A Railway on Sumatra Constructed by Prisoners of the Japanese During WWII (1943 - 1945)
POW's In Barrack square, Singapore
Between 1941 and 1945 Japan captured thousands of POW’s. The overwhelming majority of Allied prisoners were taken during the first months of the War in the Far East. Prisoners were taken from the Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Hong Kong, Malaya and Burma when these countries were conquered.
As disarmed soldiers milled about awaiting their fate in Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong and Rangoon, they contemplated a life behind barbed wire. They were ill-preapared for the horrific few years to come.
In the weeks that followed their rations shrank, medicines vanished, and Japanese policy was revealed. They were dispatched to labour in jungles, torrid plains, mines and quarries. They grew to understand that in the eyes of their captors they had become slaves.
According to historian Akira Fujiwara, on the 5th of August 1937, Emperor Hirohito had ratified the decision to remove the constraints of international law, (the Hague Convention), regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. The notification advised staff officers to stop using the term “prisoners of war”. The Geneva Convention exempted POW’s of sergeant rank, (and higher), from manual labour and stipulated that prisoners performing work should be provided with extra rations and other essentials. Japan did not follow the convention as it was not a signatory to the convention; however, they had ratified the convention on the sick and wounded.
The Route of the Pekanbaru Death Railway
In 1944, with a dwindling supply of local Romusha, it was decided to bring in POW’s from across the Dutch East Indies and the Pacific.
Around 5000 allied prisoners were brought to Sumatra to work. The majority of these prisoners were captured in Java two years earlier when Major General R. T. Overakker surrendered the KNIL army and colony (around 4000). The other nationalities that made up the work force were British (around 1000), Australian, American, and New Zealanders. (300 total)
The prisoners were housed in camps along the railway with the first POW's arriving at camp 1 in Pekanbaru on the 19th of May 1944.
As the railway progressed, the prisoners built bridges spanning wide rivers, embankments through the jungle and cuttings through hills and around cliffs.They did all of this while risking severe beatings or being killed by the guards,whilst also surviving on the meagre rations that were given to them by their Japanese captors. For example, they were given a cup of peeled rice a day which lacked the vitamin rich skins. If a prisoner was sick they were put on half rations which was around 800 calories a day. These rations were substituted with: rats which were a constant companion in the camps, maggots that could be found in the latrines and anything else that looked edible along the railway.
A pencil drawing done by a POW during the war at camp 2 (1945) Courtesy of geheugenvannederland.nl
Prisoners who became unwell were transported to camp 2 on the outskirts of Pekanbaru where treatment was based. The few doctors worked in un-sterile environments with limited equipment, medicine and antibiotics. Tropical ulcers often led to amputations, done with no anaesthetic and maggots were used to help clean wounds by eating away dead tissue. The population of camp 2 during its operation was around 800.
When the war ended on the 15th of August 1945, around 700 POW’s had died with many prisoners dying from malnutrition, beriberi, malaria and dysentery.
POW's in camp 2A (Argus Collection)
Between the 24th and 30th of August the prisoners in the camps along the railway were transported by rail back to Pekanbaru where many of them learnt that the war was over. The sickest of the prisoners were transported to Singapore for treatment, with the rest following soon after. The last of the prisoners were transported on the 25th of November.
More than a quarter of Western POW’s lost their lives in Japanese captivity. This represented the deprivation and brutality, familiar to Russian and Jewish prisoners of the Nazis, yet shocking to the American, British and Australian public.
A sick POW being evacuated (Argus Collection)