The Pakan Baru Railroad was constructed during the second World War by the Japanese using forced labor. The railroad lies on the island of Sumatra, then part of the former Netherlands Indies (currently Indonesia), which was occupied by the Japanese in March 1942.
Crossing the island of Sumatra between Pakan Baru and Muaro, the railroad was 220 km long and was built to avoid having to ship precious resources (like coal, oil and metals) necessary for the Japanese war effort through oceans controlled by the allies.

Prior history

As early as the late 18th century the idea for a railway connecting the eastern and western coasts of the Sumatran island occurred to the Dutch authorities governing the Netherlands Indies. A number of valuable resources were found (and are still found) along the western coast of Sumatra. To facilitate transport of these resources Dutch engineers started the design of a railroad from Pakan Baru (already connected to the western coast city of Padang) to Muaro, which was a completely insignificant collection of houses on the Siak River. Large enough ships could reach that far up the Siak River, however, so Muaro was chosen as the other terminus for the railroad.
The Dutch design went through a number of deaths, resurrections and modifications until history caught up with the unprepared defenders of the Dutch colony in the first months of 1942. Japan defeated the poorly equipped (and poorly prepared) Dutch defenders - in some cases the Dutch were using armaments dating back to before the first World War - and eventually took up the construction of the Sumatran railroad.

Only one of many Japanese projects

The Japanese put many hundreds of thousands of people to work on various projects throughout the territories they occupied during the war. For a part these people were prisoners of war, but the largest part consisted of tricked and coerced Asian locals. Projects included the building and repair of air strips, military installations and railroads, like the Burma-Siam Railroad (known mainly through the film The Bridge on the River Kwai) and the Pakan Baru Railroad discussed here.

Manpower (or rather: slave-power) engaged at the Pakan Baru Railroad

At the Pakan Baru Railroad 30,000 local laborers, called romushas, were used. Another 4,970 prisoners of war were put to work on the railroad. These two groups rarely, if ever, came into contact with each other, and both had distinct jobs in the construction of the railroad.

The romushas

Next update I will look into this...

Prisoners of war put to work on the railroad

The majority of the POW's that worked on the Pakan Baru Railroad were Dutch, only a few were English, Australian or American. The average age of the POW's was very high (my grandfather was 43 at the time he was sent to work on the Pakan Baru Railroad; the average age of the Dutch was 36 years, the average age of the other allies was 29 years1), significantly higher, for example, than the average age of the POW's that were put to work on the Burma-Siam Railroad (I seem to recall an average age of 22 or something being mentioned somewhere, but I'm not exactly sure). These men were not in the prime of their life, and the malnutrition, lack of proper medication and adequate housing did not help.

The price paid

When the war ended, the toll of the Pakan Baru Railroad was estimated to be about 700 deceased POW's and more than 25,000 deceased Asian romushas.
A related disaster occurred when the Junyo Maru was torpedoed by the British submarine H.M.S. Tradewind while transporting 6,500 POW's and romushas destined for the Pakan Baru Railroad, leaving 5,620 of them dead. The 880 that survived the ordeal were put to work on the railroad, only to leave many more of them dead by the end of the war.

The bitter part of it all...

As unbelievable as it sounds, the last nail was hammered into place during a small ceremony by a Japanese officer on the 15th of August 1945, the day after the Japanese agreed to unconditional surrender after the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The railroad would never be used by the Japanese. In fact, the railroad was never used by anyone, in large part due to the fact that the construction was of exceptionally bad quality. The Japanese had not paid any attention to proper engineering of the railroad and subtle sabotage by the POW's rendered the railroad even worse than its lack of design could have accomplished.

The end of imprisonment

As in many other POW camps in the Pacific area, the capitulation of the Japanese was not immediately known to the POW's. After the 15th of August the prisoners do get the feeling they are being treated better and that the food rations increase. Rumours are rife, but the Japanese guards remain silent. Until the 24th of August, when the announcement is made in most of the camps along the railroad that Japan has signed a cease fire with the allied forces. In reality Japan has signed an unconditional surrender following the two atom bombs dropped on Japanese soil.
Following the announcement of the surrender the situation of the POW's slowly gets better; no more work, more food, better medical attention. But the Japanese guards remain. The allied forces don't have enough troops to free the whole area that was occupied by the Japanese in one go.
The English and the Australians are repatriated first. The sick are transferred to Singapore, and one by one the camps along the railroad are vacated. On the 25th of November 1945 the last of the POW's leave the camps.

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1 This difference is probably due to the fact that the Dutch put to work on the railroad were colonials living in the Netherlands Indies at the time of the invasion by Japan who were hastily drafted into semi-military roles, whereas the other allies were regular soldiers sent to the area for the purpose of waging war against Japan

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Possibly more soon... In particular (possibly) excerpts from the account my grandfather wrote after being freed from the prison camps at the Pakan Baru Railroad.

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