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Prisoners of War on the Sumatra Railway

Image of an engraving from the Sumatra railway memorial on Sumatra itself

A engraving from the Sumatra railway memorial. Amanda Farrell.

February this year saw the seventieth anniversary of the Fall of Singapore on 15th of that month 1942. Between June of that year and October 1943, over 60,000 Allied troops would be forced to labour as prisoners of war (POWs) on the Burma-Thailand railway.  It is not so popularly known, however, that after this a second ‘Death Railway’ project was overseen by many of the same Japanese engineers. This second railway was built on the island of Sumatra, and its construction involved nearly 5,000 Allied POWs.

As an island rich in coal and oil, Sumatra presented a vital energy resource for the Japanese. Their intention was that the new line starting at Pakanbaroe in the east of Sumatra would connect to an existing track at the town of Moeara, and continue to the western port of Padang. By joining the new track with the old, and constructing a tributary line to connect the railway to Sumatran coal mines, the Japanese planned to transport fuel and troops by rail for shipping from Padang to Singapore.

The track between Pakanbaroe and Moeara was approximately 140 miles long, with a total of 17 camps made and lived in by prisoners. Since there was no place to which men could escape, very few were fully enclosed by the bamboo fences or barbed wire associated with typical images of POW camps. The railway was built through mountain ranges and thick jungle, and across swamp and river.

The first contingent of POWs arrived at Pakanbaroe in May 1944, and the railway was completed on the day of Japanese surrender, 15 August 1945. Just over 670 POWs lost their lives during the construction work, and two thousand others died when ships transporting them to Pakanbaroe were torpedoed by Allied submarines. As on Burma-Thailand, native forced labourers known as romusha were also conscripted: eighty thousand romusha died in appalling conditions.

The collections within IWM archives from POWs held on Sumatra range from memoirs and scrapbooks, to diaries and oral history recordings. They are illuminating, many of them sharp and vivid in detail. The memories the individual men tell are harrowing at times, whilst in other moments they are witty and self-deprecating. The creativity and inventiveness that many POWs employed in devising basic medical treatments, or to make meagre rations more palatable, serves as a poignant reminder of the spirit they needed to survive. Perhaps most importantly the stories, often edited in later years, can shed light on the different ways in which the men themselves remembered their captivity, and how the memories changed for them as they got older.

Through my PhD research I am bringing to light the story of British POWs who laboured on the Sumatra Railway. I am looking at the objects they made, the language they used and the sorts of experiences they chose to record in their writings and recordings. So many decades after repatriation many relatives of POWs are still looking for information about those experiences, and family research is undertaken with great energy and passion. In order to understand why this information is so important for families, and how younger generations remember POW history, I am undertaking interviews with the relatives of Far Eastern POWs. For further details about the interviews taking place between September 2012 and September 2013, please do leave a comment in the space provided and I can contact you directly with further information. All interviews will be lodged – subject to the interviewees’ permission – in the IWM Sound Archive.

Seventy years may have passed since the start of captivity for Allied forces across the Far East, but extraordinary new stories and artefacts are still emerging from those times and through them much can still be learned about the POW experience and its continuing remembrance.

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17 comments
  1. Would be honoured to be included in your research interviews says: September 26, 20126:44 pm
  2. Diana says: October 13, 20125:37 am

    My dad gave my brother and I some of the gtreaest memories and life lessons as we moved around during his 20-year Army career. We saw places other kids from my parents’ home towns just read about in history books. I always told him that he gave me the world. And this year, as we opened USO Fort Riley, my dad was there, helping with preparing the center while I was at a conference, working a 60+ hour week to make sure furniture was delivered and set up just right down to the decks of cards on the poker tables and video games in the XBox 360s. At our grand opening, he was there helping things run smoothly. And here early July, he is going to come run the center for a week so I can have a much needed vacation. I am so honored to have a dad who loves my USO as much as I do, and I know I can count on him to be here whenever I need him. I love him for not only giving me the world, but for giving me the passion for service members and their families that enables me to truly love and enjoy what I do each day. Thanks dad!

  3. Lizzie Oliver says: October 22, 20129:54 am

    Dear Diana,

    Thank you very much for sharing your story, and how your father’s career has influenced the work you do today. It is interesting to hear the different ways in which family lives are impacted by military service – and how the legacy of those memories can shape generations to come.

    Good luck with your future work at the centre.

