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A engraving from the Sumatra railway memorial. Amanda Farrell.
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.