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Another Door Part 5: The Road to Palembangicon for Recommended story

by Tom Simkins MBE

Contributed by 
Tom Simkins MBE
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22 July 2003

Next morning as the dawn broke red and gold behind us; the coast of Sumatra was silhouetted against a darker sky.

It could be argued that there should have been a cast-iron plan before we left Singapore. After all, we had had plenty of time during our long waits at the hulk at Bukom and while at wharf 50, to talk it over. I suppose we all thought that since Mossie had been the organiser so far, he would have a plan in mind. Well he hadn't. As he now said, except for heading in a direction away from Singapore on the agreed heading which would be northward and not southward, he had not given a destination any priority. The prevailing one that suppresses all other thoughts in that tense noisy existence, was a successful escape from Keppel. He would consider number two priority, and where we should go, after the successful accomplishment of number one.

Now, in the dim morning light, Mossie confessed that he had not dared think of the future with so much of the present around the previous day. If we had cleared Singapore and the tip of Malaya safely, he would make for the coast of Sumatra and continue Northeast. What he had not given a thought to, was whether or not the Japanese may be crossing the Strait of Malacca since they now held Penang and all the coast-line south. The Strait could be unhealthily congested.

In the long watch through the night hours, the situation as to what to do became obvious. To travel any further on our present course with the Japanese still within flying-time and with possible sea patrols out from the coast, would be pushing our luck too far. We might have put 85 miles and Singapore behind us, but the enemy-held coast of Malaya was still only 40 miles away.

At the same time as the sun was lighting up the east behind us, it was with relief we could see the 'Makota' happily bobbing along less than a mile away. We had slowed down considerably as the sea calmed about an hour before dawn and Sandy had kept pace with the 'Kulit' He said later that the small launch had taken the sea very well. What the 'Kulit had ploughed through, the 'Makota' had just gone up and down with it and not a drop of water in-board, although it was a bit uncomfortable at times. When we had parted during the night, Sandy said that he had taken note of our course, and since he knew that Mossie would stick to his, he wasn't a bit worried. As the sky had lightened, he had seen our larger silhouette long before we saw his.

By the time that the 'Makota' was sighted, and I had recovered from the inevitable sea-sickness that had assailed me through those rolling night hours, number two priority was being discussed. With the sky brightening rapidly and every one on deck where they had been since the rainsquall, there could still be the likelihood of reconnoitring aircraft spotting us.

So a decision was made. We would head west and make for the coast of Sumatra, now clearly visible, sail up the nearest river as far as we could, then make plans depending on circumstances. Sumatra was not so backward and there was bound to be some sort of transport that would take us somewhere. The port of Padang on the West Coast was a possibility. We would just have to hope that the Japanese had not already arrived.

After the sun rose and the morning progressed with Sandy and company following behind us, we pressed on in an inland direction via a wide river mouth and as the land on each side of us started to narrow, there was a general feeling of relaxation. Without a chart of the area we had no knowledge of how the river might snake about, so it was quite perplexing as the morning wore on, that our course was so constantly north and not westerly.

By mid-afternoon, the river had not narrowed as would be expected, in fact, quite the reverse, and we were still heading north! We had passed a settlement a short time before on our starboard side, and now it seemed that we were going out to sea again-and we were! Turning about, Mossie re-traced our wake back towards the settlement or village that was tucked away behind the greenery. By the time we reached it, Mossie and John between them with heads together had decided what we had done. The land on the starboard side just before we had turned about just had to be Benkalis Island, and the habitation we had seen was Benkalis itself. Instead of a river we had been sailing between the coast of Sumatra and the island and then heading out to sea again. This was soon verified.

Transferring the passengers from the 'Makota' to the 'Kulit', Sandy, having sailed the 'Makota' safely through the night, decided that he would stay on board and take her in alone and ascertain who was in charge, the Dutch or the Japanese - a very brave mission. Sandy disappeared from view as we lay a distance away.

