Trip from Halifax to Liverpool
Leaving in good weather at the end of summer (maybe August or September), we set sail in the SS Singkep from Halifax, Newfoundland, Canada to Liverpool, England. We were transporting Indian rubber. This may not seem to be a precious cargo, until you consider all the uses for it in wartime: it’s used in the manufacture of boats, cars and aeroplanes.We went across the Atlantic Ocean in a convoy of 68 ships, accompanied by a few corvettes. The communication between the ships was conducted purely with flags. That was my new job on the SS Singkep. Every day around noon we all had to signal our position. One day, a joker signalled to me that he was in the Sahara, near Timbuktu. The commander of the convoy did not appreciate this joke at all. The guy was punished and was told in no uncertain terms not to do that again. We were sailing in wartime, tensions were very high as prior crossings had been very deadly and it wasn’t the right time for jokes.
We had to travel at the speed of the slowest vessel in our convoy and there were steam-powered boats with us travelling at only 10 knots per hour. There were over 260 German U-boats in the seas at that time, and any could fire torpedoes at our convoy. We were, quite literally, sitting ducks, as we were travelling so slowly.
We had English destroyer corvettes racing around us. I’m grateful to the corvettes for their service and attempts to keep us safe. The corvettes rushed through the convoy at high speed trying to listen out for and identify the location of German U-boats. We maintained radio silence during the convoy, so that we had a better chance of not being hunted down.
Eerily, I was told we would see the flash of light signalling a torpedo impact before we heard the roar of the explosion, just as you see lightning before you hear the thunder. I didn’t see any explosions, as our convoy was not targeted. However, the German U-boats had obviously attacked previous convoys, as I saw many bodies in the water. Most of the people floating in the water had died, but sometimes the people were still alive.
Regretfully, in these crossing there were no rescue boats. All boats were instructed not to veer from their own course, not even to pick up survivors. Any ship, which went to help rescue sailors, would probably be torpedoed too, as it would manoeuvre them into the firing line. Rescue efforts were strictly forbidden and weren’t attempted. If you survived the blast, you would drown at sea.
Even so, I learnt from the horrific tales of boats being torpedoed. I mulled over who had a better chance of surviving a direct hit. I thought how important it was to choose where you should jump overboard. I knew that you, ideally, needed to jump overboard at the back, as the torpedoed boat would keep its forward momentum for a while and would crush anyone who tried escaping at the front. I checked and double-checked where the flotation devices were during that trip. I felt safest at the back of the ship near our quarters.
Struiswijk prison was designed and built by the Dutch. It was a kind of fortress. On the perimeter was a wall, approximately 10 meters high, with a lookout post where two Japanese armed guards kept watch. Inside the wall was a fire corridor, about 20 meters wide.
Behind the fire corridor there was a solid wall without windows; that was the back of the actual prison. To get into the prison you first went through high steel doors in the first wall, and then there were two doors in the inner wall. If you can imagine it, the entrance doors were connected to each other by a kind of tunnel.
Inside the entrance were offices, a warehouse and the watch. The centre of the prison was an open area with some trees. It was about the size of a football pitch.
Around this field were barracks converted to lodgings and cells. The interior wall was at the back of the cells, and the cells were grouped into blocks. Leen and I were locked in a single cell, in block J (barrack 18 in map below), which in the original Dutch design was intended for just one local prisoner. The dimensions were 2 1/2 meters long, 1 1/2 meters wide and 2 meters high.
The lighting in our cell was an electrical bicycle lamp on the ceiling. We made improvements by using the silver paper from a cigarette packet to reflect the light back into the room. With this we could both play solitaire with a deck of cards in the evening.
During the time that we were in that block we were allowed out three times a day. We could wash and shave at the well. The well was in the middle of the courtyard that belonged to our block. It was an opportunity to go to the toilet and get something to eat. Those excursions took about two hours. Talking to other prisoners from another block was strictly prohibited so we were completely devoid of any news. It was difficult being completely isolated from everything outside our block. This isolation lasted about six months. It appeared that the Japanese interrogated the inmates for any details or knowledge, which they could use for their war efforts. I saw several inmates taken from our block and they were badly beaten before coming back. Some I never saw again… We knew that the Japanese wanted to know where all the gold that was in the Javanese Bank had gone. If they ever found it, I don’t know.
The sinking of the Junyo Maru
In September 1944 a large number of us had to pack up again to leave, taking our few possessions with us. We were told to travel light, as we would need to walk a distance of a few kilometres. We went on foot from the camp in the direction of the station. Several people took too much with them (lots of books etc.) and had to abandon them on the way. An armoured train was already waiting for us. About 2,500 men were roughly crammed into that train. There were too many of us to fit inside, so we were hit with rifles butts to get us to squeeze in.
