The forgotten Javanese forced labourers of Sandakan during WWII

Patricia Hului

The forgotten Javanese forced labourers or romusha of Sandakan during WWII

The Allied Prisoners of Wars (POWs) who were taken to Sandakan during World War II (WWII) had one job, to build an airstrip for the Japanese.

The site of the Sandakan airstrip was selected during WWII for a United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force (RAF) airfield.

However by the time the Japanese had occupied Borneo, the British only managed to clear the area of vegetation.

When the Japanese arrived in Sandakan, they decided to complete the airstrip to use it as a refueling stop between peninsular Malaya and the Philippines.

In order to do that, the Japanese military needed manpower. They then transferred some 1,500 British and Australian POWs from Singapore to work on it.

Before they arrived, the Javanese forced labourers, also known as romusha, were already there breaking their backs working on the 1.4 km runway by hand.

These Javanese forced labourers were WWII’s version of human trafficking victims. While the Allied POWs were soldiers, the romushas were civilians.

Some were children that were taken from their homes in Java to work in a foreign land as Japanese slave labourers.

How the Javanese were taken from their homes to Sandakan

One of the rare insights on what it was like for the Javanese forced labourers in Sandakan can be found Richard Wallace Braithwaite’s Fighting Monsters: An Intimate History of the Sandakan Tragedy.

In 2013, Braithwaite managed to interview Haji Losah bin Sondikormah, a former romusha still living in Sandakan.

Losah was only 12 when he was picked up by Japanese soldiers as he was walking home from school in Sragen in Central Java.

He was imprisoned in a camp in Solo for three months while more Javanese forced labourers were brought in. At first the Japanese sent them to Jakarta. Then, 6,000 of them were put on a ship for Sandakan.

Most of them were boys around the same age as Losah but some were men in their 50s.

According to Losah, they arrived in Sandakan in 1942 before the Allied POWs.

Besides working on the airstrip, they were also working on the roads in the town area.

Life in Sandakan

Losah recalled that the Allied bombing started in 1944 as they were put to work on the airstrip at night. In one raid that he remembered, 300 Javanese forced labourers were killed.

Braithwaite wrote, “The Japanese only provided them with rice. They made salt from seawater and occasionally were able to collect wild fruit and tapioca. They were not allowed to develop gardens but secretly grew the green vegetable, kang kong.”

While the Allied POWs were able to trade some vegetables or other food with whatever possession they had, the Javanese forced labourers did not engage in trading as they had nothing to trade in the first place.

During the first year of Sandakan POW camp, the prisoners were given some medical treatment while the Javanese had no medicine at all.

Making things worse for them, they did not know what kind of disease or sickness that they were suffering from.

Many of them eventually died in large numbers due to disease.

The Japanese did not guard them like the Allied POWS but some of them were given arms and responsibilities to guard the rice store.

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

Working under the Japanese

“They were organised into groups of 24 under a Javanese hancho who did not have to do manual work. Everyone had to go to work each day, irrespective of the health. No one was paid,” Braithwaite stated.

Besides working on construction, the romushas were the coolies of the Japanese. One of the things they had to endure was becoming the Japanese undertaker. Records and testimonies had showed that they were the ones tasked to bury dead prisoners especially after execution.

Overall, the Javanese forced labourers were treated as equally brutally as the Allied POWs.

Losah shared to Braithwaite that he once saw a friend have his ear sliced off by a Japanese soldier with a shovel.

With the Allied POWs, the Japanese had an English interpreter for them to communicate. One of the commanders of Sandakan POW camp, Captain Susumi Hoshijima could speak fluent English (though he often chose to have his interpreter translate his speech).

As for the Javanese, the Japanese gave them orders in a mixture of Japanese and Malay, neither of which they understood.

In order to survive, the Javanese tried to cooperate with the Japanese and no one tried to escape.

They were under threat of death not to communicate with the Allied POWs and were all kept away from the them.

“There were too many deaths”

Some of the Javanese forced labourers tried to report to the Japanese when they saw the POWs outside the wire.

As it turned out, being an informant was a dangerous thing to do.

If the Japanese failed to find the ‘escaped’ prisoners, the Javanese could be arrested and even beheaded for giving ‘false information’.

Losah himself saw a POW outside the wire on two occasions but turned a blind eye.

Braithwaite wrote, “Haji Losah did not pray to Allah and could not remember ever seeing anyone else do so. When I asked why, he simply replied that there were too many deaths.

Arguably, the poor Javanese labourers had a worse camp life than the Australians at Sandakan.

Toward the end of the war

After the Allied POWs were sent in phases for the infamous Sandakan Death Marches, the Japanese set the camp area on fire sometime in May 1945.

Yuki Tanaka in his book Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II wrote that most of the POWs left at the camp were too weak to have undertaken the march.

“Because the camp buildings had been burned down, the prisoners were forced to improvise huts from whatever materials were at hand. These huts were without walls, and the roofs made of leaves and blankets, offered little protection from the often heavy rains.”

According to Tanaka by this time, apart from the prisoners, there remained one Japanese soldier, Sergeant Hisao Murozumi, 16 Formosan guards, a few Javanese labourers and five Chinese kitchen staff.”

If there were only a few Javanese labourers left, what happened to the rest of thousands of them?

They most probably had died due to diseases, bomb raiding and hopefully managed to escape for their lives.

What happened to these Javanese forced labourers after the war?

Hungry, sick and malnourished, those who survived the war were left abandoned by the Japanese.

Writing for Daily Express, Tan Sri Herman Luping stated, “Sure enough, soon after the war these Javanese labourers were roving the villages crying and begging for food as they were so hungry.”

After the war, the Allied POWs were honoured and remembered though memorials and writing.

Befittingly, some were given recognition and awards posthumously for their bravery and sacrifices.

While these Javanese forced labourers were working on the same airstrip with the Allied POWs, there are no commemorations to remember those who had perished.

Among those who survived, it is estimated only a thousand from the whole British Borneo (Sabah and Sarawak) returned home to Java.

Some like Losah, assimilated with the local communities and callSabah home.

According to Braithwaite, the romusha were seen as nobody’s responsibility.

He wrote, “It is clear that when Australian War Graves units discovered mass graves that were not Australian or British, the bodies were ignored.”

While most of the bodies of Allied POWs that were found after liberation were exhumed and reburied at Labuan War Cemetery, the bodies of Javanese forced labourers are most probably still lying somewhere in unmarked graves in Sandakan.

Although there could have been up to 6,000 of them working on the Sandakan airstrip during WWII, hardly anybody remembers them now, as if they were never there in the first place.