Batu Lintang camp (also known as Lintang Barracks and Kuching POW camp) at Kuching, Sarawak on the island of Borneo was a Japanese internment camp during the Second World War. It was unusual in that it housed both Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian internees. The camp, which operated from March 1942 until the liberation of the camp in September 1945, was housed in buildings that were originally British Indian Army barracks. The original area was extended by the Japanese, until it covered about 50 acres (20 ha). The camp population fluctuated, due to movement of prisoners between camps in Borneo, and as a result of the deaths of the prisoners. It had a maximum population of some 3,000 prisoners.
Life in the camp was harsh, with POWs and internees alike forced to endure food shortages, disease and sickness for which scant medicine was made available, forced labour, brutal treatment, and lack of adequate clothing and living quarters. Of the 2,000-odd British POWs held there, over two thirds died during or as a result of their captivity. The construction and operation of a secret radio for over 2½ years, from February 1943 until the liberation of the camp, was a morale booster and allowed the prisoners to follow the progress of the war. Discovery would have resulted in certain death for those involved.
Following the unconditional surrender of Japan on 15 August 1945, the camp was liberated on 11 September 1945 by the Australian 9th Division. On liberation, the camp population was 2,024, of whom 1,392 were POWs, 395 were male civilian internees and 237 were civilian women and children. Amongst official Japanese papers found at the camp following its liberation were two "death orders". Both described the proposed method of execution of every POW and internee in the camp. The first order, scheduled for enactment on for 17 or 18 August, was not carried out; the second was scheduled to take place on 15 September. The timely liberation of the camp prevented the murder of over 2,000 men, women and children.
In July 1948 a teachers' training college moved to the site, where it continues to this day, the oldest such establishment in Malaysia.
The barracks were built by the Sarawak Government in early 1941, when Britain, in agreement with the Rajah of Sarawak, sent the 2nd Battalion, 15th Punjab Regiment of the British Indian Army (2/15th Punjab Regiment) to defend Sarawak in case of attack by the Japanese. The camp was near completion for occupation by May 1941.
The first Allied prisoners held in the camp were about 340 British and Indian soldiers who were interned there in mid-March 1942. In time, it held both POWs and civilian internees. Civilian prisoners came almost exclusively from from different territories on Borneo: from North Borneo (now Sabah), from Brunei, from the Straits Settlements island of Labuan, and from Sarawak, all of which were under British control, and from Dutch Borneo (now Kalimantan). In contrast, the POWs were brought to Batu Lintang from places such as mainland Malaya and Java as well as from Borneo. Many spent time at transit or temporary camps prior to their transfer to Batu Lintang. The camp officially opened on 15 August 1942, at which time a commemoration stone was erected at the camp.
The camp commandant was Lieutenant-Colonel (Lt.-Col.) Tatsuji Suga. Suga was the commandant of all POW and internees’ camps in Borneo; there were others at Jesselton (later Kota Kinabalu), Sandakan and briefly on Labuan island, and he was often absent from Batu Lintang as a result. His second-in-command was Lieutenant (later Captain) Nagata; some sources say Negata or Nekata). Most of the camp guards were Koreans, with a few Formosans (Taiwanese). There was a range of administrative buildings, quartermaster’s stores, guard houses, guards’ quarters and a camp hospital. Throughout its operation all the camps at Batu Lintang, including the internee ones, were conducted under prisoner-of-war rules.
The entire camp was surrounded by a five mile (eight kilometre) perimeter barbed wire fence. The internees were segregated into categories and assigned separate compounds, each of which was also surrounded by barbed wire fencing. There were between eight and ten compounds, although their make-up varied through the period of operation of the camp. The make-up was determined by the arrival and departure of different groups of prisoners as Batu Lintang camp was also used as a transit camp: at one point some of the Australian and British soldiers who were later to die on the Sandakan Death Marches were held at the camp.
The main groups of POWs were British officers, Australian officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) officers, British other ranks, British Indian Army (2nd/15th Punjab Regiment) personnel, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesian) KNIL soldiers. The British and Australian personnel had mostly been sent from Malaya and Singapore, after the Allied surrender there, whereas the KNIL soldiers and the Punjab Regiment had defended Borneo. The civilian internees were mostly Dutch Roman Catholic priests, British civilians (including children), and British and Dutch Catholic nuns.
Each compound had its own "camp master" (or "camp mistress", in the case of the women's camp). The camp master was responsible for liaising between the internees and the Japanese authorities. Each compound contained a number of long barrack buildings, usually between 80 and 100 feet long (24-30 metres), each of which housed between 30 and 100 people. A barrack master was appointed for each building. The camp and barrack masters were appointed by Colonel Suga.
