Sergeant Len Baynes
Unit : 1st Battalion The Cambridgeshire Regiment.
Served : France, Singapore (captured).
Camps : Changi, River Valley, Chunkai, Tamarkan.
Chapter 11 - Introduction to Jap POW Life
After a few minutes, with much incomprehensible shouting of orders, we were herded into a tennis court nearby. When we thought this was full, there were still about a couple of hundred of our men remaining outside. The Japs, swinging their rifle butts, soon convinced us that we had misjudged the court's capacity, and somehow we all got in. Machine gun posts were quickly established a few yards from each corner of our enclosure, and riflemen were spread along the sides, all with their weapons trained on us. Someone pointed out that they could not have found a better place to shoot us all if we were to be wiped out, as none could climb over the ten foot wire netting sides. As I looked out towards the big house that had been our B.H.Q., I thought for a moment that I was dreaming. A wide drive swept round the rear, and on it, in full view of both us and his own men, rode the officer in charge of this part of The Imperial Japanese Army. His charger? A captured child's fairy cycle! He pedalled round in circles, knees poking out sideways to miss the handlebars, his long sword dragging along in the dust behind him. Others were queuing behind in orderly fashion for their turn, and the game continued until nightfall. We knew now, at least, that the Japanese were human beings like ourselves.
We soon realized that for the time being we were not going to be shot, and began to stake out our spots in which to spend the night; we all just about found ourselves room to lie down, albeit like sardines. However, reaction to what we had recently endured soon began to affect our internal workings, and with no toilet facilities, senior N.C.O.s held a conference to decide upon what to do for the best. As no better idea prevailed, we decided to clear one corner of the court and to use this for a latrine. The top was asphalted so there was no chance of digging a hole. Darkness fell to the sound of protests as men were moved from their sleeping spaces and were trying in vain to squeeze in elsewhere. Many had to sit up with their backs to the wire, as there was simply not enough room for all to lie down. I still had a little water in my bottle, but those who had lost theirs had to go without a drink, and none of us had eaten for a long time; but that was the least of our worries. The nights in this area are cold at that time of the year, but although only wearing vest and thin tropical shirt, I was soon sleeping the sleep of exhaustion.
I awoke shivering in the gray dawn, and picked my way over prone figures to find the toilet corner. Eventually I reached it. but one look convinced me that I would rather burst than go there, where six or seven hundred men, many of them with diarrhea, had been going all night. About an hour later the Japs opened a gate, letting a few men out into the bushes at a time, and my turn came round in time to avoid my having to burst. We were at the same time permitted to fill our bottles water from the anti-malarial ditch which ran nearby.
Later, we discovered that there were dead bodies in the ditch a few yards upstream, but even had we known, there was none other, and one cannot live for long without water in the tropics. Presently, a few tins of army biscuits were pushed to us through the wire. We shared them out; they are as hard as stone, and those with dentures broke their share against the iron posts, and sucked them until soft enough to swallow. There was no shade, and as the sun rose in the sky our position rapidly became untenable for Europeans; many became unconscious from heatstroke. At midday the Japs let us out under the trees and we moved out carrying those who had collapsed, then flopping on the grass with relief. I am fair, and had not dared remove my shirt in the direct sun. Now, in the shade of the trees, I stripped down to the waist to feel the air round my fetid torso. 'Whatever have you been up to Sarge?’ Looking up I saw one of my neighbors pointing at my chest, and following his eyes I could hardly believe what I saw. The front of my body looked as though a tin of maroon paint had been poured over it, causing it to run down in tears and curtains. I rubbed my hand on my chest, but apart from a few places where the blood had burst through the skin, the stains were indelible. It was to be about a year before those stains finally faded. Then, one of our guards noticed my condition, and called me over to take me to see the N.C.O. in charge of his watch. He sent us both over to see our doctor, who was in the hut where our R.A.P. had finally been established after the fire; the Japs evidently thought that I might have some contagious condition.
The R.A.P. was a very distressing place. As there was very little equipment, and only one or two beds left after the fire, severely wounded men were lying all over the hard floor, and our medical staff were only able to administer first aid. One of the orderlies told me that most of the patients would only have stood a fifty-fifty chance with proper drugs and equipment, but under these circumstances they were doomed to die. The busy doctor had little time to spare for me. Before even noticing my condition, he asked for my field dressing (every soldier carries one). He then took a look at my lurid skin, and told me that there was no disease, but that capillaries under my skin had burst during the fighting, during a time of ‘severe nervous tension and physical strain’. I returned to the sentry on guard duty (the guard who originally accompanied me to check the dead around the trenches had returned), and reluctantly signaled that I was ready to return to the others. He refused to let me pass, and I had perforce to spend the night in the R.A.P.
The heartbreaking sounds of the dying made me realize that we who were whole still had blessings to count. An hour after daybreak the sentry received orders that I was to go back with the others, and I entered the tennis court just in time to receive my ration of one biscuit. The second day we were again let out under the trees at midday, and this time I noticed some hard-shelled fruit on one of the trees. Having climbed up and picked one of these, I removed the shell and found a jelly-like fruit inside. A voice from the ground called out, ‘Don't eat those, they're poisonous!’ I smelled it, and the smell was good. It tasted even better, and I gathered all I could reach, and ate them. They were, as I later discovered, mangosteens. Others saw me eating them, and the tree was quickly stripped. This principle of ‘taste it and see’ served me well all the days of my captivity, not without some narrow squeaks, however. The Japs did not seem to be so trigger happy now; they were probably beginning to realize that, with thousands of miles of sea between us and our allies, there was nowhere for us to escape to.
Back in the court again, and with most of us having diarrhea by now, conditions became bad; with many unable to reach the toilet corner in time, there was now nowhere clean to sit, and we could scarcely see for the flies which had bred in the faeces. That night the stench hung over us like a vile blanket, and it was hopeless to think of sleep. When morning came we saw that our guards had migrated further afield during the night, no doubt unable to stand the smell. Probably because of the condition of our surroundings, we were moved out under the trees much earlier that morning. At this time the Japs' attitude began to change, and some of them tried to converse with those strange long-nosed creatures, as we must have seemed to them. Conversations did not develop very far, as their English vocabulary consisted of no more than ‘O.K.’, ‘Numbar one’, and ‘No good!’
The day wore on and in the afternoon the sun became overcast. Within a few minutes the whole sky had clouded over and a gusty wind sprang up. As the rain began to fall Japs let us crawl under the raised floor of the nearby house. This was the start of the wet season here, not continual rain as in monsoon climates, but rather, sharp daily rainstorms, far heavier than we had ever experience in Britain. The so-called anti-malarial drains had been dug to get this storm-water away quickly, so that the flooded areas where mosquitoes could breed did not form. (The various strains of malaria parasite spend an essential part of their life-cycle in the anopheles mosquito.) When the rain ceased, we moved back into the tennis court. The rain, far from cleaning away the filth, had spread it from the toilet corner in an even layer over everything. We had thought conditions were intolerable before, but they were now indescribably worse, and our guards patrolled wearing improvised surgical masks.
At long last another dawn raised me from the stupor into which I had descended. The Japs passed in a few tins of biscuits, and told us to be ready to move off at nine a.m. Without regret, we moved from the court, and formed up outside the R.A.P. The surviving wounded had already been moved out of the building, and were lined up beside the road on stretchers. Although most of the worst cases had died by now, many of those we were to carry were very ill indeed, with broken limbs, burns, unstitched wounds and internal injuries. It is impossible to carry a man on a stretcher without some jolting, and the patients suffered greatly on the long journey which lay ahead. We paired ourselves off, all the fittest men, according to size. At first we carried the stretchers knee-high, the handles suspended at arms' length, as this is the most comfortable method for the patient. We soon found out, however, that we were not strong enough to keep this up, and had to change to shoulder high.
There were many of these wounded, and our turns on the stretcher came round all too quickly. After about five miles, many became too weak to take a turn, and our rest spells became shorter and shorter. I had just reached the point when I felt I could go no further, when what seemed like a miracle happened; a fleet of army lorries pulled up alongside us, and we were allowed to load our wounded onto them. We were able to converse with the British drivers, and they told us they had not been ill-treated, and that as far as they knew, we were the only ones who had had such a rough time since the island fell. They themselves did not even have guards with them. As we moved off again, we began to obtain our first insight into the Japanese character; incredibly short tempered, no patience, childlike emotions, and lack of inhibitions; but no lack of intelligence, as we soon realized. I learned my first Japanese words on this journey, I also learned that some words were best avoided.
During one of our short roadside rests, a passing guard overheard the word ‘Jap’ being used by one of our boys, and running over he hit the man with his rifle butt. I was the nearest N.C.O. and jumped up to ask the guard why he had done this. ‘Dammeda’, he shouted; ‘Jap dammi-dammi. Nippon O.K.’ Dammeda and dammi meant, as far as we could make out, no-good, and we very quickly learned to stop saying ‘Jap’ altogether. Eventually we used the word ‘Nip’, as they did not seem to object to this abbreviation. After travelling a dozen miles or so without water and in our weak condition, we became stretched out in a long thin column, in spite of the continual shouting and prodding that the men behind received. It thus happened that when my part of the column was passing a Chinese biscuit factory (designated by a huge picture of biscuits hanging outside), there was not a guard in sight. The factory door was locked, but we soon broke it open and helped ourselves to a tin of biscuits each, which we shared out as we marched the road, and threw the tins away before our captors saw us with them. We soon heard screams of rage coming from behind as the Japs caught some of our comrades in the act, but as they told us later, they only received a beating. The guards told us they were taking us to Changi, which was the area of the old civilian prison; this meant a journey of over twenty miles. As we approached one small town, we saw trenches dug alongside the road. with our dead still lying in them where they fell. They looked as though they had been attacked with flame-throwers, and were badly burned. One lad was still gripping his rifle, and the butt was half burned away. These men had the guts to face flame-throwing tanks with only their rifles, and had held their positions to the end.
As we passed through several small towns and villages, we saw that practically every dwelling had a home-made rising-sun flag hanging out of the window. Although the Chinese hated the Japs because of the Sino-Japanese war, the Orientals believe the reed that bends with the wind does not break, so most of them kow-towed to the Japs. I believe that in those early days, the native Malays genuinely welcomed our conquerors, as they believed they were being freed from colonialism. The population of Singapore is mostly Chinese, however, and their energy and business acumen was gradually ousting the more indolent natives. The last lap of that journey was only accomplished by the stronger among us carrying the weaker ones; nevertheless, at six o’clock that evening we did all arrive at a hutted encampment on the far side of Changi Jail. Our cooks and other headquarters staff had not been captured with us, as cooking is not carried out in the front line; we now caught up with them for the first time. They told us that they had been sent straight to Changi after being captured, and had been waiting for us all this time.
The sick whom we had put on lorries had arrived before us, and forecast our arrival, so the cooks had prepared a good hot meal for us. Although it had seemed like weeks since we had seen a square meal, most of us were too tired to eat, and that was unfortunate, at it apparently comprised the last of the tinned food that the regiment held. We were allotted quarters in palm-leaf huts that had originally been built to house casual workers from adjacent rubber estates, now unattended like all the other rubber plantations. Most of us ached too much to sleep after the long march carrying our comrades.
The next morning we began to take stock of our new surroundings, and found out that we were only a few hundred yards from the sea as the crow flies, but it was accessed by a road that followed a tortuous route through a mangrove swamp. These swamps consist of trees that stand high out of the water on roots that form grotesque shapes, looking like huge spiders. Between us and the commencement of this swamp, there was a coconut grove. We were told that the Japs allowed us to visit the sea once a day, and had provided a flag of identification for bathing parties to carry. As the size of the party had to be limited, it would be a few days before our turn came round. The camp covered many acres, so Sgt. Atlas and I went off on a tour of exploration, my main object being to look for any object that 'might come in useful' during the days to come. We found a deserted shop the other side of our camp, and in it I found a bucket charcoal fire, a bag of charcoal and a teapot. These fires were the universal method of cooking out there, and consisted of a bucket lined with fire-clay, with a small aperture low in the side. Air is fanned into the aperture producing a fierce heat, and a very effective cooking stove, but they are heavy; I carried my treasures back to our hut. We also found a stream during our reconnoitering, and later on that day I took my clothes over and washed them out 'dhobi fashion'; that is without soap, dipping them in the water and bashing them on a rock. Cheap on soap but expensive on buttons. Drying was no problem, half an hour in the sun was quite enough.
