Sumatra Railway, the death railway you probably never heard of

Junyo Maru was one of the many Japanese hell ships during World War II. It was used to transport Prisoners of War (POWs) with bamboo cages built in to imprison them.

When it was attacked and sunk on Sept 18, 1944 by British submarine HMS Tradewind, it became the world’s greatest sea disaster at the time.

During her last voyage, she was packed with 1377 Dutch, 64 British and Australian and eight US POWs along with 4,200 Javanese romusha.

After the sinking, only 680 survived with 5,620 dead.

But the horrific fates of these 680 survivors did not end with the sinking of Junyo Maru as hell awaited them at the Sumatra Railway.

Sumatra Railway

The survivors were sent to work on the 220km Muora-Pekanbaru railway, which also became later known as the Sumatra railway.

The Japanese wanted to use it to transport coal and troop between Muora and Pekanbaru.

Along with the Junyo Maru survivors, there were over 120,000 romusha together with 6,500 Dutch POWs, 1000 POWs and the rest 300 POWs from the US, Australia and New Zealand.

The first group of labourers to work on the railway were the romushas who started in April 1943.

However, the Japanese became anxious and wanted to speed up the construction.

They then brought in the first group of POWs on May 19, 1944.

All of them were housed in 18 camps located along the railway.

Sumatra Railway in comparison to Burma-Siam Death Railway

When you hear mention of a ‘death railway’ during WWII, one immediately thinks of the Burma-Siam Death Railway.

Similar to the Sumatra Railway, the Burma-Siam Railway was built by the Empire of Japan from 1940-1944 to supply troops and weapons in the Burma campaign.

Overall, 60,000 Allied POWs and 180,000-250,000 romusha were forced to work on the railway.

In the end, about 90,000 labourers died along with more than 12,000 POWs.

Lizzie Oliver in her book Prisoners of the Sumatra Railway wrote, “Although the Sumatra Railway was half the length of the Burma-Siam Railway (220 kilometers vs 414 kilometers), it took almost the same number of months for POWs to complete (15 vs 16).

“Progress was approximately sixteen kilometers per month slower on Sumatra than in Burma and Siam. This slow progress each month indicates specific difficulties for those on Sumatra, two of which dominate the narratives of former POWs.

“First, the terrain on Sumatra was foreboding. The railway construction had to navigate through a ‘chain of mountains’, the rolling hills of volcanic and sedimentary rocks and the swampy and jungle-covered lowlands characterised by long rivers, sandbanks and mudflats. Second, having already been incarcerated, malnourished and forced into hard labour for over two years beforehand, the initial general condition of the Sumatra Railway workforce was poorer that that on Burma-Siam (the building of which began relatively early in captivity).”

Life on the Sumatra Railway

All the same, working on Sumatra and Burma-Siam railways were equally deadly.

One of the survivors of Sumatra railway, George Duffy once wrote, “Indeed death was no stranger there. We were overworked, underfed, provided with little medicine, and subjected to constant physical and mental abuse by our Japanese overseers.

“A hospital for malaria, dysentery, pellagra and beriberi patients existed in name only. It was simply a dilapidated bamboo-framed, thatched roof barracks where the sick were placed to await their eventual death.”

One of the few doctors treating the POWs was military surgeon W.J. van Ramshorst from The Hague.

The good doctor was brave enough to confront the Japanese army about the death rates of the prisoners.

He told them, “Camp 2 has about eight hundred patients. Around one hundred men die each month. If things continue as they are, all patients will be dead in eight months time.”

To this, the Japanese replied, “Your calculations are correct. That is exactly our goal.”

Liberation comes to Sumatra Railway

August 15 will always be remembered as V-J Day or Victory over Japan Day. It is a day the Imperial Japan surrendered in World War II, in effect bringing the war to an end.

It was also the day that Sumatra Railway officially completed. There was even a completion ceremony organised by the Japanese army.

Henk Hovinga in his book The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe described how the prisoners welcomed the news of their freedom.

“For all prisoners, liberation after three and a half years of captivity was a moment they would never forget. Yet each man experienced that day in his own individual way. Some cried, other laughed, prayed or cursed.

“They had suffered too much to be only thankful that it had finally ended. Many were deadly ill or dying and could no longer grasp the magnitude of the news of their liberation.

“Others were too apathetic or too bitter to respond spontaneously. In every camp along the railway the moment of liberation was a different experience. And even prisoners living together in the same camp cherished different memories of the moment when the Japanese surrender was announced.”

Dr van Ramshorst for instance, remembered the day liberation as just another ordinary day.

“We all received as double ration of rice. After a couple of days, we were allowed to leave the camp, but still had to return. I walked leisurely to Pakan Baroe (Pekanbaru), visited the post office and asked the crazy question if I could send a telegram to my wife on Java. And strangely enough that was possible. I paid ten cents per word. In the meantime, the Japs had become friendly, but fearfully nervous. After they had burned all camp documents, some of them asked me if they should commit suicide. And I answered them: ‘Yes, if it is your custom to commit harakiri, then that is the best thing to do…”

What happened to the Japanese after the war?

It is not sure how many, if any, Japanese who actually took Dr van Ramshorst’s advice.

However, it is certain many Japanese army along with their Korean guards were prosecuted for war crimes they committed during the construction of Sumatra Railway.

Captain Ryohei Miyazaki who was responsible for the 18 camps along the railway was sentenced to death on May 30, 1948.

The man who was responsible for food and provisions General Yamamoto was sentenced to death on Dec 30, 1948.

Meanwhile, the chief medical officer Colonel Fukaya was executed on Dec 30, 1948.

Many of the guards received prison sentences ranging from 5 to 20 years of imprisonment.

What happened to Sumatra Railway after the war?

Liberated prisoners distributing rice rations to campmates. Pakanbaroe, Sumatra, 1945. AWM 019382. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial.

After all the blood, sweat and tears put into the railway, in the end it was never fully utilised.

For a railway built for war purposes, the first train ride on the Sumatra Railway was used to transport former Dutch POWs from Muoro to Pekanbaru driven by a Japanese corporal.

The train derailed from its track but the passengers helped to get it back on line.

Then in early 1946, the last group of the Japanese railway engineers in Sumatra boarded the train from Muoro to Pekanbaru.

Since then, the railway between Muoro and Pekanbaru was never used again.

Many parts of the railway have been claimed back by nature as the areas are now overgrown by jungle.

It is even hard to see the remnants of the railway, as many of the parts have been removed for scrap.

In the end, the railway took the lives over 100,000 labourer including about 703 POWs.

Many of them died due to accident, sickness and abuse as well as execution by the Japanese.

Patricia Hului

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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