The Sumatran Railway: The forgotten death railway

Forced marches, savage guards, skeletal PoWs, and a death toll in the tens of thousands. The construction of the Sumatran Railway from 1943–45 may live in the shadow of its notorious counterpart in Thailand and Burma. But, says Lizzie Oliver, that doesn't stop it being one of the darkest episodes of the Pacific War

Australian PoWs in a camp at the Sumatran city of Pekanbaru, c1945. More than 80,000 forced labourers, including PoWs, died during the construction of Sumatran railway, most the victims of disease, starvation and maltreatment. (Photo by State Library of Victoria)

This article was first published in the September 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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At 4.15pm on 18 September 1944, the British submarine HMS Tradewind torpedoed a Japanese steamship off the western coast of Sumatra. To a crew commissioned with destroying cargo ships in the waters surrounding the Dutch East Indies, the Junyo Maru – a 400ft, 5,000-ton steamer – appeared a valuable target. But what the Tradewind’s captain did not know was that Junyo Maru‘s cargo consisted of more than 6,000 captives of the Imperial Japanese Army: 4,200 Javanese slave labourers (known as romusha) and 2,300 Allied prisoners of war. The ship sank within an hour of being hit, and more than 5,000 of its passengers were lost to the waves. It was one of the deadliest maritime disasters of the Second World War.

Conditions on board the Junyo Maru, which had set off from Batavia (today’s Jakarta) two days before it was torpedoed, had been dire. Prisoners were crammed into the hold without food or water, and they found themselves gasping for air without room to move. “The fetid, stifling hold was like a black stinking oven,” wrote Willem Wanrooy, a Dutch survivor of the sinking.

Only 200 romusha are thought to have survived the Tradewind‘s attack; eyewitness accounts relate how, unable to swim, most of the Javanese captives huddled in groups on the ship’s deck and sang together as it plunged into the water.

The Japanese plucked 680 military PoWs from the sea the following day but they gave these survivors no time to rest or recuperate. The Junyo Maru had been carrying the PoWs to a series of camps nestled deep in the Sumatran jungle – and the Japanese were determined that the journey should continue without delay. Once they arrived in Sumatra, the PoWs joined a vast railway construction project that lasted until Japan’s surrender almost a year later. That project would expose them to beatings, starvation, a cocktail of diseases and, all too often, death.

Former PoWs walk along the Sumatra Railway line in September 1945. They had been tasked with laying 130 miles of track, connecting Sumatra's mines with its main ports. (Photo by State Library of Victoria)
Former PoWs walk along the Sumatra Railway line in September 1945. They had been tasked with laying 130 miles of track, connecting Sumatra’s mines with its main ports. (Photo by State Library of Victoria)

The idea of a railway running across Sumatra had been first mooted by the island’s Dutch colonists in the late 19th century. The Dutch revisited the idea more than once before abandoning it for good in the 1930s, concluding that the island’s treacherous swamps, mountains and dense jungle simply made the project too dangerous and too expensive to undertake. But with a cheap supply of labour, these challenges did not deter the Japanese, who had seized the island in March 1942 as their forces swept across south-east Asia following their dramatic entry into the Second World War. To them, the benefits of the railway were clear.

By 1943, with American embargoes beginning to bite, the Japanese were experiencing a chronic shortage of fuel. Sumatra, rich in natural reserves of coal and oil, offered a potential solution. But the Japanese had a problem: and that was how to transport these resources from Sumatra’s mines to its main ports without sending their shipping out into the waters around the island, where they were vulnerable to Allied attack. The answer, they concluded, was a cross-island railway.

Forced labour

This wasn’t the first time that the Japanese had ordered the construction of a massive railway in their newly conquered territories. The building of the ‘Death Railway’, which connected Thailand to Burma, is surely one of the most notorious episodes of the entire Pacific War. Working in horrendous conditions, around 100,000 forced labourers, 12,000 of whom were Allied PoWs, lost their lives building the railway, victims of disease, starvation and maltreatment.

No sooner had that project been completed than a team of Japanese engineers – some of whom had masterminded the Thai-Burma Railway – arrived in Sumatra tasked with repeating the job. Their brief was to design a 130-mile railway that traversed the island, connecting Pekanbaru in the east with an existing line at Moeara that ran on to the city of Padang on Sumatra’s western coast.

It was a mammoth undertaking, and the romusha, the first group of forced labourers to arrive on the island, were to bear the heaviest burden. In March 1943, they were designated the brutal task of manually excavating the foundations of the line before military PoWs started laying the track. Construction methods were primitive and monotonous: the labourers dug out the foundations using spades, sledgehammers, and wood-boring augurs called dassies; they transported vast amounts of earth in flimsy wicker baskets; and they heaved huge sleepers, bricks and rails into position by hand. Worse still, they did so under relentless – often violent – pressure from the guards. They had very few rest days, and often worked 24-hour shift rotations.

And their work wasn’t confined to laying foundations for the track. The labourers had to build several shunting yards and switching points. What’s more, each of the 17 camps that have so far been identified near the construction sites were built by the prisoners as they progressed along the railway.

In May 1944, four months before the sinking of the Junyo Maru, 5,000 military PoWs began their arduous task of laying the track. Most had already been held captive for 27 months, and were suffering the impact of hard labour and tropical disease on a starvation diet. They worked in no more than a makeshift thong, with the blazing heat of the equatorial sun searing their skin. If a man stumbled, the hammer missed, or the rail went down clumsily, recalled former PoW Kenneth Robson, “a screaming voice penetrates the mists, and as you straighten up from putting the peg straight, a fist, a piece of wood, a rifle… hits you on the side of the face, and… down you go”.