The train left but it stopped after half an hour and we had to get out. We all quickly realised where we were: the Tanjung Priok train station at the port of Batavia. I wasn’t the only one to have strong suspicions that we would carry on our journey by ship as we walked towards the port.
I said to my friend Leen Sloot, “Watch out, we are going on board. Let’s try to get to the back of the crowd. We need to walk slower than the rest, in order to board last. If the ship is blown up, we must be on deck and not trapped in the hull.”
Although usually the Japanese were very disciplined, in this instance it was necessary for them to work as literal slave drivers. They were yelling and hitting people to speed them up. Most people were (rightly) afraid of getting hit and were panicking with fear, so they naturally hurried along.
Despite the Japanese’s sharp control, Leen and I prudently managed to work our way towards the tail of the procession. We pretended to do up our shoelaces and made it look like we were hurrying, but we took smaller steps.
We were led to a quay where the Junyo Maru was anchored. It was a rusty old freighter. We could see the people at the front already boarding the vessel via a wide wooden staircase that was placed against the ship. On board they were literally kicked in, to push them to the depths of the hull. We discovered that the rear half of the ship was reserved for us.
The front of the ship was loaded with indigenous people, who had been recruited or captured by the Japanese to work for them.
The Japanese visited villages and paid the village chief for the men to be used as labourers. If the chiefs refused, the men were taken anyway and the chiefs weren’t paid. Later, the Japanese also started taking their boys saying they would be given a Japanese education. These were the cheapest of their labour and seen as most expendable. All these captured people were slave labourers, or romushas. They were all kept far away from us “whites” and were treated much more harshly than us.
On board there were approximately 4,000 Indonesians located in the front section of the ship. In the rear part there were around 2,500 POWs.
The Japanese guards were in the midship area (on the bridge) and on the poopdeck (at the rear of the ship). I think there were around 200 well-armed soldiers. Both the midship and the poopdeck areas were prohibited for the non-Japanese.
The holds were further split into a number of horizontal layers. These layers were constructed from wooden buttresses with shelves. The holds are normally divided by two metal platforms/decks, creating space vertically. Instead, the Japanese divided each of these three decks into another three layers and thus obtained 9 layers of people above each other. Each man had to crouch, almost crawling, to get in.
We were housed in the stern, where there were three vertical holds. In total there were three times nine i.e. 27 compartments in the rear part of the ship.
My sketch of the Junyo Maru
Source: Nicola Meinders
Many people were panicking about the idea of going on board. I wasn’t afraid of the ship itself, it’s just a big piece of metal, that I knew and understood, but many people were worried about the idea of actually boarding a ship. They also knew the seas were heavily patrolled by submarines, which would shoot at enemy ships. It was logical that we would make a prime target in such a huge freight ship. Compound these fears with not knowing where or how far we were going, as we’d had the absolute minimum of information from the Japanese, and you start to understand the raw fear they felt. This innate fear of the unknown combined with the horrendous, overcrowding of the ship in tropical heat, clearly shows why people were panicking.
When Leen and I finally came on board as nearly the last passengers, the holds were fully allocated and overcrowded. Hitting no longer helped to push the prisoners further back into the overcrowded spaces. A few hundred prisoners and some of the dying were kept on deck. My plan had worked; we didn’t get pushed into the hold.
The temperature was roughly 40 ℃ and there was hardly any ventilation at all in the overcrowded space. There were people fainting and many others felt scared and claustrophobic in the holds. They tried to rotate with the people who were on deck, which didn’t exactly go smoothly, because in each of the 3 holds there was only 1 narrow staircase. There was pushing and pulling from all sides to try and get to the staircase. People tried to escape the misery down there in whatever way they could.
It is hardly surprising that on deck there wasn’t much motivation to leave the deck and go back down into the hold. Even if people were willing to go back and exchange, it wasn’t usually possible to go back down due to the crowds fighting on the staircase. In addition, the Japanese soldiers became involved and that meant it was best to avoid conflict, so the smart ones just sat quietly and remained silent.
I had seen the whole debacle and thought I needed to consolidate my spot on deck. I did that by volunteering to work as a “latrine manager”. There were a number of wooden crates hanging overboard, on the outside of the handrail. These were our “toilets”. There were two boards on the bottom of the crate to stand on, as there was no bottom in the crate. My task was to coordinate the climbing overboard. You have no idea how many people were afraid to do this. My main task was to hold their hands. My plan worked and I was no longer asked to go below deck. It may have been a revolting task, but it wasn’t sought after, so my staying on deck was assured. I still found it much safer than getting trapped below deck.
