Ronnie Leach in the Far East

Ronnie in Singapore, Bombay Bowler on the table
Please excuse the rough and ready nature of this page - tense changes, uneven style, etc. Consider it a work in progress.

Singapore

   
A.C.1 Ronald Charles Leach RAF Volunteer Reserve arrived in Singapore in May of 1941. Service personnel entered as A.C. 2 (Aircraftman 2nd Class) and with advancement in their technical discipline could advance to A.C.1, and then L.A.C (Leading Aircraftman) - all these ranks corresponding to Private in the Army. The slang for Aircraftman was "Erk." He had likely made the journey to the Far East in convoy WS 7 (one of the "Winston Specials"). It was at times an enormous convoy, having 23 troopships when the reached port in Cape Town. The trip was uneventful. Upon arriving at Keppel Harbour in Singapore, the men would have been mustered and given their postings.

    Ronnie was posted to RAF Seletar, one of four airbases in Singapore. Seletar was home to squadrons composed of Vickers Vildebeest torpedo bombers and of flying boats, Short Singapores and Catalina PBYs. Both the Vildebeest and the Short Singapore were badly out of date. Most of the Erks seem to have found life at Seletar to have been very pleasant indeed. "The life of Riley," is a phrase often thrown about. Jack Ford describes his impressions:
    "War had not yet broken out with Japan. We were at peace and times were pretty good for us. I was assigned to Seletar Airbase; about fifteen minutes drive from the city of Singapore. We were living like kings. It couldn't be any better. For those who enjoyed liquor, there was duty-free liquor and for smokers there were duty-free cigarettes. Now, I wasn't a liquor or cigarette man, but food was also very cheap."
    The working day started at 7:30 a.m. and ended at noon. Most men took the opportunity to head into Singapore in the afternoon.
    "Now, if you were going to town after the noon-day lunch, you would leave your tunic on the bed, and your shoes underneath the bed. By noon, the coolies had the tunics cleaned and pressed and our shoes were polished. They were wonderful workers and most of us appreciated them. We treated them well and with respect."  [Jack Ford]



  
 West Camp Billet - RAF Seletar
 RAF Seletar Barracks c 1946
 


Ronnie was posted from Seletar to RAF Butterworth in Malaya at some point, but returned to Seletar in October of 1941.

The War was on the other side of the world - and apart from the separation from home and family, life was pretty good until things abruptly changed:

"The men had an enjoyable evening at the Cathay cinema, followed by Tiger beers at the Yacht Club, and then looked forward to another 0730hrs start to another routine week. They slept through the invasion of Malaya and the bombing of Pearl Harbour, before being woken by shouting." [Java FEPOW 1942 Club, p 28]

"I was awakened by the sound of bombs exploding all around. 'Get under the bed,' somebody shouted. I tried in the darkness but came up against one of the centre legs of a six legged bed, one that reduced to three feet in length in the barrack room by day. Thus foiled in my attempt, I took the easier option of getting back into bed." [Java FEPOW 1942 Club, p 41]

The strike on Seletar was part of a raid on the city of Singapore by seventeen G3M bombers - visibility problems made this strike a shadow of the 61 bomber  strike that was planned. Catalina pilot Alex Jardine said the reaction at Seletar was "Well I'll be damned, the cheeky little so-and-so's!" Disbelief was also widespread; many asserted that the planes were actually German, or were piloted by Germans.

The defences of the Malay peninsula rested in great part upon the naval support that had recently arrived at Singapore. On the evening of December 8th the battlecruiser H.M.S. Repulse and the battleship H.M.S. Prince of Wales left Singapore to intercept a Japanese task force. The departing battleships could be seen from RAF Seletar. Lionel Bailey noted in his diary, "Saw Repulse and Prince of Wales sail out of Jahor Straits - impressive sight - bristling with guns!" Jack Ford recalled the comment of another fellow watching the ships leave, "We'd be in a nice state if we lose the Prince of Wales and the Repulse." On December 10th both ships were sunk by Japanese bombers. Things went downhill from there.