In addition, the Dutch other ranks and about 50 British soldiers were stationed in a separate compound at the Kampong Batu Tujoh airfield (also known as Bukit Stabah), near Kuching.
The camp included areas that had once been a rubber tree plantation, and some of the trees remained inside the compounds, providing a limited amount of shade.
Living conditions within the compounds were cramped. Each person was allotted a very small space within a barrack building within which to sleep, keep the few personal possessions they had with them, and also to eat, as there was no communal area within the barracks. British officers and NCOs : This was described as "perhaps the most commodious" compound, with a fair amount of workable land. At first the officers were with the British other ranks, but they were separated out into this compound on 5 February 1943. Including the three huts, the compound was 2½ acres (1 ha) in area with 1½ acres (0.6 hectares) of cultivable land. The Officer in Charge and overall British Military Authority was Lt.-Col. M. C. Russell, until his death on 5 June 1943; Lt.-Col T. C. Whimster took over the role thereafter. The camp held 134 men in September 1944. Australian officers and NCOs : On liberation, 178 Australian officers and NCOs were held at Batu Lintang, in a compound which was without sufficient land for cultivation. The Officer in Charge was Lt.-Col. A. W. Walsh. The Australian other ranks were held in a camp at Sandakan. Dutch officers and NCOs : This was without sufficient land for cultivation. The Officer in Charge was Lt.-Col. Mars. British other ranks : British soldiers were "kept in grossly over-crowded barracks, with inadequate kitchen, lighting, water and sanitary services." They had no land for cultivation. Initially the compound held 1,500 POWs, with additional soldiers arriving thereafter taking the total to around 2,000, but by the end of the war the figure had been reduced to about 750. The Officer in Charge was RSM (later 2nd Lt) S. T. Sunderland. British Indian Army other ranks : Soldiers from 2nd/15th Punjab Regiment were interned at Batu Lintang. The Indian POWs were housed in two huts, with no land for cultivation. KNIL soldiers : Indonesian soldiers were housed in a small compound close to the British other ranks' compound.
Roman Catholic priests and religious men : The Catholic priests, brothers and religious men, mostly Dutch and Irish, lived in a separate compound, with a large plot of land to grow vegetables. They numbered 110, including 44 Capuchin friars, 5 Mountfort missionaries, 22 Broeders van Huijbergen (Brothers of Huijbergen) and 38 Mill Hill Missionaries. At liberation there were 395 civilian men, which included the priests. Male civilian internees and some boys: In 1943, approximately 250 male civilian internees (excluding Roman Catholic Mission personnel) were held in this compound. From July 1942 until 14 November 1944 the camp master was C. D. Le Gros Clark (brother of Wilfrid Le Gros Clark), the former Chief Secretary, Sarawak Government; Lt.-Col. W. C. C. Adams (of the North Borneo Constabulary), who had been assistant camp master, then served in the role until liberation. Accounts mention a British civilian internee named Don Tuxford whose eight year old son was in the camp with him, while Tuxford's wife and daughter Julia were in the women's camp; other sources state that Dutch boys over the age of ten were sent to the men's camp rather than being placed with the women, as the Japanese considered them men at that age. The total number of male children held in the men's camp is uncertain. Female civilian internees (including nuns) and children : This compound was located at the western part of the camp, slightly removed from the other compounds. The internees were mostly Dutch and British, with a few Eurasian and Chinese women, and four American women, including Agnes Newton Keith. Their quarters were described by an internee as "new and fair" and "they had a reason[able] area for cultivation." The camp mistress was initially Mother Bernardine, an English Roman Catholic nun, but when she became ill Mrs. Dorie Adams, wife of the master of the men’s camp, took over the role. The women were housed in five very small barracks and each person was allotted a space of 6 feet by 4 feet (1.8m by 1.2m) in which to live and store his or her possessions. A chapel was constructed at one end of one of the huts.
The male civilian internees' regulations (prepared by the internees themselves) stated that "Any persons who are not performing some useful work in war-time are failing in their moral obligation. Internees should therefore do their best to do such work as ... agriculture, farming, and stock-breeding, in order to increase the supply of foodstuffs to the camp. Some male civilian internees chose to cultivate land around the camp in order to become self-supporting; however, the other work imposed on them meant that they never cultivated the land to its full effect. Some refused to carry out this work, even though it was for the common good. Work included wood-gathering parties, latrine duties, working as cookhouse staff and medical orderlies. Sundays were a rest day, but these were later cut to one in every three weeks. POWs and male civilian internees were forced to work as stevedores and in timber yards at Kuching harbour on the Sarawak River and from October 1942, on the extension of the two runways at the Batu Tujoh landing ground to the south of Kuching. Such work was prohibited by the 1907 Hague Convention, to which Japan was a signatory. Although it was against international law to force the prisoners to work on projects with a military objective, they were informed that refusal to work on these projects would result in their execution. Other forced labour included refuelling the Zero fighters that used the runways; however, this happened only once as the men sabotaged the operation by adding urine and water to the fuel.
