'They didn’t even have coffins': The man who dug up the remains of World War II victims in Singapore

'They didn’t even have coffins': The man who dug up the remains of World War II victims in Singapore

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Mr Goh Thiam Hoon paying his respects at the Civilian War Memorial, where the remains of civilians killed in the war rest. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: In 1962, Goh Thiam Hoon had only been digging in the heavy, damp soil for a short while when he found what he was looking for.

But achieving his goal on his first day on the job didn't make him happy. Far from it. “I could not believe it,” he said, describing feelings of uneasiness. 

Mr Goh, who was aged 25 at the time, had just uncovered a mass grave filled with piles of bones belonging to victims of the Second World War. This was near Jalan Puay Poon in Bedok, close to where Temasek Junior College now sits.

The victims were killed in Operation Sook Ching, a “purge” campaign targeted at the Chinese in Singapore. Those suspected of being anti-Japanese were hauled into lorries and executed at remote locations across the island. Jalan Puay Poon was one of the killing grounds.

According to a National Library Board resource, the Japanese put the official Sook Ching death count at 5,000, although the actual figure is believed to be much higher.

Mr Goh, now 81, estimated that thousands were killed and buried at the Jalan Puay Poon site, which contained several mass graves. 

“We didn’t dare touch it, so we quickly covered it,” Mr Goh said of his discovery. Eventually, the bones were dug out, washed with water and disinfectant, then dried in the sun. Once ready, they were put in 1m-tall funeral jars.

Mr Goh would also go on to scour at least 10 other sites in places like Punggol, Bukit Timah and Choa Chu Kang. The exhumations lasted at least six years, producing 681 jars of bones that were filled to the brim.

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The bones were washed and dried. (Photo: Foo Chin Hwa, 胡振华先生)

So how did Mr Goh, who was then helping out with his dad’s provision shop business, get the job?

When some bones were first exposed in February 1962 during sand washing operations near the Jalan Puay Poon site, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI) ordered a full exhumation to give the victims a proper resting place.

During the housing boom in the 1960s, sand was washed before it was used in construction.

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The bones were transferred to funeral jars. (Photo: Foo Chin Hwa, 胡振华先生)

One of the three SCCCI members in charge of the project, Ng Aik Huan, knew the Goh family was living near Jalan Puay Poon. He asked them for help.

Mr Goh immediately said yes to the “worthwhile” cause. “I just kept thinking that these people were not soldiers, but they were killed just like that,” he said. “They didn’t even have coffins.”

The man was determined but he needed a team. Nobody else was willing to do it, he said, so the SCCCI had to pay well. In the end, three others signed up. The workers had to apply for a Government permit before digging. And if they found remains, they reported it to the SCCCI.

But the sheer size of the Jalan Puay Poon site meant the four-man squad was overwhelmed. Eventually, more than 50 people worked over a year to exhume the bones there.

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Gravediggers working under a tent. (Photo: Foo Chin Hwa, 胡振华先生)

The working conditions at the sites were terrible, Mr Goh said. Workers toiled in the sweltering heat from 9am to 6pm, six days a week. They would erect a canvas tent over the sites, but it wasn’t enough to shield them from the elements.

When conditions were muddy, like at Jalan Puay Poon, there was a foul smell. Till today, Mr Goh remembers the stench. At drier sites, like those at rubber plantations, digging was difficult. There, small bones would get entangled in roots.

“There was an elderly worker who was bitten by a snake,” Mr Goh said, adding that they used simple tools like shovels and hooks. “Workers would also hit themselves accidentally and get injured.”

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People turned up at the sites to pray and give offerings. (Photo: Foo Chin Hwa, 胡振华先生)

Naturally, the media attention was huge. Others wrote in about other graves. Families who lost loved ones but could never bury them turned up. They would weep and wail. Some said they had waited years for this. But the bones were impossible to identify, Mr Goh said, because there were simply too many.

Mr Goh recounted one lady who came with her child. She was particularly inconsolable, and Mr Goh suspected her husband was a victim of Sook Ching. “The family members would cry at first, but I asked if they’d rather the bones stay in the mud or be at a memorial,” he said, adding that the latter appeased everyone.

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According to Mr Goh, the operation yielded nearly 700 jars of bones. (Photo: Foo Chin Hwa, 胡振华先生)

The remains were transported by lorry to the Civilian War Memorial on Beach Road. Each truck could only carry 30 jars to avoid breaking them. “When we picked up and put down the jars, we had to be very careful,” Mr Goh said.

The jars were interred in chambers on either side of the memorial, which were completed in January 1967 at a cost of S$500,000.

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Mr Goh lowering one of the jars into the burial chamber beneath the Civilian War Memorial. (Photo: SCCCI)

Mr Goh’s job was done. If not for this, he said, their bones would have remained under the ground beneath future developments. “Inside my heart, I was very happy,” he said. “My parents were proud too.”


But the story of his parents could have been a more tragic one. In 1942, Mr Goh’s father was almost killed. 

Through tales told by his dad, Mr Goh recounted the day when a group of Japanese soldiers turned up at his home and demanded water. His parents relented. When a second group came and demanded the same, they had nothing left to give.

“They thought that we were withholding water,” he said.

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Mr Goh at Changi Beach, believed to be where many Sook Ching victims were massacred. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

The soldiers were about to take his father away, Mr Goh said, but his mother knelt down and begged them to let him go. Afterwards, his rural kampung would remain fairly undisturbed, he added. The Japanese would target those who were more educated.

“Before they captured anyone, they would touch your hands,” he explained. “If they were rough, they would let you go. If they were soft, they would bundle you up and throw you into the lorry.”

Mr Goh said 38 lorries would pull in at the Jalan Puay Poon site. “At 9am they lined people up one by one and started shooting,” he recalled. “The gunshots were never-ending.” This would go on until the evening.

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The Civilian War Memorial on Beach Road. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

“I hate the war,” Mr Goh declared. “When digging up the bones, I understood the cruelty of what happened.” Besides bones, he would find hair combs and earrings that belonged to women and children.

Finally, Mr Goh stressed the importance of treasuring modern-day Singapore. “I wouldn’t be recounting these stories if we didn’t have peace and equality for everyone.”

Source: CNA/hz