A first hand account of Sarawak under Japanese occupation from 1941-45
THE wind of war was first felt in Sarawak with the arrival of the 2/15 Punjabi Regiment in Kuching in 1940.
Although they knew they were outnumbered and outgunned, they put up stiff resistance when the Japanese made their landing on Dec 24 1941, and for this, Sarawakians should remember them for their courage and their bravery.
The Japanese made their intentions of an impending invasion very clear.
On Dec 13 1941 a dozen Betty Bombers flew over Kuching at high noon.
At that moment about 50 boarders at St. Joseph’s School were having lunch at the school’s refectory.
The loud drone of the low flying aircraft drew the boys out to watch and, of all things, wave at the aircraft they thought were RAF or Dutch planes.
It wasn’t until someone spotted the red round markings of the Rising Sun that they realised they were Japanese planes.
Indeed the whole Kuching population was surprised – the Air Raid Precaution sirens were not even sounded.
The same number of Japanese bombers flew over Kuching on December 14th and 15th 1941.
Everybody took cover then, but fortunately, no bombs were dropped.
Out of fear of aerial attacks, flights blackouts were introduced in Kuching.
On December 19, a flight of 16 Betty Bombers in V formation flew over Kuching.
After dropping bombs on the 7th Mile airfield, the planes separated.
Seven bombers headed for the town and nine headed for a raid on Pontianak.
The seven bombers rained 40 anti-personnel bombs which mostly exploded in the river.
A fuel dump of the Borneo Company (BCC) had a direct hit and smoke could be seen miles away.
The planes also machine gunned the streets below.
Over 30 people were killed and 73 injured including women and children in this raid with no serious damages to other properties.
This was the only Japanese air raid over Kuching. Following the Japanese air raid there was a sort of exodus of town folk to the rural areas.
Many remained there and returned only after the liberation.
Through a boy’s eyes As an eight-year-old and perhaps the youngest boarder at St Joseph School at the time, I joined other boarders from outstations for a six-month refuge at the Catholic Mission in Serian.
Rice, sweet potatoes, cheap salted fish and kangkong were our staple.
We were each issued a mosquito net.
It was impossible to sleep without one as there were other insects to add to the mosquito nuisance.
Fortunately not one of us contracted malaria.
When things were more settled, the boarders began to make their way home to places like Miri, Limbang, Sarikei and Sibu.
My eldest brother, Michael Tan Soon Ted and I were told by our uncle, Tan Sri Datuk Seri William Tan, to go to Sibu to stay with a relative for the rest of the war. He himself was advised by Hiroshi Kimura, a Japanese friend, to hide in Merirai, Upper Rejang.
We were very well-looked after by Iban paramount chief Temenggoing Koh, Penghulu Jugah Barieng (before he would become a federal minister for Sarawak Affairs) and Skapan chief Penghulu Pusa.
It was in the middle of our journey when my brother and I boarded a coastal vessel (the MV Kim Chin Soon) for Sibu.
This was a sister shop of MV Kim Chin Seng.
The engine room of MV Kim Chin Soon caught fire while at sea.
And if not for a very brave Malay sailor who fought and eventually put out the fire, the whole ship would have been consumed by the blaze.
It was a very frightening experience for all on board and the six Japanese soldiers with us did nothing to help.
The sailor suffered serious burns all over his body and was rushed to Lau King Howe Hospital upon reaching Sibu.
Before the passengers could leave the wharf in Sibu they had to empty their bags in front of some soldiers.
Items they considered ‘dangerous’ would be taken away.
Learning to read and write in Japanese was great in that I gained by speaking a new language.
Students had to wear uniform and a peak cap with a blue Sakura.
The blue sakura was replaced by a red one as we attained higher grades.
Before class began there was the general assembly in the school hall.
The Japanese national anthem was sung with gusto followed by bowing to the Japanese flag and then marching off to our classrooms.
As the war years went on there was a scarcity of material for clothing.
It was a common sight to see men wearing patchwork shirts and shorts or shirts made from gunny sacks or hemp.
Alcohol was brewed from sugar cane, tapioca and sweet potatoes.
Shoes were gum-made from rubber sheets.