The work party men were paid in what the prisoners called "camp dollars", the printed paper currency introduced by the Japanese administration. At one point the rate was 25 cents a day for officers and NCOs and 10 cents a day for other ranks. As time went on, the working parties became smaller, as there was a lack of available men due to sickness and death.
The women were at first allowed to undertake domestic tasks around their camp; later they were forced to undertake work for the Japanese such as mending uniforms, for which they were also paid in camp dollars. This currency was known colloquially in the women's camp as "banana currency" because of the banana trees pictured on the 10 dollar notes. In the later part of the war, when the food shortages had become critical, all internees, male and female, were also used as agricultural labourers on the land around the camp, to produce food for their Japanese captors. The prisoners referred to themselves as "white coolies".
Only 30 men were fit enough to attend the final work parties in 1945; the rest were either too ill, or already dead.
Rations were always meagre but decreased in both quantity and quality as the war progressed. The women and children drew the same rations as the men. The Japanese controlled all food supplies, releasing only what was needed for the day. At the beginning, the rations comprised rice and local vegetables (such as kangkung), with every ten days or so some pork (such as offal, or a head, or some poor-meat bearing part of the animal). The daily rice ration in late 1943 was 11 ounces (312 grams) a day; by the end of the war the rice ration was about 4 ounces (113 grams) per man daily. In September 1944 children were recorded as receiving 1½ ounces (42.5 mls) of milk a day.
A black market emerged, in which the main merchants were a Dutch-Indonesian couple, who obtained goods from a Japanese guard and sold them for a profit to those with cash or tradable goods.
At the times of greatest hardship the internees were so hungry that they were reduced to eating snakes, rubber nuts (which were believed to be poisonous), snails and frogs, and rats, cats and dogs if they could be caught. On special occasions an extra ration would be introduced. In the British POW camps, 58 chickens were provided for 1,000 men for Christmas 1942; the next Christmas the women received a single turkey to share between 271 women and children. At Christmas 1944, their last in captivity, the internees received a single egg each.
Only one Red Cross supply of parcels was received by the prisoners between March 1942 and September 1945. This arrived in March 1944 and worked out at one sixth of a parcel per person: a single tin of food. Prisoners occasionally were able to buy or barter chicks, which they raised on worms and beetles and rice sweepings from the quartermaster's store floor (other edible food scraps being too precious to use). If female, these provided much-needed eggs.
In January 1943 the hospital comprised three huts, and housed both POWs and civilians. The standard of accommodation was very low and crowded, and facilities were virtually non-existent. Later a hut was built for tuberculosis patients. In early September 1945 the camp hospital comprised about 30 beds, under the care of Lt.-Col. E. M. Sheppard.
Little medicine was available to the internees from the Japanese: they provided small amounts of quinine and aspirins. Morris recounts how Yamamoto would quite often beat sick men until they fell down, especially if they approached him for drugs. Few Red Cross supplies were available and most medication was bought or bartered from the outside world or from the guards themselves. No anaesthesia was available for operations. In early 1943 the main source of medical supplies was a pro-Allied ethnic Chinese family who lived nearby and were assisting in the provision of materials for the construction of a radio.
Malnutrition caused most of the invalidity and was a major factor in the high mortality rate in the camp, ascribed as the chief cause of death in 600 deaths in the camp. The basic diet only contained 1.5 ounces (44 grams) of protein and had a calorific value of 1600. J. L. Noakes, a male civilian internee wrote:
"In common with many others I experienced the pain of food deficiency disease and by May 1944 it was difficult to work and nights were a torture. My eyes failed rapidly and it became impossible to read or to distinguish objects clearly. The death rate for the whole camp jumped at an alarming rate and we began to realise that we must now begin a real fight for existence.
By November 1944 the suffering caused by malnutrition was profound, as recorded by Hilda E. Bates, a female civilian internee who was a nurse based in Jesselton prior to the war:
"We are having a particularly hungry period and [I] can quite truthfully say that our mouths water, and that we 'slaver' as dogs do before meals. Some of us find it advisable to rise slowly after lying down, as due to malnutrition, any rapid movement is apt to cause dizziness or even a black-out ... one morning recently I awoke and discovered to my horror that my sight had become very dim. Later I realised this was due to vitamin deficiency in our poor diet.