Our kit-bags, containing spare clothes and personal possessions, were handed in at the commencement of the fighting, and these were now handed back to us. Mine had been opened, and several items taken, the most important being my best open razor. In the years to come, when I was shaving twenty or thirty friends each day, it would have been invaluable; now, I was left with the old first-world-war razor that I had also taken into battle with me. Our diet now consisted of little else besides boiled rice, and our cooks had not yet learned the right way to cook it. To those who have taken their rice only in the form of rice pudding, or tenderly boiled with curry, ours, just boiled in water and served with hard lumps in the middle of every grain, was far from appetizing. Yet before long men were squabbling over the remains in the dixie after all had been served. Thinking that sparrow stew would liven up this monotonous diet, I rigged up a trap from bricks, sticks and string. There were thousands of sparrows about, but although I baited my trap with precious grains of rice, in the crowded camp someone would always come by to disturb my prey before I could pull the string, so I had to give up.
On our fourth day in Changi camp, our turn came round for a visit to the sea, and we all enjoyed a swim from the beautiful sandy beach on the other side of the mangroves, which only appeared at low tide. I found a towel floating in on the tide, and the name of one of the ships from our convoy was embroidered on it. I later heard that this ship had been sunk after leaving Singapore harbour; it had been heavily laden with refugees, mostly women and children. My two towels had been among the items missing from my kit, so I was delighted to find this one.
The next day we were warned to get ready for a Japanese General to inspect us. By the time we had all spruced ourselves up we were told that the visit was off. The Japs were like that, and the mystery was, how did they accomplish so much? Nothing seemed to be carried out to a schedule; an appointment kept to within twenty-four hours was good going. The phrase ‘brute force and ignorance’ seemed to suit them, as they tackled what looked to us like an impossibly huge task, without apparently any plan of action. When they seemed to be getting nowhere, everyone from the most senior officer downwards shouted at, and perhaps bashed, his junior, and somehow, with frantic tearing about, the object would be achieved. Perhaps it demonstrated the Quantum Theory; with so many hopping up and down so quickly and all the time, the pieces would eventually fall into place! The Jap General turned up only one day late, though we were lined up in the blazing sun for hours before he finally appeared. Poor old Colour Sergeant Gold stood near me; he was sandy-haired with milk-white skin, and freckles. Although he was wearing a hat, as he stood there blisters appeared on his face and hands, and he was unable to stand by the time we were dismissed; he never became acclimatized, and within a short time, lost his reason. He died a month or two later.
We had no salt, so a party was organized to carry up water from the sea and boil it down. However, salt never became plentiful in Changi through shortage of fuel. Rumours were now becoming a part of our daily life, and the general greeting was, ‘What's the griff?’, or ‘What's the latest bore-hole'?’. Our Pioneer Platoon excavated deep holes for latrines, and it was here that most of these tales started, hence a rumour became a ‘borehole’. At that time we had not been disappointed so often, and the wish being father of the thought, we were disposed to give credence to the most optimistic stories that were passing round, such as an armada of Allied planes being on its way.
Chapter 12 - In Changi POW Camp
It was the third of March, and we had now spent twelve days in Changi camp. That evening I was warned to be on parade at eight o'clock the next morning, as I was moving camp to Singapore with a working party. I had by now acquired quite a large heap of things that ‘might come in useful’, and when next morning I tried to pack it up into a form which I could march with, I found that I could hardly lift it off the ground; some things therefore had to be discarded, including my charcoal stove. We moved off on our twenty-mile march with the sun blazing down on us, and before the journey was accomplished on empty stomachs, I was sorely tempted to shed some more of my heavy load. However, by assuring myself for the last eight miles or so that we must be nearly there, I finally made it, kit and all, at three o'clock in the afternoon. We were told that we were in Farrow Park, which, although then surrounded by barbed wire, had in peace-time been a polo ground. Before resting, we dug latrines, made fireplaces for the cooks, and erected bell-tents the Japs provided.
Next morning before breakfast, we mustered for our first ‘Tenko’, which is Japanese word for roll-call, and after eating our rice, we moved out to begin our task, which proved to consist of removing burnt-out cars from the highway, where they had lain since the capitulation. Our six guards seemed to behave quite reasonably, and we did a fair day's work. We had no food to eat, and at midday suffered the mortification of seeing the Japs eat their beautiful white rice. (Our rice ration consisted of broken reject grains, and was off-white in colour.) Back in the camp that night, we found that the guard duty had been taken over by big black-bearded Sikhs. These chaps had been serving in the British Army at the fall of Singapore, and now had changed sides; it probably amused our captors to put these men in charge of us now. Some were vindictive and spat or lashed out with rifle butt if we approached them. Others said they were only serving their new masters because they had been told they would be shot if they refused. They told us they would desert when they had a chance. The Japs really despised them; they soon took their rifles away, and made them carry staves.
The following day our work changed to carrying sand, and as we still had no food with us at midday, the guards shared their meal with us. This comprised one wooden bucket of fish-flavored rice, and one of sweet milky rice. The fourth day was spent cleaning up an old Aussie camp, and I dug up two wide-brimmed Aussie hats out of the mud. They were both damaged, but I put them aside to take back to camp. We also dug up some tinned food, which the guards allowed us to take back to share with the others that evening. These guards were really quite good to us; one of them disappeared for half an hour, and when he returned he gave me two sergeants' shirts and a mess-tin. Again they shared their food with us, this time rice and bacon, and it tasted like food for the gods.
Some of our men made it a point of honour to say nothing good of the Japs, and even went so far as to call anyone who said otherwise ‘Jap Happy’, which was our word for a quisling. Within my experience there were good men among our enemy. I never ceased to wonder that we were not treated worse than we were, considering the way the Japs and Chinese had been treating one another during the preceding years. Then again, the Japanese method of imposing military discipline was brutal in the extreme; any soldier may beat up anyone below him in rank, right down to the two-star private beating up his one-star comrade; it was mutiny and death to retaliate. Those wounded in battle must try to get themselves killed, and finally, rather than be taken prisoner, commit the ‘Hara-Kiri’, literally, the belly cut. Those who were too ill to go on duty were put on half rations as they were of no use to their emperor. I think that after years of this treatment most of us would have found ourselves affected. We were told that living under the constant threat of earthquakes for centuries past had contributed to their hasty tempers and instability. We also had some ‘bad eggs’ in our army. I well recall some of the regular soldiers with whom I had served in the commandos the year before. If half the tales they told of the way they treated the ‘wogs’ (as they called most other races) were true, then our colonizing troops between the wars were pretty well as bad as the Japs at their worst.
Back in camp that night, I made a composite double crowned hat from the two I had found earlier in the day. This most probably saved my life on at least one occasion later on in the Thai jungle. I wore it for the remainder of my days as a POW. The next day our guards, the best Japs I ever met, left us and were replaced by harder nuts, who marched us back to Changi through the hottest part of the day, almost without respite. On our return ‘home’, we were greeted with the news that we were to move out of the huts, which had by now been made quite comfortable, and were to erect tents for ourselves in a sand-pit a quarter of a mile away. We spent the next day digging fresh latrines and leveling out spaces for the tents. The sergeants, however, were allocated an old native hut in the corner of the pit for their sleeping quarters. Our C.S.M., Tommy Beatty, who had been so badly wounded in the battle, now returned to us from hospital, and I was delighted to see him recovered.
Having a good look round our new area when we had finished our work for the day, I came across what was to me a new kind of tree. It was covered in nuts, which were not unlike ‘conkers’, but the kernel exposed on removing the shell was black with white spots. I tasted one, and it tasted good, so I gathered as many as my pockets would hold. On the way back to our hut I met Tommy, and told him of the nut-tree, advising him to help himself before everyone found out about them. I munched about fifteen of these nuts during the half hour before our evening meal, which was always our main meal of the day. This evening we had rice and bully-beef gruel by way of a special treat. I was usually ravenously hungry, so was surprised to find that my appetite had completely disappeared before I was half-way through supper. As I stared forlornly at the contents of my mess-tin, I suddenly felt very sick, and the truth dawned on me that I had probably poisoned myself with those nuts. I was rather a joke with my comrades for the ‘rubbish’ that I ate.
Quietly so as not to attract attention, I tried to make an unhurried exit. ‘Ullo, ullo, ullo, what's up with Snowy?’ came an obnoxious voice from my left, ‘surely 'es not leavin' 'is grub?’. As my withdrawal became a rout I left my food to the scallywag, and set full sail for the latrines. Tommy Beatty sat on the pole beside me for the whole of the next four hours I spent over that latrine. He had only eaten six of the nuts, and had to sit there all night. They turned out to be castor-oil nuts, and not poisonous, but we were lucky not to have burst the newly healed wounds in Tommy's abdomen. These nuts were dried and threaded on a skewer to use as candles by the local population, as I discovered later. The evenings are fairly evenly dark throughout the year in Singapore, as the equator is not far away.
We had been back from Farow Park for only four days when I was warned to be ready the next morning to move off to Singapore, to go on another working party. As we paraded at dawn, we hoped to do the worst of our marching before the heat of the day set in, but it was two hours before our guards came for us, and after another hour's wait in front of Changi jail, we began our journey in earnest. However, it poured with rain the whole way, and by the time we arrived at our destination, River Valley Road, we had nothing left that was dry. Before we left Changi, we had been told that we were an advance party to prepare for the rest of the group who were to follow, so we had to put down our wet kit and start work immediately.
Chapter 13 - In River Valley Road POW Camp
My first impression of this camp was one of filth and disorder, after the comparative cleanliness and discipline of Changi. The huts we were to occupy still had the rubbish of the previous tenants strewn about, and the camp itself was a sea of mud. There flowed past one side of the camp a sluggish, dirty and oily river. This was tidal, and our camp was very little above sea-level at high tide. Consequently the water table was too high to dig deep boreholes, so that instead of our clean Changi latrines we had shallow trenches, which writhed with maggots. The wet edges were constantly disintegrating; one of our number fell in during the first few hours, and another one within the first twenty-four. What better way of finding out who is a good Samaritan than by calling for help when lying in that mucky mess? There were no effective means of washing there, yet someone always came to the help of the victims, day or night.
POW life brought out the best, as well as the worst in us. While our cooks prepared a meal, the rest of us did our best to clear the mud and refuse out of the huts, and by six-thirty p.m., when the main party arrived from Changi, the rice was ready, and the huts were at least habitable. These wooden huts had been built before the fall of Singapore to house refugees arriving from Malaya. They were good huts with a gangway up the center, a platform each side well up off the ground, and another similar one about four feet above that. We had about three feet of floor-space each, some on the top and some on the bottom platform; I was on the top. The rice we were now issued with was contaminated with lime, and we were only able to eat a few mouthfuls at a time. After the first day or so we learned to sift most of the lime out by shaking it in a mosquito net, but it never made good eating.
The next day, the Japs called us all out on parade, and divided us into various trades, namely bricklayers (denga), carpenters (dicu), painters and labourers. Why, I do not know, as we never did any work needing these trades. Our company, the bricklayers, was numbered 2B4, and we were instructed to forget our regiments, and in future always think of ourselves as 2B4 company. I was put in charge and told that I would be responsible for the behavior of my company of bricklayers. A little Jap came up and told us that we should always parade under him. He would be kind to us if we were good obedient boys, etc. As he knew only three or four words of English, it took him half an hour to get this message across to us, mostly by signs. Then he produced a needle and thread, together with a pile of numbered cloth tags, which he commenced with deftness and great speed to sew on the breasts of our shirts. As he sewed ‘101’ on my shirt, I saw how to tie a knot with one hand, and never forgot the lesson.
