Mass grave of WWII massacre victims could be hiding under field in Singapore

Archaeologists are investigating a football field behind Alexandra Hospital in Singapore that is thought to cover the mass grave of victims of a massacre in 1942.
Archaeologists are investigating a football field behind Alexandra Hospital in Singapore that is thought to cover the mass grave of victims of a massacre in 1942. (Image credit: Courtesy of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

Archeologists are investigating a lawn that's thought to cover the mass grave of the victims of a wartime massacre in Singapore, ahead of the construction of a hospital extension on the site.

The open area behind the main buildings at Alexandra Hospital is thought to conceal the remains of about 200 victims killed after Japanese troops rampaged through the hospital's wards and operating theaters on Feb. 14 and 15, 1942. The killings were part of the Japanese invasion of the island, according to a Singapore government website

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At that time, Alexandra Hospital was known as the British Military Hospital and run by a unit of the British Army Medical Corps; Singapore was then part of the British colony of Malaya, which also governed several states on the southern Malay Peninsula.

The hospital became a government-owned civilian facility after the British withdrawal from Singapore in 1971; and the area that's thought to cover the mass grave will be part of a major redevelopment of the site scheduled for completion in 2030.

In light of the historical significance of the hospital compound, authorities will now "conduct research and archaeological assessments, as well as to document the heritage of the site ahead of its planned redevelopment," a spokesperson for Singapore's National Heritage Board (NHB) and the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, an educational organization run by the government, told Live Science.

Hospital massacre

The Japanese invasion of Singapore from the occupied Malayan Peninsula was one of the worst defeats for the British in World War II. Japan invaded Malaya in December 1941, and Japanese soldiers drove British troops from the peninsula after just 70 days of fighting.

With extensive support from warplanes and artillery, Japanese assault troops crossed the Strait of Johor, which separates the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula from Singapore, on Feb. 8, 1942, and after a week of bitter fighting it became clear the Japanese would take the island.

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The massacre at what is now Alexandra Hospital began on Feb. 14 and concluded on the morning of Feb. 15, only a few hours before the British forces in Singapore surrendered to the Japanese — the largest British surrender in history, as reported by BBC

The hospital was for a time on the frontline between the invading Japanese forces and the retreating British. Witnesses said it was clearly marked with red crosses and that a British officer carrying a white flag had tried to formally surrender it — instead, Japanese soldiers stabbed him to death with a bayonet. Some Japanese soldiers later claimed that they had been shot at from the hospital grounds.

One witness was Arthur Haines, a British soldier being treated for malaria at the hospital who was spared in the massacre. According to Haines, Japanese troops rampaged through the hospital and bayoneted or shot more than 200 patients and staff in the wards and theaters.

Others were taken outside and systematically killed, Haines wrote in a four-page letter describing the massacre that was auctioned by his daughter in 2008.

The bodies of the dead are thought to have then been buried in a mass grave behind the hospital building, which is now covered by the lawn being investigated by archaeologists.

Data from a survey of the site by ground-penetrating radar is being analysed and archaeological trenches could be dug if it reveals underground features that should be investigated further. (Image credit: Courtesy of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute)

Archaeological investigation

Archaeologists began the investigation of the site in December 2020, the spokesperson for the Singapore government agencies said.

So far, the team of six has surveyed the lawn with ground-penetrating radar (GPR) equipment, which can reveal where the soil underneath has been disturbed in the past from digging or construction.

"The survey seeks to locate and determine the extent and the nature of any anomalous subsoil features, such as old building foundation and walls, soil cavities, backfill and services that may be attributed to past activities," the spokesperson said in an email.

The team has finished the GPR survey, and they are analyzing the findings to see if further investigations are needed. "If so, and if materials are found, they will be further assessed by the archaeological surveyors and NHB."

According to the Straits Times, further investigations could include digging trenches at locations where the GPR equipment has shown anomalies, while leaving most of the area untouched.

Archaeologist John Miksic of the National University of Singapore told the Straits Times that the survey could contribute to knowledge of the colonial period in Singapore by revealing more about the relationship between the British military and the local society of Singapore. But "it will be difficult to assign specific archaeological discoveries to the event of the massacre itself, though it might be possible to find a mass grave of the victims," he said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor

Tom Metcalfe is a freelance journalist and regular Live Science contributor who is based in London in the United Kingdom. Tom writes mainly about science, space, archaeology, the Earth and the oceans. He has also written for the BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, Scientific American, Air & Space, and many others.