Today’s piece is going into details of the first and most likely scenario of the death of my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec: That he became one of the roughly 250 victims of the massacre committed by the Japanese soldiers at the Alexandra Hospital in Singapore just before its capitulation.
Photo: Silvestr’s portrait from February 1938, ten months before his departure for Singapore.
This possibility is being mentioned most frequently in the documents I have seen, in total at six occasions. Here is their overview, ordered by the time they were written:
1) The long piece titled The story of Batamen in Malaya published in October 1945 in the weekly Batanagar News. It says:
“It cannot be ascertained now who and how many were wounded, so far as we know, Kozisnicek, Vitek and Nemec were wounded. Nemec was sent to the military hospital; when later the Japanese captured it, in the rage of animal brutality they mercilessly killed all the wounded soldiers lying in beds. Here Nemec met his end.”
This text was written by a journalist and editor-in-chief of the Batanagar News, Mr Jan Baros. He acknowledges that it’s based on stories told to him by the first two Singapore Batamen who reached Batanagar after their liberation from the Japanese internment camp at Changi, Mr Bohman and Mr Jedovnicky.
2) Letter by Pavel Ambroz, Silvestr’s colleague, to the Nemec family. It’s dated 21st December 1945 and states that:
“Some three days before the Japanese occupation of Singapore, [Silvestr] was wounded and transported to a field hospital. After the fall of Singapore, I was looking for him in all local hospitals, but did not find him. Now that the British control Singapore again, I discovered in the military lists that he is recorded as ‘mising'”.
3) Letter by Antonin Jugas, written on 22nd January 1946, informs the Nemec family that:
“Following the capitulation, we have only learnt from our other employees that your son was wounded and moved to a hospital. Nobody had heard about him ever since; at that time, hell broke out in Singapore.”
4) Josef Vyhnalek, Silvestr’s colleague and friend, recalls in his memoirs written long after the war, in October 1966, that:
“Silva Nemec, originating from the Brno region, was wounded when our positions were bombed at the beginning of the siege. He was taken to the hospital on Alexandra Road. This hospital was stormed by the Japanese several days later. All its personnel, doctors, nurses as well as patients were killed. Silva being one them.”
5) Marie Bohman, a daugher of Matej Bohman (one of the Singapore Batamen), wrote in an unpublished section of her memoirs Sakra saheb that:
“Mr Larry Kent [his original name was Ladislav Kvapil – note by JB], former Singapore resident, recalled that a Czech boy was among those cold-bloodedly bayoneted in their hospital beds.”
6) Mr Ivan Prochazka, in his historical essay Compatriots in the Far East that was published in the Military History magazine in 1996, says that:
“During the first fights, under constant shelling by the Japanese artillery, some of them were wounded: Kozisnicek, Vitek, Nemec. Lightly wounded were also Vyhnalek, Jedovnicky and some others […] During the siege of Singapore, a private Silvestr Nemec died, as he was clubbed along with other wounded patients and medical personnel in the Alexandra Hospital.”
Mr Prochazka based his essay on a number of historical documents, which include the above mentioned memoirs of Josef Vyhnalek and article by Baros in the Batanagar News – therefore, this information is already secondary, adapted from the earlier sources. I have actually came across more articles that mention this same story, notably those written by Mr Emil Macel in 1990s for local newspapers in Zlin. Similarly to Prochazka, also Macel used the already known documents – and thus, despite the frequency of, these additional reports does not add to the weight of this possibility of Silvestr’s death.
However, there is another break-through document that I have discovered. It was initially shared with me by Jonathan Moffatt, the historian of the Malaya Volutneers Group association. It is this sheet from a list of missing Singapore soliders:
Photo: Page from a list of soldiers in Singapore who got classified as missing. I have highlighted the record of Silvestr Nemec. The document is held at the UK National Archives (ref. WO 316/2192) and can be also reached online for example on findmypast.co.uk, however it requires a paid access.
As you can see, there is Silvestr’s name on it! We learn that Silvestr was treated or hospitalized on 11th February 1942 as a result of a shell-shock, and that he had gone missing before 15th February.
Shell-shock is not a direct physical wound, but a post-traumatic stress disorder caused by a nearby explosion of an artillery shell. Poor Silvestr, who left his country for Singapore at the age of 19, probably did not have a chance to go through a regular military training in Czechoslovakia before departure. Thus, his only preparation for the war were the trainings of the volunteers corps in Singapore. The concentrated artillery shelling, targeting the positions of defenders, must have been a horrifying experience for him.
The information from this record also perfectly fits with the other historical documents quoted above – i.e. that Silvestr was wounded several days before the fall of Singapore (which came on 15th February) when the volunteer units were exposed to heavy bombing and shelling.