Through December Singapore was relatively unmolested by bombing after the first raid, but through January Singapore was bombed daily and RAF Seletar always received some bombs en route. The Vildebeests were easy prey for Japanese fighters and so were generally restricted to night flights. The Japanese moved quickly through Malaya and used air superiority to take airfields behind British lines, and then launch strikes from them too. By the beginning of February the outlook appeared grim, the Japanese ready to cross the Jahor Straits, and given the lack of air power remaining to bring into play, RAF units were evacuated to the next defensible positions in Sumatra and Java. After the war Ronnie's parents made contact with one of his colleagues at Seletar, Flight Sgt (then Corporal) Ted Wake. He wrote, "I first met Ronald at Seletar in late 1941 where we were both on the same unit and we became very friendly. Just before the war started I was posted to North Malaya, and did not see him again until January 42, when I returned to Seletar. We escaped from Singapore together on the S.S. Empire Star."

"The Japanese were in the town as we boarded the 13,000 ton Empire Star, which was normally a refrigerated meat carrier, and as we moved into Keppel Harbour, the oil refinery on Pulau Bukom was ablaze." [Java FEPOW 1942 Club, p. 31]


The S.S. Empire Star was a 13,000 ton refrigerated cargo ship, with quarters for 16 passengers. On February 12th she became the last big ship to leave Singapore's Keppel Harbour,  loaded with perhaps 2500 RAF ground crew, Royal Navy, Nurses, and civilians. More than a hundred deserters from Australian infantry had forced their way on board and used an anti-aircraft gun to keep those they thought were Military Police at bay.

The exact size of the so-called ‘Empire Star Convoy’ is unknown and numbers range from six to over thirty, but included the Empire Star, Gorgon, Yoma, Delamore, HMS Scott Harley. The light cruiser HMS Durban, HMS Stronghold and HMS Kedah would escort the convoy. It is estimated that only two or three of the dozens of ships to leave Singapore during 11 - 13 Feb 1942 actually made it to safety. [from the website Singapore 1942]

Photographs

The first attack came at 9:10 a.m. on the 12th. Six dive bombers delivered three direct hits to the Empire Star resulting in 14 dead and 17 severely wounded. RAF gunners added to the defences of the ship so that two of the dive bombers were taken out of action.

Intermittent attacks by enemy aircraft continued for the next four hours. They were high-level attacks from 7,000 to 10,000 feet carried out by twin-engined heavy bombers, as many as 57 being counted. A large number of bombs were dropped, some of which missed the Empire Star by no more than 10 or 20 feet. The final attack was made by a formation of nine aircraft at 1.10 p.m., and once more the vessel, to use Captain Capon's own words- ," miraculously escaped with a series of extremely near misses on both sides. [website Blue Star's MV "Empire Star" 2]

One of the nurses being evacuated recalled "They did all they possibly could to sink the Empire Star. At one stage I remember the bombs were such large ones that the ship seemed to jump out of the sea. Down in the hold we really felt the reverberation. In fact one of our girls, both her ear drums were ruptured. Afterwards we learnt that they had dropped 2 bombs simultaneously and due to the skillfulness of Captain Capon one fell on either side of the ship." [http://www.angellpro.com.au/Hamilton.htm#Hamilton]


Java

The S.S. Empire Star reached harbour on the island of Java at Batavia (now Jakarta) and the RAF disembarked on the Tandjong Priok docks. Some RAF tried to stay on board, as the ship was continuing to Australia, but were eventually convinced to leave. While Singapore and Malaya were under British rule, Java was part of the Dutch East Indies; the defenses that were being hastily assembled were initially under the multinational command of ABDACOM [Australian, British, Dutch, American], though in short order ABDACOM folded up its tent, and command was passed to the local Dutch forces.


