What would you do if you came across a scene of floating dead bodies? It is an unimaginable sight for today’s Sarawakians but that was what happened during the early part of World War II.
Before we get into the floating dead bodies, let’s talk about the Japanese attack on Kuching during World War II.
On Dec 16, 1941, the Japanese forces managed to secure Miri and Seria with only very little resistance from British forces.
About a week later on Dec 22, a Japanese convoy left Miri for Kuching but was spotted by a Dutch flying boat (otherwise known as a seaplane). It radioed in a warning to a Dutch submarine, HNLMS K XIV which was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Carel A. J. van Groenevald.
Since HNLMS K XIV saw the Japanese coming, it managed to break the Japanese convoy on Dec 23. It attacked two Japanese troopships Hiyoshi Maru and Katori Maru off the coast of Santubong.
Both of these army transports sunk together with hundreds of Japanese troops. Another troopship Hokkao Maru was beached to prevent it from sinking while Nichiran Maru was less seriously damaged.
The rest of the troops were able to land and they were met by the 15th Punjab Regiment which resisted the attack. But the British Indian Army was soon outnumbered and retreated up the river. By Christmas eve, Kuching was already in Japanese hands.
What happened to the dead bodies?
According to George Jamuh in an article published The Sarawak Gazette on Dec 7, 1949, one of the troopships was bombed at Tanjung Sipang on Santubong Peninsular.
After the bombing, hundreds of dead bodies floated into Buntal Bay with many of them washed ashore and some even wedged between the roots of mangrove trees.
“For weeks Buntal villagers did not dare to eat fish, particularly crabs, and some ikan badukang that were sent to the Kuching fish market contained fingers and toes of Japanese soldiers,” George wrote.
Soon enough, the area was full of flies, maggots and foul odours. Then, it came to a point that the villagers near Buntal bay, without waiting for orders, buried these dead bodies.
The villagers buried them where they found them, leaving some mark above each grave.
After some weeks, perhaps after the Japanese started to settle in Kuching, some of the Japanese officers came down and forced all the local men to exhume the bodies.
George was doubtful if all were the dead bodies were dug up because there were reports of more remains found after the war.
He wrote, “It was understood that only the skulls were taken to be cremated and the villagers were told that individual ashes were to be sent to relatives in Japan. This tale the villagers swallowed; but, in the absence of identity discs or dented numbers on the skulls, how could this be done? Unless, of course, it was done in the way APC powders were mixed and distributed by the Japanese.”
Now comes the question; is it possible that some of Japanese soldiers’ remains are still buried at Buntal bay?