With our new numbers, we were then lined up for a Jap officer to address us, and speaking in quite good English, he said, ‘You will all be well treated, in the warrior spirit, if you do as you are told. Do not try to get out of the camp, as any POWs found outside the wire will be shot.’ Through it all, it rained, and rained, and rained, so that by nightfall there were over six inches of mud over the whole site. It rained throughout the night, and by morning the latrines had overflowed. There were several thousand of us in the camp, but only one tap for water; this was allocated to the cooks for two thirds of the day, and for those who wanted a wash it meant queuing up for most of our spare time to get it. Therefore many remained dirty, or washed in second or third-hand mess tins of water. I had already been without a shave for two days for the first time since leaving the tennis court, and, seeing that most of the earlier residents in this camp were growing beards, I decided to grow one myself.
At Changi we held inspection parades daily, to ensure that we all kept ourselves clean and tidy, but there was nothing like that here. I now saw for the first time the results of too little discipline, as opposed to the other extreme, too much ‘bull’. The earlier tenants of this camp were mostly Australians, and as individuals I found them to be the nicest fellows in the world, generous, loyal to their ‘cobbers’ and tough as nails. In a crowd, however, they often became an unreasoning, unruly mob, quite uncontrollable and sinking to the level of the lowest types among them. Our first two nights in the camp had been disturbed into the small hours by shouts and curses emanating from the Aussie huts, where they spent most of the night playing cards. Their N.C.O.s were as bad as the rest, and made no attempt to quell the noisy ones, in order that the rest of us could get some sleep.
As none of them would obey orders, their part of the camp was never tidied up, so after a few days our officers tried to improve matters. Duty officers were appointed each day, and parties of men organized to make an effort to clean up the whole camp. Fresh latrines were dug every other day so that the old ones could be filled in before they became too bad. On a particular night during that, our first week, a young British duty officer stepped into the din of the Aussie hut next to us at about midnight, and timidly attempted to persuade the men to quieten down; but he was completely ignored, so went off to fetch his superior officer, Major Wilde, and he in turn was ignored. So in a loud voice he shouted, ‘I am Major Wilde, ....’ He could get no further, as fifty voices screamed abuse at him. I heard some of the phrases; ‘Who made yer wild . . .’, ‘Get stuffed Sonny . . .’; ‘Go and chase yer bloody pommes . . .’ He gave up, and this was the last attempt to bring them into line, so we paddled our own canoe after that.
Chapter 14 - "Ballachang" and Bayonet Fighting
All these days it had rained without ceasing, so the Japs had been unable to take us out on working parties. I spent all one night on the latrine out in the rain, having picked up a bug that was going round the camp. In the tropics under these conditions ‘squitters’ became part of our daily’ life. Next morning the Japs lined us up early and for the first time took us out to work. We found ourselves arriving at Alexandra Hospital, where we spent the day clearing away rubble. There was a rubbish dump which our guards allowed us to look over; we found some rusty dixies, which we took back for our cookhouse, and trodden into the mud I found a mosquito net, which I carefully excavated. When we got back to camp, after I had cleaned and mended it, this net was to prove the most useful part of my kit during the coming years. With my fair skin, I had proved very susceptible to mosquito bites and was already was suffering from an ulcer on my ankle where I had scratched one of them.
The next time we had a dry day, we started clearing native huts to make room, our guards told us, for new warehouses. These guards were friendly, and allowed those who had money to purchase food and tobacco from Chinese living a little way off. These had retained their faith in sterling, and exchanged our £1 notes at the rate of twenty Straits dollars to the £1. I had retained a few £ notes when captured. Before we left Changi, two senior N.C.O.s had entrusted some of their money to me in the hope that I would be able to buy food here, and send it back to them. On this our first day, therefore, I exchanged my first £1 note, and was able to purchase two French loaves for thirty cents, six packets of ‘London’ cigarettes for a dollar, and a few tins of food to start building up a store in case I obtained an opportunity to send them back to Changi. Back in camp I exchanged one loaf for a tin of milk, and dug a pit under my bed to bury the tins of food until the chance came to send them back. Until my squitters cleared up a week later, I was unable to eat much of the food we were able to buy, myself.
The second day out on this clearing work, a party working close by had a vicious guard; something displeased him and he hit one of the men with a heavy stick and broke his arm. The next day the Japs decided that only the N.C.O. in charge of each party was to be allowed to visit the Chinese, and he was to purchase food on behalf of his men. Accompanied by a guard, on that first occasion I bought two tins of food per man, having first collected fifty cents from each. We had soon discovered that tinned fish and tinned milk were the best buys when it came to having something to mix with our plain rice, which was all we were getting in camp at that time. I found that one of those oval tins of fish in tomato sauce could be pounded into a paste, two tablespoonfuls of salt added, and then it would supplement my daily rice for four days.
I had to eke my cash out, as, unlike many of my comrades, I did not have much cash when taken prisoner, as I had arranged for most of my army pay to be sent home to my mother, who saved it for me. Later, when my cash ran low and the price of tinned food had escalated to astronomical figures, I went over to a native food, the name of which sounded like ‘Ballachang’. It was made from the small sea creatures left in the fishermen’s nets which were otherwise unsaleable. It was pounded, with plenty of salt, into a paste, then instead of cooking it they buried it in the sand for a few weeks to mature. The end product stank; it could be smelled from many yards away, and tasted something like rancid cod-liver-oil. Many were unable to face it, but since it was almost pure protein I managed to force it down, and eventually got used to it. We now went to work daily, and the Camp Commandant allowed us to spend one day a week in camp to enable us to do our personal chores; this meant we could take a stand-up bath by queuing up at the only tap; as this was situated close to the wire and in full view of the houses across the water, our bathing was often accompanied by the giggles of Chinese girls.
On our eleventh day, we were marching to work as usual; a young Chinese woman stood at the roadside, a large basket of bread on one hip, a young child on the other. As we passed she called her wares; ‘One, fifteen cent.’ Although we were not allowed to purchase in this way, the guard following up the rear could not see us. A few yards ahead of me two men left the column, one jumped on the woman’s back rolling her and her child over on the ground. The other man grabbed the basket and tipped the loaves out; before I could act they had all disappeared into haversacks. The woman picked up her child and ran off weeping. I still feel the shame that I felt on that day. POW life certainly brought out the worst as well as the best in us. We gradually began to see each other more and more as we really were, as much of the veneer of civilization fell away. All races seem to have a similar amount of good and bad, often lurking just under the skin, whether that be black, white or yellow. I was to see private soldiers, spirits unbroken after weeks of torture, refusing to give the names of those who had helped them in escape attempts. I saw one of our officers of field rank, in charge of one of our camps, who bowed to the ground every time a Jap called him, and they would shout his name just for the fun of seeing him tremble.
At work, we finished clearing the huts away, and started leveling the site. Our guards were lax, and during lunch-times I was able to explore the environment, including a rubbish dump a hundred yards away. I found two note-pads, upon which I was to write most of my diary, a British gas-cape which I wore to keep the rain off, and some Dixie lids, which I took back to camp for the cooks to bake ‘doofers’ on. These were balls of cooked rice baked over the fire. Although only plain rice, they made a change, and were much in demand; I never learned the etymology of the name. Visits to the dump became a daily event, and I acquired no end of good junk. The most valuable among these items were a piece of Dunlopillo foam out of a lorry seat, and an army blanket. These made my bed for the next three years or so. A set of webbing equipment with pouches and back-pack was also very useful in enabling me to carry my kit from camp to camp.
A day or so later we held a meeting to decide how to try to improve the camp food, which was atrocious. We decided to replace half the cooks, and to put Sgt. Gross in charge, as he was a Communist, and should in theory have stood for fair shares for all. In practice he proved to be even worse than his predecessor. Everyone believed that the cooks ate half the food themselves, but they actually had a thankless task. In the evenings, we would wander around the camp chatting until dark, then sit on the ends of our beds, and those who felt like it would usually sing old nostalgic songs. Sometimes, during a quiet spell a patrolling guard, rifle and bayonet in hand, would poke his head in the doorway and call out ‘More sing, Soljah’ The Aussies did not sing like our boys, and some of them told me that our arrival had quite changed the atmosphere of the camp during the long evenings.
Out on the working party, we finished leveling out the site, and on the twenty-ninth of March, the day the Spiritualist had predicted that we should be freed, the Japs brought along some of the little hand-carts which they had used to carry their equipment during the fighting, and told us that we were to make boxes to fit them, in order to convert them to carry sand. After eating our midday rice that day, one of the more aggressive of our guards stalked up to me. ‘Gunzo (Sergeant), Nippon soldier numbar one bayonet fighter, yesu?’. Never having been over gifted with tact, and since most of our guards were friendly, I retorted, ‘English soldier number one, Japanese soldier number ten’. For a few brief moments there was the silence of unbelief, then bedlam broke loose as all started to scream at once. Although arms waved all round me I remained calm and no blows were struck. They held a conference, and by the way heads kept turning in my direction I knew that my fate was being discussed. At first, when we had heard the Japs talking we had thought them to be quarreling, so vehemently did they carry on, but we soon discovered that they always talked like this. They have one set of words to use to a superior in rank or social standing, and these are quite different from those used to an inferior person. Thus to an inferior ‘I’ is ‘boko’ and ‘you’ is ‘kimi’, but to a superior it had to be ‘watukushi’ and ‘anatah’.
To return to our story; the conference ended, and the senior guard came over to me, and sternly said ‘Nippon numbar one soljah.’ Discretion being the better part of valor, I had the sense to hold my tongue this time. The atmosphere suddenly changed back to the relaxed mood of earlier on. Now these Japs were not front line soldiers, and carried captured ·303 short Lee-Enfield rifles and bayonets. One of the guards (he had always been a friendly chap), now removed his bayonet and scabbard from his belt, fixed it on the rifle, and to our amazement he tossed it to me. The big-mouthed Jap who had originally challenged me was now being harangued by the others who, it transpired, were trying to persuade him to put his bayonet fighting skill where his mouth was, and at last, very reluctantly, he put his scabbarded bayonet on his rifle. (Bayonet scabbards are left on during hand fighting training to prevent serious injury.) ‘Engerisso Gunzo bayonet fight,’ called out the friendly Jap who had lent me his rifle, and he indicated that our arena was to be a six foot wide corridor between two huts.
I had always been useless at grenade throwing, (shoulders messed up by my playing hooker at rugby), map-reading, and many other martial arts; but at bayonet fighting I excelled. And in my hand was my beloved Lee-Enfield. As my adversary approached I scowled, roared my war-cry and rushed him. I saw fear in his face as he held out his weapon at arms length more like a fencing foil; it fell to the ground as I purposely narrowly missed his throat with the point of my bayonet scabbard; quickly I swung up my rifle butt to within an inch of his face, and again, slashed down the bayonet to graze his shoulder. I had completely forgotten our circumstances as the pent-up feelings of the previous months found an outlet, but was quickly brought back to earth as I felt myself grabbed from behind by several pairs of Jap hands. ‘Dammi-dammi’ murmured our friendly guard. ‘No-good ennah!’ said his friend. They were relieved that no-one had been hurt; to have been would have taken a lot of explaining, had their superiors found out about it.
The next day was an important one, as we were lined up for the first pay parade of our captivity. I drew five dollars forty cents, about five shillings and sixpence. From that time forward the Japs paid wages to those of us who worked, and although it was only a pittance, it enabled us to buy the odd egg, sugar and cooking oil from time to time. Since the woman who sold bread had been attacked and robbed, there had been no bread-seller on our route to work, but another one now made his appearance. This one was a young man, a cripple, and his disability had to be seen to be believed. Both bones in one shin had been broken and never set; he walked, one leg a great deal shorter than the other, on the broken end of his shin bone, the foot flopping about on the ground as he walked. He must have endured agony with every step. He was unable to run when the Japs saw him, and they kicked his legs from under him and continued kicking him on the ground. They helped themselves to as much of the bread as they wanted, and threw the remainder to us. This time I am glad to say, many of our chaps refused to touch it. The Japs seemed to hate the Chinese with a psychological hatred, whereas, although we were often ill-treated, I never had the impression that they really hated us. Later on, when the Koreans took over the task of guarding us, we did find out what it was like to be hated.
