Initially the Japanese concentrated the prisoners of war and civilian internees of the Moluccas on the island of Ambon. Nearly half of the POWs left for the Chinese island of Hainan as early as October 1942, and in March 1943 all civilian internees ended up on Celebes. The remaining POWS stayed on Ambon until the Japanese surrendered.
Battle for Ambon
During the Japanese advance Ambon, that in addition to a contingent of KNIL troops was also being defended by Australian soldiers and the Dutch Navy, was important within the Moluccas from a military perspective because of the presence of Laha airfield. Laha airfield was located about 12 kilometres southwest of the main population centre of Ambon-city.
In the early morning of 31 January 1942 about 5,750 Japanese landed on Ambon. The territorial commander of the KNIL surrendered that same night, the Australian main troops followed on 3 February. The days immediately following their surrender, approximately 200 Australians and 60 KNIL soldiers were killed in mass executions. In the weeks that followed some 140 Dutch and Australian servicemen managed to escape via Ceram to Australia.
Prisoners of war
All the prisoners of war on Ambon and the other Moluccan Islands were assembled by the Japanese in Tantui prison camp, some 3 kilometres northeast of Ambon-city. After the native KNIL soldiers were released there were about 12,000 persons here. In October 1942 more than 500 POWs left for the island of Hainan off the South China coast.
The people who stayed behind, mainly Australians, a handful of Americans and Dutchmen, remained on Ambon for the duration of the occupation. They were put to work permanently, among other things cleaning and doing repair work following allied air raids. This group had an exceptionally hard time. The majority of the prisoners did not survive the occupation, but were killed by bombs, executions, ill-treatment, neglect and/or starvation. In an allied air raid on 15 February 1943 dozens of POWs were killed.
The approximately 130 surviving prisoners of war were picked up by American war ships on 10 September 1945 and taken to the island of Morotai.
Before the arrival of the Japanese the Dutch authorities had erected a reception camp for civilians a little more than one kilometre southeast of Ambon-city. On 31 January 1942 approximately 500 men, women, and children sought refuge there. This so-called ‘Boskamp’ was used by the Japanese as an internment camp until the end of February 1942, when some 400 occupants of the camp were moved to the STOVIL native teacher training college (School tot Opleiding Van Inlandse Leraren). The approximately 100 non-European civilians in the ‘Boskamp’ were allowed to return home.
The STOVIL camp became a general assembly camp for the European civilian internees from all over the Moluccas. From April through September 1942 internees from the islands of Saparua, Ternate, Haruku, Ceram and Banda, and from the Kei and Aroe Islands arrived here. Also, men, women and children from the New Guinea towns of Fakfak and Manokwari were brought to the STOVIL camp in this period.
Late November and December 1942 the approximately 500 internees of the STOVIL camp were taken to the Tantui camp, where the men and women were placed in separate units. However, after the allied bombing on 15 February 1943, which killed 28 detained civilians, they were taken back to Ambon-city. There the men were housed in the Advent Church, and the women in the Bethaniën Church. On 18 March 1943 all civilian internees were put on a ship and transported to South Celebes.
Labour camps in the Moluccas
In April 1943 five ships transported thousands of Dutch and British prisoners of war from Java to the South Moluccas to work on the construction of five Japanese airfields near Liang on Ambon, Palao on Haruku, and Amahei on Ceram. More than 1,700 British and almost 350 Dutch prisoners ended up in Haruku, more than 1,000 Dutch on Ceram and the same number of British on Ambon.
On Ambon and Haruku in particular work conditions were extremely difficult. Early on there was an outbreak of dysentery among the prisoners in Palao on Haruku that cost 300 lives. Of the British prisoners in Lian some 140 died in the period up to December 1943.
After the completion of the airfield near Amahei the Ceram group was taken to Haruku in October 1943 and merged with the Palao group. When work on the airfield of Palao was also finished in November 1943, a series of allied air raids started in early December and made victims among the POWs. Between November 1943 and July 1944 the combined Ceram and Haruku groups were taken to Ambon in stages, where they were put up near the airfield of Liang and in a few other camps (Rumahtiga, Waiame, and Laha).
After completing the Liang airfield in April 1944 the prisoners were put to work elsewhere, for example in the harbour of Ambon-city. In Ambon-city itself there were also temporary camps in private houses and other buildings.
By the end of November 1943 the first transport, consisting of more than 1,100 sick persons from all three groups, returned to Java divided over two ships. One of the two ships was torpedoed by an American submarine, and all 539 people on board were killed. On the other ship more than 100 people died on the way, so there were only about 500 survivors when the transport arrived in Surabaya.
In August and September 1944 an additional three groups left for Java. On these transports approximately 380 prisoners died, among other things because, again, one of the ships was sunk, this time by an American airplane. Early October 1944 the final group of some 450 prisoners left for Java, but after a journey filled with obstacles this group was stranded on Celebes. In an improvised camp on the island of Muna, as many as 174 POWs died as a result of ill-treatment, allied air raids, starvation, illness and exhaustion.
Up to August 1945 a total of at least 1,600-1,800 persons in the Moluccas group died, almost one in every three prisoners of war who had embarked in Surabaya in April 1943.