Australian wounded massacred at Parit Sulong

Part of the War Diary for the 2/29 Battalion AIF summarising events on the 21st January 1942 when they attempted to break through the Japanese lines at Parit Sulong.

The whole War Diary for the period can be downloaded from the Australian War Memorial.

After their successful opening attack against the Japanese at the Muar River the 2/29 Battalion had held off overwhelming forces as they withdrew further down the Malay peninsula. On the 21st January they reached the river at Parit Sulong. It was hoped to make another stand here but the bridge position had already been taken by the Japanese, who now effectively encircled them. There was fierce fighting as they attempted to break through, but this eventually proved impossible.

On the 22nd decision was made to attempt to break out through the jungle and return to the British lines. It was impossible to take the wounded with them and they had to be left, made as comfortable as possible, on their stretchers beside the road. They would have to await the arrival of the main force of Japanese and become prisoners of war. Amongst the wounded was Lieutenant Ben Hackney who was badly injured in both legs, one of which was broken, and unable to walk. The official history was to draw on his account of subsequent events:

Those left behind at Parit Sulong soon met a fate largely typical of what many already had experienced, and many more were to experience, at the hands of the Japanese . Among the wounded who could not be taken away was Hackney, who has been quoted freely not only because of his courage and stamina during the struggle, but also because later he wrote a vivid and compelling account of what happened to him and to those around him.The aftermath at Parit Sulong cannot be better described than by drawing further upon his narrative, and by quoting it in part.

Hackney and Lieutenant Tibbitts were together when the withdrawal occurred. Tibbitts obtained a Bren gun, and while he was away lookin g for more ammunition, Hackney blazed away from beneath the truck, hoping thereby to give those who had left a better chance to get clear of the enemy . When Tibbitts returned, and in the period of suspense till the Japanese would reach them, they spoke of “a wash ; being in other than bloodstained, torn, filthy clothes ; a bed and a sleep “, and of other things they “had not known before were so good”.

The Japanese were slow in moving in, but at last, when firing from the column had ceased, “from all directions, but particularly north and west, chattering creatures began to come into sight, often screaming something to somebody not far away”.

They herded the wounded together with kicks, curses, blows from rifle butts, and jabs from bayonets. Unable to walk, Hackney was aided by Tibbitts, both of them under a series of blows. Across the bridge, they and the other prisoners were made to strip and sit in a circle . Hackney estimated that this maimed and bloodstained remnant of the force numbered 110 Australians and 40 Indians .

Many Japanese seemed to delight in kicking where a wound lay open, and so great was their satisfaction at any visible sign of pain that often the dose was repeated. No part of the prisoners’ bodies was spared from the brutality of their captors.

Their clothes were searched by an English-speaking white man dressed as a British soldier, and then returned to them in a heap . As many as possible were forced into a shed, which became so over-crowded that many were piled on top of others, thus adding to their excruciating pain. Appeals for water and medical attention were ignored, and a move to another building was made under compulsion of more brutality.

Japanese guns, tanks and troops streamed by throughout the rest of the afternoon. Whenever they stopped, troops ran to see the prisoners and add to their sufferings . One of the dead was placed in an upright position on a table top propped against a truck. There the body “seemed to create enormous amusement to the Japanese concerned, and was an object of ridicule to many Japanese afterwards “.

An Indian lying in front of the building regained consciousness. The Japanese in charge at the spot gave him a series of kicks, bashed him with a rifle, thrust into him again and again with his bayonet, then heaved the corpse into the water nearby.

Then, it seemed, the outburst of savagery was to be checked. An officer shouted orders; helmets and mugs filled with water were produced, and packets of cigarettes. While these were held just out of reach of thirst-crazed men, newly-arrived Japanese photographed the scene. The water was then thrown away, and the cigarettes were withdrawn.

At sunset the prisoners were roped or wired together in groups. Jerking the fetters, kicking and bashing the victims, their captors led them away, except a few, including Hackney, left for dead or about to die. Petrol was collected from the column’s stranded vehicles. Feigning death, Hackney later heard a stutter of machine-guns, and saw a flicker of fire. Crawling inch by inch later in the night, but steeling himself to suffer inertly more kicks, blows, and bayonet thrusts, even letting his boots be tugged off his feet despite agonising pain, Hackney dragged himself to a coolie building. There, by a protracted process of rubbing against a corner of a foundation block, he severed the rope binding his wrists together.

After more agonised crawling, he found water and came upon two members of his battalion — one of them Sergeant Ron Croft. “Both smelt strongly of petrol”. Croft told Hackney that he and his comrade had been among a few who were not tied when the prisoners were fired upon. They fell, though not hit, and feigned death. Petrol was then thrown on the group, and ignited, but Croft managed to free himself and the other man, who was badly wounded, from the rest.

Croft now helped this man to thick jungle near the river. Weak and nerve-racked, and smaller than Hackney, who weighed fourteen stone, he yet managed to return and stagger off with Hackney across his shoulder .

An official portrait of Ben Hackney taken in 1946, he survived the war as a prisoner of the Japanese.

They were forced to leave Hackney some distance away. He was to survive the next six weeks crawling through the jungle, occasionally receiving some food and assistance from the local Malays, who would have been in mortal danger had they been discovered helping him.

Eventually he was recaptured and he was to survive many further hardships and brutalities as a prisoner of war. It was his evidence that was to lead to the war crimes trial of Lt Gen. Takuma Nishimura, in charge of Japanese forces at Parit Sulong. Nishimura was convicted and executed by hanging in 1951.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

David Vernon January 22, 2012 at 9:09 pm

The book, “Massacre at Parit Sulong” Gilbert Mant, Kangaroo Press, 1995 tells Hackney’s story in more detail and also covers the aftermath an the war crimes trials.

Thank you for including this horrific event in the blog. It’s an atrocity that must not be forgotten

David Vernon
Editor and Writer

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