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Events in French Indochina

Compiled by Carol Cooper with the assistance of many ex-FEPOWs

After the capitulation of Singapore on 15th February 1942, the majority of POWs were taken to Changi Jail. In the weeks and months that followed, and the Japanese realising they had a considerable wealth of human resources at their disposal, the prisoners were gradually shipped out of Changi in large numbers to be sent wherever the Japs needed 'slaves' to work their war machine.

On 4th April 1942, 1,100 men were put aboard the Nisshu Maru - destination - Saigon. They arrived on the 10th April and were housed in a camp almost opposite the dock gates in the Rue Jean Eudel (now known as Nguyen Tat Thanh)

This camp, which consisted of four huts, each 60 feet x 15 feet eventually housed about 1,664 POWs - consisting of about 209 Americans, 500 British, 900 Dutch and 55 Australians. Although poorly fed, the prisoners were able to make contact with the local French citizens who provided them with medicines, clothes and food and just as importantly, provided news of the outside world.

Of the 1,100 men who left Singapore, 100 of them went to Hanoi, almost immediately, to build an airfield and returned to Saigon about November 1942.

The rest worked tirelessly on the docks unloading heavy back-breaking cargo that arrived in Saigon docks every day.Then, on the 22nd June 1943, 700 men under Colonel Hugonin, were transferred from the docks and sent to work on the Thai/Burma railway.

The remainder stayed in Saigon. After the war those who had remained, expressed the belief that it was their good fortune to have stayed in Saigon, believing many of them would not have survived the conditions along the railway.

After the completion of the Thai/Burma railway, the POWs who had survived this horrendous period of slave labour and all the appalling tropical diseases that went with it, were then transported back to Singapore.

Many were then herded aboard the Hell Ships headed for Japan, which is another fateful tale, but having no further use for hundreds of POWS who had survived the building of the railway, the Japanese then started shipping prisoners once again to French Indo China, in and around Saigon and Hanoi. Some of the first to be sent on this second wave left the River Valley Road Camp, Singapore early 1944, others were as late as February 1945.

On the 2nd February 1945 the 'Friedstrummer' left Singapore with 1,300 men on board and another departing ship was the 'Derstumlzr' and yet another was the 'Fidgnord'. During one such departure there was a Japanese convoy of five ships, which were all old cargo boats - mostly Dutch. These old boats were obviously not intended for human freight and those who found themselves part of this 'live' cargo, were packed into the holds as tightly as the 'dead' cargo

The journey took about a week and when the time came to disembark at Saigon, they were hardly able to move and found they could barely walk through being cramped up for many days. They were then put to work on the docks, again unloading cargo of all kinds, mostly oil, to be stored in nearby warehouses - known to them as 'godowns'.

Many of the FEPOWS, after working on the docks, were then sent to a Camp called FUMI, building an air-strip. The food was not much better than on the Thai railway but the men were not pushed so much as the Japs were not in such a hurry as they had been to complete the railway, so working conditions were slightly more relaxed and they experienced few beatings. At FUMI the prisoners had to dig up rocks to make the surface for the air strip and they tried in their own way to slow down the progress of the Japs by sabotaging with any means at their disposal eg. leaving a space in between the rocks and filling in with twigs, leaves etc, anything to make the surface weak.

Not all the POWs arrived in Saigon from Singapore. Many had been working in the northern area of Thailand and in Burma and when their work was complete they were transported to French Indo China from the Northern sector of Thailand.

These groups of POWs were sent to a camp called Battambang and to Phnom Penh, a modern town, which lies on the Mekong River. Prisoners in both these camps were likely to have been involved with the building of a road between Battambang and Phnom Penh. Approximately 1,000 POWs of mixed nationalities were used to build this road, plus many local people. When completed, barges took many of the men to Saigon to transit camps and from there onto ships for Japan.

One ex FEPOW recalls that when he arrived in Saigon having recently been in Burma, there were about 200 English already there. He thought they looked well-fed compared to the recently arrived group who were bony and gaunt-looking. At that time there were no diseases in that particular Saigon camp, but when the Burma party arrive, numbering about 150 unfit men, they carried diseases which those already there soon caught. Food provisions were not increased, therefore the POWs who were the first to arrive in 1944 were to find their daily ration decreasing with every new intake of extra prisoners. To the ill-fed prisoners, the docks of Saigon looked like 'Aladdin's Cave', and at great personal risk a good deal of thieving went on purely to enable them to survive.

They were in great danger the majority of the time - from the US bombers. The one factor that the FEPOWs, who were sent to Saigon, remember more than any other -was the constant bombing. During the last year of the war, US aircraft dominated the skies over French Indo China and incessantly dropped bombs over the enemy territory, stepping up its activity through the early months of 1945.

Unfortunately many FEPOWs were also killed in this endless wave of bombing as the Americans blew up docks, ports, towns and wherever they believed the Japanese were operational. During this active period hundreds of the prisoners were moved from Saigon to other areas to build airfields.

One such place was called Da Lat, which was a pre-war summer resort in the mountains for French holidaymakers, described as a much cooler and very beautiful location. However, while on a train (*see below) heading for Da Lat to build another aerodrome, the train was bombed by the Allies. Only 27 of the 120 POWs on board survived, and those 27 were all walking wounded. The Japanese troops were all in the front enclosed carriages. The surviving prisoners didn't make it to Da Lat on that first occasion and found themselves back in Saigon. A second attempt, however, was made and they eventually got to Da Lat in 1944. They worked for nearly a year constructing airfields, again being constantly bombed. Conditions were very harsh, but those FEPOWs who survived admit it was not as bad as for those on the northern part of the Thai/Railway. As in all Japanese camps it was commonly known that the Korean guards treated them worse than the Japanese

Before the war was over and with the airfields finished, they were sent back once again to Saigon. Some were billeted in the French Barracks of the Foreign Legion, and for many this was the first time in three years that they had a proper roof over their heads. The French people, themselves, had all been moved out of their homes and were forced to resettle together in the hills. Towards the end of the war, six POWs, managed to escape from the French Barracks and made it to the hills where the French people kept them hidden until the end of hostilities.

Back in Saigon, the docks were being badly hit every day and the planes dropped thousands of leaflets over the area, in several languages, warning the Japanese that they would suffer if any harm came to the POWs they were holding.

Several ex-POWs said that there was a considerable difference to their treatment and the supply of food after these leaflets were dropped.

Then came the day when the planes dropped leaflets saying "THE JAPANESE HAVE SURRENDERED, YOU ARE ALL FREE MEN." It was a momentous moment for the long-suffering POWs when not long afterwards American planes with twin fuselages came sweeping over - no longer dropping the dreaded bombs.

The following comments on the Da Lat Railway were sent to COFEPOW by a visitor to this web site :-

"The railway to DaLat ran (past tense) from Cham Towers on the coast just south of Nha Trang. It was a cog railway extension to climb the very steep slopes of the escarpment of the plateau on which Da Lat sits. Unfortunately this rail spur was totally destroyed during the American war when it was attacked by both the North Vietnamese and subsequently by the Americans as they left VietNam.There are mumblings about restoring the line as Da Lat and region are major vegetable and farm production areas."