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World War II ended 70 years ago – while the forgotten ‘death railway’ was completed

Liberated prisoners distributing rice rations to campmates. Pakanbaroe, Sumatra, 1945. AWM 019382. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial.

It was midday, August 15 1945, when thousands of prisoners of war (POWs) and local slave labourers (romushas) lined up in the Sumatran jungle. There they watched a formal ceremony, performed by their Japanese guards, during which a rusty nail was hammered into place. This was not an act to signal the armistice – it would be several days before the inhabitants of these camps knew that World War II was over that day. Instead, the ceremony announced that the Sumatra railway had been completed – the construction of which had cost more than 80,000 lives and that, 70 years later, is still a little-known story.

“The Death Railway” has become a term synonymous with the construction of the Thailand-Burma railway between September 1942 and October 1943. But although that was the largest forced labour project of its kind in the Far East, it was not the only one. There were four such railway lines designed by Japanese engineers and built by POW and slave labour. Along with Thailand-Burma, there was the building of the Kra Isthmus line also connecting Thailand and Burma, the Saketi-Bayeh railway on Java, and the Sumatran railway to Pakan Baroe.

The Sumatra Railway

Running 200 kilometres between the towns of Pakan Baroe and Moeara, the Sumatra railway was built through thick jungle, swamps and marshes, across rivers and through mountains. If the terrain wasn’t challenging enough the 5,000 POWs and 100,000 romushas working on the line used only manual tools while wearing little more than a loin-cloth.

My research has focused on the narratives of British former POWs who laboured on the Sumatra railway between May 1944 and August 1945. I have been compiling a nominal roll of these 850 British men, and have talked to former POWs and their relatives about this little-known aspect of Far Eastern captivity. Remarkable film footage held by the Australian War Memorial shows images of the base camp at Pakan Baroe, recorded exactly one month after VJ Day 1945. In the films, sick and injured troops prepare to leave the island, while others continue to cook and distribute the staple ration of boiled rice.

Captive life

The Sumatra line was half the length of the Thailand-Burma “Death Railway” but took almost the same amount of time to complete. The slower pace of the construction reflects a smaller workforce, the changing terrain and the relatively poorer condition of the men. By the time work started on the Sumatr railway, POWs had already experienced two years of meagre rations and hard labour. Their shelter while they worked comprised bamboo huts that were built in 17 camps along the line. Their daily rations consisted of 200 grams of rice or tapioca per man. This was typically boiled with a small amount of jungle vegetables, flavoured with the spice of a sambal and – if it was a good day – accompanied by a scrap of meat from a bullock.

Jack Plant, POW on the Sumatra Railway.

But life was significantly harder for the romushas, who were provided with no specified rations and little shelter. They were predominantly young Javanese men recruited by Japanese administrators – often by force. They typically had poor levels of literacy and could not rely on the organisational structures or medical expertise that were found in the military camps. As a result of the chronically unsanitary conditions they experienced and lack of care they received, in excess of 80,000 – more than 80% of the romusha workforce – died in the construction of the Sumatra railway. This is the same number as those thought to have died on the Thailand-Burma line.

Along with the thousands of romushas, 693 POWs died directly on the Sumatra railway. In addition, nearly 2,000 POWs and thousands of romushas would be killed as a result of “friendly fire” en route to Pakan Baroe. In 1944, Allied submarines torpedoed two Japanese transport boats in the waters around Sumatra, unaware that the ships’ cargo included thousands of men crammed into the holds. The sinking of the Junyo Maru in September 1944 as it carried men from Java to Sumatra, was one of the worst maritime disasters in history at the time.

Family histories

To general audiences, the story of the Far Eastern POW has been told largely through popular books – and their film adaptions – such as Bridge on the River Kwai and The Railway Man. Although the historical accuracy of some of these stories is questionable, they – and others like Unbroken and last year’s Booker Prize winning Narrow Road to the Deep North – have engaged public interest in the history of the camps across South-East Asia. They have also triggered important conversations about the impact of this history on survivors and their families.

I have found that there were some attempts to understand this history in the immediate post-war period, but many households would live through the screaming nightmares and difficult silences that became part of the former POWs’ existence.

Many repatriated POWs took their ill-health home with them – diseases caused by nutritional deficiency and a lack of adequate sanitation had been common throughout captivity: beri-beri, tropical ulcers, dysentery and malaria were rife. Subsequently, many would return home carrying disease and infection and would continue to be tested and treated at hospitals for the rest of their lives.

The 70th anniversary of VJ Day is likely to be one of the last major anniversaries of World War II that is marked by a parade of surviving veterans. The time left to listen to their memories is fading. With it, there is a need to look further than “the” Death Railway to the many other stories that can be told of occupation and captivity across South-East Asia.

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