The Mochtar Affair: Heroism and Sacrifice in a Time of War and Deceit
Jakarta. In August of 1944, Professor Achmad Mochtar was director of the Nobel Prize-winning Eijkman Institute in Jakarta and vice rector of the prestigious school of medicine next door.
These titles of respect and authority, however, did not protect Mochtar from the brutality of the Japanese occupation. On July 3, 1945, the Japanese army took Mochtar to their execution ground at Ancol, North Jakarta, and beheaded him. Historians refer to this killing and the events leading to it as the “Mochtar affair.”
The defining event of that affair occurred at a transit camp for slave laborers, or romusha, at Klender, just outside of Jakarta, in early August 1944. Within a week of receiving routine vaccination against cholera, typhus and dysentery, 900 romusha all developed the contorted posture, clenched fingers and toes, and the sardonic smile of acute tetanus. Within a couple of days of onset of symptoms, all of the injected romusha suffered the agonizing death of strangulation by tetanus.
Post-mortem tissue samples taken from 90 of the victims were analyzed in Mochtar’s bacteriology laboratory at the Eijkman Institute. Mochtar’s report confirmed the romusha had died of tetanus poisoning – the vaccine administered to them contained the purified toxin but the not the bacterium responsible for tetanus, Clostridium tetani. The vaccine came from the former Pasteur Institute at Bandung. The Japanese army had seized that facility in 1942 and its medical men (very probably members of the notorious Unit 731) operated it.
Mochtar’s dutiful and honest report of the event at Klender posed a very serious political problem for the Japanese. The romusha camp at Klender was a physical piece of the propaganda that drove the supposedly voluntary romusha labor program. Nationalist leaders promoted enlisting as a patriotic duty in support of the freedom and independence of Indonesia. At transit camps like the one at Klender, cohorts of romusha conscripts had been treated humanely, housed decently, fed well, and provided expert medical care by Indonesian doctors. History reveals this treatment as a cruel ruse: once the romusha sailed over the horizon for distant worksites, their Japanese keepers provided only ceaseless work, grossly inadequate rations, no medical care whatsoever, and summary execution for insubordination, incapacity for work, theft or attempted escape. Most would not survive.
No one knows how many perished, but at least four million young men on Java were taken away and somewhere between 50 percent and 80 percent were unaccounted for and presumed dead. The Japanese managed the romusha like human livestock, where the flock sees only a caring herder at places like Klender. The butchery could only occur out of sight of the flock to avoid grasp of their own fate. The 900 romusha corpses at Klender thus presented the Japanese with a very serious threat to the illusion of beneficence for the romusha and Indonesians – the flock had glimpsed the abattoir.
Conspiracy and torture
The Japanese investigated the event at Klender for two months before making arrests. In early October 1944, they arrested and imprisoned almost the entire Indonesian scientific staff of the Eijkman Institute, along with three Indonesian doctors from the municipal health service who had administered the vaccines. The Japanese asserted that Mochtar and his staff had sabotaged the vaccines used at Klender. The Kenpeitai – Japan’s equivalent of the Nazi SS or Gestapo – took them away to the prison next to the National Museum on what is today Jalan Medan Merdeka Barat. The building still stands today.
During the rest of October, all of November, and much of December, the prisoners repeatedly suffered brutal and sadistic torture at the hands of their Kenpeitai captors. On Dec. 9, the Japanese killed one of the doctors under particularly savage torture and paraded his mutilated remains before the other prisoners. That doctor’s corpse was completely emaciated and bald (as a consequence of infection by mites in the filthy prison), and his face had been beaten beyond recognition. The doctor’s entire body bore the marks of many dozens of cigarette burns, and the flesh of his legs had been splayed open from buttocks to ankles. His family receiving the corpse had to clean away the maggots that had taken up residence in the wounds. The Japanese worked to have the Eijkman scientists confess to placing purified tetanus toxin in the vaccines used at Klender. Until that first death, they had not succeeded.