By the end of their third year of internment, most women suffered from amenorrhoea due to malnutrition. In May 1945 Hilda Bates met some of the male civilian internees at the funeral of a friend:
"I was horrified to see their condition. Some had formerly been strong men of twelve to fourteen stone [168-196 lb/76-89 kg] in weight, but were now reduced to mere shadows of themselves, and weighed less than eight stone [112 lb/51 kg]. .. [In] the soldiers camp ... many of the men were just skeletons, — crawling about, as few were able to stand upright. Even our toddlers received the same rations as these poor [souls], and the children are still hungry, so what must have been the suffering of those men, many of whom are hardly more than boys?
"I was horrified to see the condition of some of the men. I was pretty well hardened to sickness, dirt and disease, but never had I seen anything like this in all my years of nursing. Pictures of hospitals during the Crimean War showed terrible conditions, but even those could not compare with the dreadful sights I met on this visit. Shells of men lay on the floor sunken-eyed and helpless; some were swollen with hunger, oedema and ber-beri, others in the last stages of dysentery, lay unconscious and dying. They had no pillows or clothes, few cups, fewer bowls, or even medical supplies. [...] There were three hundred desperately sick men, many unable to help themselves, or to carry food to their mouths. Throughout our internment, we women had begged to be allowed to nurse the soldiers, but the Japanese refused our offer, saying this would be indecent".
On his release, L. E. Morris, who was one of the "healthy" prisoners, weighed five stone, three pounds (73 lb/33 kg).
Prisoners suspected of more serious misdemeanours were taken by the Japanese secret military police, the Kempeitai, for interrogation at the former Sarawak Police headquarters in Kuching. Torture was a common method of extracting information.
After the Japanese defeat, an Australian war crimes investigation team worked in Kuching from the liberation until January 1946. Of around 120 guards, more than 70 had a crime or crimes ascribed to them.
Clothing wore out quickly: the tropical climate meant that clothes had to be washed every day, and the rigours of labouring in them meant that they soon became torn, worn and threadbare. An enterprising male internee, J. R. Baxter, entered the camp with two pairs of shorts; as they wore out he constructed a new pair from them by glueing together the constituent parts with latex from the rubber trees growing in the camp. The Japanese did not provide replacement clothing for the prisoners when their clothes wore out. After a period male internees and POWs were issued with a loincloth and perishable rubber shoes, which soon degraded and meant in effect that most prisoners went barefoot. The women fared a little better, often bartering possessions for material: clothes were fashioned out of whatever material was to hand, such as sheets and breakfast cloths. Many of the women kept their best clothes unworn in readiness for their expected eventual liberation, while their other clothes became more and more shabby.
Prior to their liberation, supplies were dropped by the Australians. Hilda Bates recorded: "The soldiers received shorts, shoes, and blankets with instructions not to appear naked in future!".
Smuggling became an integral part of camp life, and despite frequent searches, foodstuffs in particular were smuggled into the camp (for example, dried fish was nailed to the underside of wooden bins, and the inside of a hat was a favourite hiding place). Occasional dangerous night-time forays to outside the camp netted foodstuffs such as a chicken or eggs or fruit.
The Japanese currency (the "camp dollars") was used by the prisoners illicitly to purchase supplies from the locals.
Le Gros Clark, as men's camp master, issued regular official bulletins to his camp, regarding meetings with Suga and other Japanese officers. However, communication between the various compounds, as well as with the outside world was forbidden. For instance, the married male internees were refused permission to see their wives and children on Christmas Day, 1943. However, occasional, irregular meetings were allowed between married couples.
Pre-printed postcards to be sent home with stock phrases such as "I am well" and "We have plenty of food" were issued occasionally; Agnes Keith records that these were issued three times a year but in May 1945 it was decided that a certain percentage of the camp had to include a propaganda sentence in addition to the 25 permitted words of free text. She wrote:
"I decided that [the sentences] were all so obvious that my people would know they were propaganda. I sent the following card:
"Seven communications sent. Seven received. Health moderate. George [Keith's son] well, energetic, roughneck, reminds me my brother. Fed-up with war. Hopes deferred. Borneo is a beautiful place for living, a dreamland where the scenery is beautiful, little birds sing, very delicious fruits grow, we are very happy here. Agnes, Harry, [Keith's husband] George"
"My aunt told me later that she had never felt as downhearted about my fate as when she received that card. She said that obviously I had lost my mind."
On liberation sacks of undelivered mail both to and from the prisoners were discovered in the camp.
At Christmas time, working bees were held to make gifts for the children: worn-out clothing was cut up, and sleeves, collars and hems were cut from clothing still in use, to provide materials for soft toys. More robust toys, such as scooters, carts, swords, guns were made from materials such as barbed wire and the wood of rubber trees, in and around the camps. The nuns provided food and gifts for each child. The Japanese officers also gave sweets and biscuits to the children at Christmas. A concert was organised for Christmas 1942, as well as inter-compound games; another less lavish Christmas concert took place in 1943, and a concert party was briefly established before disbanding due to the illness and death of its members.
