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- 21 December 2003
When I was captured by the Japanese in Java in 1942, I was just 24 years of age. I had served for 2 years plus in the UK in the Medical Branch of the Royal Air Force in No. 3 Bomber Command, based at Marham in Norfolk; I was a fully trained Nursing Orderly. After being moved around a variety of POW camps in Java I found myself in the Jaarmarkt cam p in Soerabaya. Jaarmarkt (Dutch for Yearly Market) was the largest POW camp in SE Asia covering about 5 acres; by its very nature and the storage and office buildings available, it was ideal for the Japs to use it for this purpose; e.g. there were fixed toilet facilities and running water.
Prisoners who had been confined in a mixed bag of camps around Java were ultimately moved to Jaarmarkt ;it became the main transit camp and provided men to undertake tasks which were essential to the Japanese war effort and which were spread around the East Indies (then Dutch), now Indonesia. The POW’s were made up of Dutch, British, Australian, New Zealander, few American, troops and at any one time there would be anything up to 3,000 of them confined in Jaarmarkt.
Early in 1943, a party of us ,mainly British R.A.F. some Dutch, were lined up in an open area of Jaarmarkt for what was said to be a medical inspection to determine who was fit enough to be put on a draft overseas. The ‘medical’ was to say the least perfunctory; looking back on it makes one smile at the simple deceipt.
We were lined up Tenko fashion and instructed to drop our pants; in that most of us were wearing shorts this was no problem. Then along came a Japanese doctor; he was at least wearing a stethoscope and a white coat, with half a dozen orderlies in attendance. At a signal from the doctor, the orderlies began to take samples by inserting a glass rod up one's anus. The rods, one to each man, were then thrown into a tray on a table ;there was absolutely no identification of individuals, and thus the whole procedure was farcical .However ,if it achieved nothing else it made us smile; the jokes are not repeatable here.
The following day we were called out on parade and each handed a small beg, holding about half a kilo of uncooked rice; cursory examination showed the contents to be very poor quality and full of weevils. We were told to retain the bag carefully as it may be required in an emergency.
We were then marched down to Tanjong Perak, the docks in Soerabaya; two ships were tied up alongside; we could see their names beneath a rough covering of paint; the Amagi Maru and the Matsukawa Maw. Each was of about 5,000 tonnes and looked as though they had seen long service; they were clearly coalers and there was evidence of that spread around the decks.
The equatorial sun burned down upon us; the godowns on the dockside offered no relief in the way of shade as we were quite close to the equator; in any case, moving out of line brought the guards down on us unmercifully. We waited thus for some hours and were relieved (silly us) when the guards shouted that we were to embark. A few planks of wood were thrown down to enable us to get aboard from dockside to deck; they were not secured in any way and as the vessel rolled with the swell, the planks moved and became unsafe. However the guards had, it seemed all gone mad; they shouted and screamed at us to” speedo and lekas” (faster, faster) and used their bayonets to prod us forward. It was only when we were actually on deck that we realised that we were to go down into the hold. There was a wooden stairway set at about 45o which had its bottom end sitting upon the floor of the hold. The guards pushed and shoved us so viciously that men piling in at the top of the steps were falling forward on top of those further down who of course were unable to see in the blackness of the hold having just left the brilliant sun above. It was complete pandemonium until the guards were satisfied that they had forced a sufficient number down.
Now to describe the hold; it was about 18 yards square at the base but narrowed to about 5 yds. at the top .The top was timbered over and covered with tarpaulin sheeting leaving a space about 2yards square at the top of the steps. It was quite a drop to floor level and some men had suffered severely when pushed down during loading. Everywhere was covered in coal-dust and within minutes of arriving the mixture of heavy sweating and dust made us all look like freaks.
We were now aboard the Amagi Maru, and we realised that the situation was desperate. There were between 300 and 400 of us confined in a” black hole of Calcutta” situation ; there was no panic despite several men collapsing from either heat exhaustion or from physical damage done during embarkation . The rest of us stood, in order to seek what little air there was coming in through the aperture at the top of the steps. In our hearts we knew that the immediate future looked grim. As we stood packed closely together we realised that it was unlikely that we would find enough room to lie down, and cheered ourselves with the expectation that we would only be aboard for a few hours.
In the corner of the hold, we could discern as we got used to the darkness that there was a wooden structure built in 3 stories which would, on the face of it, provide more floor space, but it soon became clear that the distance between the layers would allow for a person only to lie down.
There was complete calm as each one of us weighed up the situation .Clearly there was need for someone to” grasp the nettle “and organise us. We had two officers with us, both RAF personnel; one a doctor named Forbes, known to be a disciplinarian, took over the responsibility. Without him we should have been in a worse pickle. He had us all seated, cross-legged and back to back, and drew up a series of rules that we should all adhere to; less physical activity would conserve our air supply; priorities were set for the use of the latrines and orderly queuing became the order of the day.Doc Forbes made it clear that he had very limited stocks of medicines; no more than he could carry in a side pack; therefore the use of them would be for only ones whom he considered to be in urgent need.