Chapter 15 - Sorties Outside The Wire
I have very fair hair and now that my beard was beginning to grow was told that I was acquiring the look of a Western ‘Old Timer’, and was given the nick-name of ‘Zeke’ by my men. Our first task in preparing for making sand-boxes was to be given a huge heap of second-hand timber, and told to pull out all the nails. There seemed to be no hurry in building these warehouses, and our guards knew no more about the way to set about the job than we did. We had a very broad shouldered guard named Khano; he had gold teeth at the front and cavities at the back, a habit after meals of drawing back his lips in an ape-like grin, and sucking in air to dislodge food particles with a noise like a locomotive letting off steam. He loved to issue orders and to boast of his past exploits, but generally speaking we had found him to be pretty harmless.
One day, most of our guards had to attend a special duty, and to his delight, Khano found himself in charge of our work party. As we marched off, he condescendingly told me I might walk with him, sharing his glory in front of the column. During our midday break, I was lying down resting, while a little way off Khano was showing off to a group of our lads. ‘Me, Khano, numbar one Judo man’ he began. Khano invariably flew into a rage if anyone contradicted him, and someone usually did just for fun. He continued, ‘Engerissoo soljah Judo no-goodenah; Engerissoo boxing O.K., Judo no-goodo? Seeing me dormant on the ground, a wag replied ‘Gunzo numbar one Judo man,’ and then pointed to me. I heard the roar as Khano jumped up and came striding over to me. ‘So-ca, Pinesu’ (the nearest he could get to pronouncing my name) ‘Gunzo numbar one Judo eh?’ Remembering my recent bayonet fighting escapade I said, ‘Me no-good Judo man, Gunzo Judo dammi-dammi.’ Khano was delighted to hear that I was no good at wrestling, and danced with excitement as he ordered me to stand up and take my stance. I was, in fact, an unarmed combat instructor, and also quite a good wrestler. He did not even bother to remove his belt and bayonet as he pulled me to my feet.
We took up positions a couple of yards apart and I let Khano make the first move. With a bull-like roar he charged and he clearly knew nothing about wrestling, as after very brief contact I was able to convert his charge into flight through the air. The poor fellow’s bayonet scabbard touched the ground before he did, and the handle stuck into his ribs. It was a very long time before he could speak, and I think he had broken a rib or two. He was not able to walk unaided, so I had to let him lean on me all the way back to camp that evening. He never again came out with us, I hope his commandant did not find out the truth, or he would probably have had a few more bones broken. Some days later we started reinforcing the floor of a hut, so that cement could be stored on it. For the first time, our guards left us on our own while they went on a visit to some girls. While they were away a small pig escaped from a nearby Chinese smallholding, and attempted to run through our working party. It disappeared under a heap of our men, and someone emerged from the melee with the pig in his arms. As we were not skilled butchers, someone produced a pocket knife and cut the animal’s head off; the remainder was quickly cut into small pieces, and we carried these back to camp that night to toast for our supper. The Japs loved pork, and would not have let us keep it had they known of its existence.
A Malay lorry passed our column on the way back to camp, and the driver threw me a pineapple, which I hid before the guard noticed it. This was the first time I had seen a friendly Malay; perhaps they were beginning to change their opinions. Our guards were all replaced at this time by new men, and they were at first very strict, and held themselves aloof from us. However within a few days they melted somewhat and became more friendly. The old guards had been with us from the start; they had seen my white beard grow, and it never puzzled them. These newcomers had never seen the young face underneath my whiskers, and to the Japanese white hair signifies old age. The first day we paraded under them, having arrived at the site, their leader came up to me and in a voice tinged with respect he said, ‘You old man, no work, yasume (rest).’
I protested that I was only twenty-three (nee-jew san), but he refused to believe me. As the days went by, seeing me do my share of the work they must eventually have realized that I was not as old as they had thought. The nineteenth of April was a red letter day for me, as I escaped the confines of our camp for the first time. I crawled through the barbed wire where the Jap lorries were parked at the far end of the camp. These hid the wire from the gaze of the camp patrols. As I made my way down the road, making for the Chinese shopping precinct a hundred yards off, I saw in huge letters over an ornamental gateway, ‘THE GREAT WORLD’. This had been one of two permanent peace-time fairgrounds in Singapore. The other one was ‘THE HAPPY WORLD’, and both were at this time derelict. The first open building I came to was a cafe, and I popped quickly inside. As I sat down at a table, not knowing whether the proprietor was a Jap collaborator, but aware that any of us caught outside the wire would be shot, my heart was beating faster than usual. From the table I had chosen at the back of the room, I saw that there were two other customers, one a dark, wavy-haired European, the other was Chinese. Another Chinaman, evidently the owner, approached me from a room behind the cafe; winking at me he asked in English what I would like, so I asked for a cup of coffee, proffering a dollar bill. He quickly returned with this and my change, upon counting which, I found I had a dollar’s worth; looking up to tell him of his mistake, he winked again and raised a warning finger. My coffee was on the house. Twenty minutes later I was safely back in camp. I had smelled the sweet smell of freedom, and could not wait for the chance to be out again.
Next day I repeated my adventure, and again went into the friendly cafe. The same European was there, and with trepidation I saw him get up from his seat and approach me; was he a German or other Japanese ally? To my relief he introduced himself in a friendly way. I was wearing a shirt carrying no sergeants’ stripes on purpose, but he seemed to know that I was from the POW camp. Having observed that he had a slight foreign accent, but it was not German, when he asked me what things were like in the camp, I felt relieved. After giving him a brief run down, I asked him for his story. He was born a Greek, he told me, and although Greece was at war with both Italy and Germany, Japan had never declared war on her. He had been working in Malaya, but had joined the local equivalent of our territorials, the F.M.S.V.P. at the beginning of the emergency. At the fall of Singapore he went back into civilian clothes, and, Greek passport in pocket, he was living a life of leisure until his money ran out.
I asked him if there was a safe shop where I could purchase food, and he took me to an open stall off the main road, where I obtained three small tins of cream and two packets of sugar. We called at the cafe again on the way back, and my new friend bought me a very tasty dish of a sort of Chinese spaghetti. After having safely returned to camp again, I was feeling very elated. We all, at this time, paid ten cents each pay day to a central fund established to supplement our rice ration. That evening we held one of our regular mess meetings, and it was decided to buy some cooking oil if possible. I volunteered to try to obtain some via my contact outside the wire, and was given the cash to purchase four gallons if I could. Out through the wire I went again, into my friendly cafe. I asked the proprietor where I could get the oil. and he told me that it was almost unobtainable. The plants which made cooking oil had all closed down, and the Japs bought all they could lay their hands on for their own use. Nevertheless, he said he would see what he could do for me and went off, leaving his wife in charge of the cafe. A few minutes later, to my profound dismay, two Jap soldiers walked into the cafe, and, with sinking heart, I saw them walk in my direction. They were not coming for me however, and sat down at the next table, one facing me and one with his back to me. The former caught my eye and nodded politely, so I nodded back. Although I was terribly nervous, with my life hanging by a thread, my beard spared my blushes. The two took no more notice of me; they could not have come from our camp, as I was a well-known figure among the Jap guards.
By the time the proprietor returned with a well-dressed young friend, the soldiers had left. Speaking in good English, the young man told me there was no good oil available, but offered a four-gallon tin of coconut oil for six dollars. I ordered a tin, and he promised to have it ready for me on the morrow, and told me how sorry he was for the plight of the prisoners. He also gave me some cheering news of the progress of the war to pass on to my friends, but this proved to be only wishful thinking made up on the spur of the moment for our encouragement. Still feeling on edge after the incident with the soldiers, I breathed a sigh of relief when I reached the safety of our camp.
The next day that young man was as good as his word, and I collected the oil without trouble. I gave him fifty cents for himself, and when he asked if I needed any more, I ordered another tin for the following day. Our cooks had also asked me to try and by some ‘Bisto’ or other gravy salt, but the Chinese had never heard of such a thing. As soon as the young man left, a Chinese lady, neatly dressed in the manner of her race, came over and sat at my table, breathing a few words in her own tongue as she did so. She was bird-like in her movements, and very neat in appearance. With a sweet smile she pulled a parcel from under her garments, and handed it to me. Thanking her, I made a movement to untie the tape, but she raised a hand to stop me, and without a word, moved out of the room as unobtrusively as she had entered it. Back in camp, I dropped the oil at the cookhouse, and took the parcel up to my bed-space to open. It contained a vest, Chinese dressing-gown, safety razor, a tin of pâté de foie gras, a tin of bamboo shoots and one of an unrecognized Chinese food. I kept the vest and a tin of food, and gave the remainder away. Her little gift gave me more pleasure than double rations for a week would have done. It was satisfying to know that there was a reservoir of good will in the hearts of the Chinese all around us.
The next time I went out of the wire, I progressed further afield, and found an Indian café, where two Indians did their cooking on the pavement outside, tossing their chappaties up in the air and clapping them between their hands. A European in civilian clothes stopped to speak to me; he told me he was a British soldier, and that after the capitulation a Chinese family had hidden him in their house. When he realized they were risking their lives in concealing him he came out of hiding, and, pretending to be a Greek, had got himself a job working for a Chinese firm; he said he was getting on very well there. Hastily telling me that it was to risky to remain where we were, I made a rendezvous for the next day at the friendly café, but never saw him again. I collected the cooking oil and returned to camp, where I heard that we were to make high-speed extensions to our hut as another party was expected to come in from Changi. They arrived in the pouring rain before we were half ready for them, and at their head were the two Colour Sergeants who had provided me with £3 cash to buy food for them to send back to Changi. No opportunity had yet arisen to send food back, and I had it buried under the floor, all purchased at half its present value. I went up to greet the two men, and ignoring me one said to the other something like ‘Well if it ain’t the bugger we trusted with our three quid; scoffed the lot himself I suppose.’ I was just about broke myself, and was tempted to justify their lack of trust. However, I dug up the sack of tins and dropping it beside them, handed over ten dollars change. I received no word of thanks or apology, as they pawed over their loot while completely ignoring me. That night I walked round the hut extension which now housed the newcomers. A piece of sacking was draped across one corner, and I could see the glimmer of a home-made lamp shining out. The two colour sergeants had been behind there for the last hour I was told, stuffing themselves. None of their neighbors had been offered a bit.
The latest intake of men were not all from our regiment, but included fifty Royal Artillery gunners. Goodness knows why they had been brought to this grossly overcrowded camp, as there had clearly, up to the present, been insufficient work for us; and now we had to spend even longer queuing for water at our solitary camp tap. Among the fresh faces to arrive had been my old friend Len Dudley. When he heard that I made sorties outside the wire, he told me that as he still had cash, he would like me to buy some tinned food for him, and on my next expedition I was able to get him what he asked for. Our cooks had told me that food cooked in the oil I had purchased tasted rancid and uneatable, so I called in the cafe and asked the proprietor how to overcome the problem. He went off to ask his mother. On his return, he told me it was necessary to heat the oil until it smoked, and then to drop a vegetable into it. When I told the cooks, they said the problem was that shortage of firewood might make that impossible. While I was eating my plain rice that evening, Len brought me half the tin of fish he had just opened. Since he was as thin as a rake I tried to refuse, but he insisted upon me having it. My faith in human nature was restored.