    Best wishes
    Lizzie

  4. paul verhoeven says: March 25, 201310:32 pm

    At Bronbeek, in Arnhem, the Netherlands, we have a memorial for the POW’s that died during the construction of the Burma-Thai railway and the Pakan Baroe railway. The museum also collects material connected to both railways and the Japanese occupation of the Netherlands East Indies. We would like to be in contact.

  5. Christine Bridges says: April 2, 20136:24 pm

    My dad John G Lee was a UK POW and was used as slave labour to build the Sumatra Railway. When he was repatriated no one believed that he was discharged from Paken Baroe. He went back in the 1980′ s and found the train tracks in the jungle and identified camps and burial sites. He convinced the IWM that many pows had died on Sumatra, previously unrecorded. I have many photos, a book that has never been published and many documents. My dad died in 2002 aged 80.

  6. Tony ford says: November 2, 20138:50 am

    I worked. In the Defence Attaché staff office I the British Embassy in Djakarta from 1968 to 1971 and drove with Landrovers from N to S Sumatzra. With y interests I steam railways, I photographed all I saw – these photos are now on the internet. It is only now, 40 years on that I have learned of the infamous railway, although we drove from. Padang to Balikpapan and return during our tour. Balikpapan was then a rubber processing station. As. I knew nothing of the Japanese railway project, did not look for any of its remnants. What a shame. What a shame too that the pristine jungle is being cut down to make way for oil pal plantations.
    Finally, where is the Dutch museum where details of the occupation of the occupation an be found?

  7. Lizzie Oliver says: November 18, 201311:45 am

    Dear Tony,

    Thank you for your comment – the trip that you took sounds fascinating. I will contact you directly with information about where you can find out more on the Japanese occupation of Sumatra.

    Best wishes
    Lizzie

  8. Pat Gott says: November 28, 20139:11 pm

    I have been told that adiary kebt by my uncle Fred Barnes throughout hi s captivity by the japanese at singapore is at the IWM, which one i don’t know. I would very much like to see it. How do i go about this?

    • Alys Cundy says: November 29, 20139:43 am

      Hi,

      You can have a look for your uncle’s diary using our Collections Search. If you have any questions or you would like any additional help you can get in touch with the Collections team at collections@iwm.org.uk or on +44(0) 20 7416 5342. These are also the contact details to use if you find the diary, or other material that you would like to look at, and would like to book an appointment to come in and view them in the Research Room at IWM London.

      Best of luck searching,

      Alys

  9. […] my research at IWM, I have written catalogue entries for documents that have been donated to the museum by men who […]

  10. Phyllis Livingstone Pettitt says: September 22, 20149:14 am

    My father in law Ronald Frank Pettitt was a POW on the Pekanbaru Sumatra Railway in Camps 1&2 & very sick for most of that time. I am currently writing his story for the family & have letters from his family, ex POWs, postcards etc.

    • Anna Maguire says: September 22, 20141:21 pm

      Hi Phyllis,

      That sounds absolutely fascinating. Best of luck with your writing. If you were interested in offering this material to our collections, you can find more information on the following web pages: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections-research/managing/offer-material.

      All the best,

      Anna

  11. Adrian Campbell-Black says: May 6, 20156:49 am

    We kindly request that comments are directly related to the Research Blog and its contributors. Should you wish to ask a question regarding our collections, family history research or visiting hours please use our online enquiry service: https://iwm.altarama.com/reft120.aspx?pmi=MJ3aEKEvz6

    Lizzie,

    I am the Defence Attache in Jakarta and I was wondering if your research was still ongoing or if it had been completed.

    • Anna Maguire says: May 20, 20152:43 pm

      Dear Adrian,

      I have passed your message and contact information on to Lizzie.

      All best,

      Anna

  12. […] Doctoral Award student at the Imperial War Museum and the University of Leeds, focusing on the life-writing of prisoners of war on the Sumatra Railway. Now I have been awarded a Leeds Humanities Research Institute/Wellcome Trust postdoctoral […]

  13. Claire Greason says: August 21, 20151:01 pm

    Hi Lizzie, I was wondering if you have a contact email. I have just started searching into my Grandads experiences as a FEPOW and found that he was in Samatra. I have many artefacts from his time, including a wooden carving he did, his ID badge, letter from the king, money etc. I noticed you are attached to University of Leeds. I will be starting my PhD at University of Leeds in October (nothing to do with this, mine is looking at issues with mental health) However I would be interested in reading your thesis. Do you know if its available through the British Library yet?

    • Anna Maguire says: August 24, 20157:40 am

      Hi Claire,

      Thanks for your comment. I will pass your email address onto Lizzie and ask her to get in touch!

      All best,

      Anna

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