Five minutes passed, then ten, and then ten lengthened to half an- hour as we all waited anxiously...then 'Burp burp burp on 'Makota's' groggy hooter as she came round the bend and into sight. All was well. The Dutch Resident was at home, and we were invited to come alongside. I don’t remember any of us slapping our brave envoy on the back. It was not a task that I would have enjoyed undertaking. Sandy said afterwards, 'Och, it wa nothin, I did'na think the Japanese wa there or I would'na gone'

Mind you, what we would have done if they had been there is debatable. We would not have got very far if they had. But we could not have been using our heads, for surely, if the Japanese had arrived by crossing the Malacca Strait which been in our thoughts during the night, they had would not have been just sitting around waiting for visitors, what is more, there would have been transport around.

Our navigational error was confirmed by the Dutch Resident Officer for Bengkalis. What we now had to do was to re-trace our steps and he showed Mossie the mouth of the river Siak on a wall map. The river would be navigable up to Pekam Baru, which was a small town in the centre of Sumatra. On arrival we could make arrangements with the Resident there concerning our next move. He suggested that perhaps Padang, a port on the West Coast could be best for us provided of course that transport could be arranged.

There were no plaintive songs of farewell as we left this island and I don’t think that I would have noticed if there had, been I was more than anxious to keep moving. The Resident did say that he was not aware of any Japanese landings in the area, but he did confess that because of recent reconnoitring aircraft, he had been expecting visitors for several days.

It was late in the afternoon when we set off with the descending sun on our estimated 75-mile journey up-river to Pekam. Later as we pressed on into the darkening evening, there was a relaxed comfortable feeling on board as the river, this time, did narrow from the mouth and the jungle on either side snuggled up, wrapping us in anonymity

That night beneath the brightness of a million stars, we had a delightfully restful trip up the winding river, following a silver road in a tunnel of blackness - John relieving Mossie at the helm to enable him to catch up on a bit of well earned rest.

I found sleep very hard to achieve at first....I had been on the go for so long that I was all wound up and finding it hard to wind down again. As I lay down on the deck, looking up at the stars, I could not help but reflect on our last 24 hours activities, from the anxious hours at the Keppel harbour wharf and our departure west, when we wondered where the next bombs would fall or what the next aircraft would do. We had worried ourselves stiff, probably grown a few grey hairs, searched the sky and horizons, imagined all sorts of catastrophic situations, and what had happened to us? Absolutely nothing! Surely there must be a moral somewhere. Perhaps there is sense in what a certain learned gentleman said - although his name escapes me, 'There is no need to worry until you have to worry'

Obviously I did sleep otherwise I could not have awakened to the sound of birds, the loud chatter of monkeys and a conglomeration of noises (contrasting so much with those of the last few days) as the beat of our engine exhaust disturbed the early morning. It was delightful to stand up on deck and enjoy the lovely freshness of the morning air, and the thankful feeling that we now had a more than fifty fifty chance of survival, and what was more, we were on our way with a determined plan. There was still one slight worry - if it could be called slight, as I learned later. Mossie said that upon leaving Bengkalis, the Resident had added that the airfield at Pekam Baru had had several reconnoitring sorties by Japanese aircraft. Because of the airstrip, it pointed to a possible landing by airborne troops. We should approach with caution.

We arrived at Pekam Baru in the early afternoon of the 14th February. The number of small craft on the river and, the happy salutes of the occupants, told its own tale. Notwithstanding our relief at having arrived, it would have been much more of a relief if this had been the end of the road, and not another beginning.....

What next? ..If we were to keep ahead of circumstances, most certainly we would have to keep to our slogan 'keep moving', and without delay but how now that the river seemed to have healed up at Pekam?

As Mossie and several others set off to seek help from the Resident officer, we who were left on board anxiously awaited their return. Now that we had stopped moving, the urge to continue doing so was strong. I wondered how far it was to Padang and how long would it take to walk, and conjectured on the adage. 'He who travels fast travels alone'

As a few of us returned from a much needed river bath following Noel's remark to John 'if we are going anywhere, we might as well set off clean'-so did George with a small consignment of beer he had purchased “from the off licence wigwam down the road”. A few minutes later Mossie and company returned bearing the awaited news.