Several pairs of this footwear can be seen at the war memorial museum in Canberra Australia.
There are many exhibits related to the Japanese occupation of Sarawak at this museum.
The samurai sword of major general Airoe Yamemura, commanding general Japanese forces Kuching is there, and even small Japanese tanks known as ‘Crab tanks’ that once rambled in Kuching is there.
A shadow in the Sarawak skies Despite food shortages and other products, life was slow and quite normal.
The people soon adapted themselves to the war conditions.
By and large the population was well behaved, thus giving the Japanese no excuse to use draconian measures.
However, the whole state was to experience destruction and deaths that far outstripped the Japanese invasion and occupation.
As 1945 came to a close, Allied aircraft began to appear in the Sarawak skies.
The first air raid over Sibu by Allied aircraft was on March 9 1945.
A motor vessel, the Shihkai, berthed at the government wharf not far from the resident and district office was bombed.
Subsequent raids damaged many buildings.
After a while, it became a pastime of sorts for some people to pick up empty brass shells fired from the planes’ heavy calibre machine guns.
I am sure some people still keep these shells as souvenirs.
The strafing were most scary and also the bombing of the airfield at Sungai Merah.
Several Japanese Betty Bombers and fighter aircraft were destroyed.
After the liberation some students used to swim in the acrid water of bomb craters.
One soon got used to the sound of machine guns and bombs.
This experience served me well during Indonesian Confrontation period years later.
The heaviest allied bombing by B17 flying fortress was on June 4 1945 over Sibu.
Many shop houses were destroyed.
The new concrete flat-roof market was flattened.
The number of people killed and wounded was never accounted for but it was in the dozens for sure.
There was a blackout that night after the bombing.
The town was practically devoid of people, its eerie silence only broken by howling dogs.
There were many deaths, mostly reputable vendors, in the bombed out market which is now a car park.
Today, Sibu has one of the best markets in Sarawak if not in Malaysia.
Miri, Mukah and Labuan were very heavily bombed by Allied aircraft but Song, Kapit and Kanowit were lightly attacked to help the ‘Z’ special force operating in Belaga region.
It is quite baffling for me that the most frightening period of the Japanese occupation had to come from the Allied forces.
And believe it or not, no Japanese were killed in these raids; only our own Sarawakian civilians.
To have survived the strafing and heaviest bombing in Sibu was indeed a divine protection.
To all other survivors I hope they are in the best of health and happy recollections.
Personal reflections One of my regrets is that I destroyed my Japanese school uniforms and school textbooks as these could be good museum exhibits today.
I tried to bury the past but little did I realise that the history of the Japanese occupation took a better hold of me.
I decided to have some of the events documented.
The result was transformed into a book titled: Japanese Occupation in Sarawak…. A passing glimpse.
With more information available there is now a revised edition of Japanese occupation Sarawak 1941-1945.
Looking back historically, Sarawak did not suffer much in what some termed as the ‘ravages of war’.
Sarawak escaped want destruction and massacre compared to Singapore, North Borneo (Sabah), Dutch Borneo (West Kalimantan) and the Philippines.
It must be pointed out though, that quite a number of people were tortured and some died in the hands of the dreaded Kempei-tai.
There were also collaborators who betrayed even their closest relatives and friends.
Immediately after the war was over the collaborators were set upon by the public and suffered serious injuries.
Many families whose relatives had suffered in the hands of the Japanese still harbour hatred.
The Japanese occupation had, unbeknown st to many, made the people more resilient to confront hardships head-on.
White collar workers, for instance took to farming and livestock rearing.
They turned out to be good in husbandry and kept their families well-fed.
The population was taught to be punctual, but more importantly, law abiding.
To do otherwise was rewarded with public execution by firing squad.
It happened once at the former Sarawak Turf Club at Padungan in Kuching.
Members of the public were forced to witness the execution.
Was this not deterrent enough?
Today, there are still many survivors of the Japanese occupation.
Although they are in their twilight years, they must have many tales of happiness and sadness from that period.
Not many of their stories will see the light of day.
Fortunately, a number of foreign and local authors have faithfully recounted their lives during the war and are there for the present and future generations to appreciate the hard times and the good that their elders had experienced.