Continuing the story from Part 1

Chuka Maru

On Sunday, May 14, 1944, after five months of captivity at his second POW camp – the 10th Battalion in Batavia, Java (now Jakarta) – my Opa, Johannes Hubertus Theodorus Gerardu (Hubert) was selected to board the Japanese transport ship, Chuka Maru (aka Chukwa Maru). He was 43 years old. In relation to the World War II timeline, this was a few weeks before D-Day in France and a little over two years into the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

Chuka Maru Pre-War Photo

Google Translate is available at the bottom of the page.

The Japanese moved prisoners from camp to camp, depending on the need for labor. New POWs to a camp would bring news of the places they came from – some good, but mostly bad news. As you can imagine, word of an upcoming transport was surely an especially stressful time for prisoners. Hubert’s group of POWs, known as Java Party 21, consisted of 310 English and 1,615 Dutch prisoners.

Much of the history of this time was never recorded, so I rely on stories from other POWs. I will never know the real horrors my Opa experienced. However, this story about the selection process for a later transport by Eugene Alexander Bloem (translated) is telling.

“In September (1944), we got an order to leave. Before that our health was examined, in case of having dysentery. The method of examination is sadistic, namely by using a piece of bamboo that is inserted into the anal canal. If it is bleeding, it means that you cannot participate. When it was my turn, it turned out that I didn’t bleed, meaning: come along.”

I imagine the tension in the air was palpable on that day as the POWs in Java Party 21 most likely had no idea where they were headed. Would the next camp be better or worse? Would they survive the trip? What was the destination? They probably did not find out until they disembarked.

Transport vessels consisted of repurposed ships, and most were renamed to include the traditional Japanese suffix, Maru. The ships were later referred to as “hellships,” and represent another form of mistreatment by the Japanese. The nickname, “hellship,” reflects the inhumane conditions on board and the considerable risk of dying – either from abuse, disease or attacks by Allied Powers, as the Japanese rarely marked ships to indicate the POWs were on board.

The average temperature in May is 89º F (32º C), so it was undoubtedly a sweltering and humid day. On this day, the POWs were brought to the port at Tandjong Priok and slowly boarded on the small Chaka Maru, a 5,000 ton vessel. Its original purpose was to transport coal, so imagine the heat, coal dust, lack of fresh air, and generally unhealthy conditions on board. This ship easily qualified as a hellship based on the boat alone. Add to that the 1,925 POWs were stuffed and locked into the coal hold by the captors. Obviously, the psychological process of dehumanizing the enemy, making them seem less than human, thus not worthy of humane treatment, was a well-used strategy in this war.

In the book Death on the Hellships, Lolke Talsma’s account of the experience was that they were…

“loaded in like sardines in a can. For two days they sat with knees pulled up under their chins. The sick were never able to get to use the latrines. There was no food, and only a sip or two of brackish water was allowed. Men became black with sweat and coal dust. Some, said Talsma, ‘went stark crazy,’ and several died.”

To appreciate the fear these prisoners felt, it’s important to understand the rules they were expected to abide by. According to personal accounts gathered by the Children of Far East Prisoners of War (COFEPOW), they discovered rules regarding the treatment of Allied prisoners during transport. The following infractions are but a small sampling of what would be punishable by immediate death.

  • Disobeying orders and instructions
  • Showing a motion of antagonism and raising a sign of opposition
  • Disordering the regulations by individualism, egoism, thinking only about yourself, rushing for your own goods
  • Talking without permission and raising loud voices
  • Walking and moving without order
  • Carrying unnecessary baggage on embarking
  • Resisting mutually
  • Touching the boat’s materials, wires, electric lights, tools, switches, etc.
  • Climbing ladder without order
  • Showing action of running away from the room or boat
  • Trying to take more meal than given to them
  • Using more than two blankets

Given all of these things, you then have to consider the distance and time required to make the journey. Three very long days later, after sailing roughly 800 miles (1300 km) along the western coast of Sumatra, they arrived in Padang (Sumatra). It was most definitely a trip from hell. For those who survived the trip, as a welcome relief, a tropical storm came through, and the prisoners were able to rid themselves of the coal soot and breathe fresh air. Hopefully, this gave them a little strength to continue their journey, as they now knew their final destination – The Sumatra Railway. However, they had no idea what it would be like as they were the first group of Allied prisoners sent there.

Unfortunately, yet another version of hell awaited them.

Story to be continued in Part 3 (coming soon).

Nationale Herdenking August 15, 1945

Tomorrow, August 15, 2019, is the 74th anniversary of the date when the Second World War officially ended for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Every year on this date, we commemorate victims of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies and its direct consequences. For more information about Nationale Herdenking see https://15augustus1945.nl/en/

Sources

Eugene Alexander Bloem (1921 – 2009)
Death on the Hellships
Chuka Maru Pre-War Photo
Japanese Orders for Prisoners at Sea
Chuka Maru

View the Gerardu Family Tree on Ancestry.com

Stories in this blog are created from historical information available to me at the time, which means there are some assumptions made to fill the gaps. If you have corrections, other information, or it ties to your stories, I would love to hear it, so please send me a message here.