[Ronald and I] arrived at Batavia on the 15th of February 1942. There I was put in charge of a small mobile unit, and Ronald was with me on that. We tried to escape after the capitulation of Java on March the 8th, but were unable to do so, and surrendered ourselves on March the 27th. [F/Sgt Ted Wake (photo from 1947 at right)]


The state of the British forces in Java was the very essence of chaos. Many were without weapons and sent from port to port to await evacuation to Australia. Units were forever headed for some place, to be redirected to an alternate location, and then again back to the original destination. Troop trains were involved with head on collisions with goods trains. As the Japanese started making landings on Java bridges were demolished before units could cross them - and in some cases demolished while RAF units (mistaken for invading Japanese) were on them. Some men were armed to defend airbases or to serve as infantry to support the Australian forces led by Brigadier A.S. Blackburn V.C., "Blackforce." Also attached to Blackforce were the 3rd King's Own Hussars, the only tank regiment operating in Java. It was imagined that though the Japanese invasion could not be turned back, Blackforce would disappear into the mountainous jungle of the interior and would tie up Japanese military power over the long term. The danger of losing Java without a fight was that the next to fall would be Australia. When the Dutch suddenly capitulated on March 8th, however, they surrendered not just their own forces but also all allied forces operating on Java. Allied leaders were left with the quandary of whether to carry on the fight, but without any official sanction through its own chain of command - if they did fight they feared that prisoners would not have received any protection under international law. The Commanding Officer cast a critical eye on the force; it was untrained in guerrilla warfare, and unequipped for it, and with the rainy season coming on they followed the Dutch orders to surrender. When their commanding officers turned a blind eye, some looked for an opportunity to escape to Australia first, however, including Brigadier Blackburn's group:

I was taken prisoner by the Japanese on March 12, 1942, though a general capitulation had taken place on March 8, 1942. For four days my men and I waited in the mountains near the south coast of Java, at a spot south of Tjikadjang, in the hope that I might establish communication with Australia to see if it was possible to get my men away from a small port named Pameungpeuk, which at that time was untouched by the Japanese.
    I found, however, that all wireless transmitting sets capable of reaching Australia had been destroyed. The hopelessness of the position... was intensified  by the fact that the rainy season was on.
Bridagier A.S. Blackburn, V.C.
http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1300&dat=19451003&id=tb1VAAAAIBAJ&sjid=NZcDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5269,1919743

The 3rd King's Own Hussars faced the same choice - to surrender as ordered or attempt escape:
Major William-Powlett paraded the squadron to describe the situation and warn them of the difficulties of escape. After another conference with General Sitwell, he repeated his warning; but some of the men had already set off into the darkness, and most of the others said that they also wished to make a dash for freedom. The last entry in Major William-Powlett’s account of the brief campaign is dated March 10 - ‘During the night 60 per cent of the squadron started to walk home. At 0500 hrs. I also started with Captain Lancaster’. None of the squadron escaped from Java. The seaworthy boats on the wild south coast had been destroyed by the Dutch, and all the hussars could do was to submit, as prisoners, to the Japanese. [http://www.dutcheastindies.webs.com/british_armour.html]

Ted and Ronnie likely surrendered at the market town of Garut. The gathering points for surrendered allied troops had a surreal summer camp quality. They were unconstrained, and free to trade with locals. This was the first time that many of the men had seen a Japanese soldier. Soon they were marched in groups to a railway station, where they took a comfortable train journey back to Batavia. They were marched through the streets to the native jail - Boei Glodok.

Boei Glodok Gaol


The Japs behaved quite decently in those days, and were sent to Boei Glodok Camp in Batavia, and were together until Ronald left [...] in late 42. Conditions at Boei Glodok were very good in those days, about the best I experienced as a Prisoner Of War. The food was plenty if somewhat lacking in variety, and apart from overcrowding our quarters were quite good. Ronald was working as a medical orderly in the camp hospital and he looked after me through two very bad attacks of malaria.

