Tag Archives: Red Cross

Mortality and liberation in Palembang

By Michiel Schwartzenberg

The unilateral cease-fire on 15 August should have resulted in an immediate improvement of the plight of the PoW. The Japanese had been ordered to do so. However, in some places the conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that the dying continued before the situation was brought under control.

The predicament at Palembang

RAPWI team ‘Blunt’ entered its assigned camp at Palembang, Sumatra on 4 September and four days later reported: ‘908 PoW, 272 hospitalized and 249 died of malnutrition and illness’. According to a message 10 September the situation had not improved: ‘British 470, hospital 150. Many dying. Civilian men, women and children. Need urgent medical relief air supplies.’ Another two days later SEAC HQ in Ceylon received a request from Palembang for a medical team immediately because  ‘Doctors here are as weak as patients and cannot cope. Medical supplies […] urgently required. Immediate evacuation of sick essential; 50 by air and 200 by sea’. Even Lord Bevin (Minister of Foreign Affairs) in London was worried (message 12 September): ‘Almost complete absence of information about Java and Sumatra in contrast to voluminous publicity about other areas is causing alarm…. There is in fact ground for concern since deaths actually reported by Japanese through International Committee Red Cross in Geneva are much higher in proportion than anywhere else in the Far East.’

The actual situation can be gauged by reading two post war reports by senior British PoW: Wing Commander W.R. Wills-Sandford (https://www.cofepow.org.uk/armed-forces-stories-list/japanese-treatment-of-raf) and Surgeon-Lieutenant J.G. Reed (not available online). Reeds statistics clearly show the mortality to 21 August:

Camp strengthAug date#date#
26 May in camp1.15913*152
15 Sept in camp89923167
15-20 Sept hosp air evac24036176
46184
1945 monthly mortality rate51192
Jan369206
Feb677**213
March5Week 135Week 330
April186221
May2294233
June44102240
July99115252
Aug109125261
Sept 1-2010135270
total299146280
Week 233291
302
*Cease fire311
** rations increaseWeek 411

Dr. Reeds analysis of the sharp increase in mortality is equally clear: ‘a policy of starvation’ as he called it. On 27 May 1945 the rationing was cut by the Japanese (measured in grams of rice):

dutyheavylightnone / ill
from500300250
to400250150
average given300225200
21 Aug550550550

Even these rations were not met; one week only 233 gr was issued. On 21 August, a week after the cease fire, the rations increased. Dr Reed noted that before 27 May the main cause of death was disease (dysentery); after 27 May it was starvation. He also noted that the starvation due to the 27 May decease became apparent in 6 weeks; whereas the recovery from 21 August was immediate. Dr Reed allowed for the psychological factor of liberation and the increase in morale: “The general effect of being able to put a man off duty and tell him to lie back and absorb his 500g of rice per day had to be seen to be believed.”

Air Supply by the RAPWI

Before the arrival of the RAPWI teams, the RAF dropped supplies to all known camps in South East Asia. This operation to supply the camps by air was called ‘MASTIFF B’ and started with Red Cross supplies of a general nature. As the RAPWI teams entered the camps they would take stock of the material needs and place orders with RAPWI Main Control on Ceylon. RAPWI Main Control would make an assessment of all the requests of all the camps in SEAC and the availability of supplies and aircraft and allot them accordingly. There were 4 categories of supplies and 2 kinds of packing: containers and packs. For Palembang the supplies were delivered:

SuppliesRed CrossClothingMedicalFoodPersonnel
datecontpackcontpackcontcontpack
31-aug116
1-sep36
11-sep7113
12-sep11101031910
13-sepCapt Mockler RAMC parachute
15-sep1110
16-sep1119
17-sep129
22-sep22020
23-sep1110
total2259112358162
in Kg5.3102.96181011.59920.680 total

The chart shows that the after the initial Red Cross supply droppings, the supply ceased until the RAPWI team Blunt managed to place orders mainly for food and medicine as well as an additional medical team.

Evacuation to Singapore

Following the advent of RAPWI team Blunt the situation improved and after 12 September things happened quickly:

12 live broadcast of surrender ceremony in Singapore shared with PoW  

13 Medical team lead by Dr. Mockler[1] arrived (by parachute) from Ceylon

14 Japanese finally cooperated: they were helpful in giving supplies of food and

clothing. “Their attitude has lately been correct” as RAPWI team Blunt put it.

15 new hospital was put in operation

19 Palembang visited by Lady Mountbatten which was ‘extremely popular’

15 – 20 all 240 ill PoW evacuated by Dakota to Singapore

21 – 25 evacuation of the 600 British by Dakota to Singapore

PO 1027.002 PAKANBARU, SUMATRA, 1945-09-17. RAAF FLIGHT TO EVACUATE PRISONERS OF WAR (POWS) OF THE JAPANESE TO SINGAPORE. THE FIRST GROUP OF POWS ARE ON STRETCHERS AT THE AIRSTRIP.
PO 0444.193 LIBERATED ALLIED AND AUSTRALIAN PRISONERS OF WAR FROM PALEMBANG, SUMATRA, RELATE THEIR EXPERIENCE TO A BRITISH WAR CORRESPONDENT IN SINGAPORE. (no date)

Medical evacuation of PoW from Pakan Baroe to     Interview of PoW from Singapore, 17 September. Pakan Baroe, Sumatra   Palembang in Singapore[2] is not Palembang, but the scene was similar.