A few days later, we know from witness testimony, Mochtar managed to communicate to his fellow prisoners that they would soon be freed. He also expressed that he would not survive. Within a few weeks all the Eijkman staff except Mochtar had been released and were not further molested. The health service doctors were transferred to other prisons, and one of them later died at Cipinang prison of the wounds inflicted on him by the Kenpeitai. Mochtar had bartered his signature on a confession of murdering the 900 romusha in exchange for the liberty of his colleagues and subordinates.
The Japanese would wait six months before finally executing Mochtar for this alleged crime. They would likely have spared Mochtar if they had perceived a future in Indonesia as its colonial masters – as was their aim with victory in the Pacific War. But by early July 1945 it had become crystal clear that they had no such prospects; as the Americans closed in on Tokyo, the Japanese executed Mochtar to protect themselves from war tribunal justice for the massacre at Klender. Mochtar’s confession and his inability to retract it indeed allowed those who actually killed the romusha to escape justice. They got off scot free at the cost of Mochtar’s honor, dignity, legacy and life.
Unraveling the deceit
The old Eijkman Institute declined after the trauma of the Mochtar affair and the new war against the Dutch for Indonesian independence (1945-1949). It was formally closed in 1965 as an unwanted relic of colonialism. It would stay closed for the three decades that followed, until Suharto’s minister for research and technology, B.J. Habibie, inspired by Prof. Sangkot Marzuki (then at Monash University in Melbourne), restored the Eijkman Institute name and historic building as a modern laboratory of molecular biology. This was done and the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology opened in 1995. Sangkot returned to his motherland and became its director.
Sangkot told me the story of Mochtar not long after I joined him there in 2006. Two years later, I assigned one of my research students to write an essay on the history of the Eijkman Institute as a means to improve her written English. She glossed over the war years and complained that no available resource expressed anything of that period. Knowing Mochtar’s story and scratching a bit below the surface, some facts began to emerge. An obsession to more fully understand what happened developed, and within a year a full-scale excavation of the history was underway. Sangkot joined me in assembling the pieces of this puzzle into a rational, coherent, and evidence-based explanation for what actually occurred at the romusha transit camp at Klender.
Evidence and testimony
Many of the survivors of the Mochtar affair left us chilling memoirs of their barbaric treatment in that prison. Dr. Ali Hanafiah published “Drama Kedoktoran Terbesar” (“Biggest Drama in Medicine”) in 1976. Hanafiah was not only Mochtar’s colleague at the Eijkman Institute but also his brother-in-law: Hanafiah’s older sister, Siti Hasnah, was Mochtar’s wife. Hanafiah’s surviving children, Taty and Asikin, provided rich details about life with the Mochtars in the happy period before the occupation. The head of the municipal health service in 1944, Dr. Marzoeki, put his experiences to paper soon after being released on Aug. 18, 1945. His daughter, Latifah Kodijat-Marzoeki put those recollections in her privately published memoir, “My Parents.” Finally, there was Mochtar’s young laboratory technician, Nani Kusumasudjana, 23 years old in 1944 and still alive today. The Kenpeitai arrested her and she resided in that hellish prison for a month during October and November 1944. Her verbal testimony and unpublished memoir (penned in 1987) between 2010 and 2014 shed a great deal of light on the Mochtar affair.
A seemingly insignificant reference to an Australian newspaper article (“Tetanus Test on Natives,” Daily Telegraph, March 22, 1951) appeared in Hanafiah’s published memoir. The very brief article, just a snippet, mentioned the war tribunal of a Japanese navy doctor for the deaths of 15 condemned Indonesian prisoners in a tetanus experiment in Surabaya in February 1945. The tribunal took place under Australian military authority in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and the Australian National Archive provided us with the full 400-page transcript and documentation of that trial. This effectively revealed to us what had occurred at Klender in August 1944.
