LIBERATED ALLIED AND AUSTRALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR FROM PALEMBANG, SUMATRA, RELATE THEIR EXPERIENCE TO A BRITISH WAR CORRESPONDENT IN SINGAPORE. (NAVAL HISTORICAL COLLECTION)
Above: Printed in Daily News, Perth in 1986.
Pakan Baroe was a small port about 90 miles along the Siak River from its mouth. The river was sufficiently deep to accommodate ships up to 800 tons all year round.
From early 1944 when Japan realised the tide was turning and they were losing many ships to the Allies it was decided that in event of an Allied attack on Western Sumatra, Japanese reinforcements could be brought in by sea utilising the shelter of islands between Singapore and Sumatra. Japanese troops would then be brought straight up the Siak River to Pakan Baroe.
At this time there was no railway. Roads connected Pakan Baroe to Padang on the west coast and Oosthaven on the south coast. The Japanese still had sufficient POWs to build this railway.
Little is known of this Railway Project in Sumatra. Of the 5,000 men who worked 513 POWs would lose their lives building this railway, as well as the many POWs and Romeshas (Netherlands East Indian conscripts) who would lose their lives when their ship ‘Junyo ‘Maru was torpedoed 18 September 1944 by a British submarine whilst in transit from Java to Sumatra. Just as important, we have no confirmation of local, coolie or native labour loss of life.
These figures unfortunately, fade into obscurity when compared to loss of life and the massive effort Japan put into building Burma-Thai Railway. It is probably the reason Pakan Baroe-Moearo Railway has been cast under the shadow of the Burma-Thai Railway.
Pakan Baroe Camp No. 1 000.00km
Tengkirang Hospital Camp No. 2 005.00km
Koebang Camp No. 2a 015.00km
Teratakboeloeh Camp No. 3 018.00km
Camp No. 4a/b 019.00km
Loeboeksakat Camp No. 5 023.00km
Soengei Pagar Camp No. 6 036.00km
Camp No. 7a 069.00km
Lipatkain Camp No. 7 075.00km
Kota Baroe Camp No. 8 111.00km
Logas Camp No. 9 142.00km
Loeboek Ambatjan Camp No. 10 160.00km
Pinto Batoe Camp No. 11 176.00km
Siluewah Camp No. 12 200.00km
Moearo Camp No. 13 220.00km
Tapoei-Petai spur line Camp No. 14 118.00/119.00km
The Pakan Baroe Rail, 220 kms – was half the length of Thailand-Burma “Death Railway” but took almost the same amount of time to complete.
Construction commenced 26 October 1944 – completed 22 August 1945, after the end of war.
Several 2/4th men had already been in Sumatra working on road construction as early May 1944. When they had completed the road – they were informed they were to undertake the Rail!
These men were Hopson, Magill, Quinn, Semple, Annear, Squance.
Australian POWs worked at many as 11 of the 14 Camps, however they were concentrated in No.’s 2, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 Camps and No. 14 Spur Line Camp.
The railway ran roughly north-south and slightly west as it crossed the equator near Camp No. 7 at Lipatkain.
Large bridges were constructed across rivers Kampar Right and Kampar Left. There was another large bridge further south which crossed Indragiri River near Moearo. From Moearo the rail line headed east along Indragiri or Koeattan River Valley for 70 kilometres until it joined up with the north-south line from Pakan Baroe.
Whilst working on one of rail bridges, Noel Banks slipped and fell into the river below – he managed to grab a hold of one of the pylons – and eventually the POWs managed to lift him to safety. The Japanese and Korean guards looked on without interest.
The river was very fast flowing, had Banks not been successful in grabbing hold of the pylon, he would not have survived the torrents.
POWs brought down from Medan on 25 October 1944 worked at Camp No. 14, Tapoei-Petai spur line camp. The first job was construction of a trellis bridge over a deep gorge. On completion the men were put to work excavating a 200 metre long cutting which lay between the recently completed bridge and head of the spur line at Petai.
When work was completed on 20 km spur line the POWs were put to work laying rails on the main line between Pakan Baroe and Moearo.