Lt. Frank "Tinker" Bell was largely responsible for conceiving and organising what became known by the prisoners as the "Kuching University". This operated in the British officers' camp. Under Japanese regulations prisoners were forbidden to teach, to learn, to compile or possess notes on any subject whatever, or to meet in groups for discussion. The penalty for disobedience was imprisonment or death. Despite this, the university, led by Bell, established classes in seven modern languages, as well as subjects as diverse as history, public speaking, navigation, pig-farming, civics and poultry keeping, amongst others. Bell and his fellow educators organised courses, compiled text books, led classes and awarded diplomas. Classes were often held in the evenings when dusk or darkness gave some protection against surprise by their captors. Paper for writing exercises and for compiling textbooks was always at a premium: books were fashioned out of paper from soap wrappers, newspaper, the backs of letters and envelopes, and cigarette paper. These were bound into books and often covered with sarong material.
Other informal clubs, mainly comprising discussion groups were established in the other compounds. They covered topics such as chess and draughts (checkers), book-keeping, sailing and French conversation lessons. A central library for all the camp was run from the British Officers' compound, with books donated by the internees and some from the civilian library in Kuching town.
Initially the dead were buried in the cemetery at Kuching. However, the high death rate meant that this was soon filled, and so in November 1942 a new cemetery area was created next to the camp, at an area to the south-east known as "Boot Hill". The cemetery was within sight of the camp. At first the dead were buried in coffins, but soon the number of fatalities and the shortage of timber meant that shrouds made from rice sacks or blankets were used instead. The bodies were carried to the grave in a wooden coffin with a hinged bottom, which allowed re-use.
Hilda Bates wrote in June 1945: "I am horrified at the increased number of graves in the burial ground. Deaths are now so frequent, that a party of grave diggers is now permanently employed, and given extra rations in order that they will have the strength to dig".
After liberation, the bodies were exhumed from the cemetery and sent to Labuan for reburial in a central military cemetery there. A large number of the graves of prisoners from Batu Lintang now at Labuan are unidentified: after the Japanese surrender Suga destroyed many camp records. The cemetery in Labuan is cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The construction of the radio was ordered by Russell. He and some 1150 other POWs had arrived at Batu Lintang on 13 October 1942 from Tanjung Priok camp in Java, where a small group of men had worked on constructing a radio. His proposal was initially met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, as discovery would result in certain death.
It was known that ethnic Chinese people in Sarawak were pro-Allied, and so contact was made with the Ongs, the leading Chinese family in Kuching, who lived about a mile from the camp, to see if they could assist in providing parts. The first night-time attempt, by G. W. Pringle, was a failure as he could not find his way through the dense jungle to the house. A reconnoitre mission was required. To achieve this, Russell suggested to Dr Yamamoto that as the area was a breeding ground for mosquitoes (with the resultant risk of malaria, which would affect Japanese and prisoner alike), the jungle should be cleared and sprayed. Pringle took part on this working party and was able to plot his route. He subsequently made contact and Ong Tiang Swee, Kapitan China of Sarawak and the patriarch of the Ong family, agreed to help. Ong instructed his grandson, Kee Hui to help Pringle obtain the needed parts. This was at massive risk to the family's own safety as they too would have been executed if discovered. Their only condition was that they should be provided with the news gathered from the radio, in order to boost the morale of the Chinese community under occupation in Kuching. They provided some radio parts, the acquisition of which must have been a considerable task as all radio equipment had been confiscated by the Japanese.
The radio was built and operated in the British other ranks' camp. The maker of the radio was Warrant Officer Leonard A. T. Beckett, an experienced radio engineer, who was assisted in its construction, operation and concealment by a core group of three other soldiers. Before Beckett could begin on the radio he first had to make some of the tools needed, such as a lathe and a soldering iron. In addition to the genuine radio parts provided by the Chinese family and a few parts brought along with the men from Tanjung Priok, the radio was constructed from items as diverse as a deaf aid, the steering damper of a Norton motorcycle, a bakelite shaving soap container, an army mess tin, the backing of an old map case, pieces of glass, wire, mica and barbed wire, and parts stolen from Japanese-owned motor cars and motorcycles. The receiver was completed within three to four weeks of starting.
During its construction the radio was concealed in a large stewing-pot; once completed its hiding place was in a biscuit tin buried under the bakehouse fire in the British other ranks' compound. It was operated in the stores, where it had a temporary hiding place in a false-bottomed table. Elaborate security proceedings to protect the radio were put in place, including a network of look-outs.
