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The Long Nawang Massacre

by Melissa Murphy

On the morning of 25 December,

1941, nine Japanese bombers in

three groups of three carried out air

strikes on Sibu, the inland town of

the central region of Rajah Brooke’s

Kingdom of Sarawak, then a British


The enemy bombing of Sibu lasted

for about 15 minutes. As there was

no anti-aircraft resistance from the

ground, the Japanese planes flew off

intact. There was panic among the

residents of Sibu, and the European

officers knew that soon the enemy

would enter the town. Kuching,

Sarawak’s administrative capital, had

already fallen, undefended, into the

hands of the Japanese on

Christmas Eve.

The unfolding Rising Sun against

the blue skies of Kuching signaled

the beginning of a new era, a new

world. The somber scene of Imperial

Japanese troops in battle fatigues

escorting a line of disenchanted

Europeans, many recognizable

as officers of the fallen Brooke

government, provoked despair

amongst the Asian inhabitants. The

majority of the expatriates were

interned, but a number – including

a group from Sibu that included

Andrew Macpherson and nine of

his staff, his wife Clare, who was

eight months pregnant at the time,

Mrs Bomphrey and her nine month

old baby and five year old son and

two visitors – managed to escape

hours before the enemy advanced

from Kuching. On the night of 26

December, 1941, they began the

journey to Belaga on the upper

Rajang. From there, they planned

to travel up the Balui River to the

remote village of Long Nawang,

a Dutch army post situated in the

highlands, some 300 miles distant

in Dutch-controlled Borneo (now

known as Kalimantan). Before

departing, Macpherson radioed Sir

Shenton Thomas in Singapore, who

advised him, “Do whatever you think

best.” Sir Thomas in turn contacted

the Dutch government, asking them

to expect and assist the group.

The perilous journey of 28 days,

in the course of which they “one

morning crossed one river 36 times,

a raging mountain torrent sometimes

knee deep, sometimes armpit deep

and particularly powerful”, ended

on 22 January when the military

outpost, which the travelers hoped

would provide a safe hideaway from

invading forces, was finally reached.

It was situated in a mountainous area

in a pleasant, temperate climate,

with sufficient provisions for a year.

Nevertheless, some of the men toyed

with the idea of returning to Sibu

to be interned, but changed their

minds upon hearing of the Fall of

Singapore on 15 February 1942. Local

Dutch forces surrendered in March

1942. One group headed off back

to Kuching, but was never heard

of again. Another small group of

five men left Long Nawang, three

of whom were fortunate enough to

meet a Dutch army launch, which

took them downstream to a secluded

Dutch army airfield, from which

they were flown to Bandung in

Central Java. Two of these eventually

reached Perth, Australia, while the

third man is believed to have joined

a merchant vessel in Java. The other

two were unfortunate enough to be

picked up by Japanese marines and

interned in Java.

The remaining group stayed at Long

Nawang, and was joined in April by

a Dutch Army group of 40 men. In

August a number of missionaries

from the United States and a priest,

Father Joseph Feldbrugge, also

sought refuge there. On 19 August

two tribesmen arrived at the post

with news that a raiding party of

Japanese marines had been hacking

its way through impossible terrain

for over a month, and that they were

in sight of Long Nawang. Thinking

that this group was actually a

retreating force of the Dutch East

Indies Army, the commander of the

post dismissed the news and took

no further action. It was a decision

which was to determine the fate of

every soul remaining there. Soon

after, a party of 70 Japanese soldiers

reached Long Nawang.

On arrival the Japanese ambushed

the whole post, despite a flag of

truce being shown. Once they had

taken control, the surviving men

were forcibly led to an execution

ground. Rifle shots and grenade

explosions punctuated the quiet,

and before midday, the execution

was over. A month later the

women were put into gunny sacks,

dragged to a nearby location and

mercilessly bayoneted to death.

This included Mrs Macpherson and

her infant child. Native witnesses

later told investigators that the

children were made to climb nearby

trees, then allowed to drop from

exhaustion onto upturned bayonets.

The Long Nawang massacre has

been described as one of the

worst brutalities of the Japanese

occupation of Borneo, but despite

intensive post-war investigations,

it was never discovered which

Japanese officers were ultimately

responsible for this atrocity - nor

was there any war time trial. My

grandfather, Desmond Verdon

Murphy, was amongst those killed.

This tragic story became known to

my family only after I decided to

investigate the disappearance of

my grandfather. For more than 60

years, the circumstances of his death

remained a mystery and no one knew

what had happened to him. The last

anyone had heard of him was when

he was working in Sarawak, on duty

with the Police Constabulary there.