F/Sgt Ted Wake


It was as we lined up outside the prison that I felt the first tremors of fear and apprehension. The prison looked most depressingly grim, but the sight of the Japanese prison commandant, perched on a wooden box, was most unnerving. Hatred and contempt distorted his features. His use of an interpreter was hardly necessary to convey his malice towards his new charges. He proceeded to harangue us in an increasing frenzy. In acrimonious terms he stressed the Nippon soldier did not allow himself to be captured in battle. We were to be despised and could consider ourselves fortunate to still be alive.
Aircraftman (Driver) Frank Deakin Jackson, No 62 Squadron, RAF
POW from March 1942 to August 1945, Camp 354, Boei Glodok, Java
Prisoner Of War: Voices from Behind the Wire in the Second World War  By Charles Rollings
http://books.google.ca/books?id=Cngxrw5lk_gC&lpg=PA100&ots=LIg_EZRct1&dq=RAF%20POW%20java&pg=PA100#v=onepage&q=RAF%20POW%20java&f=false

Boei Glodok Gaol - by Robert Chapman (Prisoners in Java p116 - Java FEPOW 1942 Club)

We were dumped [...] in Gloduk prison in conditions of indescribable filth. Gloduk had formerly been a coolie prison and if those coolies had to endure the swarms of bugs, fleas, and lice that we did, I can only offer them my sympathy.
Moss Simon H.A.A.
http://www.nam.ac.uk/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/wives-sweethearts/reunion/prisoner-war/transcript-4

It had been a long and tiring day and with the march to Garut Station having been at night most had had little sleep for the past 48 hours or so and weariness mitigated the vileness of the situation. Gradually the cursing and complaining died down as we lay  to rest either on the trestle tables, or on straw mats on the concrete. [...] Some even slept but not for long for as darkness fell the bugs attacked. They dropped from the timbers of the roof, issued from the trestle tables, and poured from the cracks in the walls and floor in numbers inconceivable. They were small, perhaps four would have covered a fingernail, dark red in colour and when squashed smelt of marzipan and squirted blood. There seemed to be one at least to every square inch of floor and they moved at quite astonishing speed. It is a strange feeling when you are exhausted mentally and physically with your body so insisting on sleep that your mind cannot function properly, to be vaguely aware of an army of bugs approaching you on all sides and to be hopefully turning up the edges of the mat on which you are lying in the absurd hope that this will keep them out.

Man's capacity for rising above his circumstances is impressive. In my seventy-plus years I have had my share of nights of pain, fear, hunger, disappointment and dismay but none that compare with the awfulness of that first night in Boei Glodok. And so I think it was with most for the one hundred and fifty  in K.8 (as the cell was named) and in all the other cells which accommodated in total two thousand men. The wetness of bug blood and smell of marzipan, the stink of unwashed bodies, the explosions of excretion, the curses, snoring, teeth-grinding, farting; the sense of disbelief , of helplessness, of anger; the sheer impossibility of such a situation all came together to make that night a hell such as could never again, for all that lay ahead, be surpassed in horror. [By Hellship to Hiroshima, Terence Kelly]

 
 
 Ronnie's Japanese POW Index Card
 



Gradually conditions were improved: prisoners were allowed to sleep on improvised beds in the jail yard; the food, which had consisted mainly of maggoty rice, became somewhat better, though not good enough to prevent the onset of deficiency diseases; concerts were allowed once a week and other forms of recreation began to be organised.
http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Pris-_N83817.html

    The idea of a concert might seem a bit odd, but there seems to have been an expectation among the prisoners at camps throughout Java, that they should be organizing POW activities such as publishing camp newspapers, putting on talent shows, and starting camp universities. There were different camp cultures that developed, however;  those in the area of Surabaya were predominantly RAF in makeup and started to shed what little military niceties they possessed quite quickly, and while rank still had its privileges officers seem to have been widely view with contempt by the men. Camps around Batavia had a much stronger Army presence and maintained an degree of military discipline that probably served the POWs better in the long run, though it is a culture wildly out of step with our lives today.