The Resident had said that to attempt to take the mountainous route to Padang would not be wise because of the uncertainty of shipping calling there. If we did arrive there, so might the Japanese at an early date (well not exactly in those words) He had an alternative suggestion which he considered safer for us. It was that he would provide transport for us to proceed to Palembang in the south of the island. At Palembang, trains would be running from the railhead there that would take us to Oosthave (Telok Betong) and from there a ferry across the Sunda Strait to Java. The Resident's offer was accepted with enthusiasm, despite the long road journey involved, but with the bonus that we would be travelling fast in the right direction. Furthermore, according to the Resident, in a recent BBC broadcast message, Mr. Churchill had emphasised that reinforcements were available and that Java would be held at all costs

Our two vessels were formally handed over with an exchange of documents, and we were provided with an ancient looking bus vehicle complete with driver. What I liked about the idea was that even if Jap infiltration behind us was imminent, we were bound to travel faster.

I didn't need to pack, I just grabbed the small duffel bag that I had acquired at Bukom containing essentially my skin-out bag, diary, and three bottles of whisky, I was ready for the road for I was as anxious as anyone to 'keep moving'.

By 11pm that night we had covered 80 miles when we drew into a village, possibly Taluk - after we had negotiated a fast flowing river via a man-powered pontoon raft. It had been an eerie and hazardous operation, getting our vehicle on board, secured and transported, but we were successful. We spent the night in a Sumatran longhouse with a rush floor which we shared with families of creepy-crawlies, and above, a vicious brand of mosquito with stings like spears. I had a couple of burra pegs of whisky to keep them away, and as I wondered why I had not stayed in the bus, it was suddenly morning.

By 5.30am we were away, (scratching our bites and discussing the possibility of malaria) bouncing along a dirt track road at break-neck speed - well perhaps more correct, rattling and bumping, for the springs on our vehicle had experienced better days. Our driver must have been taught at the same school as the Sikh driver who had driven me down the mountainside from Darjeeling. We spent the day hardly reducing speed for hairpin bends and various other obstacles. If he had been told that we were in a hurry, then he was certainly doing his best to oblige.

As we sped along, the terrain varied from drab to beautiful, flat to undulating ragged to desolate but mostly jungle and dense vegetation. It was such a pity that we were in hurry. Such a pity that I was not interested in where we were, but where I hoped we would be eventually. It was very hot and uncomfortable, and we were all suffering the discomfort of the journey. Nevertheless, nobody was in favour of slackening our pace, or stopping to rest, so it was with a mixture of relief and then consternation that, upon arriving at a small village, our driver disappeared. He was eventually tracked down in the village-eating house, and he was adamant.

'No more driving today Tuan. Tomorrow, early, yes. Today, no'

A few of us were not bothered anyway, but there was plenty of opposition. It did seem to me, that if the Japanese had landed in Sumatra -a thought that had bugged us in the Malacca Strait- and were behind us, then they would have to put their skates on to beat our mileage so far. Despite the road conditions and our rather senile vehicle, we had clocked up 200 miles since leaving Pekam Baru. Who could blame the driver for stopping? He had driven for nine hours. By 3pm we were on our way, wined well beered-and dined and hastened on our way by a very wet tropical storm. The Malay driver had been amply awarded with Malay money to relinquish his status and become a passenger; drivers in our party would take over his job and drive through the night thus avoiding further delay.

For the next few hours or so it rained real stair-rods. The road surface that had been steadily getting worse was getting narrower and steeper. In fact, at times, ridiculously so for a main road to Djambi and Palembang. Eventually, just before dusk, the weather cleared revealing a reddened after-sunset sky, which after while prompted a voice from the back of the bus to exclaim, 'Hey, that's a hell of a funny place for a sunset'. The voice had a good point, for, despite the many twisting around deep ravines, it was obvious that we had been generally moving westward. As was to be confirmed later, we had been climbing the Barison mountains that ran north and south down Sumatra hence the indication that the road was 'healing up'. Our route should have been generally southward, parallel to and not over the steep areas. We had, at some stage in the poor visibility, taken the wrong turn. A lot of valuable time was lost before we were able to turn ourselves round, including a nasty bogging down due to a mini-landslide.