The latrine facilities aboard the Amagi Maru need description; there were none below deck. A urinal trough was mounted on the bulkhead on deck, which discharged directly into the sea, Only 4 persons could be accommodated at one time, and the Japanese guards saw to it that that number was never exceeded. One had to go up the steps and bow to the guard as one stepped onto the deck; use the urinal and return, bowing as one went. Failure to bow was seen by the guards as inexcusable and was rewarded with a severe beating around the face. The no.2 requirement was catered for by a couple of open topped wooden boxes, each about a yard square, mounted on the side of the ship directly over the sea. There was an aperture in the base which allowed one to discharge directly into the sea below; at least that was the idea, but it was quite a different “kettle of fish” when the vessel was at sea, what with the swell and winds. It was quite a frightening procedure to use the boxes, particularly at night when there was little moon; no lights were allowed on deck. Clearly most people preferred to go at night when one couldn’t easily be seen but had to face what was a substantial risk. The numbers of men using these facilities meant that there was an endless queue, day and night; when the epidemic of diarrhoea occurred, the process became horrendous: (but I jump the gun somewhat).
Despite the awful brutality to get us aboard quickly, we lay alongside the dock for 2 or 3 days; conditions because of the heat meant that life was almost intolerable. Doe Forbes was constantly being called for to treat heat-stroke; as his orderly I helped in whatever way I could; we had to crawl over people to get to the stricken ones. We too, like every one else, were under intense pressure to give in. Doc Forbes made many representations to the Japanese to ease the situation, by for example opening up the aperture at the top of the steps, in which he had some success. He of course risked a beating whenever he protested about conditions. On one occasion, he was told when he pointed that many men would likely die, that” there were thousands more back in Jaarmarkt camp”
We were housed in the hold forward of the bridge but we became aware that there was another hold full aft of the bridge; at no time were we allowed to contact them. We sailed after about 3 days and it had the advantage that there was at last some movement of air through the aperture at the top of the steps. We of course had not a clue as to where we were heading but visiting the latrines on deck presented the opportunity to those of us who were more expert in these matters to make a judgment; we apparently were heading east and running along parallel to the Flores Islands; i.e. passing Lombok and Bali .After a few days we turned due north heading in the direction of the Celebes.
Life aboard became a little more bearable from the point of view of excessive heat but almost everyone was struck down with diarrhoea which overloaded the latrines and made things even more difficult.
The daily routines include the distribution of food; a temporary cookhouse had been constructed at the pointed end of the ship; it provided us with two “meals” per day. For breakfast we got a portion of rice pap; about ~ of a pint. As far as food goes it provided no nutrition consisting of carbohydrates and water. If one was lucky enough to have a small quantity of salt or possibly some “goolah” (local natural sugar), one could make it a little more acceptable. That was it until the afternoon when again it was rice, steamed rice, served with a green liquid called vegetable soup. Again without a pinch of salt, it was nauseating, but you either ate it or starved.
The rice had to be carried from the cookhouse in wajangs (large shallow woks), and a space cleared at the foot of the wooden steps for distribution. It was essential that the sharing out was done absolutely fairly; there were in this respect two queues ; the first one which saw that everyone got the same amount, started with a different person each meal; and a second queue called a “laaghi” queue (laaghi means more) where the remains from the first distribution were shared. Again the person at the front changed in sequence each meal. For anyone to attempt to dodge the order of distribution was an offence and the person involved could expect some rough treatment from those around.
As the diarrhoea problems got worse, Doc Forbes confided that we were in for an epidemic due largely to a complete lack of washing facilities; matters it seemed could only get worse. On very rare occasions, the guards would allow a hose on deck to be used for washing, albeit seawater; for those who happened to be on deck at the time it was a treat. Through no fault of their own a half of the POWs went down with diarrhoea. Necessarily the queues for the latrines got longer and longer; it reached the point where the sick were unable to control their bowel movements. Indeed the situation became so desperate that the wooden steps out of the hold became fouled with excreta; the smell was horrendous .Those who were unlucky enough to have been living beneath the steps had to find alternative space. It was found necessary to scrape down the steps when the food was due from the cookhouse to prevent slipping.
Our Japanese guards thought our predicament was hilarious, and despite Doc Forbe’s protestations our conditions continued to deteriorate. Whatever happened when we reached our destination we thought couldn’t be any worse; how wrong we were.
After about two weeks and a thousand miles we arrived at the port of Ambon on the island of Amboina. Those POW’s who claimed that they could swim were allowed on deck; their task was to transfer stores which could float, from the ship to shore by swimming behind for example a 40 gallon drum of oil and pushing it to the beach and rolling up the beach. It was dangerous and hard work; the drums would simply be rolled off the vessel and men instructed to jump in and push. Men were tempted to undertake the task purely to get into the sea and wash. This off-loading was accompanied by much shouting and the guards used their bayonets to speed things up.
We then pulled out to sea; within a few hours sailing we arrived at our destination; a coral island which formed part of the Moluccas called Haroekoe. The island was breathtakingly beautiful with lovely sands along the beach and a wooden jetty running out to sea. It was raining when we disembarked late in the evening; there were no huts yet erected and we had to huddle together on the wet ground overnight. The Amagi Maru cruise had come to an end.
Submitted by - John (Jack) Plant
Ex Royal Air Force (March 1940 -March 1 946~
Rank -Leading Aircraftman
No. - 958592
Prisoner in Japanese hands -March 1 942-Aug 1945
Award -Mention in Dispatches 1946
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