenant Commander showed up and said to the petty officer, "Come on Bull, these guys have just come out of a prison camp. They haven't had a chance to do anything yet". The Petty Officer quietened down after that. The Lieutenant turned to Laurence and said "I have arranged a car and a driver" and they drove to Carterton in the Wairarapa. Noel had been left in Paraparaumu to catch a train to Feilding.
Laurence had orders to go straight to Masterton Hospital on arrival but his first thoughts were to spend a few days at home. He was issued with three months sick leave and three months foreign service leave. Laurence was discharged from the navy in April 1946.
Laurence married and moved to Christchurch with his family where he passed away in 2000, aged 77.
Many thanks to the Hurndell family and the NZ Navy for supplying images and information.