Java Party 19
On the 7th of November 1943, approximately 2000 men of Java Party 19 were moved from Java.
The men boarded the “SS France Maru” , they were forced to drop their kit on the deck, they were then herded into two holds by screaming Korean guards wielding sticks and beating the men as they went down the companion way, when all the men were onboard there was about 1000 men in each of the two holds ,
it was impossible to lie down, there was only enough room to sit with their knees up against their chins. The men were allowed on deck during day time but because of the limited space a large percentage of the men had to stay in the hold. The Latrines were located along the deck and there was not enough of them to cope with the number of men on board, they quickly became insanitary . Washing was almost impossible with the small ration of water the men were given. The serving of food was extremely difficult, the food was cooked on deck then the twenty-gallon drums had to be manhandled into the holds, distribution was a major problem because the lack of space prevented an orderly queue being formed and caused frequent disputes, especially between different nationalities. The Japanese insisted that a Roll Call was carried out twice a day, which was almost physically impossible. This routine continued for three days on the route to Sumatra .
The ship arrived at Palembang on the 10th of November 1943 , the men were disembarked on the next day , the 11th. 500 men of the Netherland contingent were separated out and take to another location,
leaving 1500 men who were taken by lorries to work on extending the Airstrip at Pangkalan Balai .
Pangkalan Balai approx. 40Km - 45 Km North West of Palembang
Arriving at Pangkalan Balai the men were put into the POW Camp known as Dai Itchi .
Dai Itchi POW Camp 1945 (click on the Image to enlarge)
The work on the Aerodrome involved extending the Airstrip, which had just been hacked out of the Jungle. The Aerodrome the men were tasked to build would end up approx. 2000 meters long by 200 meters wide.
The men and the Romusha (native Sumatran/ Javanese Labours) were tasked to clear the jungle first then they had to remove the thousands of cubic metres of earth and use this to level the depressions, all by hand. The first month the men found the work although monotonous, was easier because of the lack of supervision by the Japanese.
There was an adequate supply of rice and vegetables with some fish and meat almost on a daily basis. Work on the camp progressed to provide better billets for the men and a hospital hut was also constructed.
The Existing Runway at Pangkalan Balai
For the purpose of administration, all men were combined into one company, British 420 (199 RAF) and the remainder consisting of Netherlanders making a total of 1497 men. The Camp commander was Lieutenant Colonel Holms.
At the beginning food was of adequate quantity and quality, but after the first month both quantity and quality began to deteriorate, sickness, particularly dysentery began to rise.
The work became harder as the Japanese engineers demanded set quotas be met. The Japanese said that work party numbers demanded by them had to be met, so men were taken away from the camp duties and the less sick men were forced to work, when complaints about taking sick men out to work were raised, the Japanese Doctor said “If the sick men collapse while working we will send them back to the camp”
The men were forced to Parade before and after working on the Aerodrome, standing in the sun as they counted off adding to the suffering of the men, the Japanese knew full well that escape was almost impossible,
as any escapees would have to trek through dense jungle and any native Sumatrans would hand them back to the Japanese where they would almost certainly have been executed.
The men suffered many beatings for no reason, Complaints to the Japanese Commandant were ignored and actually led to more beatings being given out.
By 1944 the conditions in the camp steadily decline, increased workloads and worsening food rations began to effect morale and the health of the men, the worst cases began to be transferred to Palembag. The worsening food situation also meant the men began to take greater risks by trading with the Sumatrans,
if caught, the men would have been given a severe beating, ironically, some of the Japanese guards were willing to trade with the men.
Sickness increased, Beri Beri and Pellagra became almost as wide spread as Dysentery, the Latrines that were in between the huts were closed down and moved further away from the huts.
Dysentery became so wide spread that a second hospital hut was opened to house the sick men. There were about 200 hospital patients and about another 300 sick in quarters.
The camp had set up a fund to buy essential food and medicine, in February this was stolen and the Japanese reacted by forcing the men to post a guard at each end of the huts during the night, depriving the men on guard duty of much needed sleep, the Japanese and Korean Guards now found a new excuse to hand out a beating, if the men guarding the huts were found to be asleep or did not bow to the Guards during these surprise inspections. All this began to take a toll on the men, their morale began to fall even more.
