Joan Powell

Joan Powell – Nursing Sister aged 36 in 1942. Palembang Women’s camp 1942. Whilst in Palembang in June 1942 she lost her new born baby during delivery. She survived the camps of Palembang, Muntok, and Leoboek linggau and in the diary of Phyllis Briggs it is recorded that Joan, after liberation on 30th September 1945 took off in a plane [in Singapore] with fifteen cheerful New Zealanders all ex POWs … bound for New Zealand.

Townsville Daily Bulletin Wednesday 3 October 1945

Women internees in a camp in Sumatra were so ill treated by the Japs that they were forced to bury their own dead, laying out bodies for burial, nailing down coffins, conveying them to cemeteries, digging graves and covering them in. This was one of the ordeals which Mrs. J. Powell experienced when she was an internee. She told this on her arrival at Garbutt on Tuesday afternoon.

Among some of her other trials and tribulations which she suffered were:

  • Captured at sea when trying to escape from Johore Bahru and removal to prison.
  • Carrying water for the Jap overlords at one of the Sumatran camps, the distance being a half mile.
  • An indescribable journey in a small hell ship when on the way to Loeboekingau camp, in the south of Sumatra.
  • Chopping firewood and tilling soil in order to secure fuel and to grow vegetables for their own use.
  • Living in vermin infested camps where rats ran across the faces of sleepers at night.

Mrs. Powell originally left New Zealand in 1933 to see a little of the outside world. Prior to the war, however, she had had two trips to her homeland, but in 1937, entered Johore from Mauritius, where she had carried out her profession as a nursing sister. She was in Johore Bahru, the capital near the fall of the native state and Singapore.

With that intrepidity, so characteristic of the British race, Mrs. Powell decided to take her chances and made an attempt to escape. In the Banka Straits, however, the vessel she was on was captured, and the passengers were removed to Muntok, on Banka Island.

After a fortnight in the prison there, they were removed to Palembang, in Sumatra and, in Sumatra, began a series of experiences which vied with one another for conditions which were altogether far removed from the congenial.

One of her first experiences was sleeping in a garage on a concrete floor in which 15 women had been herded. Later 20 to 80 women were placed in a small house with appalling food conditions. Then in ‘Paradise Camp,’ each person only had 27 inches wide for sleeping space, being on raised beds on a mud floor. The huts were full of vermin. Bugs infested every sleeping place. Rats roamed at will and unless the women prisoners had nets they were disturbed at night with rats running across them, even their faces.

Sanitary conditions were so primitive that they were almost indescribable. No proper lavatories were provided, the only place for retirement being a long trench. This continued into the yards of the huts and, uncovered, ran across the yard. Children played in the vicinity of this open drain filled with human faeces, which appeared to defy all attempts at clearance. The prisoners did try to wash the drain down and nullify, even in small measure, the stench arising, but the nature of the soil mitigated against this and their efforts met with but little success.

In this camp the women were toilers of the soil, hewers of wood and drawers of water. In the last mentioned task they were compelled to carry water for half a mile for the domestic use of the Jap guards, who were not at all sparing with what water they consumed. It was also common for the women to be engaged in chopping wood.

Disease was rampant in the camp and the women were dying like files. The mortality was later set down at 40 per cent. In the camp were both Dutch and English, with deaths heavier among the English community.

Perhaps the most appalling experience of all was in that camp, where the women were once obliged to bury their own dead. This consisted in laying out bodies for burial, placing them in packing cases which were supplied for coffins, digging graves and placing the coffins therein, afterwards covering them with earth.

The packing cases which were supplied for coffins were frequently marked with the advertisement of some goods which had previously been placed in them. Six months were endured under these conditions, when the womenfolk and the children were transferred to Loeboeklinngau, near Lahat, in South Sumatra. The journey up a river to this place will never be forgotten by the women who survived, and re-member, seven women died on the journey,’ said Mrs. Powell.

‘The boats were but small ones, and the women were placed in the holds, with the sick and dying on decks, no cover being offered against the blazing equatorial sun. The only food and water available was what the prisoners had brought with them.

Of the seven women who had died one was buried overboard, the remainder being brought to Palembang. After the journey by water was over, the prisoners were packed into a train, 50 to a carriage with no sleeping accommodation. They were issued each with a very small loaf for the trip.

When they reached the camp they were placed in huts and lived under coolie conditions. The huts leaked and water from the severe Sumatran storms poured down on them in their sleep or attempted rest. A stream which ran through supplied the needs of the camp for all purposes. Prior to using, it had to be boiled. Sanitary conditions were again appalling and the place was infested by millions of flies.

Following the severe buffeting they had received on the trip to this camp there were a great many deaths. There had been a hospital of sorts set up, but there were no medical supplies. No clothing had been supplied to the women, no mosquito nets, being necessary to improvise with old rags. Banana skins and rubber nuts were eaten as food. Malaria was rife and there was no quinine, patients suffering with ague after ague.

Nurses worked hard to try to ease the patients, but they, too, went down one after the other. In this camp the Dutch nurses did excellent work

Mrs. Powell related an incident in which a nun from one of the Catholic missions, who was among the prisoners, had been ill-treated by the Japs. There was one of many occasions when there was no firewood available for the women to do their cooking. This nun left the barbed wire enclosure to secure some fuel, when she was seen by one of the Jap guards. He first slapped the nun, then began to belabour her on the face with a bamboo cane until the cane broke in two.

On another occasion four nursing sisters had been left in a hospital. For no reason, the Japs beat up the medical officer and his wife and threw the sisters into gaol, without bedding or clothing of any kind. After six months of these conditions the nurses rejoined the camp in which Mrs. Powell had been imprisoned. Two of the sisters subsequently succumbed in the camp.

There were Indonesian guards placed over the prisoners and some were adepts in black marketing. Through them the Japs secured many articles from the prisoners, such as jewellery. Later this was sold and the proceeds used to buy food. As high as £1 had been paid for a duck’s egg, but this was a cheap price compared with some of the black markets in Singapore, where the price for such an article was £5.

Whether the Japs saw the writing on the wall or not, Mrs. Powell was not prepared to state, but she said that over the last six months, the prisoners were given a liberal ration of red palm oil, which was rich in vitamins and did much to restore them to health.