The search for the missing in Singapore

By Jon Cooper, Project founder of The Adam Park Project, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology at Glasgow University

One of the most startling facts to come out of the review of Singapore casualties is the high number of men listed as ‘missing’ and have never been found. This may well be understandable when we think of the nature of the combat in Malaya. Often allied troops were overwhelmed by the Japanese attacks and forced to abandon their positions and escape into the jungle. They then spent many weeks wandering the hills trying to get back to the allied lines. It is easy to imagine many men simply collapsing with fatigue and disease, being buried by their pals but destined never to be recovered after the war.

A well-tended soldier’s grave in Singapore

However, men going missing in Singapore is another matter. Not only was there time in many occasions to bury the dead and record the location of the graves during the fighting there was also opportunities in the first few months of captivity in Changi to return to the old battlesites and inter the unburied bodies. So how is it that so many men who were killed in Singapore appear on the war memorial in Kranji and have no known grave?

Post war newspapers are scattered with reports about the recovery of bodies. In June 1948, the Sunday Tribune in Singapore ran an article on the British army’s search for missing men. The Graves Registration unit, Far East Land Forces (FARELF) estimated that there were 1,500 corpses of allied troops buried in private gardens and waste land across the island. The article concludes with a statement from a spokesperson for FARELF who said

Several of the 1500 corpses scattered all over the island may be presumed as lost. Many of the corpses in the reported graves have not been discovered although the graves were located.[1]

A similar report in August 1947 tells of the circumstances under which FARELF Grave Recovery Teams worked in Singapore. The report suggests that unlike the Thai Burma Railway, where there were already established cemeteries, Singapore only had a handful specific locations associated with POW camps and hospitals, and hundreds of isolated graves of which there was little information.

It is true that there were many plans made by those who had conducted the burials in the tragic days of 1942, but most of these had been drawn under stress of battle or from memory when the person drawing the plan had been away from the scene for some years.[2] The results were often inaccurate and, in many cases, completely wrong.’ [3]

The reporter also points out that many of the soldiers were buried by local Malay and Chinese who kept no record of the interment and were, by 1947, unable to remember the location of graves. No comment is made as to how many of the 1,500 missing men were recovered The records maintained by the Bureau of Record and Enquiry in Changi often provide a description and six figure grid reference for the location of the grave or at least where the man was last seen, and it was this information that was being used by FARLEF. Today armed with such evidence could it be  possible to find these missing men with all the new technology available to the archaeologists? In theory yes. The work done at the likes of Adam Park, Bukit Brown and Mount Pleasant proves that old sites still exist in the landscape despite urban development and the latest geophysics can in theory detect grave sites. It is possible some missing men could still be found. However, after 80 years in the ground there would be few remains to recover, although grave goods and grave cuts may still be present.

[1] Sunday Tribune (Singapore), 27 June 1948, Page 3

[2] This is not necessarily the case, much of the burial information given to the BRE was recorded in the weeks and months after the surrender and compiled on organised and authorised burial parties.

[3] Morning Tribune, 18 August 1947, Page 6

5 thoughts on “The search for the missing in Singapore”

  1. Hi Jon,
    My research into the 1st Leicesters revealed that of the 80 KIA or missing on Singapore Island, 69 have no known graves. I too am surprised at the high percentage who have no known grave. Sad isn’t it.
    A few more points are worth mentioning.
    1. According to the CWGC there are over 850 unidentified graves in the Kranji War Cemetery. Some of these will almost certainly be the graves of some of the Leicesters missing men.
    2. The BRE’s nominal roll for the 1st Leicesters carries a note against 5 men that says “Buried by Major Saggers in common grave containing 32 bodies MR 753147”. Further research led me to your friend James Tann in Singapore and eventually to Saggers’ war papers at the Western Australia State Library in Perth. In December 1942 he persuaded his captors to allow him to take a small party out to Sleepy Valley to look for his missing men. He was directed by a local Chinese man to a shallow mass grave and Saggers began exhuming bodies for the purpose of identification. He identified 9 AIF men but in addition 5 men from the 1st Leicesters who now have identified graves at Kranji. But who were the other 18? They will all have been reinterred after the war at Kranji in unidentified graves. But how many other mass graves did the Japanese dump bodies into in the clear up of Singapore after the surrender?
    3. A number of men managed to escape from Singapore just before or just after the surrender. I know there were at least 67 1st Leicesters men and the fate of 7 remains unknown to this day. The chances are that more men, other than the 67, managed to escape but also went missing without trace – either drowned following the sinking of the vessels on which they were escaping or killed in action during their escape.
    4. Mike Pether’s research into the 55 men massacred on Palau Bintan and subsequently buried at Kranji in unidentified graves is another example of perhaps why the number of men with no known grave is particularly high following the battle for Singapore.