[Group Captain C.H. Noble] had already established the principle that the Japanese had no right to require officers to work and for the time being they had accepted this. But he had had to concede that junior officers should accompany the working parties. He had readily agreed to this because he felt, and rightly so, that the presence of their own officers might prevent some of the men from making fools of themselves. [...] From the officers' point of view, although it was intensely boring to stand about for hours on end while the others were working, at least it made a break in the monotony of a life bounded by prison walls." (Fletcher-Cooke, p. 43)

    The working parties were sent to the airport to fill in the bomb craters, including three especially large ones made by the Dutch to render the airstrip unserviceable. Initially the job consisted of picking up all the debris and throwing it back from whence it came. Labourers were paid a small daily rate. Working as a medical orderly would have been an unpaid position. Money was necessary to buy black market food, as the ration was essentially rice and a thin soup of what some described as hedge clippings.

    Beatings were a routine part of the life of a Japanese soldier, and they became a part of the lives of the prisoners too.
   
    The Japanese hoped to find technical specialists within the prison population, and when requests for mechanics etc fell flat they tried other tactics.


Soon after we had entered the gaol we were told we could write one letter each. I wrote a long letter to L. It was a difficult letter to write. So much had happened about which I could not write, and I did no even know whether she would be alive to read it. The scratching of pens and pencils all around me, and the long pauses, indicated that many of my companions were faced with similar problems.

Eventually the letters were collected and we all felt better. For the next few weeks we dreamed of the progress our letters were making. The optimists were expecting replies, almost by the next post.

About six weeks after the letters had been collected the news broke. The Japanese were making a bonfire of our letters in a corner of the prison grounds. (The Emporer's Guest, John Fletcher-Cooke, p. 49)

Unie-Kampong aka Tandjong Priok

October 1942 marked a new phase in the prisoners' captivity as drafts of prisoners were organized for movement to work camps in destinations unknown. Many were sent to the Burma-Siam railroad, and others to labour in mines and factories in Japan. The first stage of the journey was to a camp called Unie-Kampong in the area of the Batavian Dockyard, Tandjong Priok. Originally it had housed native dock workers. It was a camp of about 3000 POWs - and sufficiently sprawling (which must have been a relief after the overcrowding at Boei Glodok) that interactions with guards were much less common. There was much trading with locals over the wire - and later by prisoners who left the camp at night to trade outside the wire.

 
 
 
 Unie-Kampong (aka Tandjong Priok Camp) about 1931
  


Tandjong Priok camp was primarily for British POWs, with many senior officers and a complement of about 3000 men. It was a strictly disciplined camp with much saluting. The Senior Medical Officer was Lieutenant Colonel CW “Pete” Maisey, who had been Assistant Director of Medical Services Singapore.
http://www.defence.gov.au/health/infocentre/journals/ADFHJ_apr05/ADFHealth_6_1_04-08.html

"Dogs did not live long if they strayed into our camp. What a grand meal, if only we had salt to put on it! Cats were easy to catch - so sweet, white-fleshed. We boiled the animals in oil drums and hid the meat in the soup mixture given to us."
http://www.wartimememories.co.uk/pow/tanjongpriok.html

Ronnie seems to have spent 7 or 8 months at Unie-Kampong. During this time Glodok was being gradually emptied. Ted Wake was sent to Changi camp in Singapore and then to the Burma-Siam Railroad. Drafts would often be collected at Unie-Kampong until shipping was available, and would be held in isolated sections of the camp. In April 1943  Ronnie was included in one of the groups destined to leave Java.

A group of 1,000 was chosen, namely RAF (500), Royal Artillery (320) including heavy anti-aircraft (77) and a tank brigade of the King's Own Hussars (80). The [commanding officer] was Major L.N. Gibson of the anti-aircraft regiment. Major C.N. Mossford was assistant [C/O]. With 20 additional officers this constituted Group A3, ultimately destined for the camp at Liang on Ambon, the main island of the Moluccas. [Spice Island Slaves, L.J. Aldus]

This group was moved by train to the port of Surabaya,  arriving at the Jaarmarkt camp (another sprawling camp that was in peace time a fairground) on the 14th of April. On the 24th, with 4 Dutch doctors added to the group, they were loaded onto two small cargo ships, the Army on the Nishi Maru, and the RAF on the Mayahashi (or Maya Hashi) Maru.