It’s now known whether Silvestr suffered some other injury. Following a treatment given to him on 11th February, he might have returned to his unit – it’s not very likely in a case of shell-shock, but it can’t be entirely ruled out, notably as Vyhnalek remembers in his letter from August 1947 that last time he had seen Silvestr alive was when they were both attacking a Gap hill in the Pasir Panjang ridge. The fierce battles there only took place on 12th and 13th of February. Should he had suffered an another injury there, it’s certain that he was taken to the Alexandra hospital, which was closest to that battlefield.
Photo: Aerial view on the Alexandra Hospital and its surroundings in Singapore. This picture was taken in 1970. Source and link: Flickr
No matter what injury and on what day exactly, it’s most likely that Silvestr ended up in the Alexandra Hospital in any case. At that time, it was called British Military Hospital and was dedicated for the troops from British units (there were also Australian, Indian and other hospitals in Singapore at that time).
In case that also Kozusnicek and Vitek were injured around the same time as Silvestr – which is what several accounts tell us – then they would have been also placed to Alexandra/British Military Hospital. This fits very well the scenario, because in such a case, they would become witnesses of Silvestr’s murder, and later on they told about it the other Bata people and Czechoslovaks.
Photo: Panoramatic view on the main building of Alexandra Hospital in Singapore, dated December 1941. Source and link: IWM
The construction of the British Military Hospital was completed in 1938, shortly before the war, and it’s standing and serving the purpose till these days. It’s a generous and spacious complex, built in the colonial style. At its time, it was providing modern interiors and facilities. It’s located on an elevated area, surrounded by a garden and auxiliary buildings.
Photo: The complex of Alendra Hospital today. Source: Google Earth
Photo: Modern interior and beds in the British Military Hospital. Picture dated around 1st December 1941. Source and link: IWM
Photo: Light and generous space in one of the wards of the British Military Hospital. Picture dated around 1st December 1941. Source and link: IWM
Massacre according to Peter Bruton
I have to confess that this chapter has been one of the most difficult for me to prepare and write. In this case, it took me a long time to cope with the horrors I was imagining after reading a detailed reconstruction of the massacre, as it was written by Peter Burton in 1989.
His work is not much available, but again, Jonathan Moffatt was kind enough to provide me with his electronic copy. It appears to be the most detailed account of the massacre published so far.
Photo: Front page of the publication by Peter Bruton from 1989.
Bruton is building his story based on about twenty individual accounts of some of the survivors. But he also acknowledges that there are still many gaps and uncertainties. One of the challenges he was facing was that what people recalled or wrote down after 3.5 years of hard imprisonment and forced labor, is often contradicting the other accounts.
What follows is a summary of the events how Bruton had reconstructed them:
“The civilian staff was disappearing during the last days of the fights. On Friday 13th February, the command of the hospital ordered remaining eight local nurses to leave as well. They were concerned that following the capture by Japanese, a similar violence towards the medical staff could occur as it just did recently in a hospital in Hong Kong.
There were about 900 patients in the hospital at this moment – mostly British, but also some other nationals. New wounded soldiers were still arriving, mostly during the night when the risk of bombing was limited. The number of hospital staff was 180 people.
It was very crowded. To accommodate so many patients, the wards originally designed for 24 beds each were hosting 72 injured who were lying on stretchers between the beds. A number of patients were also outside of the rooms, along the corridors.
The hospital was well marked with red crosses: there was a red cross flag on the pole, additional flags dropped from the windows and spread on its roof. On the lawn outside, a big cross was made of the white and red bed sheets.
On the evening of 13th, the Japanese managed to penetrate the front and reach near the hospital, which thus became surrounded by no man’s land. Next morning, it found itself in the middle of fire, as artillery of both sides were firing above and across it.
Around 1pm, a line of Japanese soldiers was spotted passing by. Suddenly one of these soldiers appeared in a gap between the overlapping blast walls near the hospital entrance. A British medical captain approached him, pointing to his Red Cross armband and saying “hospital”. They stared at each other for a moment, then the Japanese soldier fired from his rifle on him, possibly considering his camouflaged helmet as a threat. He luckily missed and the captain ran back to hospital; the soldier did not pursue him inside.
Then around 2pm, a group of Indian soldiers was passing through the hospital. They took an advantage of its roof and were firing from it on some Japanese soldiers around. Some of the patients later recalled that they even heard a firing sound of a light machine gun from somewhere within the building.
It does not matter whether the Indians ignored the neutrality of the hospital because fear and panic, or just stupidity. What they did had soon proven fatal to the hospital.
