The Horrors of Japan's Civilian Internment Camps in World War II

Before the end of World War II, some citizens of Pacific countries were imprisoned in internment camps by the Japanese. Mieke Eerkens, author of All Ships Follow Me, details the devastating living conditions.

Mieke Eerkens
4-minute read

In the first section of my book, All Ships Follow Me: A Family Memoir of War Across Three Continents, I detail my father’s childhood experience in a men’s labor camp run by Japan, an Axis Power during World War II that invaded several countries in the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Japanese forces killed and imprisoned millions of civilians across China, the Philippines, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies, and other countries during the military's attempt to take control of Asia.

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While some people know that the United States interned Japanese Americans in WWII, and generally people in the United States are aware of Japan’s POW camps for Allied military members, they are often surprised when I tell them that the Japanese also interned civilians. They were made to do hard labor, starved, and beaten. Most people are also unaware of the surviving Japanese military documents that detailed plans to exterminate prisoners beginning in September of 1945. It is unknown if those plans would have been carried out because the horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August brought the war to an abrupt end. Even so, over a third of my father’s camp died, and across Indonesia, thousands of civilian men, women, and children lost their lives inside the camps.

This is how we heal the wounds of history: through open dialogue.

My father was born into the third generation living in a Dutch-Indonesian colonial society on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch had been present in Indonesia since the late 16th century, and the Netherlands officially colonized the country in 1800 as a result of the spice trade. My grandfather was a military doctor who rotated to hospitals that served the indigenous populations in both rural communities on the island of Sumatra and cities on Java. He had a pretty carefree life—eating coconuts and mangos plucked right from the trees, playing with the sons of the hospital’s Indonesian co-director, Dr. Sahidiman, in the aviary of their garden, or making forts in the sugarcane fields with the German neighbor boy, Friedl. He was 11 years old when Japan attacked in 1942.

My father's happy lifestyle came to an end when the Japanese landed in Java. They rode into the cities on bicycles, row after row of soldiers with bayonet-tipped rifles angled across their backs, followed by more soldiers in jeeps. While the Japanese permitted the local Indonesians to stay in their homes under their rule, all Dutch people were rounded up and sent to camps, and mixed race “Indo” children could go into the camps with the Dutch parent, or stay on the outside with the Indonesian parent.

Because he was a military doctor, the soldiers came for my grandfather first. They took him away to a POW camp for military men. Not long after, my grandmother and her four children, including my eleven-year-old father, were put on trains to Semarang. There, they were interned in a camp where over fifty women and children crowded each small kampong house with no running water.