Sketch by Jack Chalker

Changi

Some of us were detailed to do duty, patrolling the streets keeping our troops off them and we were treated with great respect by the Nippon Kempi’s. I was walking down one street when I saw some looters outside a shop which had been hit by a shell, looking longingly at the merchandise openly showing. I chased them away firing my pistol into the ground behind them. The Japs had allowed us to retain our weapons for this duty. I returned to the damaged shop to make sure there were no looters still inside, to be faced by an Aussie soldier . I said something like, showing a bad example to the natives. All he said as he moved on, albeit empty handed was " who’s side are you on ?". This made me realize the incongruity of my position, and I immediately returned to our billet and reported to the R.S.M., and all patrols were cancelled from then on. It was then I realized my ammo. for my 0.38 pistol was dumdum bullets, solid lead, which I quickly disposed of into a blank wall opposite, much to the consternation of a senior N.C.O. present. No other officers were with us, and no action taken.

For 2 or 3 more days we tried to sort ourselves out. Then on the 18th February we were ordered to march to Changi , a distance of about 18 miles. Up Bukitima Road. A road we had traveled often when at Naval Base. It was on this march we saw some very gruesome sights. One I remember was a completely naked body of a man. He looked like a native, laid at the side of a burnt out motor car. A great hole in his chest cavity, crawling with maggots, but his sexual organ was at attention, and what a size. Many were the expressions of jealousy. Another eerie sight was a Sikh Soldier, crouched behind a hedge, complete with turban and rifle in hand, and a hole in the centre of his forehead . He must of died instantly, but still looked very lifelike. We arrived at our new quarters to find we were separated into individual compounds. Ours of course was the 18th Division compound, and included living quarters of a peacetime Army barracks. Each area ringed by 3 rolls of barbed wire, which had been erected by our own R.E.’s, standing about 8 ft. high and impossible to scale. The Australians were in a separate compound next to ours, but completely cut off from us. We were crammed about a dozen to each house. I was in an upstairs room. Some chaps managed to hang on to their mosquito nets. I didn’t have one, but managed to get a bed space near a window, which being open kept the ‘mossies’ at bay, in the gentle night breeze. Our cookhouse was supplying us with real hardtack fare. Ships biscuits and tinned bacon. Cooking rice was not yet an acquired art.

We were still having to do duties. A road passed through our area, with gaps in the barbed wire. We had to stand guard keeping our troops in and the natives out, and of course saluting any Jap. officer that came through in a car. We had to bow to the latter.

It was whilst on one of these duties, on a 3 hour stretch near a stream, teaming with aquatic life, including water snakes, I had taken off my shirt to do a bit of sunbathing, it being very hot, when I had a visit from our R.S.M. (Cretser was his name) He had only joined us prior to us coming abroad, same as our O.C. Capt. English, they having been with the other half of our Coy. during transit from England. They were new to me. This did not stop me from being put on a charge for being improperly dressed on duty, and on my return to our billet, I had to appear before the O.C. He said I cannot punish you now but it will go down on your record when we get back to England. But he did find a way to punish me, which I thought at the time was diabolical, but in fact probably saved my life ( more of that later ).

It was another black Friday the 13th March that orders came that all our European food had to be handed-in to the Nips. A few days previous, about 3 tons had been commandeered by our Divisional Officers and secreted on the flat roof of their sumptuous Officers Quarters, situated at the top of the hill above us. This knowledge filtered through to us via the cooks who did their cooking. On this day we went on a rice diet. Our breakfast was a bowl of yellow rice, with a ladle of milk ( one tin of condensed milk to 45 pints of boiling water). It looked lovely, just like custard and didn’t taste too bad either, but in about half an hour we were left in no doubt, as it was limed rice specially treated for sowing in the paddy fields, to prevent it from going sour and moldy. We were soon ‘exploding’ at both ends, sickness and diarrhea with putrid smells. So after this episode the cooks had to wash the rice before cooking, and what bit of food value there was in the rice, went with the water and lime.

This was when anyone with any cooking ability came to the fore, and in the M.P.’s we were all taught a smattering of cooking skills, because when out on detachment duty, a platoon of 25 men, including a Sgt. and 2 Cpl’s had to appoint a truck driver, who also became cook to make them independent of outside help, for pretty obvious reasons, no one but another ‘Redcap’ loved an M.P. We were able to go down to a little inlet from the Johore Straits in our camp area. I evolved a fishing line with a bent pin and went fishing and caught a great big Crayfish. It was a whopper. I got it back to camp, got lots of advice on what to do with it. I was told you boiled them alive and they changed colour from green to red when cooked. They didn’t tell me the water had to be boiling well before you dropped the creature in. I put it in a 5 gallon petrol can over a fire. It couldn’t get out, but the noise it made with its claws trying to get out, as the water got warmer, turned my blood to water. I finally gave up and took it to the cookhouse for them to deal with.

During this period of our early P.O.W. existence, two episodes remain on my memory. The first was tremendous interest in the teaming animal, insect and reptilian life we were surrounded by. Even before we had been taken prisoner by the Japs. , I had one day gone foraging into a jungle-like compound near our camp. I think I must have been looking for coconuts, when I came face to face with a big male Orang-utang, one of the ginger variety, I think he must have been the leader of a colony, and his only interest was to scare me away. He certainly succeeded as I beat a hasty retreat and without any coconuts. My second experience was after being at Changi a few days, I came across a giant moth, it was about 8" across from wing tip to wing tip, with solid spines in its wings, which were a mixture of reds and browns and feathery. I later acquired a snake skin of (or so I was told) a Bamboo snake, with black and yellow stripes. I also got a locust, and sundry other insects. I managed to acquire a large picture frame which had obviously been left behind by the previous occupants, with a glass face, and I mounted these and hung them on the wall, and so it was that I acquired a reputation as a big game hunter. Any finds were always brought to my notice. I got quite adept at catching snakes with a pronged stick. I remember once putting this to great advantage when out on a working party in the jungle. We always had armed sentries with us when out working and this particular day the lads had seen a snake about 3 foot long. I caught it with a forked twig, pinning it to the ground behind its head, then gripping it between thumb and first finger. We never knew whether they were poisonous or not at this time, although we were later to acquire that knowledge. I then tied a piece of string round its neck and tied it to a tree near to where we were working. When the Korean sentry came near we pointed to the snake, saying ‘Nanda’ (which means ‘Look’ in their language) and he beat a hasty retreat keeping well away from us the rest of the day.

 

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