At first the radio ran off torch batteries: these soon ran out and so Beckett constructed a power unit to run off the camp electricity supply. Access to the camp powerhouse was gained by one of the POWs who had been a professional cat burglar before the war.
The radio was first used on the night of 24 February 1943, as radio reception was better in the evening. Some of the news was bewildering to the prisoners: "Who is this General Montgomery? He seems to be the man we ought to have had in charge from the very beginning. A real live wire", wrote Pringle.
The existence of the radio, referred to by many code-names but chiefly as the "Old Lady" and "Mrs Harris", was to be a closely-guarded secret, for fear of alerting the Japanese to its existence through loose talk. The commanding officers of the camp and those who had constructed and operated it were known as the "Board of Directors", and were the only ones who knew the precise contents of the radio news received. However, a way of disseminating information was organised: it was arranged for rumours to be spread which contained a considerable amount of truth. Le Gros Clark, the head of the male internees, directed the dissemination of news amongst the male internees; it was decided not to provide information to the women's camp. News was also passed to the Chinese once a week, carried through the jungle by Pringle. On the first exchange, without being asked the Chinese thoughtfully provided medical supplies; thereafter they provided much-needed medicines, money and vegetable seeds on a regular basis. The leaked news rumours had the desired effect and a more cheerful atmosphere was noted in the camp. The women's camp somehow learned of the existence of the radio and the camp mistress, Dorie Adams, asked that they should be provided with news; to counter worries about security she suggested that the Roman Catholic priest who celebrated mass with the R.C. nuns should deliver the news as part of his service, which was always given in Latin.
In early March 1943, the provision of electric power for the lighting in the internees' camps was halted. This was a serious blow as the radio was run off the power supply. Batteries were unavailable, and so the only solution, again the idea of Russell, was to construct a generator. Again, his idea met with some initial scepticism: "Now I know he has gone mad", wrote Pringle. However, Pringle’s colleagues were more enthusiastic. Beckett was sure he could build the generator, and British RAOC personnel were certain they could supply the necessary components, though they thought it would take three months to make the tools needed. To disguise the noise of the work, the enterprise was described as a "watch repairing factory" to the Japanese, who offered the use of various tools and other equipment. In March 1943, after the execution of some prisoners at the Sandakan POW camp for operating a radio, the Japanese stepped up their searches at Batu Lintang. Many essential items for the construction of the generator, such as magnets, wire and scrap iron, were not easily available, but the involvement of "Freddie", one of the prisoners who was a self-confessed thief (and most likely the same man who sorted the power supply: records are unclear) meant that material and equipment was soon obtained.
The generator needed to turn at 3,000 revolutions a minute, and so the fittest of the men involved in its construction was chosen to turn the wheel. He was given extra food rations to prepare him for the task. The first trial of the generator was a success, and again, Pringle recorded how news reports told of unknown figures: "Events appeared to have been moving with unseemly haste during our enforced breaks from the news broadcasts. [We] listened to names we had never heard of. General Eisenhower? General Stilwell?" The assembling and disassembling drill took less than thirty seconds, with both the "Old Lady" and "Ginnie" stowed in their hiding places in the hut which was occupied by cookhouse staff during the day.
In June 1944, Le Gros Clark was taken from the camp by the kempeitai for questioning. On his return the same day he was considerably shaken and recommended that the radio should be destroyed. This message was relayed to the camp master of the British other ranks' camp by Whimster, who was the senior British officer. Beckett and his colleagues were informed of this order, but were left to decide themselves what course of action to take. Realising its importance in keeping up camp morale, they decided to keep the radio, saying that "we might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb", according to Pepler. Steps to safeguard the civilian internees were undertaken by cutting off news to their camps.
That same month the prisoners received news of the invasion of Normandy. Pringle recorded how, once again, the news brought unfamiliar names to the prisoners' attention: "'Blood and Guts Patton'. Now there is a name for a General! ... Somehow though, we feel that with a General bearing the name of 'Blood and Guts' there is little danger of the Germans dislodging his army". It was clear that such important news would have a great effect in the camp; at the same time, the rejoicing it would bring would undoubtedly alert the Japanese. It was therefore decided to provide a hint to the other prisoners, rather than the full information. This was again delivered by a priest, this time by the padre officiating at one of the numerous funeral services. He quoted Exodus chapter 15, verses 9 and 10, which refer to pursuing, overtaking and destroying the enemy, and the sea. News of the bombing of London by V-2 rockets was understandably withheld.
The news of the German capitulation on 7 May 1945 was similarly cryptically relayed at a funeral by the padre. This time the verse was Exodus chapter 3, verse 8, concerning the deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians to the land of milk and honey; extra piquancy was added by the fact that Suga was present at this service.