019382 Sumatra. 1945. Imprisoned Australian troops released in Sumatra shown carrying the food containers used to transport food to the prisoners. The food was almost inedible. Left to right: Sergeant F. Brown of Adelaide, SA; Private (Pte) L. Bett of Launceston, Tas; Pte P. Renson of Southport, Tas; Pte G. Spencer of Bracknell, Tas; Pte J. Rose of Ulverstone, Tas; C. Bell of Melbourne, Vic; and C. Foster of Adelaide, SA.
019383 Singapore? September 1945. Lady Mountbatten speaking to Australian prisoners of war (POWs) who had been liberated from the Japanese POW camp in Sumatra. They had been poorly fed and badly treated.

Two pictures of Lady Mountbattens tour on Sumatra 15-19 September, camp not known.

Conclusion

The Japanese should never have mistreated their PoW and put their heath and lives in peril. Throughout the war and in all camps the treatment had been brutal and negligent. But Palembang may have been one of the few camps genuinely in acute danger of mass starvation for whom the Japanese cease fire came in just time. It did not, however, result in an immediate improvement of the situation; this only occurred a week later when the rations increased. The advent of the RAPWI team Blunt on 4 September lead to improvements, although it took yet another week (11 September) before the RAF started delivering the supplies that were desired. But the end was in sight; the evacuation of the ill PoW commenced 15 September and after completion is was the turn of the healthy to leave.

One cannot undo the past, but one can count the possible difference made by compliance by the Japanese to the terms of the Allies and a much sooner arrival of the British RAPWI teams on Sumatra.

Thirty-nine lives.


[1] Captain J. Mockler is one of the few RAPWI-personnel that died in active duty. On 5 November Mockler (IAMC) and J.W. Smith (RAA) were supervising the evacuation of RAPWI at Benkulen, Sumatra. They were attacked and Smith was wounded. Mockler died and was buried in Palembang; he now rests in Jakarta.

[2] The AWM description is problematic. There weren’t any Australians in Palembang and the men seem very emaciated despite having had food and rest for a month.

Extracts from the diary notes of Captain A.A. Duncan A&SH: Homeward Bound

By Meg Parkes

My father, Captain Atholl Duncan, kept a diary throughout his captivity in Java and Japan until 30 January 1945 when it became too dangerous. On 15 August that year he finally felt safe enough to resume chronicling events. Over the next few weeks made copious notes covering the intervening months.

Early September 1945

This is the last photograph taken of him, newly liberated but still at Miyata camp on the island of Kyushu. He weighed under seven stone and was awaiting evacuation from Japan. His party of British officers, transferred from Zentsuji in June that year, finally left Miyata on 20 September 1945. He noted:

“On the 19th, the B-29s again paid us a visit, dropping more than 500 cases of food etc, and I was rather ironical to think that we should be deluged with supplies when they were of no use to us. However, the were not wasted as they were collected and distributed to Chinese POW camps in the area, and I have no doubt that they would not be long in polishing the whole lot off. The afternoon and evening were spent dumping all unwanted kit and attending to the hundred and one odd jobs which cropped up and as we were due for an early start on the morrow, I went to bed early.

Next morning, I rose at 4am and was ready to move off at the scheduled 5.15 when lorries transported us down to the special train which was to convey us to Nagasaki. Before leaving, we all bequeathed our cast off clothing and surplus food supplies to the Koreans who had been acting as servants to us for the past week or so; poor creatures, they almost fell on our necks and wept when they realised they could take what they pleased, and the last we saw of them as we marched out of the gates for the last time, was a line of bowing orientals, all saying, “Sayonara, hancho arigato gosiemus” or in English, “Goodbye, Sir, thank you very much”.

Miyata Sept 1945, street outside the railway Station (courtesy Mansell.com)

“The journey to Nagasaki was pleasant and uneventful taking about six hours to cover the 80 miles. We had heard stories about the destruction caused by the atomic bomb which had been dropped there but were quite unprepared for the sight we saw. The town lies at the head of a long narrow inlet which is surrounded by wooded hills, the factory region having been at the top of the “U”. The first thing that caught our eye was a hillside of trees completely stripped of foliage giving it the appearance of a petrified forest.  We then came into what had been the town, but what was now a pile of rubble, twisted steel girders, tangled cable wires and charred ruins, and all the way down to the docks – a distance of several miles – the same utter and complete devastation existed. Nagasaki as a town had ceased to exist!”

The view of the scene in Nagasaki was taken by Lt R.C. Nomsen USCG (courtesy M. Parkes)

This photograph, taken across the dashboard of a US Coastguard Jeep in mid-September 1945, shows part of the devastated city. Taken by US Coastguard officer Lt Richard C. Nomsen who was an officer on USS LST 795, part of the American repatriation force anchored in Nagasaki Harbour. The ship had taken part in the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa earlier that year.