The cargo ships repurposed to move POWs were dubbed Hellships. Typical Hellships would have 2 to 4 cargo holds that were subdivided by shelf-like bamboo structures to increase the capacity for human cargo. Generally the POWs were kept below decks, sometimes with the hatches covered. The best of them were cramped, dark, and hot. The latrine was usually a bucket lowered on a rope, though many also had a bamboo cage built over the side of the deck for this purpose. As dysentery was rearing its head among the prison population these ships were breeding grounds for that disease. As a direct consequence of the poor sanitation on the Hellships, dysentery was the great killer on the Moluccan camps.

Ambon

The Mayahashi Maru and the Nishii Maru containing the British A3 Group arrived in the Bay of Ambon on the 30th of April. Already there were a number of sick on board. On one ship an emergency hospital had been set up on deck; on the other, where sick men had to lie in the holds mixed with the healthy, a great plague of flies had further promoted the spread of infection. [Spice Island Slaves]


Liang Camp



Cargo was unload by the POWs through driving rain, over two days. On May 2nd the 1000 men of the draft began their march to the camp near the village of Liang.

Within 14 miles of Ambon Town, as night fell, we halted by a beach where we spent the night. Next day we marched another 14 miles, arriving at about three in the afternoon at what was to be our campsite. Natives had commenced the construction of one or two atap huts.

The camp was approximately 3 miles from the village of Liang, which was on the coast. Our cookhouse was in Liang village and the food was transported by lorry. There was no on-site water at the camp; a meager supply arrived through a bamboo pipe from a hill some 2 miles away through the jungle.

We had been brought to Liang to construct an airfield beside a beautiful beach, which was situated a mile from the camp and two miles from Liang village. Work began on the second day about a mile from where the road from our camp reached the coast, at the southern end of the beach. Here there was a coconut plantation. The coconut palms were chopped down and the fifty or sixty foot trunks manhandled by about a hundred men working in twos, each with one end of a bamboo pole under the tree. The trees were then carried to the water’s edge and stacked to form a sea wall.

The next stage of the work was to dig up the tree stumps and when this was done the work began at the far north of the airfield in the jungle, working back to the centre. When the ground was cleared, leveling began and to camouflage the almost white coral soil, small plants were collected and planted.

When the airfield was about two miles long and a quarter of a mile wide, work began on the construction of blisters, or bays, in which aircraft could be concealed. These were situated at the northern end of the airfield. A hundred or so men would work all day for several days in the construction of one blister, walking around the horseshoe shaped mound, depositing their load of earth as they went, the blister growing in height until it was about twenty feet high.

The Thousand Men of Liang, April 1943 to August 1944, by Les Stubbs (Java 1942 Club)

The camp was very poorly situated, there being little bamboo in the area for construction, no fresh water on site, and a very hard coral underfoot that made digging latrines and graves into extremely arduous work. A diet of white rice and green soup for the past year ensured that everyone was suffering the effects of vitamin deficiency diseases, especially beri beri. Labourers hacking through the coral were especially susceptible to small cuts and scratches on the legs and arms that resulted in tropical ulcers, open sores that endured for months and attracted flies. No medications for dysentery, malaria, beri beri, or infections were available. About the only thing worth bragging about was that the camp had a bugler who played The Last Post at the numerous funerals. In November 1943 a group of 150 POWs from the Palau Camp on Haruku was brought to Liang. On their return to Haruku they shared all that they had seen.