Shortly after the Indians rushed out of the hospital, around 2.30pm, Japanese soldiers stormed in in their pursue. They were coming in three separate companies, each approaching the hospital from a different direction. The Japanese soldiers seemed to had spent quite some time on the battlefront: unshaven, dirty, in full gear, armed with rifles and bayonets, and heavy camouflage made of grass and twigs.
First group, approaching from the railway, scared hospital staff that was in a nearby laboratory building. As they started to run towards the hospital, Japanese opened fire. Two were killed and one, wounded, crawled towards the main entrance, calling for help.
Another group entered the building in the direction from which the Indian troops initially came. As they got to the corridor, the first place they have seen was an improvised intake room that was crowded with about hundred wounded soldiers. One Japanese soldier took a broom and used its stick to beat them on their heads. Lieutenant Weston who was in charge of this room took a white bed sheet as a sign of capitulation and held it next to the door. Another of the Japanese soldiers stabbed him with a bayonet and killed him. It might have been this moment that triggered the outburst of atrocities that lasted for the next half an hour.
More Japanese soldiers rushed to the intake room and began to shoot and stab the patients there. Some of them tried to escape out of the room, gimping to the corridor and towards the main entrance, but there they got shot down by a machine gun. Some others were rushing through the corridor to the back of the building, where they eventually ran into another Japanese unit that also began to shoot or bayonet them. Several Japanese soldiers entered two of the wards, where they killed several patients and forced the others, who were able to walk, to stand up and move to the corridor.
A third Japanese company climbed up the verandas between two surgery sections. Here, six medics and doctors started a surgery around 2.30pm despite the fact that the building was under fire – in order to get a better cover, they were performing it outside of the operating theater, in an adjacent corridor. At the moment the Japanese reached them, they just finished one surgery and were waiting for the next patient. The Japanese started to shoot, and the medical team run into the operation theater where they stopped, standing with hands raised above their heads. The Japanese ordered them to go out again, and as they did, they were stabbed and most of them got killed. Also the patient, still lying in anesthesia following the surgery, was bayoneted to death.
In the meantime, some other soldiers from this company went to the two surgical wards and were having sadistic fun torturing the patients there: twisting their bandaged arms and legs, beating them with rifle buts, and slinging the weights that were holding some patient’s arms or legs in fixated positions. Later they went out to the main corridor, where they were randomly shooting or bayoneting the patients there.
In another room, two Japanese soldiers were robbing the patients of watches and other valuables, stabbing several of them along the way. Suddenly a Japanese officer came in, kicked them out and apologized in English: ‘I am sorry but my men are tired and hungry – they have been fighting without rest for many days’.
The frantic slaughter lasted for about half an hour. Fifty people were killed, both patients and staff. Many more were wounded, left lying on the floor, bleeding.
Yet, the worst was still to come.
The soldiers rounded up about two hundred people, mostly staff, but also patients from the ground floor – the intake room as well as the corridor – who were capable of walking. Their hands were first tied behind their backs, and then they were tied together in small groups. After that, they were ordered to march out of the hospital – patients in their pyjamas and bandages.
Photo: A schematic map from Peter Burton’s publication, illustrating his reconstruction of the event (the scale is in yards). Another historian, Ian Richardson, however believes that the massacre took place at another spot, closer to the hospital.
The captives were then walked away, guarded by the Japanese soldiers. They had to duck for cover several times as the artillery fire was going on around them. After walking about a kilometer, they were crammed into an old building of the Sisters Quarter, which the nurses used for accommodation. The building was divided into three small compartments. The biggest one, 10′ x 12′ large, holded about 70 captives. One of the smaller ones, 9′ x 9′ in size, had 57 people in it. The Japanese then blocked the windows and doors from outside with wooden planks. Two machine guns were placed next to it, guarding the building.
The poor captives had to stand on their feet all the time, as there was not enough space for most of them even to sit inside the tiny rooms. As the time passed and they had to relief themselves, they were urinating on each other. The Japanese did not loosen the ropes with which they were tied, nor did they provide them with any water. Everyone was terribly thirsty, because after the water supply was cut on 11th February, the hospital was rationing water at stricly limited amount of one pint per person per day. In the suffocating heat and stench, and with no fresh air or any water, people began to break and collapse, screaming out of desperation and calling for water. The moaning and screaming continued throughout the whole night. Several patients reached a state of delirium, and in one of the roooms, seven people were reported to have died overnight.
Photo: A schematic drawing of the site of the massacre, according to Peter Bruton. The dashed line shows the direction of escape of the lucky few surivors.