At last we hit the main road to Djambi which made it seem so ridiculous that we had ever missed it in the first place. We now pointed southward into clearer weather and sky. In the darkness later, except for our sidelights and the stars that were now visible between large gaps in the clouds, we feasted on sardines and dry biscuits softened with beer - the latter as result of stocking up at our last stop, confirming that Sumatra wasn't so primitive. There were nostalgic remarks as the labels on the bottles indicated Singapore Tiger beer.

Notwithstanding our tiring experiences so far, and the few grumblers who were prepared to complain about anything that came in the way of our forward progress (well, understandably so) the atmosphere was that of a jolly barbecue to the accompaniment of croaking frogs. For most of us, with so many miles between us and the unknown hazard behind it was probably a matter of working off a bit of tension. There was a slight rocking of the boat as laments were voiced about the luggage left behind, but this was turned to laughter as one of the party slipped backwards into the mud and emptied beer over his face.

Because our resting driver thought that there were about 250 miles to go before reaching Palembang there was a general approval that that we should press on and stop when we got to Djambi later in the morning. It was then just after 1 am

Contented chatterers were wondering if there would be first or second class carriages on the train; would it go right on to the ferry, or would they have to walk and would there be toilets on the train, and so on. Then silence prevailed except for the roar of the engine as we rolled on through the night, stopping only occasionally to replenish water or fuel from our spare tins, and attend to the calls of nature. Then off again following the miles of empty road beneath an amazingly bright starlit sky, before the first tints of dawn coloured it. Then there was the occasional passing vehicle, then two's and three's with the friendly flashing of lights as from one lone traveller to another.

We made poor time on this last leg of the journey - no doubt due to the changing of drivers while our local driver still rested - so, as we rolled into Djambi, contrary to our instructions at Pekam that we should contact the Resident, it was decided that we skip this one and not waste time stopping and resting. So we bowled along through and out of Djambi, like, as somebody said 'schoolboys twagging it from school'

As we ate up some of the remaining miles southward towards Palembang, we came increasingly aware of the volume of travellers, varying in size and shape which was quite noticeable after the many miles of deserted road, but particularly since they were going North. Then as we progressed South they were replaced by pedestrians and handcarts, then later still, quiet deserted roads again and we wondered why? . .

One of the Malay speaking passengers said that while we were stopped some miles back to fill our petrol and water cans, the man serving had said to him 'Why you not go north Tuan?” He didn’t say why he terminated the chat without pursuing the reason for the question. We were not to be kept waiting for long for as we rolled down a steep hill we could see a lone car coming down the opposite slope. By the time that we reached the bottom of the hill it was stationary and a Chinese lady was beckoning us to stop.

As our driver leaned out through his window she said, 'You must turn round and go back, the Japanese captured Palembang on Saturday'.

As this information was relayed down the bus the atmosphere in it became electric and there was silence for quite a few seconds as though the occupants were having difficulty in believing what they had just heard. By the time that our driver had explained where we had come from and why we were speeding towards Palembang, passengers from the front of the bus had alighted; those from the rear had crowded forward so as not to miss a word.

Although shaking her head as though not agreeing with what had just been said, she did supply a slightly encouraging alternative. It would be very dangerous, but if we could get to Lubic Lengau little north of Palembang, -by turning west there was a railway station there where trains called after leaving Palembang on their way to Oosthaven. She said that the road we were on was the only road in and out of I Palembang. It would be dangerous for us to carry on. 'You should turn round and follow me to Padang where I will catch a ship'.