I did say to Leen that he should help too, but Leen didn’t want to play “charlady”. Later I learned that Leen had gone into a deckhouse, hiding on stored bales of rice.
We stayed in harbour and only left the following day on Saturday 16 September 1944 at 3pm, owing to a submarine alert.
Work on the Pakan Baroe Railway
After some weeks we were again loaded onto lorries and taken further inland. The camp where we were delivered was called “Camp 4”.
We learnt more from prisoners who were already stationed there. It seemed that it was a long way from Moeara Enim to Pakan Baroe with a total of sixteen camps across the journey. These camps were numbered from one to fourteen a. starting in Pakan Baroe. I was in few of those internment camps; 4 (Taratak Boeloen), 5 (Loeboeksakat), 7 (Lipat Kian) and 11 (Koeantanrivier).
We were transferred from one camp to another whenever a section of the railway line was completed. A maintenance team was kept behind, and the rest went on further. The old story was repeated with medical care, i.e. none at all. The food remained poor and in short supply. It wasn’t just the POWs whose lives had changed, the conditions for the Japanese were also worse than before.
The railway line work consisted of the following tasks:
- Building embankments of sand
- Laying sleepers
- Laying rails
- Connecting rails with “guys”
- Straightening rails
- Nailing rails on to the sleepers
- Building bridges over rivers
- Collecting already hacked down trees, to be used for building bridges.
The requirement was to build two kilometers of railway line per day. If it seemed that this would not be achieved in any given day, the Japanese became nervous and started screaming and hitting us in order to get to more momentum.
I did, or tried to do, every one of the eight different tasks to lay that railway. There were some things that I was useless at. Whenever my efforts were totally inadequate, I worked for the shortest possible time at that type of task. For example, I couldn’t use the heavy sledgehammers properly to hammer large steel nails into the rails of the sleepers. These big nails were needed to hold the sleepers in place. I didn’t have enough strength to hit it the nails hard enough because I was far too weak and I almost never hit it straight.
Lugging the heavy metal rails from the lorry to the place where they were needed, was also not my forté. The ten meter-long rails were carried on the shoulders of ten men. Since I am not very tall and also do not have broad shoulders, I was more of a hindrance than a help. The metal rails were in the scorching sunshine all the time and were boiling hot. You had to put a cloth on your shoulders otherwise your skin would burn to the bone. I didn’t have a cloth and I was soon reallocated to another task.
I was ordered to carry wooden sleepers around. We carried them in teams of two men to the place where they needed to be. That was fine until one day wet sleepers were delivered. I found it impossible to lift them up at all, even with three men. Again, I was rejected and reallocated.
I got a so-called job putting the “guys” in their position. That was a scientific job, which suited me better. I had to measure where the things had to be. They needed to be every ten meters on both sides. It was a one-man job and it was relatively independent. Since I had to work ahead of the rest of the tracklayers, I sometimes walked a kilometre ahead of the toiling crowd. I walked by stepping from sleeper to sleeper. I had no footwear, so I walked with bare feet. The only clothing I had was a loathsome jute cloth covering my buttocks. In that period I was dark brown from top to toe.
Life and death on the Pakan Baroe Railway
One day I was shaking with cold. The next day I had a strong fever. Then the next day I had no fever. A day later, the shivering started again… This feverish illness continued to repeat itself.
A (Dutch) doctor diagnosed me with Malaria Tertiana. He prescribed a lot of cinchona (kina) bark powder to swallow. The bark of the cinchona tree contains quinine, which today is a widely prescribed treatment for malaria, especially in countries that cannot afford to purchase the more expensive anti-malarial drugs produced by the pharmaceutical industry.
Quite frankly I did not take that that medicine as faithfully as I should have done, because I just couldn’t force that dry, brown sand down my throat. I believe that my malaria was aggravated by my lack of will power to motivate myself take the medicine regularly. I became so ill, that they pretty much gave up on me. I was moved to the death barracks, where the sick normally died.
I can remember that I was very sick. I tried to stop flies flying in and out of the mouth of someone next to me. Later I was told that he had already died. As we only had up to 75cm-wide berths in which to sleep, you were very close to the guy next to you. This explains in part, why I tried to swat the flies in my delirious state, as they were also biting me.
One day a Dutch doctor, (Doctor Bakker) produced some quinine pills for me. I don’t know why he chose to give me the course of the pills. I responded well to them and, despite my desperate state in the death ward, after a number of days I returned back to my old place. My return to work was a big surprise to my buddies; they thought I was a goner.
The doctor prescribed me a number of weeks off work to give me the opportunity to recover. This permission to stop working for a while was granted only on the provision, that I wasn’t selected from the sickbeds to work. This sometimes happened when the number of healthy workers was too low.