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The Celebes

Bill Francis was a young stoker on 'H.M.S. Exeter' when she was sunk in the Battle of the Java Seas on March 1st 1942. His story on the sinking of H.M.S. Exeter can be found under our "Ships" section.

The survivors of the 'Exeter' were picked up and subsequently taken to the Celebes for the duration of the war, this is Bill Francis' account of that time.

By Bill Francis

After being picked up by a Japanese destroyer in the Java Sea we were transported to the port of Banjurmasin in South Borneo, we were then put aboard a large oil tanker and battened down in a storeroom.

The following day we were transferred to a Dutch hospital ship named 'Op-Ten Noort'. This had been captured by the Japs who did not recognise the Geneva Convention and did whatever they thought fit during war time.

We did not enjoy the luxury of hospital accommodation and were herded up on to the foc'sle of the ship and were kept there for the three day journey to the port of Macassar in the south west of the island of Celebes.

On arrival at Macassar the gangway was lowered and a dozen or so guards came up to drive us off the ship with their rifle butts. Although they wore similar dress to soldiers they were Japanese sailors, the only difference was that they wore an anchor on their caps instead of a star.

We were marched through the town of Macassar, it was mid-day and scorching hot. We had no shoes and our feet were blistered when we arrived at the Dutch army camp which was to be our home for the next nine months or so. Our accommodation was a series of small cubicles running out from a large central hall, five or six men were put in each cubicle. There was not even a seat in them so we had to sit and sleep on the floor. We were soon put to work which at that time was at the docks; we had to clear out all the warehouses which had been set on fire by the Dutch. Eventually all the warehouses had been cleared out and our work turned to unloading the merchant ships that were arriving, and obviously we were able to pilfer a few things for ourselves, but getting caught would result in a beating.

As the months moved on other working parties were developing; there was one for the radio station, one for the garage, and others for various Japanese barracks. The radio station may sound a good job, but it mostly consisted of building radio stations in concrete, with walls and roof three feet thick, and there was no shortage of cement because there was a cement works just outside Macassar. The garage party was not a very nice one either; they would send a lorry to our camp to pick us up, there would be about twenty in this party and we would all be standing up in the back of the lorry. When we arrived at the garage there would be about four more Japs waiting for us, grinning like Cheshire cats and tapping their sticks on the ground and relishing the thought of using them on us. After several weeks the Japs decided to take our Captain and Commander, together with other senior officers to Japan. They also took two hundred men with them: apparently these men were used in the mines and shipyards in Japan.

After some months the Japs decided that they wanted us out of the Dutch army camp, so we had to build a new camp just outside of Macassar. This was built in the same fashion as the native huts, with a bamboo frame and atap walls and roof, atap being made from the fronds of the coconut palms. The huts had a dirt floor but now we had some trestles and boards to sleep on. We moved into the bamboo camp in 1943 and we had the camp split into three: the Dutch who were the largest party had their compound, the Americans, around 250 had theirs, and the 700 British had theirs, but to the Japs we were all English, even the two Australians we had with us. But the same old routine carried on in the new camp, the guards would come in for their working parties and march them out, or perhaps like the garage party they would send a lorry.

These parties would go out at eight o'clock in the morning and would not get back until about six o'clock at night. In fact if there was a lot of work on, some of the parties would not get back until it was dark which could be eight or nine o'clock at night.

Tenko at Bambu Camp, Macassar

There was an airport about fifteen miles north of Macassar, this airport was known by the name of Maros, and the Japs had been sending a large working party up there daily to build a road to by-pass the airport because they didn't want the natives travelling through the airport. When they realised that there was too much hassle in transporting two hundred men each day they thought it would be much easier to build a camp on the end of the runway, and keep the men there permanently. So we built four bamboo huts and a small one for the four Japanese guards. When they had built the by-pass road they started on a new runway, because Japanese bombers and fighters were using this airport, and American bombers started to bomb it in 1944, and we were lucky that they didn't hit our camp at the end of the runway.

In 1943 a party of almost 200 men were sent to a place called Pamalla to work in the nickel mines there. They were there for between six and nine months, but as time went by so many were going down with sickness and diseases like malaria, dysentery, and beriberi, that sixteen had died when the Japs brought them back, telling them that the work there was finished.

In all this I have not said much about the Japanese brutality. In the early days three Dutchmen attempted to escape; they had plenty of money, they could speak the local language, and they had a boat waiting for them. They were seen by the natives who reported them to the Japs, who captured them and brought them back to the camp where they were severely beaten up, and later they chopped their heads off. After this we were all named in groups of ten, and if one of this group escaped the other nine would be beheaded.

Some time at the end of 1942 we had an ordinary seaman come into the camp as a guard, (incidentally, all our guards were Japanese navy and just as brutal as the soldiers), well this ordinary seaman was called Yoshida, he had a mouthful of gold teeth so naturally his name became 'Goldie'. It seemed that he had only been in the camp for about twelve months when he was running it, although he had now risen up in the ranks to Petty Officer. He was the most sadistic man you could ever wish to meet, and he was the instigator of the most brutal beating that I have ever seen. It was on a stoker from'H.M.S. Exeter', who was taken out of the party of which I was one. He was taken to the guardroom by the main gate, and while we watched he was beaten across the buttocks by two guards wielding big sticks, one was beating him from the left side and one from the right. We counted the times that they struck him and though it is hard to believe, we counted up to 204, and he never went down. But his backside was in a terrible state after that and he had to stay in hospital for about three months. Although this was the worst beating there were so many others. I remember another bad beating, it was a Dutchman; the Japs made two of his mates pull his arms around a large tree and they beat him until the blood was running down the back of his legs. Quite a number of times the whole of the British would be called out to watch the beating up of a whole party of perhaps ten or twenty men who had been accused of stealing outside the camp. Yoshida would be screaming and bawling and all of our guards would be laying into those men. I think the Japanese called this Bushido. In August 1945 I was on a working party in a Jap barracks in town. At midday we were told to fall in and were marched back to our bamboo camp. Later in the afternoon we were told to muster at the gate by the guardhouse. The Senior Officer, a Dutchman, stood on a box and said "The war is over". It was the most unbelievable feeling in the world, at last we were free.

Macassar is, or was, the capital of the Island of Celebes, it is on the south west tip of the island.

Celebes is now called Sulawesi, but I cannot recall the present name of Macassar. Sulawesi is the island due east of Borneo and the sea between them is still called the Macassar Straits. To the north of the island is the Celebes Sea. Although Indonesia changed the name of the island I don't think they can change the name of the seas because these are named on the Admiralty Charts.