On 4 September 2007, a memorial was unveiled at the tiny village of Parit Sulong, Malaya, to commemorate all those who died in The Muar Battle, sixty-five years before. In January 1942, as the Japanese pushed the main Allied army down the Malay peninsula, two under-strength Australian infantry battalions, a handful of gunners and a depleted Indian Army contingent had held back a vastly superior enemy force of 10,000 crack Japanese Imperial Guards. This epic battle, which prevented the enemy from cutting off the line of retreat of the main Allied forces, was one of the most desperate, and least known, fighting retreats of the Second World War, for which the Australian commander Lieutenant-Charles Anderson was awarded a Victoria Cross.
After four days of relentless combat, the defenders had reached the bridge at the village of Parit Sulong, only to find it in Japanese hands. Unable to break through and with no hope of relief, surrounded by superior enemy forces but unwilling to surrender, Anderson gave the order ‘every man for himself’. Left behind at the bridge were the very badly wounded – over 100 Australian and 35 Indian soldiers, expecting Red Cross protection. This was not to be, and what followed was one of the most infamous massacres of World War 2.
In June 1997, while researching material for her 2004 publication, The Bridge at Parit Sulong, Lynette Silver wrote to the Director of the Office of Australian War Graves suggesting that the site of the massacre and the efforts of these gallant Australians be marked in some way. Her proposal received excellent support, but it took ten years to obtain the funding and secure the necessary permissions for the project to finally become reality. When it was was finally approved and financed, due in no small part to the Office of Australian War Graves and staff at the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur, Lynette was invited to be closely involved in the design of the memorial, as well as the wording on the granite tablet and the two information panels, which describe, briefly, the battle and the terrible aftermath.
Wording on the memorial
What was the aftermath?
It was not until mid-afternoon on 22 January, following the withdrawal of the able-bodied, that the enemy reached the convoy. Shouting and yelling, they forced the wounded from the vehicles and across a parit (drainage ditch) to the front of a Public Works Department (PWD) accommodation block. Anyone who lagged behind was belted with rifle butts, kicked, bayoneted, or shot.
After being stripped and searched, the captives were crammed at bayonet point into a small garage. The Japanese paid no heed to screams of the badly wounded, and several died of suffocation before the group was moved to two rooms at the end of the main block.
Just before sunset, each prisoner’s hands were tied with a length of rope or signal wire, which was then passed around his neck and secured to the next prisoner. Anyone who could not stay upright was cut from the line, bashed or bayoneted, and left for dead.
They were then forcibly moved in groups around the far end of the building and machine-gunned. Bodies of those who had been cut from the line, or died previously, were added to the pile of the dead and dying. Dousing them with petrol, the Japanese then set them alight, in a futile attempt to destroy the evidence of their crime.
Post-war, not a single trace of any of these victims was found. As the Japanese claimed that they had been cremated, no further investigation to locate the remains was ever undertaken.
Although all physical evidence of the massacre had ‘vanished’, the Japanese responsible did not escape retribution. Lieutenant Ben Hackney, although badly wounded and suffering from a broken leg, had been cut from the line. Left for dead, he lay hidden in the shadows throughout the massacre, before he managed to drag himself to a safe hiding place. Although recaptured five weeks later, he survived the war and became the prosecution’s prime witness. General Nishimura, who had ordered the execution of the wounded prisoners, was brought to trial in 1950, and hanged in June the following year.
The belated search for remains
What became of the remains of the murdered Allied soldiers was not questioned until 1998, when Lynette Silver began her in-depth research into the Muar battle and the subsequent massacre. The stories were conflicting, with one Japanese interrogated post-war stating that he believed the bodies had been thrown into the river. Others claimed that the remains had been burned to ash. The first suspicion that the corpses had not been cremated had emerged only in the late 1990s, when the daughter of a villager revealed that her father had been forced to untie the charred bodies and drag them to a nearby ‘burial pit’.
Following the publication of Lynette’s book in 2004, she began a campaign to have a memorial erected, and to press for an official investigation to establish if a mass grave existed at the site. In 2007, to coincide with the unveiling of the memorial, an official announcement was made by the Army History Unit that a search for the remains would be undertaken.
The archaeological investigation
However, it was not for another three years, following a vigorous review of the evidence and the discovery of human bones following the dredging of the river, that Australia’s Unrecovered War Casualties Unit initiated a joint archaeological survey of the site with Malaysia. In March 2010 Lynette was invited to join the search team, comprising more than thirty archaeologists, anthropologists, surveyors, geologists, researchers, labourers and a forensic dentist.
The entire area was heavily overgrown. Following a ground survey, several ‘hot spots’ were identified. The most significant was the old main parit, abandoned long ago but which, in 1942, had widened out to form a large stream before emptying into the river. The excavation itself extended to the virgin clay, to a depth of up to two metres or more. As the mechanical excavators took out each bucket load, the archaeologists and geologists, aided by other members of the party, examined the exposed ground and the spoil for any signs that might indicate that a mass grave had been in that location.
Gathering more information
While the excavations continued at a slow and steady pace, Lynette interviewed several local people. Although there were many reports that Chinese civilians and British troops, captured south of the village, had been bayoneted on the bridge and thrown into the river, no one reported seeing, or had ever heard of, any burnt bodies among them. More significantly, no one had seen any sign of any cremation fire, or piles of burnt bones.
As the village was ‘out of bounds’ for three weeks after the battle, no one interviewed had any information about the massacre, although some had seen the bodies of soldiers killed in action lying in parits further up the road. Lynette also learned that, about a month after the fighting, the river, now swollen with monsoonal rains, had broken its banks to the east of the village, and swept the corpses away.