In about March 1945 they were moved to Camp No. 8 Kota Baroe where there were a great number of POWs of many nationalities. Work only started from Moearo end of line in March 1945 – when the Japanese decided progress was too slow. In addition to Australians from Medan now working at Camp No. 8 there were still POWs who were brought to Singapore from Java and then transported to Pakan Baroe.
Their first camp was No. 2 Hospital Camp at Tengkirang at 5km point. They were put to work as rail laying gangs as most of the jungle clearing had been done. This group proceeded south through most Camps until they reached No. 8 at Kota Baroe.
It was here when some of the men proceeded up the spur line that they met up with some old mates from the original group from Medan. The second group from Java and Singapore continued to work their way south staying for a time at No’s 10, 11 and 12 Camps.
Korean guards formerly overseers on the Burma-Thai Railway had been brought in to speed up work. Soon the same cries of “Speedo Speedo” accompanied by the same bashings for the slightest misdemeanor were being repeated in Sumatra.
One can’t begin to imagine how the men were able to keep going.
Their health was poor. Physically and mentally they were exhausted. They had been POWs for more than 3 years. How did they keep their spirits alive?
Building the Pakan Baroe Railway – By Noel Banks
As POWs working in Burma, Thailand and French Indo-China found- the nights could often be extremely cold – there were no blankets and POWs had little clothing.
On one of those cold nights back at Camp, POWs warmed themselves beside a large fire (being fuelled at that time by the endless supply of local wood.) Feeling particularly chilled Noel squatted close to absorb maximum warmth and comfort. A nearby observant Japanese guard who obviously found this offensive, ordered him to jump into the fire! Now armed with his bayonet the guard moved closer.
Bewildered, Noel resourcefully jumped over the fire safely. When his feet touched down on the other side he found another Japanese guard with his bayonet who then gave him the same order. This terrifying scenario repeated its several times over – suddenly Noel heard the voice of a nearby POW who yelled
“For Gods sake Noel, put your foot in the Fire”
Noel did exactly that. As he was leaping over he deliberately pushed one foot into the fire – this action was sufficient to satisfy the guard’s orders and ultimately, and most importantly for the Japanese guard to ‘save face’.
(Noel obviously overcame his burned foot – he was one of the lucky to return home.)
By this time of the war food supplies were desperately short – Allied planes were everywhere over the waters in SE Asia and successfully sinking Japanese shipping.
The POWs were literally starving and whenever possible would look to scrounge food. Armed with the tin can Noel used to eat from, he came across a stationery cart and bullock. The large cart was loaded and Banks thought hew may have some luck. He quickly helped himself to a few handfuls of dried fish when suddenly he became aware a Japanese soldier was sitting on top.
As he slunk safely away with his tin can and dried fish, Noel swore the soldier must have known this POW was stealing, he could not have failed to notice!
Sympathetic Japanese could never show leniency to POWs. The outcome for them was severe punishment. Noel was lucky the soldier was alone and took a risk.
By June 1945 the group from Medan was also moving south and it was around this time whilst at Camp No. 9 Logas POWs were moved to Camp No. 10 at Loeboek Ambatjan – it was here they would learn the war was over.
Although news of Japan’s surrender filtered through to the POWs the Japanese persisted with pushing ahead with the rail until the last link was laid on 22 August 1945. It was one week after the official surrender.
The POWs now made their own arrangements to move themselves north by train to Camp No. 2 at Tengkirang where there was a hospital and a nearby airfield from where they could be evacuated.
There were several men from 2/4th who worked in Sumatra – Booth, Banks, Annear, Semple, Squance, Quinn, Magill.
Those who lost their lives in Sumatra:
WX9241 HOPSON, Edward Mason d. 26 Apr 1944 appendicitis aged 35 years at Temal Gajoe, Sumatra. Ted was working on road construction.
WX8766 BOOTH, Harold Vernon d. 15 Apr 1945, aged 37 years of beri beri at Pakan Baroe , Sumatra.
WX8261 MCASKIL, Robert Ramsay d. 28 Mar 1945 aged 44 years cardiac beri beri Kampoeng 106 km near Kota Baroe, Sumatra.
Below: From the Beattie Collection -unfortunately date is unknown.