April 15, 2009

6. Into the Inferno (March - December 1942)

As the gates of his first prison camp closed behind him, Han could have harbored only the vaguest suspicion of what lay ahead. Certainly he was in for months, perhaps years, of tedious confinement. Very likely there would be compulsory labor, strict discipline, and less-than-appetizing food rations. All of these he might expect as the ordinary lot of a defeated soldier. But Imperial Japan was no ordinary victor by Western standards. Animated by its bushido code, which decreed that an enemy who surrendered forfeited any claim to human dignity, the Japanese Army treated prisoners of war with utter brutality. Felix Bakker, a Dutch marine interned in the same camp, writes:

Quite early into our POW life, we understood you would be killed if you tried to escape. In our camp in Malang, we had to watch the shooting of five men who had fled the camp. Later on we heard that, in other camps on Java, the Japs used bayonets for this purpose. Also, getting into a physical argument with a guard would result in death, as this was the punishment for insulting the Imperial Japanese Army. Often the guards tried to provoke aggressive behavior from a prisoner, so self-control, no matter how hard, was of the utmost importance. [1]

Felix Bakker
(Photo taken in January 1942)

Source: Moesson

Han Samethini's Japanese POW Index Card
Date of capture: March 9, 1942
(Year indicated as Showa 17, the seventeenth year of Emperor Hirohito's reign)

Han Samethini Collection

Hunger and beatings (kicks and punches to the face, shins, and groin) became part of daily existence, and the prisoners sank ever lower into physical degradation. But within them arose a spirit that defied humiliation and despair. They found small ways to outwit the Japanese wherever possible, and invented many humorous or insulting nicknames for the guards. Frank Samethini wrote:

The rags we wear, what meagre possessions we have tucked away in frayed rucksacks, our very lives, all of that is owned by the Japanese. But the rumours, improbable as they may sound, are ours, ours to be passed on in whispers and listened to hungrily. Yes, the rumours are ours. And the unsquashable, incredible sense of humour, witty and often biting, that too is ours. That also the Japanese cannot take away. [2]

Joop Postma
From a drawing preserved at the Museon, in The Hague

Source: Geheugen van Nederland

Music and comedy, performed in makeshift variety shows, were essential morale boosters. Samethini had managed to bring his accordion with him into captivity. Together with Joop Postma, a Dutch navy corporal who was to become a brilliant POW cabaret producer, he organized a number of entertainments for their fellow prisoners. Postma recalled:

Soon after the capitulation, at Malang, we started our cabaret. We kept at it until we were transported to Batavia....We started with just the two of us at first, Samethini on accordion and me as emcee. [3]

Bakker elaborates:

I am quite certain I met Han Samethini first in the POW camp at Malang, East Java, in December 1942. In this camp several shows with cabaret and music were performed for us in the barracks of the army soldiers. I was housed in the barracks for marines. Joop Postma was onstage as well. I already knew him as a stand up comedian who told rather dirty jokes, but now it didn't matter since we were with men only (9,000 to 11,000 of us) and there were no ladies present. [4] [5]

 Han Samethini Collection

During all this time, Han had neither seen nor heard anything of his wife and daughter. Unable to receive letters or visits, he treasured the one memento in his possession, a tiny locket containing Anna's portrait. Margie would be over a year old now. What did she look like? Would the Allies liberate the East Indies in time to for him to see his little girl take her first steps, or hear her speak her first words? Similar thoughts of home gnawed at all the men in camp, but at least they were still on Java, relatively near to their families. That was about to change.

Source: The Dutch East Indies Campaign, 1941-1942

Throughout the conquered territories of Southeast Asia masses of POWs were on the move. By road, rail, and sea they went, hauled away by the Japanese like the cargoes of looted oil, rubber, and strategic minerals to feed and maintain the churning war machine. Some were sent to distant islands to build military airstrips virtually with bare hands. Others were taken to Japan itself to toil in the mines and factories of the imperial homeland. In the sweltering jungles of Thailand and Burma awaited the most immense slave labor project: a railway that would link Bangkok and Moulmein to supply Japan's 15th Army, an enormous force pressing on the very borders of India. European companies had earlier examined the feasibility of constructing such a railroad, but judged it impossible because the cost in human lives would be too high. This consideration posed no obstacle to the bushido spirit. The Japanese had prisoners aplenty and they would spend them freely. The Java camps were levied.

The year had turned. It was January 1943. Han Samethini and his comrades stepped out of the gates of the Malang stockade to begin the first leg of their journey to Thailand.

Poking fun at old horrors
Caricature of POW Samethini drawn by J. Chevallier. [6]
Han Samethini Collection



[1] Felix Bakker, personal e-mail to Margie Samethini-Bellamy (September 2006). Translated by Margie.

[2] The Sky Looked Down, Chapter 10: Railroad. The context of that quote is slave labor on the Burma Railway in 1943. By that time, the POWs' uniforms had grown threadbare or disintegrated entirely.

[3] Werkers aan de Burma-spoorweg, p. 239.

[4] Felix Bakker, Ibid.

[5] Of Han Samethini's character, Bakker recalls: "My impression of him was that of a sympathetic, well educated and well mannered man. And quite modest, like most Eurasians are. During that event I did not once hear Samethini raising his voice." Bakker, personal e-mail to author (November 28, 2006).

[6] Chevallier drew this cartoon after the war, in 1945 or 1946. The Japanese guard shouts a mixture of Malay and Japanese imprecations.  Roughly translated:  "No-good Dutchman! Stupid bastard!"


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