The forgotten World War II Death Rail­way

BBC History Magazine - - Front Page -

At 4.15pm on 18 Septem­ber 1944, the Bri­tish sub­ma­rine HMS Tradewind tor­pe­doed a Ja­panese steamship off the west­ern coast of Su­ma­tra. To a crew com­mis­sioned with de­stroy­ing cargo ships in the wa­ters sur­round­ing the Dutch East Indies, the Junyo Maru – a 400ft, 5,000-ton steamer – ap­peared a valu­able tar­get. But what the Tradewind’s cap­tain did not know was that Junyo Maru’s cargo con­sisted of more than 6,000 cap­tives of the Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Army: 4,200 Ja­vanese slave labour­ers (known as ro­musha) and 2,300 Al­lied pris­on­ers of war. The ship sank within an hour of be­ing hit, and more than 5,000 of its pas­sen­gers were lost to the waves. It was one of the dead­li­est mar­itime dis­as­ters of the Se­cond World War.

Con­di­tions on board the Junyo Maru, which had set off from Batavia (to­day’s Jakarta) two days be­fore it was tor­pe­doed, had been dire. Pris­on­ers were crammed into the hold with­out food or wa­ter, and they found them­selves gasp­ing for air with­out room to move. “The fetid, sti­fling hold was like a black stink­ing oven,” wrote Willem Wan­rooy, a Dutch sur­vivor of the sink­ing.

Only 200 ro­musha are thought to have sur­vived the Tradewind’s at­tack; eye­wit­ness ac­counts re­late how, un­able to swim, most of the Ja­vanese cap­tives hud­dled in groups on the ship’s deck and sang to­gether as it plunged into the wa­ter.

The Ja­panese plucked 680 mil­i­tary PoWs from the sea the fol­low­ing day but they gave these sur­vivors no time to rest or re­cu­per­ate. The Junyo Maru had been car­ry­ing the PoWs to a se­ries of camps nes­tled deep in the Su­ma­tran jun­gle – and the Ja­panese were de­ter­mined that the jour­ney should con­tinue with­out de­lay. Once they ar­rived in Su­ma­tra, the PoWs joined a vast rail­way con­struc­tion project that lasted un­til Ja­pan’s sur­ren­der al­most a year later. That project would ex­pose them to beat­ings, star­va­tion, a cock­tail of dis­eases and, all too of­ten, death.

The idea of a rail­way run­ning across Su­ma­tra had been first mooted by the is­land’s Dutch colonists in the late 19th cen­tury. The Dutch re­vis­ited the idea more than once be­fore aban­don­ing it for good in the 1930s, con­clud­ing that the is­land’s treach­er­ous swamps, moun­tains and dense jun­gle sim­ply made the project too dan­ger­ous and too ex­pen­sive to un­der­take. But with a cheap sup­ply of labour, these chal­lenges did not de­ter the Ja­panese, who had seized the is­land in March 1942 as their forces swept across south-east Asia fol­low­ing their dra­matic en­try into the Se­cond World War. To them, the ben­e­fits of the rail­way were clear.

By 1943, with Amer­i­can em­bar­goes be­gin­ning to bite, the Ja­panese were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a chronic short­age of fuel. Su­ma­tra, rich in nat­u­ral re­serves of coal and oil, of­fered a po­ten­tial so­lu­tion. But the Ja­panese had a prob­lem: and that was how to trans­port these re­sources from Su­ma­tra’s mines to its main ports with­out send­ing their ship­ping out into the wa­ters around the is­land, where they were vul­ner­a­ble to Al­lied at­tack. The an­swer, they con­cluded, was a cross-is­land rail­way.

Forced labour

This wasn’t the first time that the Ja­panese had or­dered the con­struc­tion of a mas­sive rail­way in their newly con­quered ter­ri­to­ries. The build­ing of the ‘Death Rail­way’, which con­nected Thai­land to Burma, is surely one of the most no­to­ri­ous episodes of the en­tire Pa­cific War. Work­ing in hor­ren­dous con­di­tions, around 100,000 forced labour­ers, 12,000 of whom were Al­lied PoWs, lost their lives build­ing the rail­way, vic­tims of dis­ease, star­va­tion and mal­treat­ment.

No sooner had that project been com­pleted than a team of Ja­panese en­gi­neers – some of whom had mas­ter­minded the Thai-Burma

Rail­way – ar­rived in Su­ma­tra tasked with re­peat­ing the job. Their brief was to de­sign a 130-mile rail­way that tra­versed the is­land, con­nect­ing Pekan­baru in the east with an ex­ist­ing line at Moeara that ran on to the city of Padang on Su­ma­tra’s west­ern coast.