The object of their trip had been to bolster up the labour force at Liang, an airstrip similar to our own. They had been billeted at a POW camp on its perimeter, a camp structurally just like ours: same leaky atap huts, same barbed wire. But there was one big difference. The Haruku officers (all the British were RAF) had had their authority over the other ranks completely undermined by the Nips. They had some privileges. They had their own hut. They had even managed to hang on to two or three batmen. But, doctors apart, they were in the Haruku scheme of things, largely redundant. Their functions for the most part were taken over by the Nips, while they were reduced to acting as Aunt Sally foremen on working-parties.
    The officers may have bemoaned the fact that traditional service discipline - the saluting, jankers and all the rest of the bull - had long been forgotten. But this created surprisingly few problems, and the fact that we were no longer so many officers and men, but more fellow-prisoners with one common enemy, created a friendly atmosphere between ranks which more than compensated for the slaving obedience which had been lost.
    The Liang POWs were largely Army and their officers had retained control of internal discipline. They had remained, so our friends from Liang told us, officers first and foremost. They had even gone so far as to hold courts-martial and (this really stuck in our friends' gullets) had facilities for handing the guilty over to the Nips for punishment in the Nip cells. There appeared to be three sides in the daily battle. The men had not only the Nips to contend with, but still faced the old familiar confrontation with the officers. and our friends thought this a high price to pay for having an Army bugler sound the Last Post at your funeral. However, it must be said, Liang at this time had lost 80 men out of the original 1000, which compared very favourably with Haruku.
    Buglers apart, Liang burials were no less primitive than our own. On one occasion, for instance, the Nips, after refusing  even a bit of bamboo for the coffin, reprimanded the officer in charge of the bearers for returning without  the filthy torn piece of blanket the body had been wrapped in.    [The Emporer's Guest, Don Peacock]


 After 7 months there were 77 dead, and so many critically sick that a transport of sick prisoners to Java was arranged.


Rumours concerning the removal of the sick were shown to have a firm foundation. The senior medico, Dr Krijnen, was summoned to Lieutenant Ueda and was told that 500 sick would promptly leave for Java early the following morning. Eight copies of lists of name, diagnoses of illnesses and other relevant details, had to be handed in without delay. Specimens of faeces also had to be provided by those selected for the draft. No dysentery patient might be included nor those suffering from any other infectious disease.[Spice Island Slaves]

A similar party was dispatched from the Palau Camp on the neighbouring island Haruku.

On the morning of the 24th, 350 men including a number of stretcher patients, left in motor trucks for Ambon town. They went to the harbour where the collier from Haruku arrived and where some were embarked on the Suez Maru. Some were stopped from embarking because of the unexpected arrival of wounded Japanese soldiers who then took priority for going on board.

Suez Maru

see also Suez Maru


At the time the seas around Ambon were very dangerous and during the boarding of the POWs, Lieutenant Koshio who is in charge asks his superior officer, Unit Commander Lt. Col. Anami for instructions in case of an enemy submarine attack and possible sinking of the ship. He wants to know what measures to take and how to care for the POWs. The escort will be a Minesweeper which hasn't the capacity to accommodate everybody. The Unit Commander reminds him to carry out the orders from High Command: 'No Allied prisoner is to survive or fall into enemy hands; you will kill them all!'     [http://www.burmastar.org.uk/suezmaru.htm]

On the afternoon of November 26th, the Suez Maru with its Minesweeper escort left Ambon heading for Java. The Suez Maru carried a float plane on its foredeck and was unmarked. At 8 a.m. on the 29th the submarine USS Bonefish began its torpedo attack on the two ships.


08:00 On board the Suez Maru. The lookout spots white traces in the water heading towards the ship and starts yelling: 'Torpedo, torpedo'! What happened to the anti-submarine precautions? Why no warning from W12; what happened to the air coverage? The ship is frantically trying to dodge the incoming torpedo by making a big turn at full speed. The evasive action is successful and the first torpedo misses. Bonefish fires 2, 3 and 4. (Note: The torpedo firing sequence probably went something like this: Bonefish fires 1 and 2 but both miss the overlapping target; she then she fires 3 and 4. Three is a 'premature' but 4 is a direct hit at the stern of the Suez Maru -back of the ship into the No.4 hold). Panic and mass confusion on board. There are a considerable number of victims in the No. 4 hold; few men are moving. The majority of POWs are coming out of the No.3 hatch some with their life jackets on. They are ordered to go back down below into the No.4 hold to rescue the injured. The ship is dead in the water; the shaft is broken and the engines ceased to function; she slowly begins to sink. Since the POWs are too weak to do any heavy lifting, the Korean guards are instructed to throw the heavy life rafts into the sea and now everybody is jumping overboard. The W12 reports 'heavy loss of life' and calls for assistance, but none arrives. The list of the sinking Suez Maru gradually becomes steep.