    With DNA analysis techniques available today the unidentified graves at Kranji (and Taiping and Kanchanaburi and Jakarta) would be the places to start any investigation. If it can be done on WWI battlefield sites why can’t it be done where bodies are known to be buried? Just a too big a job perhaps.

    Best regards
    Ken Hewitt

  2. Thank you Ken. Yes very sad and still a mystery. I assume the 1500 men FARLEF were aware of come from the battalion rolls / BRE records. These were men killed during the fighting and the POWs that died in the camps around Singapore.
    I assume we could duplicate the progress…. given enough time… where we could take the BRE lists and identify missing and last location / circumstance. There is a growing list of researchers who have focused on individual regiments…. who may have already got his for heir particular unit
    Then what…. well we could plot all the MR’s of the ‘Missing’ graves and last known locations… but not sure what we would find when we got there even if they hadn’t already bee built over…. as for the ‘Unknown’ at Kranji… well we could certainly narrow down the list of possible names by working out when and where they were killed as often bodies were moved to Kranji in truck loads …well that’s what happened to the Adam Park Cemetery…. so by plotting where the missing are located at Kranji could link the man with his known comrade next to him by date of death and location. DNA tests won’t be allowed by the CWGC… imagine how many would have to be done in all the sites if we did it at Kranji. Thoughts ?????

  3. Jon, I admire your positive approach to searching for these ‘missing’ men. For it to be a purposeful exercise though, not only do they have to be found, they have to be identified as well. Only ten months after the event, Major Saggers was only able to identify 14 of the 32 men in that mass grave at MR753147, but all 32, identified or not, would have been reinterred at Kranji after the war.

    Likewise, of the 1500 men that FARLEF refer to, many would have been recovered and reinterred at Kranji – some having been identified and others not. So just how many graves remain undiscovered on Singapore Island? There will undoubtedly be some, but just where do you start looking and what chance is there of identifying any bodies that you do find.

    With regards to deaths on Singapore Island whilst POWs, I would be surprised if there were many at all that didn’t have identified graves. You will have done the analysis for Adam Park. Were there any unidentified graves at Adam Park? The Leicesters Capt Ian Mitchell died there, as you know, and he has an identified grave at Kranji.

    And, of the eleven 1st Leicesters men who died on the island as POWs, ten have identified graves at Kranji. The other guy is recorded to have attempted escape on several occasions, had spent time in Outram Rd gaol and finally went missing from Roberts Hospital and never seen again. Where would you start looking for him?

    As for my thoughts on DNA testing to identify unknown graves at all the War Cemeteries I thought I summed it up in my earlier response – “Just too big a job perhaps”.

    But……… a targeted approach may be justified. For example, the Leicesters had eleven men die in Bhatoona camp on the Thai Burma Railway. They were buried there and their graves recorded by the search party that went out after the war (Babb report IWM Doc ref 3852) and yet only one of them has an identified grave at Kanchanaburi. Were the graves of the other ten subsequently not found (as recorded by the CWGC)? Or were the graves found but the bodies not identifiable? Or did their identities get lost between exhumation and reinternment? It would be nice to know.


    [1] Have you seen TNA doc WO 361/1203 (digitised by Find My Past). The file covers the Malaya Campaign deaths, inc. those on Singapore.

  4. Totally agree with all the above…

    Major Saggers was only able to identify 14 of the 32 men in that mass grave at MR753147,
    Is that because they removed Pay Books and ID tags ??? So of the 14 men ID’d and moved to Kranji are the remaining 18 ‘unknowns’ in the same vicinity row / block ?? If so maybe we can then work out which Kranji unknowns came from which area of the battlefield. Assuming those identified as Australians would have been buried away from the Brits and together ?.

    By the by – I was taking a talk in Edinburgh and talking about the missing bodies and bullets… I guy in the front row sheepishly put his hand up at the end and said he knew why so much stuff has been lifted. He said he was a young boy in Singapore after the war and he was paid 10 cents for every shell casing found and $1 for each body y the government !!! Incentive indeed.

  5. Q. When is an identified grave not an identified grave?
    A. When it’s a collective grave, perhaps.

    In some ways the CWGC has made the job a bit easier in that they already identify those bodies in collective graves. The five Leicesters men that Saggers identified are in Coll. grave 17 E 13-20. That’s eight plots. It turns out that there is a sixth Leicesters man buried in the same range and I have speculated that he also was exhumed from that mass grave found by Saggers. Did the remaining two plots contain unidentified men from the mass grave? I am assuming so.

    There are 13 other men in Collective Grave 17 in different rows at Kranji – 12 Norfolks and 1 Gordons. Their plots seem to be nearby but did they come from the same mass grave?

    Without a better understanding of how the Kranji War cemetery was populated I’m not sure I can take this discussion much further. It would be an interesting exercise to follow up though – so best of luck Jon!

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