The expanding and aggressive Japanese military empire had long posed a clear threat to European and American colonies in the East Indies and there had been many warnings before the Japanese surprise attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor on 10th December 1941. However, although their Dutch colonial neighbours had sent their families home, most Europeans in British North Borneo elected to stay, including wives and children – and including Mary Baldwin. As Agnes Keith records in her second book "Three Came Home" written after the end of World War II,
"Harry and George and I went down by the Baynain, a tiny coastal steamer, to Dutch Borneo for a trip. That was George's first boat trip and he liked it. We visited the oil fields at Tarakan. Every hill, nook, cranny, tree, field, hole, house, shrub, hid a gun; every inch was defended, or mined to be blown up, when the end came. The European women had been evacuated”
“And still it wasn't too late to get out. Shortly before Christmas (1941) the small coastal steamer Baynain, the one on which we had gone to Tarakan, was ordered to leave for the Dutch East Indies, in order to keep it out of the hands of the Nipponese. It was made available to evacuate any local women who wished to go. . . . . . . . .Then night came, and the Baynain sailed. Only six women were on her. That was the last ship out of port. After that, fate really closed down."
Thanks to Agnes Keith, we have an accurate and detailed record of the events that then unfolded and the hardships and cruelty that all had to endure. It makes grim reading especially when remembering that these were women and children - imprisoned, humiliated and made to endure severe hardship without cause. The men, civilians tho’ they might be, fared much worse. Rather than repeat a lot of material that is much better presented in the book, I’ve selected a few more extracts from Three Came Home and just some of Agnes Keith’s own cartoons which speak powerfully for themselves and describe sufficiently this story of unnecessary suffering.
Lest we forget, as we concentrate on the fate of our kin, let us pause to remember that many hundreds, if not thousands, of native Borneo people, Chinese immigrants and others were abused, and murdered by their fellow-Asian invaders.
The colonial European women and children of Sandakan were first separated from their men and shipped to Berhala Island a former quarantine station and leper colony just off the coast of Sandakan. They were held there for about a year in primitive conditions before being shipped to Kuching, Sarawak spending several days and nights in transit on the open deck of a coastal steamer with little water, shelter or food.
Kuching was a very large PoW camp in Borneo where most civilian men, women and children were concentrated as well as Indonesian, Dutch, British and Australian soldiers. Amongst the women prisoners were Dutch and English nuns, and of course a 68 year-old Scots grandmother – a real threat to the mighty Japanese military empire !
The texts of contemporary letters and notes seeking news of her imprisonment and well-being, and the few responses, are copied here.
News of the Japanese attack in December 1941 filtered slowly through the consciousness of the war-torn, weary and desperate British people in early 1942, then at grave risk of losing their more immediate war with Nazi Germany. Frantic attempts were made to obtain news of missing family and friends from this new, and strange, enemy.
It wasn’t until a year and a half after Mary Baldwin’s capture and imprisonment that this letter was received :
From War Organization of the British Red Cross & Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
13 August 1943 (to Mrs Donald L Morrison, Edinburgh)
With reference to your enquiry, we have now received the official information that BALDWIN, Mary, Housewife aged 68 is interned in Borneo Camp. We are delighted to be able to send you this news.
Should you wish to write by "Prisoner of War Post", a leaflet, which will tell you how the envelope should be addressed, can be obtained from any Post Office. We regret that it is not possible to send individual parcels to Prisoners or Internees. The British Red Cross, in collaboration with the Dominions and Colonial Red Cross Societies has sent a consignment of food, clothing and drugs to the Far East, and you may rest assured that every effort will be made to despatch further consignments should an opportunity to do so arise.
We shall retain the complete records of the above at this office, and shall be only too pleased to help you in any way should you call or write to us. If more news is received, we will, of course, let you know immediately.
PS. We are so sorry that up till now no news has been received of Mr David Baldwin.
This was followed up by this brief announcement in the Dunoon newspaper (cutting undated) but we should remember that any communication from a PoW camp was severely censored to remove any news considered “ bad” by the Japanese, truthful though it might be:
A postcard has been received from Mary Baldwin, wife of Chief Engineer David Baldwin, missing, whose home is at Oaklands, Innellan, and who is interned in a Japanese camp. She states that she is kept busy gardening, growing tomatoes, and cooking and is cheery. She adds "I have a singsong occasionally, but longing for my ain folk".
In July 1944, two and a half years after capture, another postcard was received by her daughter Janet (Jenny Moffat) at Innellan, and then copied by her to the rest of David & Mary’s children. Like the first, its content would have been censored :
Dear Children, I hope all are well. No letters from any one. You post card all family. Don't know where Duke is. I am well. Greetings. love all. Mother.
A glimpse of Mary Baldwin’s life in the Kuching camp is given in this description by Agnes Keith, with whom by Mary’s own account, she did not get on well. She believed Agnes K. was too ready to be polite and cooperative with the Japanese guards and their officers in return for favours – notably food and medicine for her infant son. The following tribute to Mary Baldwin would have been written in late 1944 – scribbled on a scrap of paper and hidden probably inside one of her son’s soft toys.
Chapter 12 : Endurance
Mamma Baldwin, a Scottish woman of seventy years, and the mother of nine children, is no longer in doubt. She has just been informed by the Japanese that Baldwin, who was Chief Engineer of the Baynain, died while a prisoner in Tarakan, Dutch Borneo.