The Experiment at Surabaya
The Japanese navy men in Surabaya in 1945 explained at their murder trial in 1951 that they had tried to manufacture a vaccine for tetanus. The doctors at Surabaya were responsible for the health and military readiness of more than 100,000 Japanese troops scattered among Indonesia’s outer islands. Those troops anticipated Allied amphibious assaults of scale and had been ordered to resist by all means available. Tetanus is a deadly threat to wounded soldiers, so the military doctors made their vaccine and put it into 17 Indonesians condemned to execution for the murder of a Japanese officer in Lombok and being held at a prison in Surabaya. The prisoners remained healthy after two vaccinations, but the doctors required certainty that their vaccine actually prevented tetanus. So they purified the tetanus toxin and injected it into the prisoners. They did not expect their human guinea pigs to die – they expected the vaccine would protect them. Despite heroic efforts to save the prisoners, only two survived. (They were returned to prison and promptly executed.)
According to the Japanese navy men, the imminent threat of Allied invasion and heavy combat compelled them to make the vaccine and immediately develop proof that it actually worked. Injecting the vaccinated prisoners with toxin, they explained, was the only way to prove that quickly. The navy men also detailed their legal anxiety in doing so, knowing that such an experiment was criminal. Nonetheless, the Japanese military lawyers reluctantly granted the medical men access to the prisoners, accepting the military strategic urgency of their endeavors and their assurances that no harm would come to the prisoners. The navy medical men also described their futile efforts to solve the problem by obtaining tetanus prevention products from the Japanese army vaccine production facility in Bandung: the army had no such products to offer. In light of the event in Klender six months earlier, that fact was damning of the army medical men at the former Pasteur Institute.
The experiment at Klender
Despite offering very large stocks of other vaccines to the navy men from Surabaya, the army men in Bandung had nothing for tetanus prevention. It is inconceivable that the Japanese at the former Pasteur Institute, who had vastly greater expertise and facilities for vaccine manufacture, would have been doing nothing to solve their own urgent tetanus prevention problem for the army troops ordered to defend Java. The Japanese in Bandung were empty-handed when the navy men from Surabaya requested tetanus prevention products. Why? It certainly was not inadequate expertise, poor facilities or a lack of commitment to that crucial task. A failed experiment in Klender, like the one in Surabaya, and the calamitous political consequences of it, is the most rational explanation for the army men having nothing to offer. They would not have been able to correct the failed vaccine in Klender with more human guinea pig experiments.
We know that the Indonesian doctors who administered the vaccines in Klender had been ordered not to bring their own vaccine stocks. Instead, those would be waiting for them at the transit camp. They vaccinated those romusha using the ampoules from Bandung. We also know those ampoules contained purified tetanus toxin, a fact that could not be reconciled to any means but deliberate placement – a detailed technical study of the process of tetanus vaccine production ruled out the possibility of an industrial accident. These facts, taken with the actions of the Japanese medical men in both Surabaya and Bandung all align with medical experimentation as the cause of the romusha deaths.
The Japanese did not notify Mochtar’s family of his execution. Certainty of his death dawned only slowly with his failure to reappear after the defeat of the Japanese. Certainty of his innocence would dawn even more slowly. Even as late as 1965, Sukarno denounced Mochtar as guilty of mass murder. However, others like Mochtar’s friend Mohammad Hatta not only repeatedly appealed to the Japanese to spare Mochtar, he also consistently protested his innocence in the decades that followed.
The events comprising the Mochtar affair summarized here exonerate Mochtar. He killed no one and he sacrificed himself to save his fellow scientists. The Japanese deflected blame for the calamitous consequences of their selfish actions, took his life and tossed his corpse onto the pile of rotting bones and flesh of the hundreds of others they had murdered at Ancol.
In June 2010, with the help of the Dutch National War Archive in Amsterdam, we located the site where Mochtar had been killed and buried. A memorial service was planned for the 65th anniversary of his death a month later. That service, attended by his surviving family members, friends and the scientists from the modern Eijkman Institute, honored Achmad Mochtar’s life and his sacrifice. The revealed truth of what happened at Klender restored Mochtar’s dignity, honor and legacy. The long silent injustice of his murder by execution at last ended.
J. Kevin Baird is head of the Eijkman-Oxford Clinical Research Unit at the Eijkman Institute of Molecular Biology in Jakarta. He is co-author with Sangkot Marzuki of “War Crimes in Japan-Occupied Indonesia: A Case of Murder by Medicine” (Potomac Books, 2015).
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