A British Prisoner of War
By Jan Krancher
Arthur Stock was born on March 13, 1922, in England where he attended school. At 15 he joined the Royal Air Force, and after assignment in the U.K. he found himself on the way to Southeast Asia. He survived the war years as a POW.
Prior to the war in the Pacific, I, a British national, lived in England. I entered the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the tender age of 15 and was stationed, among other posts, in Aston Down, Gloucestershire, where I served for a number of years. In 1941, I was aboard a troop transport ship to the Far East and arrived in Singapore towards the end of July. I was assigned to No. 81 Repair and Salvage Unit, but since there was no equipment, our unit of about 120 men was set to work making dummy aeroplanes out of wood and canvas.
After the equipment did arrive in September, I was transferred into the state of Johor (Malaysia) to maintain two squadrons of aircraft, Blenheim bombers and Australian fighter-trainer Wirraways. In quick succession several other assignments followed.
By early January 1942, the Japanese were invading the northern boundary of Johor so the unit was ordered to Sebawang, an airfield on Singapore Island, to support a newly arrived squadron of Hurricanes.
The island was being shelled from the mainland, and it was quite unpleasant to be both shelled and bombed daily. On the morning of February 12, the Japanese had already landed and were advancing southward towards the city.
What remained of our RAF unit was eventually evacuated from Singapore to Java just two days before the bastion surrendered. We sailed without escort and arrived in Jakarta safely a few days later. Having no equipment, we were billeted in the Koning Willem III School in the suburb of Djatinegara. We were given beds and bedding, were paid up to date in Dutch guilders, and then nobody took any further interested in us Brits.
So we explored the city, bought souvenirs, watched the population enjoying themselves, much as had happened in Singapore, as if the enemy would just turn around and go back to Japan. At the same time we were hoping that the authorities would soon secure a passage for us to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) or on to Australia. But it was not to be! The Battle of the Java Sea was fought and the Allied navies were made impotent. It was not long thereafter that the enemy landed at several places on Java at once.
As soon as this message came through, the unit was ordered to a military airfield in West Java, where a squadron of Martin bombers was operating. But as the unit possessed only men and no equipment, it was soon made clear that we were of no use and should leave the next morning. Then came a message from the prime minister, Mr. Churchill himself. All members of the RAF were to arm themselves and to make for the hills. Here we were to fight as guerrillas in a force to be known as the Blue Army.
Our unit was driven to Garut arid issued rifles of uncertain vintage. Some firing practice was organized, but manoeuvres had hardly lasted 24 hours before a counter order arrived. The unit was to make its way to Cilacap, Central Java, and await evacuation.
This news was greeted with great joy, so once again the personnel embarked in their trucks, heading eastward, passing through Garut. Here other news was received that the Dutch Army had capitulated, and the unit was ordered to travel to Tasikmalaya and surrender to the enemy.
So the Brits moved to their first camp, a school in Yogyakarta, the ancient city in Central Java. Screens were erected to minimize contact with the local population, but no great restraint was placed on movement of prisoners. There were no guards stationed within the camp bounds, although there was a guardhouse 100 meters away.
Each day the bulk of the prisoners marched with a small escort to the railway station and placed on trains for Maguwo airfield three miles away. There was no objection to trading with the locals. On arrival, we marched to the airfield apron and then past the Japanese commander who acknowledged our salute.
Working parties were arranged mainly for repair of bomb craters and buildings. There was no harassment by the Japanese. Indeed, they went out of their way to be friendly. However, there was another officer who was not so affable. He was rather irritated when he discovered that we had "accidentally" punctured most of the gas cans when unloading them from cars unto planks which happened to have exposed nails. But we were not punished.
All prisoners had acquired some kind of bed, laid out in the classrooms. The Japanese provided adequate food, even allowing a cash sum for purchase of food in the market. They also gave us permission to employ a local woman to assist in the preparation of indigenous foods. Unfortunately, because of the abundance of other food, we scarcely ate any rice, and the Japanese were angry when they discovered several sacks of it going bad in the store. They then reduced the availability of other foods, but meals were certainly good in comparison with later on during imprisonment.