The Borneo campaign was launched on 1 May 1945, with a brigade of the Australian 9th Division landing at Tarakan, on the eastern coast of Dutch Borneo. The American armed forces provided naval and air support to assist the landings, and in some cases the Australians were assisted by the advance landings of the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) and their local allies. This was followed by landings in Brunei and Labuan on 10 June. In early July, a raid was made by Mosquito aircraft on oil and petrol dumps near to the camp. Liberation still seemed a remote prospect, however: "As the weeks dragged by, the lone planes of the Allies were a daily occurrence and as we had realised very early that they could do nothing to help us, we hardly took any notice of them".
The atomic bombings in Japan at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 followed by that of Nagasaki on 9 August precipitated the abrupt end of the war. On 15 August, 1945 Japan announced its official unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers. The men's camps learned of the surrender early in the morning of 15 August, in a broadcast by Radio Chungking received by the secret radio. Pringle made one last journey through the jungle to inform his Chinese friends. The news was immediately broken to the British other ranks' compound, and quickly spread to the other camps. Celebratory meals were prepared, with precious supplies and livestock used up. The Japanese guards were unaware of their country's surrender, and as the day coincided with an official camp holiday, marking the opening of the camp on 15 August three years previously, they were satisfied that the celebrations were related to the break from the working parties. The women learned shortly afterwards, when the married women had their scheduled meeting with their husbands.
Under General Order No. 1, issued on 16 August by General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, the Japanese were required to provide information on the location of all camps and were responsible for the safety of prisoners and internees, for providing them with adequate food, shelter, clothes and medical care until their care could pass to the Allied powers, and for handing over each store together with its equipment, stores, arms and ammunition and records to the senior Allied officer in each camp. Since it was known that in many areas prisoners and internees were suffering from starvation and neglect, it was of the first importance that they were contacted and recovered as soon as possible.
Despite the surrender, the Japanese would remain in control of the camp until 11 September. During this period there were no work parties and the prisoners did not suffer any beatings. "It became apparent during the next few days that the Japanese soldiers knew something had happened but were not sure what it was", wrote Pepler. Extra food was provided by the Japanese shortly afterwards; the camp hospital was furnished with bed chairs and mosquito nets for the first time, and substantial amounts of medicine were issued.
A pamphlet in English entitled JAPAN HAS SURRENDERED was dropped over the camp by three Beaufighters on 16 August. From 19-23 August, leaflets were dropped by aircraft all over known areas in which the Japanese were concentrated, giving general war news and news of the progress of the surrender. On August 19 or 20 more leaflets were dropped on the camp. Signed by Major-General George Wootten, General Officer Commanding, 9th Division, they informed the prisoners of the surrender of Japan, and stated "I know that you will realise that on account of your location, it will be difficult to get aid to you immediately, but you can rest assured that we will do everything within our power to release and care for you as soon as possible".
On 24 August Suga officially announced to the camp that Japan had surrendered. On 29 August letters were dropped on the camp, instructing the Japanese commander to make contact with the Australian commanders. The letter contained a code of panel signals which enabled Suga to indicate that he agreed to the dropping of supplies for the prisoners and that he would meet Australian representatives later. These panels were placed on the roof of one of the buildings and can be seen in the photograph at the start of the article (above).
Stores in long canisters (known by the aircraftmen as "storpedos") were first parachuted into the camp from a RAAF Douglas Dakota on 30 August. A female internee, Hilda Bates, wrote: "At 11.30 a.m. today a sea-plane dropped twenty parachutes with packages attached. One fell outside our hut and was labelled 'bread'. Others contained flour, tinned rabbit, and other meat. The goods were collected by the Japs under the supervision of Australian Officers who distributed them to the groups of internees. All sorts of what we had thought of as luxuries arrived; such as sugar, sweets, milk, bundles of clothing, and even fashion books!". Further supplies were dropped daily; tragedy struck on 7 September when a male civilian internee was hit and killed by a storpedo that had broken free from its parachute.
After communicating with the Japanese staff at Kuching, Colonel A. G. Wilson landed on the Sarawak River on 5 September and conferred with the commander of the Japanese forces there, who confirmed there were 2,024 Allied prisoners and internees in the area. The next day, Brigadier Thomas Eastick, commander of Kuching Force — a detachment from the 9th Division — flew to the mouth of the Sarawak River in a Catalina where three Japanese officers, including Suga, came aboard for talks. The task of Kuching Force was to accept the surrender of and impound the Japanese forces in the Kuching area, release and evacuate Allied prisoners and internees, and establish military control. At the meeting, Suga presented Eastick with complete nominal rolls of all camps.
