Alexander Smith Flett

Second officer MS Hopetarn

The Hopetarn sailing alone, was torpedoed and extensively damaged on the 29 May 1943 by U-198, Captained by Werner Hartmann.
The Captain of the Hopetarn and 28 crew plus 7 Gunners were picked up by the British Merchant ship Nirvana and Landed at Durban , South Africa on the 3rd of June 1943.


Location from

Award Citation as published in London Gazette on 23 May 1946:

 Two of her boats were successfully launched. The Second Officer was taken on board the submarine and was subsequently interned for over two years as a Japanese POW.
Mr. Flett displayed outstanding courage and devotion to duty in not disclosing to the enemy the presence of his senior officers in the lifeboat and thereby sacrificed his freedom.

Transferred from U -198 to the Supply vessel “SS Marie Slieman” on the 26th of June 1943 , sailed to Java .
Taken to the Java Cycle POW Camp on the 15th of July . Prisoner until the 7th of November 1943 .

On the 7th of November 1943  he was moved along with approximately 2000 other men with Java Party 19. The men boarded the “SS France Maru” and were forced to drop their kit on the deck, they were then forced into two holds by screaming Korean guards wielding sticks and beating the men as they went down the companion way, when all the men were onboard there was about 1000 men in each of the two holds ,
it was impossible to lie down, there was only enough room to sit with their knees up against their chin. The men were allowed on deck during day time but because of the limited space
a large percentage of the men had to stay in the hold. The Latrines were located along the deck the and there was not enough of them to cope with the number of men on board, they quickly became
insanitary . Washing was almost impossible with the small ration of water the men were given. The serving of food was extremely difficult, the food was cooked on deck then the twenty-gallon drums had to be manhandled
into the holds and distribution was a major problem because the lack of space prevented orderly queue being formed and caused frequent disputes, especially between different nationalities.
The Japanese insisted that a Roll Call was carried out twice a day, which was almost physically impossible. This routine continued for four days on the route to Sumatra .
 The ship arrived at Palembang on the 10th of November 1943 , the men were disembarked on the next day , the 11th. 500 men of the Netherland contingent were separated out and take to another location,
leaving 1500 men who were taken by lorries to work on extending the Airstrip at Pangkalen Balai .


 Pangkalan Balai approx. 45 Km North West of Palembang

Arriving at Pangkalan Balai the men were put into the POW Camp known as Dai Itchi .

Dai Itchi POW Camp 1945

The work on the Aerodrome involved extending the Airstrip, which had just been hacked out of the Jungle, to approx. 2000 meters long by 200 meters wide.
 The men and the Romusha (native Sumatran/ Javanese Labours) were tasked to clear the jungle first then they had to remove the thousands of cubic metres of earth and use this to level the depressions,
all by hand. The first month the men found the work although monotonous, was easier because of the lack of supervision by the Japanese.
There was an adequate supply of rice and vegetables with some fish and meat almost on a daily basis. Work on the camp progressed to provide better billets for the men and a Hospital hut was also constructed.


 The Existing Runway at Pangkalan Balai

For the purpose of administration, all men were combined into one company, British 420 (199 RAF) and the remainder consisting of Netherlanders making a total of 1497 men. The Camp commander was Lieutenant Colonel  Holms.

At the beginning food was of adequate quantity and quality, but after the first month both quantity and quality began to deteriorate, sickness, particularly dysentery began to rise.
The work became harder as the Japanese engineers demanded set quotas be met. The Japanese demanded that work party numbers were met, so men were taken away from camp duties and the less sick men were forced to work,
 when complaints about taking sick men out to work were raised, the Japanese Doctor said “If the sick men collapse while working we will send them back to the camp”

The men were forced to Parade before and after working on the Aerodrome, standing in the sun as they counted off adding to the suffering of the men, the Japanese new full well that escape was almost impossible,
as any escapees would have to trek through dense jungle and any native Sumatrans would hand them back to the Japanese where they would almost certainly have been executed.
The men suffered many beatings for no reason, Complaints to the Japanese Commandant were ignored and actually led to more beatings being given out.

1944 saw the conditions in the camp steadily decline, increased workloads and worsening food rations began to effect moral. The worsening food situation mean the men took great risks and traded with the Sumatrans,
 if caught they would have been given a severe beating, ironically, some of the Japanese guards were willing to trade with the men.

Sickness increased, Beri Beri and Pellagra became almost as wide spread as Dysentery, the Latrines that were in between the huts were closed down and moved further away from the huts.
Dysentery became so wide spread that a second hospital hut was opened to house the sick men. There were about 200 hospital patients and about another 300 sick in quarters.

The camp had set up a fund to buy essential food and medicine, in February this was stolen and the Japanese reacted by forcing the men to post a guard at each end of the huts during the night,
depriving the men on guard duty of much needed sleep, the Japanese and Korean Guards now found a new excuse to hand out beating if the men guarding the huts were found asleep or did not bow to the surprise inspections.
All this began to take a toll on the men, their moral began to fall even more.