The PoW working parties were predominantly made up of Dutch and Indonesian captives, but also included just over a thousand Britons, Australians and New Zealanders. In total, 673 military PoWs died during the construction, while a further 1,796 drowned as a result of two ‘friendly fire’ incidents (one the sinking of Junyo Maru; the other when a ship called the Van Waerwijck was attacked in June 1944).

A screaming voice penetrates the mists, a fist, a piece of wood, a rifle… hits you on the side of the face, and... down you go

But the death toll among military PoWs was dwarfed by the number of romusha who lost their lives during the project. The Javanese captives experienced appalling conditions. Sanitation was poor, tropical diseases spread quickly and, unlike their European counterparts, they had no organised system of camp administration, rationing and medical care to draw upon. The results were catastrophic. The Dutch historian Henk Hovinga has established that more than 80,000 romusha died during the building of the Sumatra Railway. They lie buried in unmarked mass graves along the route of the track.

Cooking snakes and rats

According to War Office records, the most common cause of death among PoWs was disease. Malaria and dysentery were rife, as were conditions caused by severe malnutrition, such as pellagra and beri-beri. Typical rations tended to consist of no more than 300 grams of rice, 300 grams of tapioca, and jungle vegetables foraged during the day. Meat was a rarity, although men would try to supplement their rations by killing and cooking snakes and rats. The arrival of a bullock in camp was cause for great celebration; an attempt to eat an orangutan was not repeated – the animal’s carcass had seemed too human for PoWs to stomach.

With disease rife, medical officers quickly became the most important figures in the camps. This was not just for the treatment that they could provide, but for their attempts to secure an increase in rations and medical supplies from the guards. They were also best placed to impose strict hygiene protocols and stem the spread of disease.

The hospital was a leaky bamboo hut with very little in the way of medication. To be sent here was “a virtual death sentence”

John Wyatt, a Royal Navy surgeon, was part of the first contingent of PoWs to arrive at Pekanbaru. He was tasked with setting up a hospital at Camp Two – though “to call it a hospital was a euphemism”, he later recalled. In reality, the hospital was a leaky bamboo hut with very little in the way of medical instruments, supplies or medications. To be sent to this camp was – in the words of former PoW John Boulter – a “virtual death sentence”. There were no bedpans, meaning that men suffering dysentery still needed to use latrines outside. Supplies of medicine were minimal. Medic Robert Braithwaite noted in his postwar reports that large quantities of quinine were held back by guards – only to be discovered in stores upon liberation.

Tropical infections

To save lives, doctors had to use their initiative. They boiled old pieces of clothing and used them as dressings for wounds and ulcers. They drained latex from the bark of rubber trees to provide adhesive for dressings and to close wounds. They obtained a solution rich in vitamin B (known as dodek) from the husks of rice to help treat severe malnutrition. They scraped out tropical infections with spoons, or syringed them with boiling water. They contained an outbreak of diphtheria by isolating the patient and his nurse, and they performed surgery without anaesthetic on a perforated duodenal ulcer.

And they constantly placed themselves in great danger. Patrick Kirkwood, a trained doctor and member of the Indian Medical Service, was among a group of 500 men force-marched from the northern province of Atjeh to join construction work on the jungle railway. It was a gruelling 80-mile journey, completed in just 81 hours, in many cases barefoot. Kirkwood is reported to have helped PoWs with blistering, injured feet, despite suffering from amoebic dysentery himself. For his troubles, he was subjected to repeated beatings for not marching quickly enough.

Against such a desperate backdrop, PoWs found ingenious ways to maintain morale. In Camp Three they formed a concert party, putting on shows for campmates, including a performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Meanwhile a four-man band played in the evenings after the working parties’ return to the camps. Other PoWs saved precious scraps of paper to make notes, or created artwork to record their experiences.

Where men did not have access to reading material, they would recite memorised passages or share lists of the books that they one day hoped to read. Such distractions strengthened bonds of friendship, and offered PoWs a sense of escapism – however fleeting – from the horrors of the camps.

Living in the shadows

“Their skins withered and shrunken… They were spectres from a haunted world.” That was Major Gideon Jacobs’ chief impression of the PoWs found on Sumatra in September 1945, after Japanese forces on the island surrendered. Flying over Sumatra, Jacobs, commander of liberating forces, had seen rows of huts in forbidding jungle: railway camps hitherto unknown to Allied intelligence.

At that point, nearly 900 military PoWs required urgent hospital care. The most desperate stretcher cases were flown out first. One of those men was my grandfather, Stanley Kay Russell. He had been beaten severely, and was in Camp Two when liberation came. Airlifted from Pekanbaru, he was treated in Bangalore before travelling home.

Since the end of the war, the experiences of these PoWs and romusha in Sumatra have received little coverage. With paper so precious and the secreting of documents a dangerous endeavour, records of the Sumatra Railway are scant, as are surviving PoW diaries. The Red Cross was not permitted to inspect the camps, which meant that no official news seeped out during the conflict. Most postwar reports from the Dutch East Indies make no reference to a railway on Sumatra either.

What’s more, the sheer scale of the Thai– Burma Railway has inevitably dominated popular histories of captivity that have emerged from south-east Asia since the Second World War. I found that former PoWs like my grandfather received a common response to their stories: “No mate, you were in Burma.” Some former Sumatra PoWs felt as if quite enough had already been written about the Thai–Burma ‘Death Railway’, and that there was no appetite from the public to hear their experiences of a different one.

Yet such was the suffering of the thousands of men who worked on the Sumatra Railway that this is a story that demands to be told. It’s high time that this grim episode in the Pacific War emerged from the shadows.

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Dr Lizzie Oliver is the chair of the Researching FEPOW History Group, an independent research organisation that focuses on far east PoW and civilian internee history. She is the author of Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway: Narratives of History and Memory (Bloomsbury, 2017).