On 7 September, Walsh was permitted by the Japanese to fly to the headquarters of the 9th Division on Labuan island, to collect surgical and medical supplies for the camp. He returned with two Australian medical officers, Major A. W. M. Hutson and Lt.-Col. N. H. Morgan. Pepler recorded how "Dr Yamamoto came in for one hell of a time from these two Medical Officers when they saw the state of the majority of our camp. Up-to-date medical care and drugs soon began to show effect upon our sick and many lives were saved by these two officers. Out of the two thousand of us who entered that camp, only seven hundred and fifty survived and of these well over six hundred were chronic sick".
Official orders to execute all the prisoners, both POWs and civilian, on 17 or 18 August 1945 were found in Suga's quarters after liberation of the camp. The orders were not carried out, presumably as a result of the unconditional surrender of Japan on 15 August. A "death march", similar to those at Sandakan and elsewhere, was to have been undertaken by those male prisoners physically able to undertake it; other prisoners were to be executed by various methods in the camp:
On 8 and 9 September the RAN corvette HMAS Kapunda with Eastick and staff officers on board sailed for Kuching, along with USS Doyle C. Barnes. At 2.35pm on 11 September Eastick accepted the surrender of the Japanese forces in the Kuching area from their commander, Major-General Hiyoe Yamamura, on board HMAS Kapunda. Later that day the Australian occupying force landed.
The 9th Division troops arrived at Batu Lintang camp that afternoon, accompanied by a few American naval officers. There was no resistance from the Japanese troops. The prisoners and internees had been forewarned that there would be no delay in taking the surrender, and quickly gathered at 5pm in the main square of the camp to witness Eastick accept the sword of Suga. The Japanese finally learned of the existence of the radio in a dramatic fashion:
"The Australian Commander, Major General [sic] Eastick ... mounted the rostrum and after accepting the sword of surrender from Suga was about to dismiss him when a shout, rising simultaneously from the throats of the Board of Directors of the 'Old Lady' and 'Ginnie' stopped the proceedings. 'Hold on, we have something to show you.' Carrying the radio and generator Len [Beckett] proudly showed them to the General and turning to Suga, asked, 'Well, what do you think about it Suga?' Now I know the full meaning of the saying 'If looks could kill.' Len would have died a horrible death".
The following day Suga, together with Captain Negata and Dr Yamamoto, were flown to the Australian base on Labuan, to await their trials as war criminals. Suga committed suicide there on 16 September. Negata and Yamamoto were later tried, found guilty and executed.
Photographers and cameramen accompanied the liberating force, and the events, and those of the following days, were well-documented. On liberation, the camp contained 2,024 inmates: 1,392 prisoners (including 882 British, 178 Australian and 45 Indian); and 632 internees. The most ill prisoners were taken to Kuching Civil Hospital, which had been entirely refitted by the Australians since serving as the Japanese military hospital.
On 12 September, a thanksgiving service was held in the camp, led by two Australian chaplains from the liberating force and Bishop Francis S. Hollis of Sarawak, an ex-internee. This was followed by a parade held in honour of Wootten, as commander of the 9th Division. In appreciation of Beckett's work on the radio, fellow ex-prisoners in the camp subscribed over £1,000 for him, a massive sum of money for the time, which Beckett intended to use to set up a wireless business in London, his hometown.
Repatriation commenced on 12 September, and by 14 September, 858 former prisoners had been removed, though pressure of numbers meant that some were still at Batu Lintang a week after liberation. Ex-prisoners were transported by ship (including Wanganella, an Australian hospital ship) and in eight Douglas Dakotas and two Catalinas, to the 9th Division's "Released Prisoners of War and Internees Reception Camp", and the 2/1st Australian Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) on Labuan, before continuing their journeys homeward.
The captured Japanese soldiers were then held at Batu Lintang camp. There they were visited by J. B. Archer, an ex-internee, who noted 'There were about eight thousand of them ... it was difficult not to feel aggrieved at the good treatment they were receiving compared to what we had received at their hands. A lunch of fried rice, fish, vegetable and dried fruit was shown to me. This, I was told, was just an ordinary sample.'
Three Came Home, an account of female internee Agnes Newton Keith's time in the camp, was published in 1947. It was later made into a feature film of the same name, with Claudette Colbert playing the part of Agnes and Sessue Hayakawa in the role of Suga.
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia holds a large archive of material related to the camp, much of which is accessible on the AWM website in the collections databases. In England, the Imperial War Museum in London also houses material about the camp, as does the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House in Oxford. Many of the personal recollections held at the latter two repositories are reproduced in the 1998 publication by Keat Gin Ooi (see below for full reference).