Next day shortly before noon, the doors had finally opened and one Japanese officer told the captives that they will be moving to a different location, further away from the battlefront, and he promised them to get some water along the way. The Japanese then started to take the captives out in small groups of two or three, and they were seen going out and around the building. There was lot of shooting and shelling going on outside continuously, so for a while, nobody suspected anything wrong. At some moment, however, the captives recognized distant screams such as “Oh God!”, “Mother!” and “No, no!” from the outside. Their suspicion that the Japanese were actually killing them one by one got confirmed when one of the soldiers came in, wiping blood out from his bayonet. In the horror, couple of the captives tried to kill themselves, one cutting by his wrist and another hanging himself. Several others seized an opportunity at the moment when one of the shells hit a corner of the building and created an opening in the wall. They climbed out and started to run for life. Most were mowed by a machine gun outside, but five to escape and hide, ultimately reaching the British troops for help.”
Thanks to those five survivors, we have several witness accounts today about the slaughter that happened remotely, outside of the hospital, on the second day.
Out of the approximately fifty killed in the hospital, Bruton managed to identify names of twenty eight. From the two hundred murdered day later, he was able to reconstruct names of ninety. Thus, a big part of the victims are still not known by name – Silvestr likely being one of them.
The following day, on Monday 16th February 1942, a commander of these Japanese units involved, general Mutaguchi, paid a visit to the hospital. He apologized for what happened and as a symbolic gesture, he was feeding some of the patients with peach compote himself by a spoon.
According to one later account, a lower ranking officer who instigated the massacre was exemplarily executed by the Japanese command. This however was not confirmed.
After the end of the war, the Alexandra Hospital massacre was investigated by the War Crimes Tribunal. Its Seventh Investigation Team issued a verdict in April 1946 that there was no evidence pinpointing who exactly conducted the killings, although it was established that people were indeed massacred on 15 February 1942. The overall responsibility was assigned to the commander of the 18th Division of the Japanese army, however it was also concluded that in the light of a clear evidence about the Indian troops firing from the hospital towards the Japanese positions, the massacre was committed in the heat of battle and therefore nobody was ultimately responsible in a way that could substantiate a charge and sentence. The fact that general Mutaguchi visited the scene and apologized was also taken into consideration.
New Information from Ian Richardson
Another historian I managed to get in touch with is Ian Richardson – the most knowledgeable expert on Alexandra Hospital massacre known to me. Similar to Silvestr, Ian’s father also joined the volunteer service – he was with the Malayan volunteer troops (FMSVF) and happened as well to be hospitalized at Alexandra during the time of the massacre. Luckily, he was among those who survived.
Ian was following up on the work by Peter Bruton, who abandoned the subject shortly after publishing his document in 1989. Perhaps the whole issue was too emotionally charged for him; he was also struggling with the confusion and how much the individual accounts were actually contradicting each other. Ian managed to gather a wealth of new information since, and is preparing his own publication, tentatively to be ready in 2019.
He also expanded the list of identified people so far: nailing down 342 names of those who were in the hospital on 14th February, which is about a third of the total. There is no mention of Silvestr on Ian’s list either, but again, given how many of the victims still remain anonymous, that does not indicate anything. The original files that the hospital had were ordered to be destroyed by its own management few days before the fall of Singapore, and whatever might have been preserved did not survive the Japanese occupation.
Ian believes that a more precise estimate of the numbers of victims is 56 people from 14th February, and 160 to 170 people – mostly staff – at the off-site killings on 15th February.
When I was sharing the information available about Silvestr with Ian, he also made a judgment that Silvestr was very likely among the victims. His line of thinking is that should Silvestr been admitted on 11th February with a shell-shock, he would presumably be sedated and as a patient with comparatively light injury, placed among those in the main corridor, because the wards were overcrowded. This would also make him directly exposed to the first wave of brutality, as the Japanese soldiers were storming through the ground floor of the hospital building.
Also, as the Japanese likely ordered the patients to raise their hands up, Silvestr might have been either confused by the drugs and did not follow the order quickly enough, or he might have got agitated in panic (let’s remember he was shell-shocked) – and either way, attracted attention and provoked the Japanese to kill him.
Of course he might also have been among those patients capable of walking, who were taken out and massacred the next day – though I want to wish that he was spared of the inferno of the all-night suffering in the crammed rooms.
* * *
So indeed, it was the Alexandra Hospital massacre where Silvestr’s life most probably ended. I am looking forward to the upcoming research by Ian Richardson – based on that, I might be able to further elaborate and correct the narrative of this scenario.
Next time, we will be looking at the details of the fights at Pasir Panjang – another possibility where Silvestr might have died.