Culture

From Sandakan POW Camp to Singapore Outram Prison

Patricia Hului

Outram Prison was one of the earliest prisons in Singapore.

Originally, it was known as Pearl’s Hill Prison before being called Outram Prison or Outram Road Prison.

Completed in 1882, the jail complex had five blocks for male criminals; four for natives and one for European.

Other buildings housed the female prisons, hospitals, employees’ quarters, execution room and morgue.

By January 1937, the long-term prisoners were transferred to the-then new Changi prison while leaving the short sentenced prisoners in Outram Prison.

During World War Two (WWII), Singapore was occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army. Immediately, the infamous Japanese military police known as Kempeitai took over Outram Prison.

They used the gaol to punish all those who broke their laws; prisoners of war (POWs), civilian internee and local people alike.

From Sandakan POW Camp to Singapore Outram Prison

The inmates jailed at Outram Prison were coming in from not only in Singapore but surrounding areas such as Malaya and Borneo.

They were transported by sea using Japanese hell ships. As if their journey to receive their sentences were not hellish enough, another form of hell welcomed them at Outram Prison.

These men and were punished for many reasons, from espionage to rebellion.

For a group of POWs from Sandakan POW camp in former British North Borneo, their crime against the Japanese circled around a radio.

From Singapore to Sandakan POW Camp

The Battle of Singapore or Fall of Singapore is till known today as the largest British surrender in history.

The intense fight took place lasted from Feb 8 to 15, 1942 which resulted in the Japanese capture of Singapore.

After the battle ended, about 80,000 British, Indian and Australian troops in Singapore became POWs along with 50,000 men who were taken by the Japanese during the earlier Malayan Campaign.

As for the Japanese, they were not entirely ready with this large influx of POWs.

One of the POWs who arrived in Sandakan POW camp to work on the airfield in July 1942 was Lionel Colin Matthews.

While many were taken prisoner in Changi Prison, thousands were transported to be used for forced labour on constructions like the Burma-Siam Railway and Sandakan airfield in North Borneo.

There, Matthews founded an intelligence network among the POWs. They collected information, weapons, medical supplies and radio.

The secret group even made contact with the local police as well as Filipino guerrillas.

Unfortunately in July 1943, four local Chinese members of Matthews’ underground group were betrayed to the Japanese.

After being tortured by the kempetai, they confessed to providing radio parts to Matthews and his team.

Matthews and his second in-command, Lieutenant Rod Wells as well as the members of the underground group were captured, beaten, tortured and starved during their interrogation.

After that, the group was sent to Kuching, Sarawak to stand for trial.

In Kuching, Matthews was sentenced to death along with two members of the British North Borneo Constabulary and six other local Sabahans.

Meanwhile, Wells and 18 others were sentenced to Outram Prison.

Rod Wells’ account on his experience at Outram Prison

Wells, who received 12 years of solitary confinement, said goodbye to Matthews with a handshake and a few personal message from Matthews to his wife.

Two days after departing Kuching, Wells arrived in Singapore where he had been captured two years before.

In Singapore, he was imprisoned at Outram Prison and here is his account as recorded by Christoper Somerville’s Our War: Real Stories of Commonwealth soldiers during World War II.

“On entering Outram Road Jail I found the most terrible sights of dejected people with absolutely no will to live, just slowly walking around. From the back you could see their reproductive organs hanging down between their legs – there was no flesh on them. It made sitting very hard. The hip bone would be pressing into bare skin. But you just had to sit and put up with the pain.

“Everything was done to order. No talking was allowed. When no order was given, you were silent and just stayed in the same position you were in when the last order was given. At nine o’clock at night you were sent back to your cell. There was a light on all night inside the cell, so that there was not a second of the twenty-four hours you were in darkness. And this went on, for me, for twenty-three months, including my period in Kuching. Twenty-three months in solitary.

“We worked at picking strands of hemp out of old ropes, to make a new ones. The strands were too tough to break with your hands; you had to follow them to find out where they started. If you left any of those knots untouched you got a belt across the back with a sword in its scabbard. And as an added incentive, if you didn’t do a hundred of these lengths of rope in day by picking out about 200 lengths of hemp from each – you got no rice that day.

“Meals were roughly five ounces of cooked rice and a bit of stewy water with a bit of weed in it, green grassy stuff. Tea – that was like a hundred to one whiskey and water, pale discoloured stuff that was always cold when you got to it.

