An amusing story of papayas during WWII in Kuching

Patricia Hului

During World War II (WWII), Batu Lintang camp housed both Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian internees.

The living conditions within the compounds were cramped. The occupants were separated into different compounds and groups, namely British officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), Australian officers and NCOs, Dutch officers and NCOs, British other ranks, British Indian Army, Indonesian soldiers, Roman Catholic priests and religious men, male civilian internees and female civilian internees.

There were altogether 110 priests and religious Catholics, including 44 Capuchin friars, five Mountfort missionaries, 22 Brothers of Huijbergen and 38 Mill Hill missionaries.

These priests and religious men who were mostly Dutch and Irish, had a large plot of land to grow vegetables and fruits in their compound.

Meanwhile, other compounds such as those that belonged to the Australian, Dutch and British officers had not enough land for cultivation.

Besides vegetables and fruits, the priests happened to be successful in growing papayas.

According to The Sarawak Gazette report (Apr 1, 1947), it was not a surprise to see a Japanese soldier came to their compound asking for papayas.

He said that his chief needed three papayas immediately and they must be large and fully ripe.

The priests then obeyed, giving the soldier the papayas that he demanded.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tatsuji Suga and ‘his papayas’

Then Lieutenant-Colonel Tatsuji Suga came into the picture. He was the commander of all Prisoner-of-War (POW) and civilian internment camps in Borneo .

Suga was believed to be a Christian. There were accounts of him attending church services at the internment camps during the war.

Within an hour after the three priests reluctantly surrendered their papayas to the Japanese, a messenger arrived from the camp commandment office.

He said that the Lieutenant-Colonel would like to see the three priests, whom he learned were all over 70 years of age.

So the priests quickly wore their best robes and proceeded to the office where they met with Suga.

Suga told the priests that while he treated all his prisoners sympathetically, he was particularly considerate of the aged.

“That being so he trusts his visitors will accept as a token of his respect and appreciation, a small gift.”

And guess what? He handed to each priest, one very succulent papaya.