On March the 18th 1944 General Saito visited the Aerodrome, Lieutenant Colonel Holms requested a meeting, but this was rebuffed, after a brief inspection of the work progress General Saito departed leaving orders to speed up the construction, making the POW lives even harder.
The rice rations were frequently received with as much as 25% underweight, obviously the rice was being pilfered before the POWs received it , when this was brought to the attention of the Japanese Guards, they simply took away the weighing scales and said that if the sacks were supposed to weigh 100Kg that’s what they weighed.
One day the POWs received raw prawns as part of their rations ,they were in fact rotten but it was not noticed and they were cooked, that night nearly every man in the camp suffered violent food poisoning and were doubled up in agony for more than 24 Hours, with the Latrines being further from the huts the camp became an almost open cesspit. The Japanese gave the men one day to recover but when the work party was called to parade the next day only 200 men were capable of work, the Japanese were incensed and threatened reprisals, but it took almost three weeks for the camp to fully recover.
The men working on the Aerodrome were allotted a Quota of earth to move, marked with pegs and were not allowed to finish working until this quota was met, it was almost impossible to meet the quota in the condition the men were now in, so some men moved the pegs, so allowing them to finish their quota, unfortunately the Japanese and Korean guards then demanded they do more, if the men did not move the pegs, they were beaten for not working hard enough, it was a vicious circle.
Work continued at a pace without any thought given to safety even after a few embankments had collapse near the men, one day an embankment collapsed killing three Netherlanders, the Japanese simply blamed the men for being careless.
During August 1944 the Aerodrome extension neared completion, the men had been promised rest but this did not happen, instead the men received half a packet of “Shag Tobacco” and they were allowed to slaughter one pig to share with the whole camp. Lighter work was now found for the men, basically to keep them occupied.
Morale was lifted by the arrival of the first mail the men had received while being a POW and Red Cross Parcels were handed out, one for every 10 men, rations were also increased.
As 1944 drew to a close work was again speeded up as Dispersal Pens for the Aircraft were ordered to be constructed, a sign that the war was turning against the Japanese.
Life dragged on but around May 1945 the men began to be transferred to Sungie Geron POW camp in Palembang, the men found the conditions there were even worse than at Dai Itchi. Ironically as the men left, the Aerodrome was scarcely more serviceable than when they arrived in 1943 and the last view the men saw was the Sumatran / Javanese labourers working on the runway trying to rectify drainage problems by altering the elevation of the start and end of the runway and constructing drainage ditches.
Pangkalan Balai Aerodrome May 1945 (Click on picture to enlarge)
A short extract from Ray Stubbs book “Prisoner of Nippon”
Sungie Geron POW Camp Palembang , Sumatra
“The month of May that had brought joy and deliverance in Europe, brought only despair and despondency to us in Sumatra (Sungei Geron Camp)”
“But there was something else, a bombshell that was to upset even further the limbo between life and death in our ghetto”
“We were told that men from an other camp were to be transported in, our already cramped conditions were to be invaded by men from Pangkalan Bali, this camp, which we had vaguely heard of as Dai Ichi, was some considerable distance from Palembang, but was also under the overall command of Captain Hachisuka”
This intake into Sungei Geron POW Camp was to be balanced by the draft out of a large contingent of men who were to be sent to Singapore. The draft included senior Officers, numbering approximately 100 and about 1000 other ranks consisting of light duty men but not hospital cases.
The Men from Dai Itchi had no billets to sleep in so were forced to sleep in the gardens without cover, but on the 25th of May they we taken to the docks and boarded a cargo boat of about 1200 tons, there was approximately 1200 officers and men crammed on the boat, this time they were quartered on the deck with no shelter from the wind and rain . On the 29th of May they arrived at Changi, Singapore, tired and dirty it was the first time they had seen electric light and running water in almost nineteen months.
British Java Party 19 Roll
Source Material :-
Based on the report contained in File WO 208 / 4286
Compiled by Flight Lieutenant G S Owen
The Digital Artwork of Pangkalen Balai Aerodrome and Dai Itchi are based on sketches from WO 208 / 4286 and are by K Snowdon
The Book “Prisoner of Nippon” by Ray S Stubbs
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