“The little pair of shorts you had on had your number on it. 641, that was me. You had to learn that number in Japanese pretty quick, because that was your name and address and everything else. I lost all identity. I was no longer a POW – I was a criminal; just a number. That was the worst thing of the lot. Just a number.”

Bill Young’s account on his experience at Outram Prison and ‘The Postman’

Not all POWs who were sent from Sandakan POW Camp to Outram Prison belonged to Matthews’ group.

William Young or better known as Bill Young, was captured and trialed in Kuching for escaping Sandakan POW Camp.

They were captured by the Formosan guards an hour after their escape and then Young and his friend M.P Brown were severely beaten.

The duo both ended up with broken arms, a leg and an ankle.

In Kuching, Brown was sentenced to eight years of hard labour in Outram Prison while Young was sentenced to four years because of his age. Young was around 16 years old, making him one of the youngest Australian POWs during WWII.

One of the many things Young remembered about Outram Prison was a guard which the prisoners nicknamed ‘The Postman’.

“And there was one guard in particular we used to call ‘The Postman’, he was very, very particular about it. He’d open the door and come and bash you if you weren’t sitting properly. Some of the guards you knew were lazy or indifferent and you could get away with standing up, resting your legs out, reading the graffiti. Morse code. And there’s some guards you would never send a message or anything like that, you’d never read graffiti and you’d never not sit cross-legged, and the worst one was the bloke we called ‘The Postman’.

And sometimes, I know on one particular time, probably one of the first times I was caught by him. I didn’t realise he was on duty. I’m sitting back, with my back on the wall with my legs stretched and I’m shaking them and one thing and another, relaxing, and I heard the knock and that was the signal, only one knock, bang!, just one knock like that. There was about two or three minutes, which seemed to be hours in time, and you knew he was outside, you knew.

“Now after that you’d hear the key’d go in the lock, now it wouldn’t turn, you’d hear the key go in the lock, and then for another two or three minutes there’d be silence, but you’d know he was outside there, and then he’d turn the lock and you’d hear it turned and there’d be nothing else. Two, couple of minutes.

“And then all of a sudden, bang! The door’d be slammed back. Frightened the life out of you. And there would be The Postman. And they all had swords. But it was an old-fashioned jail and the locks were old-fashioned and the keys were great old-fashioned things. And he’d come in and you’d be looking up and you’d be at attention, as if you were like that all the time, you’re willing your hair to grow bit thicker because you know what’s coming.

And he’d stand just a little bit behind you on the side. Not much room between you but he’d get there, wasn’t a very big bloke actually, and then he’d be giving you a lecture or something like that and all of a sudden, while he’s doing this, he’s raising this flaming great big key and then bang! down it comes. And oh God, flaming lump or a cut, sometimes blood come down, and you couldn’t do anything and you’re sitting there and the tears come into your eyes because when you have lost all your weight, your food, your muscles go down, it’s not mentally, everything goes down too. Your resistance to pain, your resistance to everything.”

Surviving Sandakan POW Camp and Outram Prison

The ruins of huts in the prisoner of war camp, Sandakan, North Borneo, October 1945. Those who were too ill for the march were eventually murdered here. Courtesy Australian War Memorial: 120457

After the war ended, Young returned to Sydney, Australia. He revealed to ABC news in 2016 at that time he couldn’t wait to reunite with his old mates from Sandakan.

But Young couldn’t find any of his friends. He told ABC, “I waited and waited and waited. It took me ages to find out.”

The sad truth was there were only six survivors from Sandakan POW camp and they had survived because they escaped.

After the war ended, 1,787 Australians died in Sandakan with many of them perishing during the 250km-long Death Marches from Sandakan to Ranau.

Those who were sent out from Sandakan to Outram Prison for their punishment had a narrow escape from death. If they were to stay in Sandakan, chances were high that they did not survive just like their friends.

Still, all of them did not escape from suffering caused by the Japanese at Outram Prison.

According to Australian War Memorial website, the prison was a place of starvation, torture and terror, a place of madness and for many, death.

Since these prisoners were sentenced to prison and not death, the Japanese couldn’t legally execute them.

Instead, the Japanese purposely trying to starve the prisoners to death by providing little food for them.

It is estimated about 1400 prisoners died at Outram Road Prison during Japanese occupation in Singapore.