The lady was duly thanked for bothering to stop and warn us and her concern for our safety, and in return it was pointed out to her that she could bump into the Japanese who may have landed in the north and already be at Padang.

She looked a very aristocratic lady, ageless features that could have just left Shangri-La. Departing, she said, 'The Japanese killed my parents in Tiensin, if they see a Chinese lady, they will not be very kind'. As her car disappeared northward, Sandy, who had been the last to get down from the bus, said 'Hey. did ya no see that bloody great banger she had on her front seat?' . Apparently her travelling companion had been an army type revolver.

We now had a problem: those of the party who had been speculating on such things as trains with first and second class compartments possibly with toilets were jolted back into harsh reality. Blame for our predicament was freely apportioned. Those who had been quite content not to stop at Djambi now complained we would have known the situation 50 miles back had we done so. Standing outside the bus in the baking heat arguing which way to go was an incongruous situation. Some gave up and sat down in what ever shade they could find as the pros and cons continued.

My mind was in turmoil. Going back seemed no better than going forward and the recurring pain in my middle as a result of that blow I received on the 'Pinna' was voting not go anywhere. If the Japanese track record were anything to go by, then once established in the Palembang area with all its available facilities they would not lose any time in expanding and occupying available ports and railheads. Somebody reasoned the Japanese were not magicians. The initial spearhead invasion would need backup support and most of all, transport. At the moment it was more than likely that they were consolidating their positions around the reason they were there - to ensure oil and airfield facilities for their further expansions.

Mossie was in favour of setting off for Lubic Lengau and not wasting any more valuable time. He emphasised his point by kicking a stone a dozen yards. That stopped a lot of chatter 'I think we ought to take a chance and set off for Lubic NOW. What the hell have we to lose?'

So finally there was a general agreement - what had we to lose. Mossie had ignored a small voice from someone, 'perhaps the Japanese are already on the way to Lubic' as we all headed For the bus. Climbing into it - another step into the unknown- the heat was almost unbearable until we started to move. I started to count the days since leaving Keppel. Saturday in Pekam Baru was February 14th. Today was the 16th; the Japanese had been in Palembang area for two days. (I learned later that the Japanese had dropped a large force of paratroopers on the 14th and by the 15th they had completely occupied Palembang the oil installations at Pladjoe and the RAF airfield.)

For the next 25 miles or so we were driving along the only road into, and out of, Palembang. According to the Malay driver who had now taken over his driving role again, there would be a right turn road junction, probably at Kluang or Betoeong, he wasn't sure, and this would lead us to Sekaju where we could get more petrol, and then continue on to Lubic Lengau. After the turn off we would then be going west and away from Palembang.

As our ageing and uncomfortable bus ate up the miles and every mile was taking us nearer and nearer to Palembang it was very depressing in fact, down right worrying, for the road that had had the occasional vehicle or pedestrians loaded with bundles going northward, was now empty. The atmosphere in the bus was silently loaded with apprehension. This apprehension was one kind when we were going pell-mell south and away from possible danger behind us but another kind now that we were speeding towards it.

One could almost hear the intake of breath as we rounded each sharp bend, then the sighing out as the road was seen to be clear ahead. The deserted road had that eerie feeling like walking through a graveyard or a haunted house at night.

One of the last vehicles we had seen was an RAF one loaded with personnel and we wondered where they were going without so much as stopping or waving. What extra did they know that we didn't? Just before they passed us, we were advised by some passing pedestrians, that if we were going to Lubic then we should hurry, for pontoons and bridges were being wrecked to impede Japanese movements.

I began to have the nasty little worry...Perhaps that luck that we had enjoyed so far was about to run out? . . Had we been given all the signs and not heeded them? .. Perhaps we should have gone straight to Padang from Pekam after we had abandoned the boats? .. Perhaps there had not been any Japanese landings in the north. Oh well, it was too late to conjecture now. All would be revealed one way or another.