But Mamma has the heart of a lion. Never does she fail to sing, on Christmas Eve, St.Andrew's Eve, New Year's Eve or any evening when she thinks we need it. To listen to Mamma Baldwin sing "Auld Lang Syne" in a prison camp at the age of seventy, with knowledge of her sons in German prison camps and fighting, with hardships and illness and suffering to bear herself, is to hear fate defied by a brave woman. We who say we can't bear it, have something to learn.
With some news of Mary Baldwin’s captivity – and survival – family efforts continued to find out David Baldwin’s fate.
From War Organization of the British Red Cross & Order of St. John of Jerusalem.
18 August 1943 (to Mrs Donald L Morrison, Edinburgh)
re Mr and Mrs David BALDWIN
Thank you for your letter of August 16th. We were so glad to be able to send you the news of your mother's safety.
I am so sorry that we are still without news of your father. We understand from the British North Borneo Chartered Company that the ship, the SS "Baynain", in which your father was serving as an Engineer, was at sea on January 10th 1942, somewhere in the Macassar Strait or the Java Sea. As there has been no news of her since, it looks as though she must have been captured by the Japanese, and the officers and crew taken prisoner. They would not necessarily be interned in Borneo, but might be elsewhere in the East Indies or Malaya, or indeed in some other part of the Far East. I am afraid that the Japanese are being very slow in sending lists of their prisoners & internees, and that there are very large numbers whose names have not yet come in and whose whereabouts are unknown.
An enquiry for your father has been made through the International Red Cross Committee, and everything possible is being done to get news of him. Should his name come through on a list, or should news of him reach us from any source, I shall not fail to let you know at once. I can so well understand your anxiety and I do hope it will not be too long now before we have news for you.
I am afraid it does not seem likely that it will be possible to send individual parcels to the Far East ; but should any such arrangements be made, every publicity will be given to them.
This early news of David Baldwin’s capture and imprisonment – at the age of 68 – was not to be confirmed to the outside world until after the war, although as you’ll see Mary B. was told by the Japanese in October 1944 of his death in July 1943. This is the date recorded on the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets’ Roll of Honour and the basis for his entry on a memorial panel on the Merchant Navy War Memorial at Tower Hill, London. Part of the panel is shown.
Newspaper cutting dated 1945
On Active Service
BALDWIN. - At Tarakan, Borneo, in July, 1943.
Chief Engineer David Tweedale, beloved husband
of Mary White, late of Gourock. - Clyde Cottage, Innellan.
Newspaper cutting dated 7 November 1946
MERCHANT NAVY AND FISHING FLEETS
Official Roll of Honour
The Minister of Transport announces that the names of the following members of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets, whose deaths were due to enemy action or other causes arising out of the war, have been added to the Roll of Honour maintained by this Department. This is the 236th list :
BALDWIN, David ; Chief Engineer Officer ;
Oaklands, Innellan, Argyll.
His capture and subsequent imprisonment at Tarakan, Dutch Borneo shortly after the sinking of the Baynain is probably the event referred to in the official Dutch post-war record of the Tarakan PoW camps. This notes that on 20th January two men (English seafarers) arrived in the mens’ camp. (Mannenkamp Tarakan (Tarmnk) 20.01.42 : Er komen 2 burg (Engelse schepelingen)).
Inconclusive as this evidence may be it’s supported by another post-war record : a letter from the company registered as owners of the Baynain :
From Bakau & Kenya Extract Company Ltd., Glasgow
10 September 1945 (to Mr Charles Baldwin, Gourock)
Dear Mr Baldwin,
I think you will be interested in news which was imparted to me in a telephone conversation I had late last night with His Excellency C.R.Smith, late Governor of British North Borneo. Mr. Smith was able to inform me definitely that the steamer "Baynain", of which your brother was Chief Engineer, was captured by the Japanese in January 1942 at Tarakan and that the Captain and your brother were taken prisoners. They were the only Europeans aboard the "Baynain" and in all probability are interned in some camp in Dutch Borneo.
This is the first authentic news of the steamer "Baynain" and in respect to your brother and the Captain it is much more hopeful than we have had reason to expect.
You may be assured that I will communicate with you immediately I receive any further news.
Mr.Smith had been interned in Borneo up till May 1943, when he was transferred to a camp in Manchuria, and he informed me that Mrs.Baldwin was alive and well at the time of his departure from Borneo.
Tarakan had been overrun quite easily by the Japanese starting with their air attacks on the airfield from 25th December 1941 and ending with Dutch surrender on 12th January 1942. The oil-rich island was a prize capture for the Japanese, vital to keep their war machine of vehicles, ships and warplanes running. With much of the oil-producing installations blown up and destroyed by the Dutch and Indonesian defenders the new Japanese masters must have welcomed having a skilled engineer amongst their captives, however old. No doubt David Baldwin was made to work hard at initially repairing and then operating and maintaining the various plant until exhausted by overwork, inadequate food and untreated disease. I’ve seen a Red Cross report (now lost) that he died of a cocktail of tropical diseases such as beri-beri, cholera and dysentery.
His death is recorded on Innellan’s war memorial.
Recent information confirms, as you’ll see, that David Baldwin was indeed buried initially at Tarakan, his date of death recorded by the Dutch on his grave marker as 23rd July 1943. After the war his remains were re-interred by the Netherlands Government in one of their military cemeteries in Java.
He rests there today.