Chapter 16 - "Yasume" Days and Ebonite
Up to the present our work had been easy, but from now on we noticed a gradual change in the tenor of our guards. In the early days the Japs had been so elated with the unhindered progress of their armies towards India, that they behaved with comparative tolerance toward us most of the time, expecting The Imperial Japanese Army to continue their advance through India, and meet up with their allies in Europe. It must have begun to dawn on them that it was not all going to be a walk-over, and that it could be years before they rejoined their families in Japan. As their advance slowed down, the worst types among our guards began to vent their spleen on us at the slightest opportunity. The first real sign of the change of tempo was when we were taken off the easy jobs and set the task of breaking up old concrete with sledge hammers in the direct sun all day, with rest periods halved. Any of us caught slacking, whether because of ill-health or laziness, was made to stand to attention with sledge hammer held overhead at arms length, a severe punishment with the shade temperature in the hundreds. Notwithstanding the risk, I still found opportunities to sneak off to the dump, and at this time found myself a good sharpening stone. I kept it all my POW days, and it was the nucleus of a fine set of tools which I eventually made. It also kept my razor sharp later on.
We were paraded night and morning now for ‘Tenco’. Japanese roll-calls were comic opera affairs. We had to fall in fives instead of the usual twos or fours; our guards were so bad at arithmetic that they could not count us in any other way. Even so, great difficulties were encountered. Two or three of them would together pass along the line marking us off in tens; then, when they came to a blank file at the end with perhaps one, two, three or four men in it they would argue and write out sums in the dust with their sticks. It was sometimes half an hour before the task was accomplished to their satisfaction. They would often agree among themselves that all was not well. ‘More one man’ they would shout. Then I would have to go along the line with them counting all over again. At roll-call on the morning of the twenty-ninth of April, our senior guard reverently announced that as it was the birthday of His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Japan, we were all to have a day’s holiday. I did my washing, and then went through the wire to drink to freedom in coffee in my Chinese friend’s cafe.
Dusk was falling as we paraded as usual for evening roll-call, and it soon became clear that the Japs had celebrated in stronger stuff than coffee. In the end our guard asked me to count our men myself, and I was able to report ‘O.K., koo-joo (ninety) men to tenko’. We all had to learn to count in their tongue, ‘Nippon-go’ as they called it; ichi, nee, san, see or yon, gou, rocou, sichi, hachi, koo, joo; joo-ichi, joo-nee etc. Grammar seemed simple, and to me appeared to be like not much more than stringing words together. ‘I have cigarettes’ was ‘Watakushee tobacco aru’, the opposite, ‘Watakushee tobacco nay or arimaseng’. To pose a question they added ‘ca’ to the statement, thus ‘Have you a cigarette?’ became ‘Anatah Tobacco-ca?’ As soon as they learned a few words of English, they added ‘ca’ to them to form a question. They used our words with their simple sentence construction; thus when one of them wanted to tell me that in future we must notify them each day what the morrow’s requirements would be, he said, ‘Gunzo, tomorrow want, today ask.’ They were always interested to hear how many children, especially boys, we had. Newcomers, seeing my venerable white hairs, would almost invariably ask me at the first opportunity, ‘Gunzo, you children-ca?’ When I explained that I was not even married, they would usually make sympathetic clucking noises. Not only was I not married, but, fortunately, I had not even left a girl behind in England.
The next major difficulty was that our cooks ran out of fuel. We only used wood, and rice takes quite a lot to boil it in our three foot diameter cast-iron ‘quallies’ (like shallow woks), and we received the ultimatum from the cooks; ‘No firewood brought back from working parties, no food.’ From then on everyone had to try to pinch a piece of wood from somewhere each day; beams went out of our roof, bits of staging disappeared, and our lunch-breaks outside were spent looking for odd pieces of wood to bring back. Singapore is a densely populated island and had been short of firewood for many years, so I guess the Japs could not give us what they did not have. It was the seventh of May, and as the guards had a ceremonial parade before a visiting general, we were given another ‘Yasume’ day. I was busy in camp, so did not have time to make my usual trip through the wire. That afternoon the camp patrol spotted footprints in the mud where I and others had been crossing to freedom. They lay in wait and caught three or four of our chaps trying to get back inside. They were taken away by the ‘Kempi-Ti’ military police, dreaded equally by both us and the ordinary Jap soldiers. We never saw or heard of them again, but the usual treatment was first torture to obtain the names of any contacts, followed by execution.
I had drunk my last cup of Chinese coffee, as the Japs reinforced the wire, and removed the lorries so that all the boundary could be seen at all times by the guards. From now on they held ‘Tenkos’ at odd times, and were even more fussy in making sure that there were no absentees. Some of the guards let us count in English, as the newcomers from Changi had not yet learned Nippon-go. We numbered down the ranks ‘one, two, three, four . . .’ our guard knew no English, and we still had a few wags ‘... nine, ten, Jack, Queen, King’. There was a roar from behind as an English-speaking Jap officer heard the sequence. ‘No-good enah, Bagero!’ etc. A few cuffs, and it was all over; but from then on counting had to be in Japanese, and anyone who did not know his number was clouted. For a few weeks, we had a skip of reject fish issued on alternate days. These were creepy-crawlies from the bottoms of the fishermen’s nets, and varied from hideous devil-fish, to small octopus-like creatures. We boiled them all up together into a fish broth.
There was never continuity of food, mainly I think due to lack of organization on the part of the Japs. We were told also that Camp Commandants received a fixed sum of money for each prisoner, and any savings they could retain counted as ‘perks’. This probably accounted for the fact that in some camps food was so much better than in others. I had now been two months in River Valley, and felt part of a community. Once we got this sense of ‘belonging’ in a camp, no matter how bad it was, we were always loath to leave, on the principle, I suppose, of ‘the devil we know’. Life was however wearisome in the mud and squalor, with disease now a major problem. Pellagra (an ugly and irritating skin disease caused by lack of vitamin ‘B’), sores, ulcers, dengue and other tropical fevers were rife. Things would have seemed better had there been useful work to do, but our work now seemed to be more a punishment than anything else. Marching home from work one day, we passed a green space with three trees growing on it. To each tree was tied a Chinaman, and each of them had a caption over his head, reading ‘Thief’, ‘Robber’, and ‘Pilfer’. They were covered in blood and bruised beyond recognition; the center one appeared to be only about twelve years old. As they hung there they looked like a depiction of The Crucifixion. Our guards told us they had been there all day.
The dump was still getting my usual visits and at this time I brought home a bundle of hessian with which I made a bed. and partitioned my bed-space off to form a ‘room’ for a bit more privacy. I christened it ‘The Nook’, and a name-board over the door put the finishing touch. I could now work on my next project, away from prying eyes. Having found a pair of earphones and a load of wire on the dump, I was determined to make a wireless. Batteries were unheard of, so it would need to be a crystal set. During the next few weeks I made my coils, and from the ‘useful’ items in my kit completed my set, right down to crystal-holder and cats-whisker. From then on, although I tried hundreds of different kinds of rock, being always on the look-out for likely pieces, I was never to find anything that produced the slightest ‘Grerk’. In the end I had to dump my abortive effort.
We had our first air-raid warning the day after I commenced ‘Operation Wireless’. We saw no planes, but our guards were shaken as I think they believed that all Burma and India were in their hands (or so they had told us), so there should have been no airfields near enough to mount air-raids on Singapore. A rumor began to circulate to the effect that we might soon be allowed to write home. We had worried ever since our capture that no list had been sent to the Red Cross to let our people at home know that we were alive. In the event, it was to be several years before my parents received a year-old card telling them that I was safe and well. Until then, all that they had was their original notification from a government department that I was missing, believed captured. By that time my mother was about the only one left who still believed that I would return. She continued to write to me weekly for nearly four years, but only a few of her letters got through, and those that did were always over a year old.
I had by this time grown a fine curly beard but one day I felt sores coming among the hair-roots, so went to see our medical orderly. While awaiting my turn I saw a man being treated for impetigo; he was having the scabs pulled out with tweezers from among the stubble, and the stubs he was losing at the same time were causing him much pain, and tears were rolling down his cheeks. I left the queue, and went back to my hut. Early next morning, before my comrades were awake, I fetched water, and with my razor hacked off my long hair and beard, and then shaved my face and scalp. I had no mirror and the blood flowed. When finished, my head and face looked like crazy paving; but I was clean-shaven and bald. After breakfast, we paraded as usual for roll-call. I was the first thing the Japs saw. ‘New-ca’? one of them asked. I pointed to the number on my shirt, and he peered at it in disbelief. Someone had exchanged the patriach for a lad in his early twenties. Half a dozen guards gathered jabbering around me, but I think that it was all my cuts that finally convinced them that it was really me.
That day I returned to the dump to remove a piece of ebonite that I had seen attached to some other equipment. This dump was about a hundred yards across, and as I started to emerge, ebonite in my haversack, a couple of the Kempi-ti who had been lying in wait some way off spotted me. I turned and ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction from our party. When I was out of their sight, I ran in a wide circle and finally dropped exhausted among our men while our guards still appeared to sleep. My rapid breathing had subsided somewhat by the time the Kempi-ti appeared and ordered a roll-call. Our guards were as relieved as we were to be able to report that we were all present. They did not search us; had they done so I would have found the piece of ebonite difficult to shrug off; my hut would have been searched, and my embryo wireless discovered. Had I not that morning shaved off my flowing hair and beard, the Kempi-ti could not have failed to have recognized me, the only Snow-White in the camp. I may not be able to convince the reader, but I know that it was more than a coincidence that I was preserved through all those years to come home whole. From that time on, Japs patrolled the area, and spot checks were made during the day to ensure that no-one was missing. I did not visit the dump again. That night I completed the wireless, fixed the aerial along the ridge of the hut, and buried the earth wire under the floor. I only needed my crystal now, that was all; but the work and risk had been in vain. A few months later a group of our men in Thailand were caught using a home-made wireless. They were tortured for a week in a futile attempt to make them divulge the source of the components, then thrown into the ditch outside the Kempi-ti’s hut and left to die.
In running barefoot from the Kempi-ti, I had torn the flesh on my big toe, and when this swelled up and festered I had to stay in camp for a few days. Having salvaged a conti pencil and some paper on one of my visits to the dump, I now found time to do some drawing, and was in demand drawing wives and sweethearts from snapshots. Pte. Birch across the gangway first put the idea into my head when he drew a sketch of me stalking up the road on a work-party, with flowing hair and beard, and wearing the ridiculous long shorts which were army issue to protect the legs from mosquitoes and leeches.
Chapter 17 - Electric Light, Entertainment and Snails
The fifteenth of June saw clouds of smoke drifting up from the direction of Singapore harbour. Great excitement and rumours of Allied landings. Then the Japs told us that Chinese fifth-columnists had set fire to a ship in the harbor. Four days later we saw ack-ack fire, and thought that our planes must have arrived at last, but this time it transpired that the Japs were only trying out captured guns. That same evening a Major Swanson spent the evening in our hut relating cricketing anecdotes. In civilian life he was a cricketing commentator and journalist. His talk was very interesting and much appreciated by us all. This was the last of a series of talks, debates, quizzes and impromptu concerts which we held to pass away the long dark evenings, and to keep our spirits up.
On the eighteenth of June, the Japs ordered that no more entertainment was to be held by the prisoners, and that we were not to gather together in large groups. They had been surprised to find our morale remained high, and the purpose of the latest imposition was probably to impair this. If so the result was the very opposite, as we thought they must be expecting an attack, and daily half expected parachutes to fall down from the sky. If only we had known the truth of what the future held for us, many of us would have given up hope. Passing over that part of our hut where I slept ran an electric cable which fed the Jap quarters. Each night for some time, I had been climbing on to the roof to pull on this cable to stretch it, so that every day it sagged closer and closer to the roof. At last came the night when it touched; I had a black-market bulb, wire and insulation tape ready, and now had to await the next power cut, and as these were not infrequent one came two nights later.
Slitting the insulation in the dark and inserting my two wires was a tricky job, especially as I did not know when the juice would come on again. I had no bulb-holder, so I had to attach the wires to the bulb with insulation tape. Neither did I have a switch, so an insulation tape arrangement had to be made for that too; thus switching the light on and off was a rather involved affair; but now we did have electric light, and we were I think the only prisoners ever to have this amenity. However it was a mixed blessing. To make the ‘nook’ light-proof and prevent our captors from discovering what I had done, it was also nearly air-tight, and in the tropical climate the heat became unbearable after a short while; so our electric light was not used very much. Padding through the germ-laden mud every day, my injured toe was not progressing very well, and when our doctor saw it he said I would lose my foot if I did not return to Changi. I was mad to heal this wound, and did not want to leave all my friends behind; anyway, however bad the camp might be, River Valley was now ‘home’. Prison camp atmosphere is impossible to describe. It took a long time to learn whom one could trust and rely upon; which guards were friendly and the ones with whom no liberties could be taken.