09:40. The Suez Maru finally disappears below the surface at 09:40 taking down with her the dead and seriously wounded who were unable to make it above deck. By this time the surviving POWs, between 200 and 250 of them, are floating in the sea, clinging to the rafts, pieces of wood and debris while slowly drifting in the currents. Minesweeper W 12 who has managed to dodge Bonefish's torpedoes has come back cruising around in a large circle only picking up Japanese and Korean survivors.     [http://www.burmastar.org.uk/suezmaru.htm]

Four hours after the first torpedo strike, Japanese soldiers on board Minesweeper W12 start shooting the surviving POWs in the water. The shooting continues for more than two hours. When W12 reaches port in Java, after discussions with their superiors they file a report that the Suez Maru was sunk by an Allied submarine and went down so quickly that no POWs could be saved.


But after the war in 1949, one of the Japanese crew felt he could no longer live with himself and had to tell the truth about what happened on that fateful day, according to documents.

In a letter to Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the former crew member said, ''Some of them (POWs) waved their hands. I heard people moaning in pain. The burst of machine-gun fire didn't cease for some time.''

He told investigators that some of the men were so desperate to end their misery that they actually tried to stand up on the wreckage in order to become easier targets.

His openness with the Allied authorities meant that his family subsequently ostracized him.

Following this testimony, the Allies called in the same commander who in 1943 had claimed that all the POWs had drowned.

He told his interrogators he could see about 200 POWs alive in the water after the ship's sinking. He admitted his superiors told him to omit the fact that the men were deliberately slaughtered when he wrote an official account of the incident in 1943.

The commander said although it was his final decision to kill the POWs, he was mindful of what his superiors would have proposed in similar circumstances. He also claimed there was not enough room in the accompanying ship to accommodate all the POWs. ''We shot people for an hour or two,'' he said.

Within months a report was sent to London about the massacre. Allied authorities recommended that there was sufficient evidence to charge three of the commanders for war crimes.

Senior politicians in Britain debated the issue in 1949 and thought it was best not to pursue any charges against the men.

Although they were angered about the allegations, they thought it was best to draw a line under a series of war trials in Japan which had already seen 700 war criminals executed. Germany was also finishing its trials and it was hoped that all the hearings would be over by September 1949. [http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Britain+covered+up+Japanese+wartime+massacre,+BBC+program+claims.-a0187691698]
 
Although the Suez Maru killings were never punished, the head of the Moluccan camps, Lt. Col. Anami (quoted above giving the instruction 'No Allied prisoner is to survive or fall into enemy hands; you will kill them all!') was executed by hanging in 1946, as were Liang Commandant Lt. Ueda, and the Moluccan camps' Medical Officer Dr. Shimada. All had been accused on a number of charges, including:

Committing a war crime in that they at Sourabaya, Java, and at Sea, in the month of April 1943, when concerned in the transport of a draft of British and Dutch Prisoners of War to Horoekoe, Liang (Ambon) and Amahai (Ceram) Islands, were, in violation of the laws and usages of war, together concerned in the ill-treatment of the said Prisoners of War.

Committing a war crime in that they at Ambon Island, between 1st May 1943 and 31st October 1944, the Accused 1 as Commandant Prisoners of War Camp Group, the Accused 2, as Medical Officer Prisoners of War Camp Group and the other accused named, as members of the Ambon prisoners of war camp-staff, being responsible for the well-being of British and Dutch Prisoners of War interned in the said Camp, were, in violation of the laws and usages of war together concerned in the inhumane treatment of the said Prisoners of War resulting in the deaths of some and in physical sufferings to others [analysis: http://wcsc.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/Japan/singapore/Trials/anami.htm]







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