At last we reached the turn-off road junction and headed west, and then for the next few hours, having left the road that went to Palembang, we breathed more freely. Except for several rivers that had to be crossed and the men in charge of the pontoons who so leisurely pushed us across, the journey was uneventful- well that is, ignoring the heat and the reckless pace of our driver as he sped towards Lubic.

We stopped at Sekaju and bought petrol patronised the Sumatrian version of a loo dined and generally relaxed in of the shade after the mid-afternoon heat. Once again, tension had diminished and there were further chats as to the facilities expected on the train at Lubic Lengua, and if they ran overnight. The children who gathered around us couldn’t have been more entertained at our presence had we been a travelling circus!

We were not very far from Lubic- probably 50 miles. We had been driving into the sun which was now descending down into the western sky ahead (this time it was in the right place) and enjoying at last the coolness of the late afternoon. The terrain which had been flat was now undulating and broken up by rugged areas as it stretched itself ahead into the start of the southern end of the Barison mountain range, when suddenly...Brrr brrr bang!

Our vehicle screeched to a stop as our driver stamped his foot on the brake pedal, and another vehicle which seemed to have joined us from nowhere, hit our rear with a metal bending ker-rump. Just visible ahead around the bend that we were negotiating, matching the dappled light and shade as the last of the sun's rays shone through the trees, was a single figure dressed in camouflage complete with the automatic weapon that had caused the noise.

Then, almost simultaneously from the grassy banks on either side of us, there poured 20 or 30 or so similarly dressed figures, all armed to the teeth. From the crashes on the side of the bus, it was obvious that we were expected to get out - which we did, quickly. By the time that a second single figure had arrived who had approached very leisurely down the road, we were all lined up hands high in the air looking down the barrels of too many automatic weapons.

A film hero may look very heroic and lantern jawed under such circumstances, but in reality would probably have felt stupid, I did. But that doesn't mean that I didn't feel scared too. Hell's bloody bells, I did, right up to my back teeth!

With the arrival of what turned out to be a Dutch army officer, all was revealed. He was in charge of a platoon of local military who had become a guerrilla group since they had left Palembang upon the arrival of the Japanese. He had given orders to his men to stop and examine every vehicle that came from the direction of Palembang. We just experienced them doing that very thing to the letter. The officer was very apologetic in delightful English.

From him we learned that trains had been running from Lubic station up to the previous day, but he was dubious about connections with the ferry at Oostaven. There had been a Japanese task force of naval vessels through the Sunda Strait and they had been operating in the region of Banka.

He went on to say that he had just received (I wondered how?) information to the effect that many people escaping from Singapore had been killed south of Rhio and Lingga islands, and that many small boats had been blown to pieces by gunfire and bombs. 'How very fortunate for you that you chose this route instead of the sea route to Java' he said.

He saluted and wished us a safe journey then joined his soldiers who disappeared into the trees as magically as they had arrived. It was many years before I learned more of the awful truth of what he had said.

It seems as though from that moment a curtain of secrecy came down over the sad plight of the citizens of Singapore. Men women children and army personnel found themselves trapped between an enemy occupied island behind, them and an ocean in front over which the enemy had complete control. In contrast there had not been any secrecy concerning the wonderful evacuations of our armed forces and civilians from Dunkirk twenty months earlier. The English shores were forty miles away with sea and air protection and organised welcome.

Alas, from Singapore to temporary safety was five hundred miles away with constant air attacks. Many died in the sea and on uninhabited islands from wounds, starvation or caught and murdered by the Japanese. Many found help and transport on the Sumatran Island only to be caught later and interned.

The sad story of the fall of Singapore, the plight of the people and the thousands of troops who were interned has now been well documented and readily available. We all climbed back into the bus, feeling better than when we climbed down from it and set off. The party of four, probably local people out of the car behind us, we left standing on the roadside by their car. We waved, but it seemed that they had not yet got over the shock sufficiently to lift an arm in reply. Three hours later we rolled into Lubic in the evening darkness to learn that the last train to the coast had left at noon that day, and now, the railhead was closed and deserted.

-- Next: Another Door Part 6: Benkulen the Bottleneck

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