Java and Sumatra

The thought of the day is that all men en masse are shites (or super shites) … I would dearly have loved to see a few people with socialist convictions watching the conduct of this camp [Bandung] and knowing the inner story.

[Lieutenant-Colonel Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, 30 October 1942, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Melbourne, Nelson, 1986, 109.]

The second largest concentration of Australians captured by the Japanese in 1942 was in Java. After the Allied capitulation of the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) on 9 March about 3000 Australians remained on the island.

Many were from the 7th Division which had been brought back from the Middle East to help defend Java from the Japanese attack in early 1942. Others were survivors of the sinking of the HMAS Perth in the Battle of Java Sea on 28 February 1942. Yet others were captured trying to escape as Singapore fell on 15 February.

The prisoners' experiences on Java were diverse. In the first months some Australians remained at large, scattered around villages near Bandung (Bandoeng) including Garut and Leles. Conditions were often lax and the prisoners had considerable freedom. Progressively, however, the Japanese concentrated the Allied POWs, including Australians interned at Sukabumi, Tjilatchap, Yogyakarta (Djodjakarta) and Tjimahi, in two major camps: no. 12 PW Camp at Bandung; and the Bicycle Camp in Batavia (Jakarta).

The Bicycle Camp was initially shared with Dutch and British POWs and US naval personnel who had survived the sinking of the USS Houston at the same time as the Perth. In mid May, however, the British and Dutch troops (excluding senior British officers) were moved, making room for Australians previously held in Glodok gaol and a congested Chinese school in Batavia, and a further group of Americans. From early August also some of the 2/40th Battalion captured on Timor arrived at the Bicycle Camp where the senior commander was now the Australian who had led the multinational 'Blackforce' during the defence of Java, Brigadier A.S. Blackburn.

No. 12 Bandung camp too was multinational, including not only Australians, British and Dutch but Canadians, New Zealanders, Portuguese, and Ambonese and Menadonese from the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. Much of the camp administration fell to the Dutch officers who had strong connections with the local community. There were constant tensions between the national groups about the allocation of accommodation and the distribution and cost of food sold in the camp canteens. Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Dunlop of the 2/2nd Casualty Clearing Station, for instance, wrote after the Australians took possession of quarters previously occupied by the Dutch:

Crowning annoyance reached when Maj. Morris in my company took back a box from [the Dutch] area which was previously ours. Dutch officer rudely seized this from him. … I gave [the Dutch] the full blast of my wrath, comparing his officers to carrion birds.

[24 May 1942, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Melbourne, Nelson, 1986, 29.]

Although conditions across Java varied considerably, on the whole they were far better than what the POWs would experience later in the war. For one thing, the accommodation was often substantial: for example, large brick barracks huts at the Bicycle Camp. The supply of food was also reasonably good, since trade with the local community was permitted and well-stocked canteens operated inside the camps (sometimes, it seems, to the financial benefit not just of POWs but of the Japanese). The manual labour demanded of the troops was also not onerous: cutting grass, moving stores, cleaning streets, repairing cars, etc.

If anything, there was a problem with boredom and internal camp discipline. To address this, educational programs and recreational activities were developed and formal systems of punishment imposed by the Australian officers.

Yet since the daily caloric intake was inadequate, by mid 1942 many POWs were showing symptoms of malnutrition, such as beri beri, pellagra and scrotal dermatitis. The Japanese also regularly slapped and beat POWs for minor offences, executed several who tried to escape and subjected Allied officers to often brutal interrogation in an effort to extract intelligence.

In August the Japanese also demanded, as they did elsewhere in the Asia–Pacific region at this time, that the POWs sign a pledge that they would not escape. When they refused, the camp canteens were closed, all recreational activities were halted and the officers placed in confinement or removed from the camp. Under duress Blackburn authorised his troops to sign. Thereafter discipline from the Japanese and Korean guards was noticeably tightened.

In September the Japanese announced that a large scale movement of troops from Java was planned 'to a better land where food would be available'. The first contingents left the Bicycle Camp in early October leaving only senior officers there. Some 360 Australians who left on 11 October joined A Force in Burma.

Perhaps a thousand Australians remained at Bandung until November when they were moved to Makasura, a staging camp of bamboo huts near Batavia. Here, with Dunlop in command, little work was required by the Japanese, food supplies were reasonable and the Japanese guards were fairly decent. The POWs even received and were allowed to send radio messages to home.

However, on 4 January 1943 about 900 Australians in the so-called Dunlop Force were ordered to move. Sailing to Singapore, they stopped briefly at Changi before being transported to the Burma-Thailand railway in the Konyu and Hintok regions of Thailand.

Some Australians remained on Java where their numbers were increased by further arrivals of the 2/40th Battalion from Timor. In the months that followed they moved between camps—Makasura, Tanjong Priok, the Bicycle Camp and Glodok gaol—which they shared with POWs of other nationalities. Early in 1944 most POWs (including some 400 Australians) were concentrated in the Batavia area though some were employed at Adjick and about 70 were sent to Serang. In October most of the officers were concentrated at Bandung. Then in January 1945 many of the Australians remaining on Java were transferred to Singapore, some occupying the River Valley camp. Those still remaining on Java were held in an overcrowded local gaol at Bandung.

About 60 Australian officers and men meanwhile were interned for much of the war at Palembang in Sumatra, where they had been captured with POWs of other nationalities after they escaped from Singapore. By 1944 conditions had deteriorated to the point where anything that was remotely edible—snails, rats, dogs, snakes and iguanas—was consumed. Finally in May 1945 about 1400 POWs were shipped to Singapore in 'hell ships' that were so crowded that many prisoners had to stand for the whole journey, and some even died.

Last updated: 17 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Java and Sumatra, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 26 September 2023,
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