All the narrow squeaks one had in the camp made it seem like a friend when the time came to part. River Valley was a pretty bad camp, so it seems strange therefore, that even now I can look back upon it with a degree of nostalgia. It is probably that through the muck and pain there shines the glow of comrades I knew I could safely trust with my life. Men at River Valley had given me the pleasant task of bringing messages and presents to friends left behind in Changi. First I called on dear old Sgt. Clarry Pellet. Coming from a small Cambridgeshire village, he had worked with farm horses all his life, and called all his friends ‘Me ole beauty’. Len Dudley had given me a roll of tobacco to give to him, and Clarry could not have been more pleased had I told him he was free to go home. He was alas, never to see his beloved horses again. His name is now preserved for posterity with several others on a brass plaque in a tiny church, not far from my home.
My father had a silver ‘Omega’ pocket watch which he carried all through the first world war, and it was still going strong. When I was mobilized in August 1939 he bought me a similar pocket watch. It was now the only thing from home I treasured; during my first night in hospital, I dropped it on the floor and irreparably damaged it. When I awoke the next morning, I found I had been bitten all over by bed-bugs, horrible things nearly a quarter of an inch long, and the ones I found were bloated by my blood. After biting they gave off a horrible sickly smell, and it soon became a familiar accompaniment to the remainder of our POW days. Although food was no better here than in our last camp, conditions were clean and dry, so after five days my toe improved to the extent that I was allowed to walk on it for a short time each day. The first thing I did was my washing. Everything except my towel dried quickly, so I decided to return half an hour later for that. Alas, when I came back it had gone.
The fifth of July was a red letter day, as we were issued with the first cards to 'write' home. They were printed thus:
Your mails and (.....) are received
My health is (good, unwell, poor)
I am ill in hospital
I am working for pay (I am paid a monthly salary)
My best regards to........
Please see that .......is taken care
The interpreter had left the preposition out altogether rather than end a sentence with it. We were told to print our cards, and I printed mine in lower case letters. I was very upset when my card was returned to me with the message that I should have used capitals, and that I could not have another card, so must miss my turn. I need not have worried as none of the cards got through. It was Sunday, and I was solaced by going to a church service conducted by the Australian padre.
While I had been away, a first class concert party had been formed, and was now able to present shows of a very high standard. Female clothing and make-up had been acquired or made, so the concerts were not without heroines, many of them indistinguishable from the real thing, on the stage. The current production was called ‘Camp Pie’, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was a fair orchestra comprising mostly home-made instruments, and many songs written in the camp were sung. These were either nostalgic pieces reminding us of home, optimistic songs foretelling rapid release, or comic pieces, mainly about food.
We never lost our sense of humour thank goodness, and it carried most of us through our darkest days. We were to share camps with other nationalities who had lost their sense of humour, and watched them die of complaints that most of us were able to shrug off. There was something to do most evenings in Changi; church, quizzes, debates, competitions and lectures; there was never to be another camp like it. Had we been allowed to stay there, many would have returned who now lie under far away soil. The following Sunday, after going to see Clarry, who was far from well, I attended Church again. The sermon was so effective that I went straight back and shared out with the sick the two tins of fish I had brought back from River Valley.
I was discharged from hospital on the seventeenth of July, and returned to the sergeants’ hut in our regimental area, handing the remaining tinned food and sugar I had into the mess. I was pleasantly surprised later when Cyril Flatt handed me one dollar, thirty cents from passing the hat round. I was put on light duty, which then consisted of making ‘Attap’ or palm thatch, for repairing our huts. Although very effective roofing, attap makes very good fodder for termites and other insects, so it constantly needed renewing. Also in the tropical storms pieces would often blow away. All the roofs in Changi were made of attap, so a lot of repairs were always needed. Some men collected palm leaves, some split bamboo, and others actually wove these materials into the ‘tiles’ which were fixed on the roof with ties which themselves were split from another cane called ‘Rhotan’. The ‘tiles’ are made by taking a piece of split bamboo three feet long, bending the spear-shaped palm leaves over and along it, then weaving a thin sliver of green bamboo in and out every folded leaf to hold it in place.
As I recovered, so I became hungry, and our rations were very small. There was a clump of fruitless banana ‘trees’ behind the sergeants’ hut, and dozens of pointed snails as big as whelks were feeding on them. Pondering on the fact that we were getting no meat ration, I remembered that the French ate snails, so felt sure that these whelk-like creatures would be edible. I gathered a mess-tin half full, washed them and put them on to boil. As I tried to cook them so the water turned to very thick slime; in spite of changing the water several times I had to scrape each one in the end. A more unappetizing dish would be hard to imagine. I tried to eat one and found it so tough that my teeth slipped off it. I swallowed some of them whole in rice until I retched, and then threw the remainder away.
Changi had now been a POW camp for four months. Becoming prisoner does not change a man’s underlying nature, but rather accentuates it. By now the types who would have been layabouts or criminals at home, had got together; gangs roamed the camp at night, stealing from their comrades, and they sold their swag to natives outside the camp perimeter. Therefore each regiment organized a guard to patrol the area at night to try to keep these vermin away. After serving my turn for the first time, and walking the camp all night without the protection of my mosquito net, I went down with a temperature of one-hundred and four degrees, and was told that I had dengue (pronounced ‘dengi’), which is a mosquito carried disease. Although it can be severe, it usually only lasts for about ten days, and unlike some forms of malaria it is not recurrent.
As I recovered from the fever, I did some sketches of the camp. Unfortunately these were not easy to conceal from the Japs and I had to destroy them when we left Changi. I had only commenced writing my diary when we were captured, so I had no record of dates and events up to that time. Sgt. Huey Moy had always kept a diary, and now let me borrow it. I was thus able to write up the chronology of events leading up to the fall of Singapore, adding my own comments while the events were still fresh in my mind. Huey later destroyed his diary, so I believe mine was the only one to survive. In order to instill a competitive spirit, we again organized ourselves into platoons. It was decided to run a platoon garden, and our officers managed to obtain some vegetable seeds. I put Pte. Naitin in charge and he took great pride in it. We grew what we called ‘Singapore Spinach’, a quick-growing, tasteless convolvulus-like plant, and sweet potato plants which never bore ‘fruit’, so we ate the leaves. None of the vegetables out there compared remotely with ours at home; such things as sprouts, cauliflowers and cabbages were unknown. I made a small garden outside our hut, transferring any pretty weeds I found into it. I also found a coconut by the sea which had commenced to grow, and this was given pride of place. It soon looked like a giant aspidistra.
Joe Viner was our Pioneer Sergeant and thus responsible for sanitary arrangements, together with any other job which came along, from a collapsing cookhouse to a flooded hut. Weighing about twenty stone, he cruised through his duties like a battleship. He had been a stonemason in private life, and performed his duties well, even though he ruled his domain with an iron rod. His command of language was rather limited, however, and much of his time was spent in giving serious replies to frivolous questions from mess-mates. Now and then Joe would ‘tumble’, and then woe betide the joker. Although fat, Joe was as strong as a lion, and had a very quick temper. He liked to talk ponderously, and to use long words; he also liked them to mean what he chose them to mean. Never admitting that he did not know a word’s meaning it was very easy to pull his leg. ‘Joe, have you decided the designation of the new latrine you’re putting up for the officers’? .... 'They’re plenty strong enough without that', and then with a roar ‘Anyway, you look after your own qualifications and leave me to look after mine’ Joe’s sayings were bywords throughout the regiment; ‘Oose bin a-casting astertions about me?’ ‘They’re a-dropping on 'em mates, they’re them in-sanitary bombs’. Yet those who fought alongside Joe told us that he was steady as a rock and an inspiration to all those under him.
I found myself next to Joe in the mess, and he had developed bad ringworm, one of the curses of our existence during the coming years; being contagious I soon found that the complaint had spread to me. I saw Lionel our trusty medical sergeant, and he gave me a supply of sulphur and lime to rub in. Scraping the infected area with my open razor to allow the treatment to penetrate I applied the mixture, which although painful, soon cleared up the trouble. Because each attack only required a tiny amount to heal it, my supply lasted, and after that, as soon as I found I had an attack, I always gave myself the same treatment, and thus remained clear until the end of our captivity.
The lives of some of our boys were made a misery with this ringworm, as once it became well established it was very difficult to eradicate. In its advanced state, huge red circles covered the body, overlapping one another. When one began to fade a fresh one would begin within the same area thus perpetuating the trouble. As they itched abominably, it was usually not long before the constant scratching started the tropical ulcers which were to cause many amputations and deaths.
Since my boots were beginning to show signs of wear I decided to make myself a pair of wooden sandals for about camp, so that I could keep my boots for long marches. I was able to find some suitable wood, and carved the soles to fit the soles of my feet, nailing a piece of strap from my army equipment across to complete them. I soon became accustomed to wearing these and they served me well. It would of course have been easier to have gone barefoot, but our doctors had now forbidden this, owing to the scourge of hookworm. This parasite lurked in the dust until trodden on, when it bored into the sole of the foot, and after tunneling through the leg, it finally penetrated the intestines. Once there it was almost impossible to eradicate, and the disease was a major cause of debility and early death among the Malay and Tamil population.
A more pleasant member of the local fauna was the firefly. Although I did not see any of them from close up, I never tired from watching them on the trees during the dark evenings. In their myriads they would start to glow as darkness descended. Then, as if orchestrated, they would all commence to flash in unison. Neither were the nights quiet; although many of the noises were unidentifiable, crickets, lizards and frogs, we knew. There were also great bats known as flying foxes. Luckily they did not suck blood, but lived on fruit. We also heard the cry of owls and other birds of prey, but we never saw them. The most hateful sound of all was the high-pitched note of the accursed mosquito. Now, many years later, I cannot rest if I hear one in the room.
Chapter 18 - In Changi, Singapore
We were at this time allowed to organize an official canteen in the camp, and once or twice a week a party of officers went off to the local shops accompanied by a guard. One of these shopping parties was offered some baby ducks by a Chinese man, so when they returned to camp a message was circulated to see if any of us wanted to take up the offer. I was the only one among our section to show an interest, and ordered four, which was all my meager cash would run to. During the time that elapsed before the ducklings arrived, I scoured the camp for materials with which to build my duck run; wire netting, trodden into the mud of the coconut grove, odd bits of attap and bamboo retrieved from a hut undergoing repair, before the cooks got their hands on them; and it was with much pride that I was able to survey my task, completed on time. As there was usually little new to talk about, the news soon passed from mouth to mouth around the camp, and a steady stream of visitors came along to see it.
The captain who had received a bullet wound in his neck when lost, and was in my trench during the fighting, now called to see my duck run. ‘That’s much too big for your four,’ he said. ‘I’ve ordered twenty-six, and don’t know what to do with them.’ The offer he then made was so generous that I could scarcely believe my ears. He said that if I would feed and look after all thirty ducklings, we would share equally in the end products of eggs and fat ducks. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity. Shortly afterward his batman arrived with a sack of poultry food that he had managed to acquire. I had also gathered a lot of potential fodder, including some limed rice which the cooks had decided was too bad for human consumption.
