April 15, 2009

7. Hell Ship to Singapore (January 1943)

POWs boarding a transport in Tanjong Priok, Java (January 1943)
Illustration by Australian POW Ray Parkin
Source: Into the Smother

The Japanese shipped the Dutch POWs west by rail across Java, from Malang to Batavia.  For a brief time they were confined in the former barracks of the KNIL 10th Infantry Battalion, called Bicycle Camp by the British and Australian prisoners.  From this transit camp they were taken to the nearby port of Tanjong Priok, where they boarded the Singapore-bound vessel Harugiku Maru. [1]  Felix Bakker recounts their journey:

The first week of January 1943, a thousand men from our camp, [Samethini] among them, were transported to Batavia (Jakarta) in a boarded-up train. One week later we were crammed, 1,100 men, into an old Japanese freighter, not knowing where the Japs were going to bring us. We were packed deep inside the ship, like herrings in a tin can. The hatches above us were open day and night, so we suffered the intense heat of the sun during the day. When it rained hard, the Japanese sailors put a tarp over the open hatch. We got very little food and drink, and pretty soon it got suffocating down there.

Conditions in the hold of a hellship bound for Singapore (January, 1943)
Note the open hatches above, matching Bakker's description.
Illustration by Dutch POW W.F. BrinksSource: Geheugen van Nederland / The Museon

Source: Geheugen van Nederland / The Museon

The so-called toilets were small, wooden spaces along ship's railing. To get there, we had to climb a very steep and long steel ladder. Once there, we often had to wait in line for a long time. If there were too many in line, according to the guard, he would use the butt of his rifle to beat them back down the ladder. On top of that, many prisoners came down with dysentery. Those patients were unable to climb the ladder, and did everything where they were. We had to clean the mess because the illness is contagious. Many could not sleep for fear the ship would be torpedoed by the Allies during the night. Many of us felt mentally and physically broken soon, especially those with families left behind. In a word, it was misery.

Then, one evening (I will never forget this as long as I live), something incredibly beautiful happened. The sea was calm, the evening was clear, and we could even see some stars from our dark hellhole. Suddenly we heard the wonderful sounds of beautiful music played on an accordion. We knew right away it was Han Samethini. He sat on top of the hatch with the Dutch transport commander next to him, and some Japanese a bit further away. We heard later that the Japanese captain had given permission for him to play. That night Han Samethini played the stars down from the sky. Strauss, Mozart, Brahms. It was overwhelming. The ship, crammed with over a thousand prisoners of war, was totally silent. Even the sick stopped moaning. But around me I could hear strong men weeping, and to be honest, I shed some tears as well. Listening to this heavenly music from another time and world, we turned all our thoughts to our loved ones, who were being separated farther and farther from us with each turn of the ship's screws. Han Samethini must have thought of his family too, as he played with such intense feeling. I don't know how long he played. It was not long enough for us.
We applauded, not only because of admiration but even more so out of gratitude. In this midst of this horrible situation, Han Samethini used his blessed musical talent that unforgettable night, to not only forget the misery for a few moments, but to give us strength to face the very perilous future. [2]



Source: wrecksite.eu
Source: japansekrijgsgevangenkampen.nl

  [1] The Harugiku Maru (ex-KPM Van Waerwijck) departed Tanjong Priok on January 15 and arrived in Singapore on the 18th.  The POWs in this transport were designated Java Party 9. Ship's identity established by the Java Party 9 roll, which lists Samethini's name, cross referenced with the Dutch source above. The latter states that most of these POWs came from Kampong Makassar, a prison camp about 6 km south of Batavia.  Felix Bakker comments, "Han Samethini and Joop Postma were [with us] all the way from Malang [to] Batavia (barracks of the KNIL 10th Infantry Battalion)....We were never in Kampong Makassar.  I am sure of it.  I knew Batavia my whole boyhood."  Bakker, personal e-mail to author (April 25, 2012).

Frank Samethini also transited through Bicycle Camp, arriving there several months earlier (October 1942) with a group of POWs from Surabaya.  He recounts his experiences in Chapter 6 of his memoir.

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


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