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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Netherlands East Indies

page 9

The Netherlands East Indies

When the allied forces in Java capitulated on 8 March 1942, several hundred members of the Royal Air Force, including some New Zealanders, as well as fugitives from Singapore belonging to all three services (some of whom had evaded the Japanese blockade in all sorts of crazy small craft), found themselves unable to leave the island. One party of Air Force men made their way to the south coast and began building a boat to take them to Australia, but after six weeks the local Javanese police made them surrender to the Japanese. Others also reached the south coast and found it impossible to escape. Another Air Force party at Tjilatjap, a south-coast port, made valiant efforts to get away. The Dutch refused to allow them to take over a corvette which was abandoned by its crew but fully fuelled and provisioned—instead it was sunk to block the entrance to a harbour which the Japanese never attempted to use—so in an aged launch, towing two lifeboats, sixty-two men began their journey. After a few miles the launch broke down and one of the lifeboats was damaged in being beached. About a dozen men put to sea again in the remaining boat.* The others remained hidden for six and a half weeks. Then the natives, though sympathetic, unlike most Javanese, urged them to surrender, and as their food supply was in any case nearly exhausted, they walked some miles to do so. They were received by the Japanese with the usual face-slapping as a suitable rebuke for causing trouble.

Those men who were unlucky enough to be captured at the western end of Java had an unenviable sojourn in a cinema, together with survivors of HMAS Perth and USS Houston, and their next lodging in Serang jail was little better. Soon they were concentrated in ‘Bicycle Camp’, Batavia, a former Dutch barracks. Most Allied prisoners of war in Java passed through this camp, and many also through the inland Bandoeng camp. In both the prisoners’ own organisation was good. In Bandoeng, a school,** a library, concerts, and plays helped to make life less unendurable. Later, assemblies of more than three persons were forbidden. Food was poor, but at first it was possible to buy from outside, and the Dutch, while they had funds, made an allowance to British prisoners. There were occasionally pleasant surprises: a new Japanese adjutant was annoyed to find that the prisoners were being cheated of their proper allowance of meat; this was a ‘disgrace to the Japanese Army’ and he had it put right for a few weeks. Rarely were the Japanese so sensitive in these matters. Many prisoners were afterwards taken from Java to work on the Burma-Thailand railway or in Japan itself.

A number of men, a majority from, the Navy, were captured in Sumatra. Some reached there from Singapore and found it as difficult to go farther as others had found it to leave Java. Some were survivors from ships sunk in Banka Strait, where both Japanese air and surface units maintained a blockade. Conditions of imprisonment in Sumatra—the main camp was near Palembang—were very bad. Food was poor, even when supplemented by judicious thefts from Japanese stores, and the opportunities for local purchase were limited. A fund was established from a pool of valuables and spare clothing, and most of whatever could be bought, under black-market conditions, was reserved for the hospital. Medical facilities were virtually non-existent, though a doctor with a page 10 knowledge of botany made some use of herbal remedies. Of 1200 in the camp it is estimated that four hundred died. The hospital, with its stench from tropical ulcers and dysentery cases, was bad enough to impress the Japanese, who burned it just before the surrender. In the Sumatra dry season even water was scarce.

Subsidiary camps throughout the Netherlands East Indies were among the worst in Japanese-held territories. At a camp in the Ambon Group the Korean interpreter (Koreans often made themselves more insufferable than the Japanese, until a few weeks before the surrender when they suddenly became wondrous sweet) shouted into a hospital full of desperately ill prisoners, ‘Why don’t you hurry up and die?’ This camp was notorious for its ‘blitzes on the sick’. In turning out for working parties men who could scarcely stand, the Japanese would blandly assure them that the ‘spirit’ would cure them, and perhaps for that reason supplied no drugs. It is not altogether surprising that only 25 per cent of a draft of 2000 prisoners taken from Java to Haruku Island survived life on the island and the terrible two months’ voyage to traverse a distance which in peacetime took four days.

Near Makassar, on Celebes, were other bad camps where at least fourteen New Zealanders, including survivors of HMS Exeter, were imprisoned. Again the sick were among the principal victims. Men whom the doctors sent to hospital had first to parade before the Japanese in charge of discipline ‘who was liable to send you to work or make you run around the compound until you collapsed’. In hospital it was a case of ‘either get better or die’. In this camp, in the middle of 1945, there were several mass beatings of scores of prisoners (in one case of 300) for one man’s offence: the offence for which 300 men were punished was that of bringing into camp food picked up while out on a working party. In many prisoner-of-war camps the Japanese became generally more, rather than less, brutal with the gradual realisation of their defeat. One New Zealander mentioned that trading (among prisoners and to some extent, illicitly, with guards in articles made by the prisoners) was ‘the spice of existence and kept men from going mad’. Another naval rating remarked that they were constantly in danger of beatings ‘as we tried to outwit the Japs on the supreme matter of food’. No private fires were allowed in Makassar, but the prisoners did their cooking in holes dug under the boards of their beds. One of these men celebrated peace by going out of the camp and chasing and killing a goat. As in most of the outposts of the Co-prosperity Sphere the ‘supreme matter of food’ obsessed everybody.

Black and white sketch of house

accommodation found
—from British Battalion (Sumatra) Diary, a sketch by E. Burgoyne on the Burma-Thailand Railway

* This party reached Australia after forty-four days at sea.

** The subjects taught included architecture, law, accountancy, and ‘about fifteen different languages and dialects, including Russian in three stages and Arabic, as well as the usual modern foreign languages and the Eastern ones’.