Our ducklings arrived on August the twenty-sixth, but when I went over to collect them, I found that it was a part consignment of fifteen, and carried them back to their new home in a cardboard box. That night I scarcely slept, thinking of my dear little ducks, and planning their future! So exciting was it to have something constructive to do, and to have little lives dependent on me. The following day, as I surveyed my small domain, I realized that with fifteen more to come, my little flock would quickly outgrow its accommodation. I had kept a few ducks back home, and knowing how quickly they grow, I rebuilt the run, doubling the size of both run and sleeping quarters. I had not sufficient attap for the roof of their little shed, so I thatched it with grass. Four days later the other fifteen babies arrived, and quickly settled in with the others. How different life seemed now, with my little charges. I built my working day around them, and even dreamed about them at night; they were my substitute family. To my friends and acquaintances I must have been behaving in a ridiculous manner, and they continuously pulled my leg. I had difficulty in holding back a tear on the third day, when I found a little corpse in the run. One more disappeared during the ‘Black Hole of Selarang’ incident, which is recorded later. The captain who shared the ducks came round to look at them, and offered to purchase another twenty, to share on the same basis; as those we had were doing so well, I naturally agreed.
A few days later, while I was helping to re-build some of the cookhouse fireplaces, my captain partner sent his batman over to collect the six biggest ducks while my back was turned. I was very upset when someone came along to tell me of this flagrant breach of our fifty/fifty gentleman’s agreement, but due to the difference in our ranks I was helpless as far as taking any action was concerned. Some of the ducks grew faster than others, and after a few more weeks twelve of them were twice the size of their fellows, and would soon be ready to eat, if that was to be their destiny. I was, however, very fond of them, and began to worry over any plans my partner might have for their future. Then, one evening when I had to leave the vicinity of our quarters, my run was robbed, and the twelve biggest were absent when I held roll call. Very nearly broken-hearted, I ran into the nearby sergeants’ hut and asked if anyone had seen an intruder, only to be told that my friend the captain had again sent his batman to take them while I was out of sight.
This time I stalked over to the officers’ mess with murder in my heart. Our officers had more cash than they knew what to do with, since they received a regular sum from our captors, which, in theory, they were to repay at the end of the war. So that the arrangement whereby I did all the work while our tall captain provided most of the cash was very fair. I found him sitting in the mess, and when I tackled him, staring up at the roof to avoid looking me in the eye, he blandly said he did not remember making any firm arrangement with me. Determined not to take this lying down, and knowing that in spite of his six feet odd in height, that he was a coward, I told him in the loudest voice I could muster, the kind of gentleman I now considered him to be. In order to get rid of me before the other officers heard what was going on, he promised to return two of the ducks, and I had perforce to put up with that.
My remaining ducks grew and grew, as I caught frogs and creepy-crawlies to chop up for them. As they fledged, they became too big for the run during the daytime, and I had to open it each morning before I left for work, so they could forage for themselves, shepherding them in again at nightfall. One night, after a busy day collecting firewood, as we were having a mess meeting I went straight into the sergeants’ mess without first shutting the ducks in. Suddenly a deluge dropped out of the sky, it was so heavy that one could only see a few yards through it. I watched unheedingly for a short time before remembering the ducks. There was already an inch or two of water lying on the ground as I rushed through the deluge to find my little family; they had all disappeared. An anti-malarial drain ran near the run, and I now remembered with horror that they had recently taken to swimming in it. I ran downstream alongside it until it disappeared underground into a culvert after a hundred yards or so. I arrived there just in time to see the last of my wards disappear down the drain. I would never see any of them again. Morning the loss of my little flock, I almost wished the captain had told his batman to take the lot. Life seemed very empty for the next few days.
On the nineteenth of August, all fit men were ordered to parade for a talk by a Jap General. It was our own adjutant who was in charge of us; his bullying tactics had endeared him to none, so it was with great pleasure that we heard him give the unheard of order to ‘Right About Wheel!’, and we spread ourselves unevenly over the parade ground until he was forced to call on our Warrant Officer to marshal us into order again. The General eventually arrived and having evidently learned the words by heart announced simply; ‘You are now under the rules of the Japanese Empire, and must obey all our rules’.
Ken Ireman was in charge of the cookhouse at this time, and being a friend of mine it was he who had given me the limy rice for the ducks. He had, in private life, been a carpet weaver, and during the evenings he took me through the long process of wool, from the time it arrived at the factory in bales, to the beautiful end-product of either Axminster or Wilton. In later life I was therefore always to look at carpets with a more expert eye. We had really got to know one another when stationed in the small Scottish border town of Galashiels, during the year preceding our capture. [While in the Commandos, I had been taught the use of explosives, so when I returned to my regiment I had been appointed bomb disposal officer. Since we had no dummy two-inch mortar bombs with which to train my platoon at that time, I brought a ‘dud’ bomb back from the firing range where I had been sent to blow up all the unexploded bombs. Sgt.Ireman was the only other occupant of the sergeants’ sleeping quarters that evening as I patiently and stupidly dug out the yellow baratol explosive with a screwdriver, and then dropped the bomb on the floor to try to ensure that the bomb was safe for my platoon to practice with. There was a blinding flash as it hit the floor, and proved that it certainly had not been safe. I was lifted in the air and landed on about the sixth bed along. These bombs had an extra large fulminate of mercury detonator, which had exploded. Ken, who had been sitting on the next bed, had disappeared; the nearby toilet door was off its hinges and inside I saw Ken struggling to his feet. I tried to stand up but one leg was out of action, and as warm fluid poured down my leg I thought I had become incontinent. On looking down though, I saw a pool of blood on the floor and realized for the first time that I had been hurt.
After hopping down that long first-floor room by holding on to the row of bed heads, I eventually reached the staircase, having been passed on the way by Ken. I more or less slid down the stairs, and tried to hop across the parade ground to our medical room. Our medical sergeant, Lionel, and his assistant ‘Skin’ had heard the bang and seeing us struggling across, helped Ken and me over. Ken’s main injury was a piece of shrapnel which had penetrated his knee joint. I had shrapnel in both legs, in my groin (that’s still there), abdomen, nose and eyeball. The crutch had been completely torn out from my trousers as had also the under-arms of my tunic. In fact when they showed me my tattered clothes later it was incredible to think that no vital part of me had been hit. The explosion had made a hole in the floor, and one in the roof of the sergeants’ hut, and one of the sergeants later gave me the tail of the bomb for a souvenir. He had picked it up where it fell after sailing skywards through the roof to land over two hundred yards away outside the sergeants' mess. We were both taken by ambulance to Peel House Hospital, Peebles, where we were operated on immediately. As it is necessary to grub up unexploded bombs carefully with the fingers, my nails were still full of mud.
I remember so clearly coming out of the anesthetic and finding a sweet little nurse cleaning my fingernails distastefully. Seeing that I had awakened, in her lovely singing Scottish brogue she told me that she did not think much of boys who went around with dirty nails. I had never had a girlfriend and was too tongue-tied to tell her that my fingernails did not usually look like that. For the next few days my adoring eyes would follow her around the ward in silent devotion. The nurses were a lovely lot, and the ward sister came up to me, and in a whisper asked me if I would like her to tell the sweet little nurse that I had fallen in love with her. Although I vehemently protested a ‘no’, the surreptitious glances I subsequently received let me know that I had been ignored.] Ken’s bed was next to mine, and a picture of his beautiful wife was on the cupboard beside his bed. He would often talk of her, longing for the days to come when they could be together for ever. Those days never came, Ken died as a prisoner; he contracted diphtheria in Thailand, and that was usually fatal there in those days. Together with Ken, I was discharged within a few weeks, ‘kept’ through my first real danger, as I was to be through all that was to befall. When I returned home after the war ended, I discovered that my mother had prayed for me almost constantly, and that our little village church had prayed for me each week. I carried the New Testament which had been my church’s parting gift, right through until the end.
A few days after the Jap General’s parade, we heard that a Red Cross ship was discharging a cargo of supplies for us in Singapore, and for the next few days excitement ran high, as we conjured up thoughts of ‘lovely grub’. In the event, at a grand share-out we received nineteen sweets apiece, and had to conclude that the Japs had helped themselves to the rest. It had been assumed that there would at least be plenty of cigarettes, so that it was perhaps the smokers who were most disappointed. I had given up smoking when I left River Valley, though I had never smoked heavily.
By this time several hundred men had died from disease and malnutrition; many also had died from wounds received during battle. A cemetery had been made not far away from our regimental area, and a party of volunteers used to keep it tidy, and planted with flowers. When one of our regiment died we would nearly all attend the funeral service. The cemetery was the one beautiful spot out there.
We had now been prisoners for six months, and we seemed to be getting more and more parades and general ‘bull’. Far more indeed than were the other regiments that surrounded us, and our men were becoming restive and uncooperative. They sent a delegation to the sergeants’ mess asking for a complaint to be passed on to our Commanding Officer. The mess held a meeting and we came to the conclusion that the complaint was justified, but how to bring it to the C.O.’s attention? There were no volunteers, so lots were cast. (I subsequently discovered that the operation was rigged, as I was thought the only one naive enough to undertake the ‘impossible’ mission.) I was apprehensive, and pointing out that I was one of the youngest there, tried to pass the job on to one of the older ones, but without success. As a sergeant is not allowed to approach his C.O. directly, even as POW, I had first to see the duty officer, Capt. Skinner. He asked me what I wanted to see the C.O. about and told me I was wasting my time. However, when I insisted, he did see the Old Man, who refused even to grant me an interview.
Life in Changi was at this time a long battle between the rank and file and our senior officers. The latter were determined not to let the men under them become undisciplined with all that entailed. The men for their part, thought that now they were prisoners, if the Japs were prepared to leave them alone why could not our own officers? There was, of course, much to be said from both points of view, the difficulty was striking the happy medium. The C.O. contended that the slightest relaxation in discipline would produce a snowball effect. Once a hold over the men had been lost, it would be almost impossible to regain.
Chapter 19 - A New Enemy, Ant Stings and Close Confinement
Now the C.O. decided that we must be prepared to help our army, when they landed to release us. We organized ourselves into cadres for unarmed combat, and I was one of the instructors. Our big unpopular adjutant originated from Canada and considered himself a tough guy. He decided to join my cadre and demonstrate on little me what to do to the Japs. I had the very great satisfaction of demonstrating in front of the men how little he knew about unarmed combat; it was the only chance I was ever to have of throwing an officer into the air, and all quite legitimate. Moreover he never forgave me, and it was many months later, when working on the Thai railway, that he had the chance to get his own back.
We made ourselves lances and bows and arrows, all from bamboo, to be ready when ‘D’-Day arrived. Then one of the officers ran a tactics cadre for senior N.C.Os; when he asked for a volunteer to climb a palm-tree and strap himself in (as we knew the Japs had done), I of course spoke up. Since my first palm climbing exploit, I had practiced quite a bit, so now was able to reach the top without too much trouble, and all without climbing irons. As I tried to settle myself into a comfortable position, I suddenly found every square inch of my body covered with stinging ants. They were even in my eyes, and I almost fell the thirty feet or more as I tried to scramble down with my eyes closed. When I eventually found my way down the tree and into the nearest water, I was completely covered with stings, and took several days to recover. I wondered afterwards whether these ants walk all the way up those long branchless trunks, or if the nest is started while the tree is small, and its occupants lead a self-sufficient existence as the tree grows.
Changi was quite unlike any other camp in which we were to be kept. Firstly, this was to be the only place where we were allowed to run our own affairs, with little interference from our captors. Conditions were incomparably better than we ever again experienced. When Singapore fell, the Japs could have had very few troops to spare to guard the forty or fifty thousand prisoners they had found themselves landed with, so the main body of them was put into this corner of the island and left, more or less, to fend for itself for the early part of the captivity. The shoreward perimeter was thinly guarded by Sikhs and Japs, but seaward needed no guarding - we weren't going anywhere.
On the thirty-first of August, for some strange reason the Japs issued us with forms to sign, declaring upon our honour that we would not attempt to escape. It is the duty of every member of the British armed forces, if taken prisoner, to attempt to escape at the first opportunity, so there was a hundred per cent refusal to sign.