A significant discovery
One day, while crossing the plank spanning the PWD parit to and from the search area in order to interview villagers, Lynette noticed a significant change in the water level. Further observation revealed that, at each low tide, the parit near the PWD, which now discharges into the river via a large underground pipe, is completely drained of water, leaving a layer of sludge and mud exposed. At high tide, the water is about one metre deep.
As Hackney had reported that, on the afternoon of 22 January, the Japanese had drowned an Indian soldier in this parit, Lynette concluded that it must have been close to high tide at that time, as the body had disappeared completely beneath the surface. Therefore, with a six-hour tidal change, low tide the next day would have been late that morning, the time of the reported ‘burial’. Also, at around this time, Hackney had reported hearing a disturbance at the killing field, from his hiding place in nearby jungle.
The results of the search
The archaeological search was extremely thorough, extending far beyond the actual massacre site. However, despite sifting through tonnes of earth, the searchers found nothing, other than bits of rubbish and odd artifacts, none of which was considered to be war-related.
And, although Lynette’s husband Neil spent many hours running a metal detector over heaps of excavated material and archaeological assistants manually and diligently searched every pile, not a single solitary bullet was found, despite the fact that hundreds of rounds had been expended during the massacre.
Indeed, the most remarkable feature of the excavation was that there was nothing at all to indicate that the area had been subjected to fierce fighting, or that a substantial number of Allied troops and civilians had been killed there.
Interestingly, an Australian army officer, who searched the area in late 1945, had also reported that his investigating team had found no trace of any gear or kit lying anywhere
So, what happened to the remains of the massacred prisoners?
With no grave found, despite an exhaustive search, the previously known facts and the new information that had came to light were re-examined.
This revealed that there is an element of truth in each of the methods of disposal claimed over the years – cremation, burial and in the river.
There is no doubt that the bodies were doused in fuel and set on fire. However, once the fuel burnt off, the flames went out. With cremation very incomplete, the following morning local people were forced to untie the corpses and drag them to a nearby burial pit. Yet, no trace of this grave had been discovered.
The Japanese, who rarely dug a grave to bury their victims, made use of shell holes, slit trenches, wells, ditches and monsoon drains. At Parit Sulong, on the morning of 23 January, the large main parit was drained of water at low tide – a most convenient method of disposal.
As the Japanese officer in charge did not arrive at Divisional Headquarters at nearby Batu Pahat until 7 pm, it is believed that, late that afternoon, many of the corpses (possibly all) were floated into the river on the outgoing tide, possibly with the help of bamboo poles. Any remainding would have been flushed out over the next few days by either monsoonal rains or the tide. By the time the local people returned to the village, all trace of the massacre victims had disappeared.
Any residual remains still lying in the mud, along with any gear and equipment, would have been swept away by storm water and/or the subsequent floodwaters that inundated the area. This scouring accounts for the total lack of any equipment, when the investigating team arrived at the village at the end of the war, and explains why Ben Hackney, after his recapture, saw no sign of the massacre as he passed by the killing field.
Mother Nature had done her job well.
An unexpected outcome
Although Lynette had suggested to the Australian Government in 1997 that the PWD buildings and garage should be preserved, preservation of buildings, especially those overseas, was not part of the government’s agenda. At the time, the garage was completely intact and the PWD quarters were in reasonably good condition, with a fully tiled roof requiring only minimum restoration work, and the metal doors and windows undamaged. In the following ten years, deterioration of both buildings was minimal.
From time to time over the next few years Lynette was in contact with local people who were interested in heritage matters. They despaired as each year passed, with more and more of the structure being ‘scavenged’. The rear tiles went first, then the doors and windows.
In March 2011, when the team arrived to begin excavations, the building was in ruins. All the tiles had gone, along with most of the rafters, allowing rainwater to penetrate the concrete shell, resulting in concrete cancer.
However, the scale of the excavation, which lasted for two weeks, aroused a lot of local interest, especially when the Chief of Army, General Gillespie, flew in by army helicopter to inspect the progress. His arrival created a sensation. His visit was possibly the most momentous event to take place in Parit Sulong since the Japanese invasion of 1942.
Following the ‘Australian Invasion’ and resultant publicity, Lynette received emails from Malaysians interested wartime heritage. They were keen to preserve the PWD quarters, but the stumbling block, as always, was money – especially as the building had been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent. Given the building’s condition, Lynette thought that, at best, it might be preserved as a ‘ruin’.
However, in March 2013, when an Australian traveller, Russell Mehan, visited the site he discovered that the JKR (PWD) had erected a chain-and-triple-barbed-wire fence, sealing off the building, which was now in an even more dilapidated state. Why this had been done was not clear, and none of the locals could shed any light on the matter. The buildings remained isolated throughout 2014.
Then, in September 2015, Peter Symon, whose relative James Symon had died at Parit Sulong, visited the site to discover that the PWD quarters and the garage have been unexpectedly and completely restored – 18 years after Lynette’s initial suggestion was put forward. The transformation is amazing. Those responsible are to be congratulated for saving a small but significant part of Malaysia’s wartime heritage, which will undoubtedly raise public awareness of what happened at the bridge at Parit Sulong, in January 1942.
For the full story of the battle, the massacre and the post-war chase to arrest and try those responsible for numerous war crimes, read Lynette’s book, The Bridge at Parit Sulong.
Those with a connection with the Muar-Bakri-Parit Sulong battles are invited to contact Lynette Silver, so that she can help relatives and other interested people maintain an information and support network.