Tag Archives: Sumatra

Nine lives and two tins

By Mike Appleton

To have almost no possessions except for the rags one stood up in, must have been a truly harrowing experience. This I believe explains the two tins shown below, which were with my father, Johnnie – Sgt J. G. Appleton 27 Sqdn RAF (pre-capture briefly attached to RAF HQ Communications Team) – throughout his time as a POW in Sumatra, as he moved from one jungle camp to the next. The fact that he brought them home and kept them all his life speaks volumes about their significance.

The discoloured tin held tobacco and matches. There were still shreds of tobacco in it when I was young. It also held a wad of occupation money. The Gold Flake tin held a Japanese toothbrush, with its bristles stained bright red from using tree bark as toothpaste (this has gone missing), some letters and his Japanese ID badge. On the right is his RAF insignia and on the left another badge which I don’t recognise, can anyone tell me what this is?

My father John Griffith Appleton (1917 – 2009) served in the RAF for 32 years (1935 -1967). During WW2 he was first stationed in India before flying down to Malaya. As the Japanese invaded from the north, he fled from one bombed-out airfield to the next and then, in a hazardous rush, to Singapore. During the invasion of the Island he was a key member of a team that, up to the last moment, kept open the communications links to India and Java.

On the night of 13 Feb 1941 Johnnie was ordered to leave with his team. They boarded the S.S Tien Kwang bound for they knew not where, and being exhausted, fell asleep on the deck. The next morning, they woke to the sound of low flying aircraft starting their bombing run and within moments the ship was holed, listing and there were many casualties. Another ship nearby the SS Kuala suffered a similar fate. Following the order to abandon ship, Johnnie managed to swim towards Pulau Pompong Island and being unhurt assisted in helping the wounded and disposing of the dead.

After several days and a hair-raising journey in a junk, he landed in the mouth of the Indragiri River on the East coast of Sumatra. There was then an arduous traverse of Sumatra to the West coast and Padang where it was hoped they would be taken off by a Naval ship. No ship arrived and instead they simply waited in limbo and trepidation for the arrival of the Imperial Japanese Army.

For the next three and a half years Johnnie was in a total of 10 camps in Sumatra, with progressively harsher regimes and ever-increasing levels of privation as the war progressed. The culmination of the experience was a year building the railway linking Sumatra’s east and west coast ports. This line was forged through virgin jungle with basic hand tools, in adverse climatic and disease-ridden conditions. The irony was that the track was completed shortly before the Japanese capitulated and was never really used thereafter. It is now in ruins and reclaimed by the jungle.

In 1999/2000 Johnnie compiled a detailed memoir describing his and fellow prisoners’ hardship and ill treatment. What is remarkable on reading his account, is not just that he survived, but that he did so with no lasting physical impairment and outwardly no mental issues. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did relate stories and describe events, in particular about living in the jungle and the various wild animals encountered – and eaten! His explanation for survival seemed to involve using the hard work and squalid conditions as a challenge. He had the determination that however bad he felt he must rise and work hard all day.

At one point a Japanese camp commander called him out from a daily parade and, instead of beheading him for some minor misdemeanour, which was my father’s expectation, awarded him a tin of sugar, a reward for having worked 100 days without a break. Other contributory factors he offered were, the responsibility undertaken for looking after the RAF contingent, prior experience of living in Asia, an extensive inoculation programme when he was being trained pre-war and, being a boy scout!

Towards the end of the war it is clear from his account that survival was very much in the balance as the effort to overcome extreme beriberi and starvation became overwhelming. The descriptions of the excitement experienced as SOE operatives literally dropped out of the trees and liberated the camp, is thrilling to read. It does also appear that the RAF, within the knowledge parameters of the day, re- PTSD etc., did do much to ease him back into fully operational service as a ‘regular’, and promoted him several ranks to make up for lost time and in recognition of the responsibility he had taken on in the camps organising his RAF colleagues.

For many years post-war Johnnie played a role in his local FEPOW branch and acted as treasurer.

Johnnie Appleton, carrying a FEPOW Federation wreath, Manchester Cathedral, late 1990s (©courtesy M. Appleton)

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.