KOTA BHARU, Malaysia — The Japanese military landing on the coast of a small fishing village in Malaysia’s northern Kelantan state on Dec. 8, 1941, is still remembered by an octogenarian who witnessed the event that marked the start of the invasion of Southeast Asia in World War II.
Some seven decades later, the wave-battered shore has been pushed back and the paddy fields, wooden huts and a mosque that used to dot the site where the Japanese landed have now disappeared.
Only villages further inland have survived the onslaught of the waves.
Most of those who witnessed the historic event have since died, but three villagers, including Omar Senik, 82, have survived to tell their story. There are few visible traces of the battle apart from a coconut tree with holes in it caused, locals say, by the fighting.
Omar was 14 when Japanese forces landed at Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan, at around midnight.
The battle of Kota Bharu took place before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of the Pacific War.
But while the attack on Pearl Harbor is famous and commemorated annually, the attack on Kota Bharu is little known and largely forgotten.
Veterans of the war sometimes visited this sleepy village, but most of the time Dec. 8 passes uneventfully.
From Kota Bharu, the Japanese troops spread across the Malay Peninsula and beyond, occupying much of Southeast Asia from 1942 to 1945.
Omar, who now lives alone with his elderly wife in a dilapidated wooden house in the same village, known as Kampung Pulau Pak Amat, said he was mingling as usual with the Indian troops assigned by the British colonial administrators to guard the coast that fateful Monday night when Japanese forces landed around midnight.
“We were crooning Indian love songs that night,” he said.
The Japanese warships arrived in the darkness offshore without anyone noticing.
“It was the yearend season of heavy monsoon rains and floods, the waves were very fierce and high. The Japanese troops came amid the heavy rains,” he said.
When the villagers heard loud booms and the “thud thud thud” of machineguns, everyone at first thought it was only military training.
What ensued was a three-hour battle between the Imperial Japanese Army and the British Indian Army. The Japanese were victorious after the defenders ran out of ammunition, he said.
The British officers had already fled, leaving behind the Indian soldiers.
It was clear the defense was too weak.
There were only about 12 Indian soldiers in a camp on the shore near his village, Omar pointed out, and about eight in another nearby spot keeping sentry in sturdy bulletproof watch bunkers nearer to the coast.
The Indian soldiers had also planted mines and erected barbed wire all along the coast for the previous several months, he said.
But that did not deter the Japanese advance.
He said the Japanese soldiers dug holes under the barbed wire to get through.
“At 3 a.m., we saw the Japanese forces on shore. Everyone, about 30 of us, tried to flee but were ordered by the Japanese soldiers to dig trenches and stay inside to save ourselves, avoid getting shot in the exchange of gunfire,” he said.
They had to dig the holes in the sand with their bare hands until they were blistered and bloodied. All the villagers stayed in these holes for about three days, completely overwhelmed with fear and hardly eating, he said.
Omar added that when they finally emerged from the holes, they saw about 380 corpses of Japanese soldiers on the shore, some rotting or looking swollen.
The Indian soldiers had also been killed in the battle, but only three villagers lost their lives.
The Japanese soldiers cremated their dead comrades while handing the dead locals to the villagers to be buried according to custom.
There were also sacks of Japanese rice strewn all over, left behind by the soldiers.
Omar said the Japanese stayed in the area for about two weeks before moving to other locations.
They did not cause many problems for the villagers except to take away their livestock.
He remembers in particular a high-ranking officer, whom he remembers as having been called “Kawasaki,” who was in charge of the troops in Kota Bharu and had been seen even before the war riding a bicycle around the villages selling shrimp rice crackers and speaking fluent Malay.