It was a mam­moth un­der­tak­ing, and the ro­musha, the first group of forced labour­ers to ar­rive on the is­land, were to bear the heav­i­est bur­den. In March 1943, they were des­ig­nated the bru­tal task of man­u­ally ex­ca­vat­ing the foun­da­tions of the line be­fore mil­i­tary PoWs started lay­ing the track. Con­struc­tion meth­ods were prim­i­tive and mo­not­o­nous: the labour­ers dug out the foun­da­tions us­ing spades, sledge­ham­mers, and wood-bor­ing au­gurs called dassies; they trans­ported vast amounts of earth in flimsy wicker bas­kets; and they heaved huge sleep­ers, bricks and rails into po­si­tion by hand. Worse still, they did so un­der re­lent­less – of­ten vi­o­lent – pres­sure from the guards. They had very few rest days, and of­ten worked 24-hour shift ro­ta­tions.

And their work wasn’t con­fined to lay­ing foun­da­tions for the track. The labour­ers had to build sev­eral shunt­ing yards and switch­ing points. What’s more, each of the 17 camps that have so far been iden­ti­fied near the con­struc­tion sites were built by the pris­on­ers as they pro­gressed along the rail­way.

In May 1944, four months be­fore the sink­ing of the Junyo Maru, 5,000 mil­i­tary PoWs be­gan their ar­du­ous task of lay­ing the track. Most had al­ready been held cap­tive for 27 months, and were suf­fer­ing the im­pact of hard labour and trop­i­cal dis­ease on a star­va­tion diet. They worked in no more than a makeshift thong, with the blaz­ing heat of the equa­to­rial sun sear­ing their skin. If a man stum­bled, the ham­mer missed, or the rail went down clum­sily, re­called for­mer PoW Ken­neth Rob­son, “a scream­ing voice pen­e­trates the mists, and as you straighten up from putting the peg straight, a fist, a piece of wood, a ri­fle… hits you on the side of the face, and... down you go”.

The PoW work­ing par­ties were pre­dom­i­nantly made up of Dutch and In­done­sian cap­tives, but also in­cluded just over a thou­sand Bri­tons, Aus­tralians and New Zealan­ders. In to­tal, 673 mil­i­tary PoWs died dur­ing the con­struc­tion, while a fur­ther 1,796 drowned as a re­sult of two ‘ friendly fire’ in­ci­dents (one the sink­ing of Junyo Maru; the other when a ship called the Van Waer­wi­jck was at­tacked in June 1944).

But the death toll among mil­i­tary PoWs was dwarfed by the num­ber of ro­musha who lost their lives dur­ing the project. The Ja­vanese cap­tives ex­pe­ri­enced ap­palling con­di­tions. San­i­ta­tion was poor, trop­i­cal dis­eases spread quickly and, un­like their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts, they had no or­gan­ised sys­tem of camp ad­min­is­tra­tion, ra­tioning and med­i­cal care to draw upon. The re­sults were cat­a­strophic. The Dutch his­to­rian Henk Hovinga has es­tab­lished that more than 80,000 ro­musha died dur­ing the build­ing of the Su­ma­tra Rail­way. They lie buried in un­marked mass graves along the route of the track.

Cook­ing snakes and rats

Ac­cord­ing to War Of­fice records, the most com­mon cause of death among PoWs was dis­ease. Malaria and dysen­tery were rife, as were con­di­tions caused by se­vere mal­nu­tri­tion, such as pel­la­gra and beri-beri. Typ­i­cal ra­tions tended to con­sist of no more than 300 grams of rice, 300 grams of tapi­oca, and jun­gle veg­eta­bles for­aged dur­ing the day. Meat was a rar­ity, al­though men would try to sup­ple­ment their ra­tions by killing and cook­ing snakes and rats. The ar­rival of a bul­lock in camp was cause for great cel­e­bra­tion; an at­tempt to eat an orang­utan was not re­peated – the an­i­mal’s car­cass had seemed too hu­man for PoWs to stom­ach.

With dis­ease rife, med­i­cal of­fi­cers quickly be­came the most im­por­tant fig­ures in the camps. This was not just for the treat­ment that they could pro­vide, but for their at­tempts to se­cure an in­crease in ra­tions and med­i­cal sup­plies from the guards. They were also best placed to im­pose strict hy­giene pro­to­cols and stem the spread of dis­ease.

“A scream­ing voice pen­e­trates the mists, a fist, a piece of wood, a ri­fle… hits you on the side of the face, and... down you go”

Our map of mod­ern- day south- east Asia shows the lo­ca­tion of the Su­ma­tra Rail­way

Ro­musha in Su­ma­tra af­ter their lib­er­a­tion. An es­ti­mated 80,000 of these Ja­vanese labour­ers died dur­ing the con­struc­tion of the rail­way, and lie in un­marked graves along the route of the track

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