A Japanese Christmas
Source: "Lifestyle"-The Star- 10 July 2005
BY OOI KEAT GIN
From the peninsula, Revisiting WWII moves over to Sarawak to find out how people there fared during the Occupation. In this first of a series of articles, OOI KEAT GIN recounts when simple, peaceful lives were subject to a scary new order.
AT 4.30pm on Christmas Eve, 1941, the Hinomaru (Japanese flag) fluttered from the flagpole of Fort Margherita in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak.
The Land of the White Rajah had become part of the Imperial Japanese Empire that would shortly stretch from the Japanese home islands westward as far as the Indo-Burmese border, southward to New Guinea, and eastward to the southwest Pacific.
The unfolding Rising Sun against the blue skies of Kuching signalled the beginning of a new era, a new world.
Earlier, eight Japanese troop ships with an equal number of escort vessels carrying some 4,000 troops had made their way up the Sarawak River. Their landing was unopposed, there was no “Battle of Kuching”.
Their voyage had begun on Dec 13, when a Japanese convoy left Cam Ranh Bay in French Vietnam.
Major General Kawaguchi Kiyotake (hence the Kawaguchi Detachment) headed this task force, whose mission it was to seize the oilfields of north-west Borneo and the airfield outside Kuching. Two days later, this flotilla was off the coast of Miri, the centre of Sarawak’s oil industry.
The Japanese invasion and occupation of Sarawak went off like clockwork. Miri fell on Dec 16, and Japanese forces rapidly moved towards Sarawak’s administrative capital, Kuching.
In the absence of the promised anti-aircraft guns, Kuching was undefended when the town experienced its first aerial bombing on Dec 19, which claimed25 lives and 80 wounded, all civilians.
To Japanese military planners, Sarawak was of strategic importance. The Miri oilfield was a prime prize.
Japan needed oil to advance its imperial designs, hence the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) on the Chinese mainland. An American embargo on oil sales to Japan was one reason for Yamamoto's decision to strike Pearl Harbour.
The southward thrust towards South-East Asia was an attempt to secure strategic materials – oil, rubber and tin – to sustain the China campaign.
Sarawak’s other consideration was an airstrip located 11km to the south-east of Kuching. The Bukit Stabar or 7th Mile Airfield was one of two aerodromes on Borneo necessary for the invasion of Dutch Java. (The other was at Singkawang, some 95km from Kuching, in south-west Dutch Borneo).
Sarawak’s defence was in the hands of Britain. In 1888, Rajah Charles Brooke (1829-1917), the second White Rajah, had reluctantly penned a protectorate agreement under whichBritain would oversee Sarawak’s foreign relations and defence; internal administration remained the purview of the Brookes.
When war became imminent in the late 1930s, the defence of Sarawak came under the British Malaya command based at Singapore under Lieutenant General A. E. Percival, who made a hurried visit to Kuching in November 1941.
By then, the earlier plan of a mobile defensive strategy was replaced with a static form of defence. An Anglo-Dutch military conference in September had agreed that only the Bukit Stabar Airfield should be defended.
Subsequently, the 1,000-strong 2nd Battalion/15th Punjab Regiment under the command of Colonel C. M. Lane was redeployed with orders to defend the aerodrome and to act in the best interest of Dutch West Borneo.
A contingent of 100 men from 2/15 Punjab was at Miri to protect and assist employees of Sarawak Oilfields Limited in carrying out demolition of the oil installations.
On Dec 10, 1941, when news came of the sinking of HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales off Kuantan, the oil installations at Miri and Lutong (and Seria in Brunei) were destroyed, as planned earlier.
The demolition party, together with other European civilians, evacuated on Dec 14 to Singapore. Members of the 2/15 Punjab returned to Kuching.
The defence of Sarawak was entrusted to Sarfor, or Sarawak Force, which comprised the Iban-dominated Sarawak Rangers (the Brooke regime’s regular army), the Sarawak Volunteers (European civil officers), the Malay-dominated police, and the 2/15 Punjab.
Colonel Lane headed the 2,500 men Sarfor to defend a territory of almost three-quarter the size of the Malay Peninsula.
Much of the territory lay under thick jungle, with vast stretches of coastline drowned in mangrove swamps.
Failing to return to Kuching, Rajah Vyner Brooke (1874-1963), the then reigning ruler of Sarawak, headed a government-in-exile in Australia. When hostilities broke out, Rajah Vyner’s wife, Ranee Sylvia was in New York. In February 1942 she was in London, and later she joined the Rajah in Australia.
In the absence of the Rajah, the Chief Secretary and Officer Administrating the Government, Cyril Le Gros Clark instructed all Brooke officers to remain at their post to ensure a smooth transition of authority in the event of a Japanese victory. Most abided by the ruling.
Individually and in groups, officers of the Brooke government and their families, together with members of the small European community were rounded up and subsequently brought to the Batu Lintang, an internment camp on the outskirts of Kuching.
Despite the occasional heroic stand by squads of the 2/15 Punjab, poor communication that retarded co-ordination of SARFOR, coupled with the suddenness of the Japanese offensive, led to chaos in the defence of Sarawak.
While Japanese troops were on the streets of Kuching on Christmas day, the port town of Sibu in the Lower Rejang was bombed.
Within a week the Japanese occupied the north-eastern districts of Limbang and Lawas neighbouring Brunei. Towards the close of January 1942, Sibu and Kapit fell to the Japanese without resistance.
After deciding that their stance at Bukit Stabar aerodrome was untenable, remnants of the 2/15 Punjab crossed into West Borneo and finally surrendered in early April 1942.
The Sarawak Chinese community, having followed developments in the long-running Sino-Japanese War, feared a Japanese backlash but the indigenous people appeared to be more baffled than afraid of the invaders. Many of the upriver native communities were unaware of what was happening in the world beyond their longhouses and rivers.
All those in Kuching who looked on as members of the Imperial Japanese Forces marched along Gambier Road felt fear and uncertainty.
It seemed like only yesterday that Rajah Vyner had granted a constitution to the peoples of Sarawak to commemorate the centenary of Brooke rule. Back in 1841, a swashbuckling English gentleman-adventurer, James Brooke (1803-1868), was honoured by the Sultan of Brunei with a small fiefdom and the exotic title, “Rajah of Sarawak”.
Now, it was going to be a Japanese Christmas.
Ooi Keat Gin is associate professor in the School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia. He is author of ‘Rising Sun Over Borneo: The Japanese Occupation of Sarawak, 1941-1945’ (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan; New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1999). He is currently working on the Pacific War in southern Borneo (Kalimantan).