I was in the middle of making a swimming pool for my ducklings the following day, when we were ordered at short notice to parade on the 'padang', as our sports field was called. Japs arrived, and spent all morning counting us, and we were then dismissed none the wiser as to the point of the operation. We found out the next day, when we were ordered to parade with our kit, cooking utensils, tools, rations and all the battalion equipment. No exceptions were made in our lines, so sick men had to parade also. As the hospital was not to be evacuated, however, I managed to get a message to good old Dr. Barber to ask him to feed my ducks while we were away. Camp gear, and the sick in need of help, were shared out among us, and for once we were marched off without the usual delay. The destination proved to be Selarang, a peace-time military barracks. Although only two miles off, we had a job to make it without jettisoning some of our loads, as the Japs drove us at a fast rate with no rests.
When we arrived we found the buildings already occupied by Australian troops. Fifteen thousand of us were however driven in through the gates. The site was about two hundred by three hundred yards in size. The multiple storey barrack block was in the centre, and a hard road ran round the perimeter of the area. The Japs told us that any man setting foot on this road would be shot instantly, and the machine guns which they set up all round us reinforced their words. As our leaders tried to find enough room for us all, another three thousand prisoners turned up from somewhere, and these had also to be accommodated. It was announced that we were here as punishment for not signing the non-escape document; we were to stay until we did sign it.
The officers cast lots for their companies' positions, and our brigade was lucky in getting the top floor of the barrack block; the majority were allocated space on the ground outside. The Japs told us that they would issue a pint of water per man per day, but no food. There was no water at all in the pipes, so no toilets could be used. Now our retention of discipline and organization became manifest, as work parties were formed and quickly started digging through the hard tarmac of the barrack square to make a row of latrine trenches. We worked like mad, knowing that if we did not get done quickly, dysentery would spread through the crowd like wildfire; within a few hours the first row was ready, and in continuous use. Our building was so full of men that even the stairs were occupied, and it took a quarter of an hour stepping over our comrades to reach the latrines from our top floor. Our dysentery cases had therefore to remain down below.
As usual, I started to explore, and soon saw a trap-door in the ceiling, and by persuading a few comrades to form a human pyramid, I climbed up, opened the door and scrambled out on to the roof. There were some old charpoys up there, so I took the string mattress off one, made a crude rope ladder out of it, and was soon joined by half a dozen friends. I rigged up a tent by fixing my gas cape up over one of the best of the charpoys, so was probably the best accommodated of us all. As it came on to rain I managed to squeeze a couple of the lads in beside me but the others sat around holding odd pieces of material over their heads to try to keep out the worst of the wet. The word of my discovery spread around, and there were soon a couple of hundred men up there with us, preferring the wet to the foetid conditions below.
The next day we were again given an opportunity to sign the form, but all refused once more. The Japs had decided to starve us out, but they did not know that our officers had retained a reserve of food for just such an occasion as this. We broke up doors and cupboards for firewood, and our cooks provided food. We were far from starving and for once appreciated what our officers had done for us. By nightfall of that second day, however, there were forty fresh cases of dysentery reported and two of diphtheria. We had no facilities for treating them whatsoever. Two men had died during the day, and when we asked the guards for permission to bury them outside the wire we were curtly refused. Delay would have caused those diseased bodies to decay very quickly, so we at once commenced to dig up the parade ground again to bury them before their germs spread any further.
From up on the roof next day we could see that the enemy were guarding us in their hundreds, with both Sikhs and Japs. It seemed pretty clear that they were regarding this operation very seriously, and intended keeping us there until we either signed or died. The Jap commander now sent round a message that the hospital, wounded and isolation cases included, would be evacuated here on the morrow, and that we would have to find room for them in with us. So the screw was to be tightened even further. Nearly a hundred new cases of dysentery developed as the day wore on, and several of suspected diphtheria (nearly always fatal under those conditions). Many of the bad cases were unable to reach the toilet in time, and the barracks were beginning to become nearly as bad as the tennis court in those earlier days.
That evening our top brass held an emergency meeting to decide whether they could be justified in holding out any longer. The consequences of bringing the wounded and infectious cases into our crowded camp were no doubt discussed, together with the moral implications of virtually condemning thousands of us to death to try to maintain our honour. They came to the only conclusion possible and issued the order to sign. However, we found a way to sign and still to keep our options open; splitting up into pairs, each man signed his partner's name and thus the Japs were satisfied, and we could still feel free to escape when the opportunity came along.
Early next morning we paraded to return to Changi. The Japs allowed us to make several journeys this time, and as the resident Selarang Aussies lent us a handcart we had a very much easier trip. On our return, it was announced that any of us camping on high ground from which the sea could be seen, were to move into Selarang, and although this only affected Third Corps, we helped them with the move. Much speculation arose as to why this was found to be necessary, and some of us surmised that perhaps the Japs thought our submarines might surface at night and signal to us.
Our shopping party had by now purchased some sports equipment including a football. On the fifth day after our return from Selarang I watched our football team defeated three goals to two by the Suffolks. A rugby ball had also appeared from somewhere, and I was invited to play for the regiment; after a few practice games we turned out for our first match. Then the C.O. asked me to take charge of the battalion rugby team, which I was very pleased to do. We had no ball of our own, so we had to hold scrum practice etc., with a bundle of rags. However, the C.O. promised to ask the shopping party to try to find us a ball, and a week later I received a message to the effect that I could collect one from the officers' mess. Unfortunately, there was a puncture in the bladder; having no puncture outfit I tried latex gathered from a local rubber tree, but this would not work as something is evidently added to it before it can be used. We never did get our ball repaired.
Chapter 20 - I Have A Mucker, Red Cross Rations and a Scottish RSM
Then came a week's notice of another regimental move. This time we were to go across the road beside an old railway crossing. not far from the cemetery. By now we had made our quarters fairly comfortable and were sorry to have to move again. On the morning of the twentieth of September, we never heard why, the Japs paraded us to be weighed and measured. Some thought they were going to put us on a ship for Japan, and wanted to know how many the ship would hold!
Two days later we moved into our new quarters. I spent the first morning paving the mess floor with some slabs we found in a derelict building; in the evening we went to the camp concert as our turn had come round, and saw an excellent performance of "I Killed the Count". Sport began to take an important part in our lives at this point, especially sports which did not need specialized equipment. Any with special skills were encouraged to lead the different groups. Someone persuaded me, against my better judgment, to turn out for hurdling; however my short legs were not made for leaping (except when under machine gun fire!), and I was not asked again, as I caused too many repair jobs on the home-made bamboo hurdles.
Until now I had no close friend or 'mucker' in the mess, but on September the twenty-sixth it was announced on our battalion orders notice board that Cpl. (Jimmy) Hume had been promoted to acting Lance Sergeant. Many of our Senior N.C.O.s (non-commissioned officers), had been lost during the fighting, and it was felt that there were now insufficient to maintain the high standard of discipline that the Old Man required. Several other acting appointments were also made at this time. Jimmy was just about the best all-round sportsman in the regiment, a beautiful footballer, one of our best cricketers, and back home, a good billiards player. I was neither good at nor interested in any of these games, yet he and I struck up a friendship, sharing all we had until separated in Thailand, first by sickness, and finally, when Jimmy was sent off by ship to Japan.
We contracted many strange diseases as prisoners, and as we did not know the correct name for them they were all designated 'Changi' something or other. We had everything from 'Changi Ear' to 'Changi' unmentionables. I now contracted 'Changi Ear' which consisted of little boils right inside, and until they burst a week or so later they were very painful.
On the ninth of October, as I was returning from the sea loaded with salt water for our cooks, the news that there was another Red Cross ship in Singapore harbor was bruited abroad; it was said that we really were going to get a fair share of the loot this time. Two days later it materialized, sugar, gee (clarified and sterilized butter), lentils, jam, biscuits, bully beef, tinned meat and vegetable stew and condensed milk. We held a meeting in the mess to decide whether to issue out the tins individually or to give them to the cooks to improve our general rations; in the end we decided to issue all the tinned milk individually, together with half the sugar and biscuits. The remainder went to the cookhouse. Our sergeants' meals now became comparatively good, although I noticed that the men's food did not show much sign of improvement. Although we always drew the same rations as the men, in Changi, the difference in the end product was often surprising. The cooks in the huge men's cookhouse seemed unable to take the same pride and trouble over the food as did ours, who were cooking for only a couple of dozen. Also much of the food often seemed to 'evaporate' before it reached the plate, and that was why there were so many calls for change of staff. Apart from a few weeks in Chunkai, Changi was the only camp I was in where sergeants messed separately from the men.
Up to the this time, I had written up my diary in pencil each day, as, although I had a pen, I had no ink. Now I found an indelible pencil, thrown away because it had split in halves. Dissolving the core of this in water to make myself a bottle of ink, I re-wrote everything with my pen, and carried on with it until it ran out when we reached Chunkai in Thailand. Apart from lectures on my special subject of weapon-training (before capture), I had never given talks on any subject. Now, however, I began to speak regularly to groups in the sick-bay, to help them pass away the time. I found, to my surprise, that I seemed to be able to find plenty to say about almost anything, whether familiar with the subject or not, filling the many gaps in my knowledge with conjecture. My audience did not seem to mind, and I found myself much in demand. Among other subjects I remember lecturing on socialism, evolution, building, religion, and my experiences in the Independent Companies, (which later became merged into Commandos). Things were so dull and monotonous for the sick, lying in their hut all day, that it did not take a great deal to entertain them.
I personally found life a bit more bearable now that I had a 'mucker', and it was also convenient, while the Red Cross food lasted, to open one tin between the two of us, since food only kept for a few hours, once opened. Jimmy was of a quiet and steady temperament, whereas I believe that I am rather more of the 'scratch and claw' type, a bit impatient and sometimes prone to fly off the handle when things do not go quite as I think they should. Jimmy put up with me very well. Although our friendship really began from expediency, we soon became firm friends. Ever since I found the slab of Dunlopillo foam from inside a vehicle seat at the River Valley dump, I had slept on this, and far more comfortably than most of the other men. As it was thicker than I really needed, so I now split it into two thinner pieces and we slept on half each. Jimmy gave me half his blanket as I only had a sack up until then, and we pooled our cash, taking it in turns to hold the purse. He was to prove a great source of strength to me during the difficult months that were soon to come.
Our guards now blithely informed us that they were going to cease feeding us and that we were to grow our own food. As I had more experience of working under the Japs than most of the other N.C.O.s, I was given a ten-man gardening party, and reported to the guardhouse with them. Moving off in the pouring rain, we were first taken into the vicinity of Changi jail (where Sikhs were guarding civilian prisoners), there to be issued with chunkels, axes, shovels and machetes. Chunkels were to become familiar tools; as the workers out there do not wear shoes, they cannot use spades. The chunkel is a kind of heavy hoe with a blade the size of a spade; it is used in the manner of a pick-axe, for digging.
The area where we were told to make our garden was behind the jail. It comprised eighty acres of rubber plantation; the Japs told us to start work, and sat down to watch us. Needless to say, by the end of the day not much impression had been made. With the native tools, it had taken all our time to fell three of the large rubber trees and to dig the roots out. Again, we found that the water table was only just below the surface, and wondered how vegetables would grow in the mud, even if we did eventually manage to remove all the trees. Returning from our gardening party, we found that fresh rumours were circulating; this time it was said that parties were about to be sent overseas. Although none did in fact go while I was there, it was not to be long before some left for Thailand (never to return to Changi), and half of us were to remain buried there. It was this night that my ducks, as mentioned earlier on, disappeared down into the culvert.
I had just about rigged up my new sleeping quarters satisfactorily, when I was ordered out of them, to make room for a Regimental Sergeant-Major, (R.S.M.) who was to join us from the Gordon Highlanders. I had to move out to share a tent with two others. When he arrived he proved to be an old soldier of the spit and polish type, six feet three in height, and complete with waxed mustache; in fact a typical regular army 'Sarmajor'. I hoped he was uncomfortable on the bed I had only just completed from scraps gathered from the various rubbish heaps. It transpired that the Old Man had arranged for this chap to be transferred to us to try to tighten our discipline even further. In time I was able to see through the 'bull' to the very sound man that was behind the appearance of that tall Scot.
CONTINUE TO PAGE 3
Return to POW Stories Menu