Incredibly, rail links to the dock area were still open and Duncan described the scene awaiting their arrival on the quayside station platform:

As the train drew into the docks, we heard the strains of a band playing, “California, here we come”, and as we came to halt, men and officers of the US Navy and Marine Corps cheered us and then led us to a canteen where we were given doughnuts and coffee, and where two ladies of the American Red Cross bade us all a welcome.

POW at Nagasaki quayside rail station, waiting to board USS Chenango, September 1945

The photograph above shows an earlier party of former POW arriving off a train on to the same quayside platform at Nagasaki on 13 September 1945.

Photograph of Nagasaki quayside rail station platform (courtesy D. Rowland)

A week later this photograph was taken on the same platform. Sent to me in 2003 by the photographer, former Lt Dale Rowland USCG a crewmember on USS LST 795, it shows my father’s party being led down a ramp to the awaiting US Red Cross teams at the station.

“Before we knew where we were we had been shepherded off to tables where orderlies and doctors questioned us about treatment, health etc, after which we dumped all our clothes, put any valuables we wished to retain in a bag for disinfecting, were given a shower, issued with new clothes, more food and drink, toilet kit, cigarettes, writing materials, towel, boots and a news bulletin, put on a landing barge and whisked off to waiting shipping, which was due to sail that afternoon. All of this occupied less than three quarters of an hour and is the finest piece of organising I have ever seen.”

Transport across Nagasaki Harbour to LST-795 (courtesy D. Rowland)

Another of Rowland’s photographs is this one taken on board the LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicles and Personnel). The man on the left of the vessel, second back from the boarding ramp, facing the camera and with a cigar in his mouth, could possibly be my father, the resemblance is uncanny.

His notes continued:

“Before any of us had time to realise it, we were off Japan and on Allied territory – to wit, an American ship. Once again, our reception was terrific, everybody welcoming us and enquiring if there was anything we needed. I’m afraid they must have thought us all a bit queer as we fired question after question at them on every conceivable subject form war news to the prices of cameras and watches.”

LST 795, photograph given to Capt. Duncan by Lt. R.C. Nomsen USCG (courtesy M.Parkes)

“The boat which was to take us away from Japan was L.S.T.–795, or Landing Ship Tanks, No.795. It had a doorway and ramp in the bows and when our landing barge drew alongside, the bow doors were open, so we ran onto the parent vessel. Cabin accommodation was provided for officers while the men were housed in the main tank deck with camp beds on which to sleep. That evening, after we had sailed, a cinema show was put on for our benefit – Cary Grant in ‘Once Upon a Honeymoon’ – and when we retired for the night onto beds with spring mattresses and brand new snowy white blankets, we all agreed that it was hard to believe that in 24 hours so much could have taken place.”

Duncan shared a cabin with Coastguard officer Lt Richard Nomsen during the two-day voyage to Okinawa. Perhaps they discovered a shared interest in photography as Nomsen gave him four photographs, two of the ship’s crew and two of scenes around Nagasaki.

On the back of the crew photograph the third signature is Nomsen’s and below him, Commanding Officer Lt Shevlin (my father has written the ship’s name at the bottom).

While on board he wrote a letter home to the family and his fiancée Elizabeth, enclosing the handwritten notes that he had made since 15th August. At Okinawa he transhipped to USS Renville for the longer voyage to Manila in the Philippines, arriving on 1 October. After nearly three weeks in an Australian tented transit camp there, on 19 October he boarded the USS General Brewster bound for San Francisco. They docked on 1 November and while the rest continued their homeward journey travelling by train to Canada, he stayed in nearby Oakland with family friends for a few days. A few days’ later he took the train to New York where, on 12 November, he boarded HMT Queen Mary for the final leg of his journey around the world. He docked in Southampton on Sunday 18 November.

Page 5 Southern Daily Echo, Southampton, Monday 19 October 1945

The Argyll’s pipe and drum band was playing on the quayside where his father was waiting for him. They arrived back to the family home in St Andrews two days’ later.

Two months’ later, on 30 January, he married Elizabeth. By April he had returned to the university in St Andrews having transferred courses from engineering to study medicine. He qualified in 1950 and became a GP in Wirral in 1951.

The diaries are a precious reminder of those years. He allowed me to transcribe them providing copies for myself and my sisters, finally entrusting them to my care. He never forgave the Japanese for the needless neglect, brutality and suffering meted out to POW and innocent civilians during the war. He never forgot the friendships he made, nor those he had to leave behind.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

The diaries were self-published in two parts, “Notify Alec Rattray…” (2002) and “…A.A. Duncan is OK” (2003). Sharing the diaries led to my working with Geoff Gill at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Visit www.captivememories.org.uk to find out more about our research. My thanks to Dad for allowing me access to his diaries in my early 20s, and for sharing so much about his captivity. Thanks to the late Dale Rowland, who in 2002 shared photographs and invaluable insights with me about the first leg of my father’s journey home.

“To Remember Them is to Honour Them”