What a hectic place that Thompson Road was. I believe that was our last Battalion HQ in action. Bombs, mortar shells artillery; in fact I think we took all they could hand out. Then we had that fatal postal notice – lay down your arms.
I was on duty in the HQ office and had to witness an officer, a real true blue gentleman our CO, suffer greatly during those last few hours. The CO shouted out to his batman, Sutton, to bring a bottle of whisky and some glasses. We raised our glasses and the toast was “to the future”. Little did we know what the future held which was just as well.
Prisoner of war life at the start in Changi Barracks wasn’t too bad, but all too soon the situation was very different. I worked for a short period in the Changi Cemetery. I remember well a Malaysian bloke would come by on his motor bike and often it would break down purposely outside the cemetery. He would go through the motions of fixing it and hide a carton of cigarettes for us. I hate to think what would have happened to him had he been caught. His head would have been cut off and displayed somewhere in the city. Bill Shields and Bill Garrod worked at that cemetery too, as they were there longer than me they would have more information.
I remember working on building repairs at Alexandra Hospital where we were based. There were some gruesome sights there; heads left where the Japs had killed the patients, blood splattered walls etc. All the while we worked there we kept our eyes open for anything worth collecting and taking back to camp. One day I struck oil – I found a locked door. I opened it and found a lot of medical supplies. While I was getting some supplies together I received a shock – two Japs at the door. “Curra buggearo”, one of them shouted. He belted me around the head, I left in a hurry with some supplies and I then wondered how the hell was I going to get this stuff back to the camp hospital. I must have been lucky that day I get away with it, no worries.
River Valley Road camp was another place blokes with building trades were sent to. Bill Garrod, Frank Oldfield, Arthur Smith and I were in that motley crowd. While working on some new houses we were using a concrete mixer and the Jap shouted “yas a mag”. We downed tools, switched off the mixer and had a spell. The trouble started when we resumed work, or tried to. The cement that was put into the mixer was rapid hardening cement and it had set.
Oh boy, did we cop it for that one.
One day while working there I spied my chance and left the working party to get some coconut oil. All went well until I got three quarters of the way back to the work party. A Jap on his own saw me and yelled at me with a short Lee Enfield rifle up to his shoulder. Now I might have been stupid for leaving the work party but wasn’t that stupid. I stopped and the Jap called me over. As I walked over I thought I wonder what this bastard is going to do. He chattered away in Japanese and not being very conversant with the language I didn’t know exactly what he was on about. Soon the rifle butt came into play and he put a .303 up the spout of the Lee Enfield. I thought this was my judgement day. I was to walk a few paces away and then he took aim with the rifle taking the first pressure on the trigger. Then he noticed the water bottle I carried and I believe he thought it contained liquor. He had to taste it didn’t he, and the taste of the oil didn’t suit his pallet. He spat and coughed, gave me the bottle back and told me to get. I didn’t need any persuading.
We used to do all sorts of stupid stunts like this to try and get food etc. When I look back on some of the stunts we pulled it brings back memories of the terrible conditions we were forced to endure and the dangers we were willing to risk to try and get the things we desperately needed. Those that were caught were possibly tortured and beaten, sometimes so badly that they died a horrible slow death.
My days at the River Valley Road Camp were numbered and I went down with dysentery and was really crook for a while. After a few weeks I was back in the hospital hut again with dysentery plus another complication – denghi fever. I was feeing particularly low as the combination of fever and dysentery was terrible.
One day after work the blokes had washed up and had their rice my two mates, Bill Garrod and Frank Oldfield came to see me [in hospital]. Apparently they couldn’t get much sense out of me. They had a look in my belongings and found some of my family photos. I found these later on my bed, had a hard look at them and said to myself come what may, God willing, I’m going home again to see them. I don’t know if I ever thanked Bill and Frank, if not thanks a million mates. Those photos were certainly the turning point for me.
Soon I was sent back to Changi Hospital and while I was in there an Indian doctor gave me the once over and he found something wrong with my left eye. He fixed things for me to see a specialist. After the examination the Colonel said I’d have to have it out and a time was set for the operation. A day or two after the operation I saw the Colonel. When he took the bandages off it was a wonderful surprise – I could still see out of that eye! The Colonel laughed when I said I thought he was taking the eye out. All he did was remove a cyst! Didn’t the boys have a laugh at me when I told them.
The next move was that bloody debacle when we were all herded into those barracks. The Gordon Highlanders occupied them in peacetime. Now all POWs were crowded in there like proverbial sardines. We had to sign a paper, I think to say we wouldn’t try to escape. Then we were all allowed back to our earlier quarters.