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Sunday July 24, 2005

Honourable Guests in hell


Batu Lintang, now a peaceful campus in Kuching where teachers learn their craft, was once a notorious prison camp used to hold the enemies of Japan. OOI KEAT GIN recounts the ordeal of those who survived, and the many who did not. 

 

THE Japanese have orders that no prisoners are to be recaptured by Allied forces. All must be killed. Terror spread as quickly as these wild rumours through Batu Lintang Camp in mid-1945. 

Of the nearly 4,500 prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian internees who had been crammed into the largest Japanese internment centre on Borneo, less than half remained alive by June 1945 when Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) launched its re-occupation campaign with landings at Brunei Bay and on Labuan. There were apparently 2,250 deaths among the Allied POWs, and another 250 civilians.  

The causes of death included malnutrition, diseases such as malaria, beri-beri, dysentery, lack of basic medicine, overwork and, to some extent, beatings and tortures by the Japanese. 

From early 1942 to mid-September 1945, Batu Lintang was the Imperial Japanese forces’ headquarters for all POWs and civilian internees.  

Survivors raising the Sarawak flag at the Batu Lintang camp to celebrate liberation on Sept 12, 1945.
To those forcibly detained here, it was hell on earth. Those who once lived as “honourable guests” of Emperor Hirohito never forgot the bitter taste of Japanese wartime hospitality. 

Within weeks of their landings at Miri on 16 December 1941, Imperial Japanese forces rapidly swept southwards to occupy Kuching on 24 December. By January, 1942, Sarawak, once Land of the White Rajahs, became a territory of the Imperial Japanese Empire. 

An eight-kilometre barbed wire fence enclosed Batu Lintang Camp and within the grounds inmates were sub-divided into wired-in compounds. There were nine compounds: Australian officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs); Dutch officers; Indonesian other ranks; British officers; British other ranks; European civilian male internees; Dutch Roman Catholic priests; European women and children internees; and Indian Army (2/15 Punjab Regiment).  

The compound area was encircled by double fencing, between which ran a path. There were watchtowers at strategic intervals along the path and regular patrols ensured that prisoners did not cross into other compounds or escape. 

Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Suga Tatsuji was commandant of all POW and internee camps in Borneo. (Other camps were at Labuan, Jesselton and Sandakan.) The majority of the rank and file who constituted the guards were Koreans, and a few Formosans (Taiwanese). 

POWs and male civilian internees were utilised as forced labour in the repair of the Bukit Stabar airfield, some 11km south-east of Kuching, as well as “white coolies” in stevedore work at the Kuching harbour.  

British soldiers (“Tommies”) and members of the 2/15 Punjab Regiment, the only troops sent by Britain to defend Sarawak, received the most brutal treatment from sadistic camp guards.  

The Punjabis remained loyal to the British and many died as a result of their steadfast refusal to cross over to the pro-Japanese Indian National Army (INA).  

Some unfortunate souls deemed guilty of severe intransigencies or suspected subversive activities received the Kempei-tai (Japanese secret military police) treatment.  

Daily life at Batu Lintang was a never-ending cycle of food shortages, deplorable living quarters, forced labour, harsh treatment and brutality, hopelessness and despair, diseases and sickness, death.  

Daily, and at times even twice a day, the Padre led a small funeral cortege towards “Boot Hill,” the camp cemetery.  

In adversity and dreary circumstances, there were some flickers of excitement, a ray of humanity, and heroism. As an example of a concession from camp officials, married couples were allowed to meet once a month.  

Surprisingly, the Japanese were tolerant – kind, even – to the children in the camp who, in turn, showed little fear of their captors. On numerous occasions, Suga, the camp commandant gave children rides in his official car within the compound.  

The bravest act at Batu Lintang was in building and operating a wireless set right under the noses of the Japanese. (See story below). 

There was also Adversity, a clandestine quarterly camp magazine. Both were heroic accomplishments for the prisoners, who would have been beheaded if they were caught.  

“Can it really be true that we have reached the end of our tribulations?” a woman internee wrote in her diary entry of Aug 17, 1945.  

Two days later, on Aug 19, news of the Japanese surrender came from the sky, literally, when Allied aircraft dropped leaflets announcing the happy news.  

At 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Sept 5, 1945, Australian soldiers entered Batu Lintang Camp. 

The long nightmare was at last over.  

Related Stories:
End of the ordeal
Staying abreast with Mrs Harris and Ginnie
 

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