On March the 18th 1944 General Saito visited the Aerodrome, Lieutenant Colonel Holms request for a meeting was rebuffed, after a brief inspection of the work progress General Saito departed leaving orders to speed up the construction,
making the POW lives even harder.

The rice rations were frequently received with as much as 25% underweight, obviously the rice was being pilfered before the POWs received it , when this was brought to the attention of the Japanese Guards
they simply took away the weighing scales and said that if the sacks were supposed to weigh 100Kg that’s what they weighed.
 One day the POWs received raw prawns as part of their rations ,they were in fact rotten but it was not noticed and they were cooked, that night nearly every man in the camp suffered violent food poisoning and were doubled up in agony for more than  24 Hours,
 with the Latrines being further from the huts the camp became an almost open cesspit. The Japanese gave the men one day to recover but when the work party was called to parade the next day only 200 men were capable to work,
the Japanese were incensed and threatened reprisals, but it took almost three weeks for the camp to fully recover.

 The men working on the Aerodrome were allotted a Quota of earth to move, marked with pegs and were not allowed to finish working until the quota was met, it was almost impossible to meet the quota in the condition the men were now in, so some men moved the pegs, so allowing them to finish their quota, unfortunately the Japanese and Korean guards then demanded they do more, if the men did not move the pegs, they were beaten for not working hard enough, it was a vicious circle.

Work continued at a pace without any thought given to safety even after a few embankments had collapse near the men, one day an embankment collapsed killing three Netherlanders, the Japanese simply blamed the men for being careless.

During August 1944 the Aerodrome extension neared completion, the men had been promised rest but this was not forthcoming, instead they received half a packet of “Shag Tobacco” and they were allowed to slaughter one pig to share with the whole camp.
 Lighter work was now found for the men, basically to keep them occupied

Moral was lifted by the arrival of the first mail the men had received while being a POW and Red Cross Parcels were handed out, one for every 10 men and also rations were increased.
 As 1944 drew to a close work was again speeded up as Dispersal Pens for the Aircraft were ordered to be constructed, a sign that the war was turning against the Japanese.
 Life dragged on but around May 1945 the men began to be transferred to Sungie Geron POW camp in Palembang, the men found the conditions there were even worse than at Dai Itchi. Ironically as the men left, the Aerodrome was scarcely more serviceable than when they arrived in 1943 and the last view the men saw was the Sumatran / Javanese labourers working on the runway trying to rectify drainage problems by altering the elevation of the start and end of the runway and constructing drainage ditches.


Pangkalan Balai Aerodrome May 1945

A short extract from Ray Stubbs book “Prisoner of Nippon”
Sungie Geron POW Camp Palembang , Sumatra

“The month of May that had brought joy and deliverance in Europe, brought only despair and despondency to us in Sumatra (Sungei Geron Camp)”
“But there was something else, a bombshell that was to upset even further the limbo between life and death in our ghetto”
“We were told that men from an other camp were to be transported in, our already cramped conditions were to be invaded by men from Pangkalan Bali, this camp, which we had vaguely heard of as Dai Ichi, was some considerable distance from Palembang, but was also under the overall command of Captain Hachisuka”

This intake into Sungei Geron POW Camp was to be balanced by the draft out of a large contingent of men who were sent to Singapore. The draft included senior Officers, numbering approximately 100 and about 1000 other ranks consisting of light duty men but not hospital cases.

The Men from Dai Itchi had no billets to sleep in so were forced to sleep in the gardens without cover, but on the 25th of May they we taken to the docks and boarded a cargo boat of about 1200 tons, there was approximately 1200 officers and men crammed on the boat, this time they were quartered on the deck with no shelter from the wind and rain . On the 29th of May they arrived at Changi, Singapore, tired and dirty it was the first time they had seen electric light and running water in almost nineteen months.

Alexander Smith Flett  was transferred to the Officers camp in Changi where he stayed until liberation.



Japanese Index

Liberation Questionnaire Front

Liberation Questionnaire Back

After serving in the Merchant Marine. Alexander Smith  Flett became a teacher. He taught Sea Training at Ralph Gardiner Secondary School, North Shields .
This class was set up for those boys who were interested in pursuing a career in the Merchant Navy , Royal Navy or with the Fishing Fleet that sailed out of the River Tyne from North Shields.
 He taught there  until his retirement.


Sea Training class 1964 , My brother , David, is on the front row second from the left. Captain Alexander Smith Flett in the front row centre.

Source :-

MS Hopetarn

File  WO 208 / 4286
Compiled by Flight Lieutenant G S Owen

The Digital Artwork by me  of Pangkalen Balai Aerodrome and Dai Itchi  are based on sketches from WO 208 / 4286

The Book “Prisoner of Nippon” by Ray S Stubbs

K Snowdon 15th March 2021