The Japanese invaded Sumatra in 1942 and, using the engineers from the infamous Thai Burma Railway, put over 120,000 newly captured slaves to work building a railway. These slaves were not only local Indonesians, but also POW’s captured as the eastern colonies fell. This is the history of that railway…  

Very early on the Dutch government in Indonesia had investigated the possibility of a railway to connect the east coast with the existing lines of the west coast of Sumatra. This line would give access to coal fields which had been established inland as well as new seams that had been discovered.

When the Japanese invaded in 1942, they already had an idea for a railway between the west and east coast of the island. After the battle of Midway in June of that year the need for the railway increased immensely as the allied navies were free to push further into Japanese territory. Using previous surveys, as well as surveys undertaken by their own men, a plan was put into action to construct a 220km long railway between Muaro and Pekanbaru. The line between Kota Kombu and Pekanbaru was almost certainly, completely of Japanese design, using the dutch land surveys and their own survey crews to form a linking path.

This railway once completed would allow the Japanese to move troops and supplies easily between coasts as well as gaining access to the resource rich interior of Sumatra. This railway would avoid using sea routes which were by now, heavily patrolled by allied warships and submarines.

Pekanbaru was chosen as the end point for the railway as it was located on the banks of the Siak river which gave good access to small ocean going ships which could then cross the straits of Malaca relatively quickly, finding safe ports in places like Singapore, Johore or Malaca. This route also gave the possibility of using air support which would not have been so easy to get had the railway proceeded to Tembilahan as originally intended. Coal mined at Camp 14 by the Romusha and POW’s would eventually use this route, being burnt in the foundries around Johore.  

All that was needed to complete the railway was a work force. This labour was found in the form of local Indonesian workers, along with POW’s captured as the colonies fell. These prisoners of the Japanese were rounded up and work on the railway began in April 1943. POW’s would not work on the railway until  1944.

More than 120,000 Indonesian labourers, called Romusha by the Japanese, were used as the main workforce on the railway. They built the embankments and cuttings through the jungle and along the gorges. The attrition rate of the local work force was unfathomable with reports at the end of the war estimating only 16,000 had survived.

In 1944 as the local work force became harder to find, around 5000 allied prisoners were brought to Sumatra to work on the railway. The majority of these prisoners had been captured in Java two years earlier when Major General R. T. Overakker surrendered the The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, (KNIL army) and colony (around 4000 Dutch). Other nationalities that worked on the railway were British, (around 1000), Australians, Americans, and New Zealanders (300 total). 

The prisoners were housed in 18 camps along the railway with the first POW’s arriving at camp 1 on the 19th of May 1944.

Camp 14 and 14A were built to service a coal mine in the hills just outside Petai and required a spur line to be built. Starting 3 km north of the Petai village, the line wound its way west over a river plain before climbing gradually next to the Tapi river, then through a narrow gorge and ending at a flat area which became camp 14A. Just over the river is the transition, or loading point, for the coal. No locomotives were used past that point, instead a push cart line of 700mm gauge was utilized. This line then ran south west for another 4 kilometers, passing camp 14 before ending at the coal mine. This branch line was completed in February 1944.

Leaving Pekanbaru the main railway ran through the swamps and dense jungles of the Riau province, past and through the mountainous and steep gorge of the Kuantan river towards Muaro. Many prisoners died creating these passes along the gorge, with the Japanese using dynamite to remove rock faces while the prisoners slaved beneath.   

The railway was finally completed on the 15th of August 1945, commemorated with a gold coloured railway spike being driven in just outside camp 10 to signify the joining of the railway. That night the camp commander gave a speach to the prisoners. 

“Now the railway is finished, thanks to all your efforts, I have the honour to announce in the name of His Highness the Emperor of Japan, that all of you will be given a rest. Shortly you will be transported to a better place. And from today the rations of rice, vegetables and meat will be increased. You will receive these new rations as soon as we receive fresh stock. At this moment we don’t have meat or vegetables and only rice for a few days. While waiting for transport, you are not permitted to leave the camp.”

Many prisoners suspected something but did not know until later, that the day the final spike was driven in, was also the last day of WW2.

Between the 24th and 30th of August the prisoners in the camps along the railway were transported by rail to Pekanbaru where they learnt that the war was over. The sickest of the allied prisoners were transported to Singapore for treatment, with the rest following soon after. The last of the prisoners were transported on the 25th of November. The Romusha were never returned to Java, (where they had mainly originated), and began their free lives on the island of Sumatra.

After the war ended a train driven by Lance Corporal Ito was used to transport ex Dutch POW’s from Muaro to Pekanbaru. This train derailed during its journey but the passengers helped to get it back on the line and it continued on its way.

In early 1946 the last of the Japanese railway engineers in Sumatra used the trainline to transport themselves and their gear from Muaro to Pekanbaru. From there they awaited transport back to Japan and caught boats that came up the Siak river on the 8th of April 1946. 

After this, the railway was never used again and soon after the bridges began to collapse and the rail was pulled up and removed for scrap.

It is estimated that, through sickness, mistreatment and accidents over 100,000 locals died creating the railway along with 703 POW’s.

To learn more about the Pekanbaru Death Railway, join us at the City of Canada Bay Museum on Saturday, 5th March at 2:00 pm where Andrew West will be our speaker.


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