On 7th March 1944, following days of rumours, a work party which included about 50 Australians under the command of Lt. Tranter from 2/29th Battalion were loaded onto trucks and driven to the interior of Sumatra where they would remain for the next seven months. This group included several 2/4th men – George Quinn, Ted Hopson and Arthur Magill.
On the first day they travelled about 308 kilometres to Kota Tjane – located about 10 kilometres north of Laubaleng, in the heartland of Sumatra. The POWs were billeted in a schoolhouse for two days and then loaded again onto trucks. Surprise can hardly be the word the POWs felt when the trucks turned around and headed back to where they had just left.
The following day on 13 March 1944, the group were back on the road again this time on a 145-kilometre march to an undisclosed destination.
The first night was spent at Gunung, the second at Maloek. On 17 March after four day’s marching, the men arrived at their destination, Blang Kedjeren. They were accommodated in a former Dutch Army barracks known to the POWs as the Hospital Camp.
The sick and those unable to march any further were left here, some never to be seen again.
The next day the men were back on the road marching until they reached their camp at Tenal Gajoe – this was the territory of Atjeh or Achinise natives. Renowned as fierce head-hunters, these people had never been completely subdued during the Dutch colonisation of Sumatra.
There were two camps. One for the British and Australians and the second one for the Dutch. They remained here about 3 weeks as the road they were building progressed north and on 3 May 1944 the POWs moved to Kedjeren.
Ted Hopson had been left at Tenal Gajoe suffering with appendicitis. Because he was also ill with dysentery it was not possible to perform an operation for fear of infection. Ted died on 26 April 1944.
Ted was popular and well liked amongst the group. He was described as being ‘a good bloke’. His body was brought to Blang Kedjeren where a coffin was constructed. This popular machine gunner was laid to rest about 100 yards from the camp. Amongst the POWs was a stonemason who cut a headstone, which was placed at the head of Ted’s grave.
The road construction continued to the east in between their current camp and previous camp at Tenal Gajoe. By 6 October 1944 it was time for the POWs to head back to Medan. They set out in three columns as they had done on their journey north. As the columns passed Ted’s grave they all paid their friend a respectful ‘eyes left’.
The group arrived back at a rest camp on the outskirts of Medan on 11 October 1944 5 days after setting out from Blang Kedjeren. After a week’s rest on reduced rations the POWs were given the news that they were again on the move. They marched 3 miles to the railway station and following a short journey; they were detrained and loaded onto trucks.
Using the same route as they had travelled on the way to Medan, they headed back towards Fort de Kock on the west coast of Sumatra. The POWs were billeted 3 days in the old Police Barracks at Bukit Tinggi after which they were loaded back on the train for a lengthy journey to Mocearo, arriving 21 October 1944.
It was here that the POWs were informed they were to build a 3’ 6” gauge railway line between Pakan Baroe and Mocaero. A distance of 220 kilometres.
In addition to this main line there was a shorter 2’ 5 ½ “ narrow gauge 20 kilometre spur line which branched off the main line at 119 km point!
Harujkiku Maru – SS Van Waerwjick Party
When the above 50 Australian POWs departed Gloe Gloer camp on 8 March 1944 making up Atjeh Party, 49 Australians were amongst the remaining group of POWs – including Roy Semple, ‘Win’ Annear, ‘Squasher’ Squance, Alf Burgess and Harold Smith from 2/4th.
On 24 June they were alerted to be ready to leave for Singapore and the following day trucks arrived at Gloe Gloer camp to transport the POWs to the port of Belawan to board the ship taking them to Singapore.
The ship was SS Van Waerwjick, a 3,040-ton passenger-cargo ship captured by the Japanese on 3 March 1942. As was Japanese custom the ship was renamed Harukiki Maru.
The POWs arrived at the docks around noon and were crammed into the fore and aft hold of the ship. A Japanese corvette was to act as escort to this small convoy that included 2 tankers and 2 transport ships. The Harukijku Maru left Belawan about 1500 hours on 25 June, heading into the Malacca Straits to join the convoy.
The following day, 26 June at 1350 hours two mighty explosions amidships rocked the ship sending it into the depths of the sea. Two torpedoes had been fired from HMS/M Trucelent which was depth charged, causing Harukiku Maru to hit the bottom at 68 feet. There was no loss of life from the 2/4th but tragically 167 POWs went down with the ship.
Following four hours of treading water, the men were rescued by one of Japanese tankers from the convoy. The POWs then continued their voyage on board this tanker to Singapore where they disembarked and were taken to River Valley Road Transit Camp. Of the four 2/4th men, Annear and Squance would return to Sumatra to work on the Pakan Baroe-Moearo railway. Harold Smith was hospitalised with appendicitis on 21 July and Alf Burgess suffered a head injury from the Harukiku Maru sinking.