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POW Forced labour on the Pakan Baroe Railway, Sumatra

Work on the Pakan Baroe Railway, Sumatra

After some weeks we were again loaded onto lorries again and taken further inland towards Pekanbaru (Pakan Baroe in Dutch). When we arrived camps 1, 2 and 3 were already finished and had sufficient people to carry out maintenance duties.

The camp where I was brought was called “Camp 4”. Both 3 and 4 were very wet and boggy. The mosquitoes were rife in these two campany and many prisoners contracted the deadly disease malaria. In camp 4 we needed to build a bridge over the river and then carry on building new tracks towards Padang.

We learnt more from prisoners who were already stationed there. They told us that on the whole way from Muara Enim to Pekanbaru there were 16 camps. These were numbered from 1 to 14a, starting in Pekanbaru. I was in a couple of those 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. In the camps it was the same old story when it came to medical care – there was 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. 

We also got beaten if the Japanese found the work wasn’t going fast enough. 

The railway line work consisted of the following tasks:

  1. Building embankments of sand
  2. Laying sleepers
  3. Laying rails
  4. Connecting rails with fishplates
  5. Straightening rails
  6. Nailing rails on to the sleepers
  7. Building bridges over rivers
  8. 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, and I was forbidden to do them after a few short tries. 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 and I almost never hit the nails straight on the head. 

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 teak sleepers were delivered. I found it impossible to lift them up at all, even with three men. We cheekily ignored these, maybe they are still rotting there… Again, I was rejected and reallocated. 

I got a so-called job putting the fishplates in their position. That was a scientific job, which suited me better. I had to measure where the things had 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.

As I walked ahead, I was far enough out of sight to do a little bit of foraging for food. I remembered seeing indigenous people eating chillies at some point and I decided to copy them. I had no way to cook them, so I taught myself to eat them raw. They burned my taste buds, but at least I was eating something with nutritional content. Nowadays, we know chillies contain lots of vitamins, including high level of vitamin C, which wards off scurvy.