Nederlands / Dutch
Transports Print

The Japanese moved the prisoners of war and civilian internees around a lot. The large majority of prisoners and civilian internees experienced at least one transport to another camp during the occupation, transports in which almost invariably scarce possessions were lost and sometimes friends disappeared from sight. Only a limited number of them was (relatively) lucky enough to spend their entire internment in the same camp.

The large majority of the POWs were transported to work camps elsewhere in the archipelago or outside it. Apart from prisoners of war, large numbers of native labourers were often also put to work in those places. The removal of prisoners of war from Sumatra, Java and Celebes to more remote locations started already in 1942. About 18,000 Dutch and Indo-European POWs were forced to work on the Burma-Siam railroad. More than 8,000 of them - including thousands of people who had survived the railroad – eventually ended up in Japan.

More than 100 high-ranking officers and civilian officials, among whom the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, were part of a Special Party consisting of a total of more than 400 persons. This group was rounded up in December 1942 and January 1943 and then taken to Formosa (now: Taiwan) and later to Manchuria (North China).

Within the Indian archipelago also, large groups of allied prisoners of war were transported overseas to be put to work on large projects: for example, more than 6,000 men for the construction of airfields in the Moluccas and Flores, about 5,000 men to build a railroad from Pakanbaru to Muara on Sumatra, and more than 2,100 men for the construction of airfields near Palembang.

The overseas transports were not without danger. During the war the allied troops attacked dozens of Japanese troop ships, killing a total of approximately 15,000 allied soldiers, including about 3,600 Dutch and Indo-European prisoners of war, and an unknown number of native labourers. Infamous examples are the torpedoing of the Harikiku Maru (formerly the Van Waerwijck) near Tandjungbalei in June 1944, and of the Junyo Maru near Benkulen in September 1944.

Most of the transports by ship were an ordeal for the POWs anyway. They were fully aware that their ship could be the target of allied bombs or torpedoes. Thousands of men were packed together in the filthy, cramped and barely ventilated holds of the generally slow boats. The prisoners were given little food and even less water, were regularly seasick, and frequently too weakened by dysentery to relieve themselves in the appropriate place. Even without allied attacks many prisoners did not survive the journey.

Although they were not transported overseas as often as the POWs, the civilian internees also experienced the Japanese relocation mania. From September 1943 onwards the internees were assembled as much as possible in a limited number of large men’s and women’s camps.

All interned Europeans were removed from East Java and moved to West and Central Java. On Sumatra the civilian internees were eventually concentrated in three remote locations in the interior: near Rantauprapat in North Sumatra, Bangkinang in Central Sumatra and Belalau in South Sumatra. The internees on Borneo were gathered near Kuching (British Borneo) and in two locations in the interior of South and East Borneo. The internees from the eastern part of the archipelago (Grote Oost) were assembled on Celebes.

These shifts were probably intended to remove the internees from locations where the allies could be expected to land. An additional advantage of the concentration was that the Japanese could economize on guards. However, the many transports by train, truck, or ship required for this concentration, were an ordeal for the internees, in particular the elderly among them. In the camps that remained, increasing numbers of internees had to be housed, without any square metres being added. Sometimes the surface area of the already overcrowded camps was even reduced because this also reduced the Japanese need for guards.

‘Exceptional’ measures

It is sometimes said that the Japanese had concrete plans to kill all prisoners of war and internees in the event of an allied invasion. Elsewhere in the Pacific groups of POWs were indeed killed – the last one (as far as we know) on the Philippine island of Palawan in December 1944. Japanese documents that clearly show that the Dutch civilian internees – men, women, and children – were to be killed en masse, were never found.

A Japanese draft regulation, drawn up in August-September 1944 on Java, stipulated that prisoners of war and male internees were not to be released on any condition as long as they were in the area where Japanese military operations were taking place. The local Japanese commanders were authorized to , if necessary, take ‘exceptional measures’ against the POWs and (adult) male internees. The measures are not described in the document, but the killing of all prisoners seems to be implied.

However, a notice of 17 March 1945 of the Japanese War Ministry states that the POWS and male internees were to be kept out of enemy hands as long as possible, but were to be released if they could no longer be moved to other locations. The military authorities were even expressly ordered to provide them with a minimum amount of food if that was case. But this statement also mentioned ‘emergency measures’ to be taken in the event of an uprising among the prisoners.

What was to be done with the interned women and children if the allies approached, is not mentioned clearly in these documents, except that the women were to be dispersed across all of Java.

During the battle for the Philippines (October 1944-January 1945) and Rangoon (April 1945) the Japanese, as far as we can tell, did not make any attempt to kill the POWs and internees when the allies drew near. This kind of reticence was probably also to be expected elsewhere, for example during the liberation of the Dutch East Indies.

Read more: Liberation and evacuation.