After a few weeks in Yogyakarta camp, our quarters were moved in Maguwo. There were at first no boundary fences either, but after inspection by a senior officer, a barbed wire fence one foot high was erected. We were informed that this would be crossed at our own peril. A number of men who did do this on a shopping expedition once were apprehended and badly beaten. Most of us could see no point in attempting to escape at this stage anyway. Why should we? The Javanese were overwhelmingly pro-Japanese. We had no doubt that even if we did escape the Japanese, the Javanese would have surrendered us to them.
In general, the relationship between ourselves and members of the Japanese Army Air Force was cordial. They intimated that we would soon be leaving Maguwo for a prison camp and they were very sorry for us!
That prison camp was Jaarmarkt, Surabaya. Once we reached the camp we no longer enjoyed our semi-European diet. The food consisted of a bowl full of watery, milk less rice porridge, called pap, twice daily. We also received a pint measure of boiled rice, with a third of a pint of thin vegetable stew, mainly composed of pumpkin with up to half a dozen centimetre cubes of meat. The work parties here depressed us. The Dutch who organized them saw to it that any new arrivals went to the worst places - either the docks or the oil refinery.
Work was extremely arduous in both these places, and our captors really went out of their way to be nasty. Beatings with fists and rifle butts were administered largely because of our failing to understand their requirements. Fortunately, after a few days the Japanese changed over two of the work parties and we found ourselves in a more comfortable setting - a city block with Dutch, Eurasian (Dutch-Indonesian) and Ambonese women and children. They were plying us with food and money. Presumably, the unlucky Dutchmen now found themselves at the docks, shovelling up burnt sugar into hoppers for dumping at sea.
In the course of time the unpleasant jobs were shared more evenly, and there were fewer work parties. As we were paid 10 cents a day, the price of 16 cigarettes, plus the chance of a gift when released, there was quite a demand to get on the work parties. And even the docks and refinery became more congenial in time. The standard of food gradually improved. We had a Vienna roll, sometimes spread with butter, for breakfast and there was unlimited rice and soup in the evening for the outside workers. At midday, the pap was gradually replaced by rice and soup or spicy Indonesian sauce. We became quite fit again. Accommodations at Jaarmarkt were never bad. We all had a meter of space on our split bamboo cots.
Our relations with the Japanese were poor, due mainly to a lack of understanding. In particular, anybody found out of quarters at night was likely to be intercepted. The magic password in all these cases, in Japanese, was "Benjo e ikimasu," which meant, "I am going to the toilet." Once learned, this phrase saved a great deal of trouble.
Also one had to remember to obey Japanese custom and salute the guard, who felt badly insulted if ignored. We found that, when bareheaded, we were expected to bow, although many thought this to be enforced subservience. However, when wearing headgear, a simple salute was proper. Even if bareheaded, a smart incline of the torso, Prussian style, was acceptable.
There were reasonable opportunities for recreation. A football pitch was laid out on the camp's open field. Indoor games of many kinds were avidly played. There were also classes in many subjects. I found Dutch language classes very interesting. There was also a canteen, limited in scope at first to coffee at two cents a cup, but later selling all kinds of fruit at reasonable prices.
The sick were well taken care of. Most of the officers who received pay equivalent to their Japanese counterparts contributed a substantial part of it to the "Health Service." Under this program, nutritious foods and drugs were purchased and donated to those who deserved it and, I am sure, to others who did not.
Most of the inhabitants of the camp were Dutch or Dutch-Indonesians. Under Dutch law, the offspring of mixed marriages were entitled to Dutch citizenship, but also became subject to military service. The men had been called up only a few weeks before the Japanese invaded, and did not settle well into a disciplined form of life. Many of them had wives and children living in Surabaya, East Java. They would go from one work party to another just to make contact with their loved ones. If the Japanese tried to intervene, the women would shout abuses or even throw stones at them and they nearly always seemed to get away with it. Later, however, Dutch women were interned as well.
It was almost unbelievable, then, that the authorities decided to open the camp to visitors one day in August 1942. Cart after cart rolled into the camp, and considerable quantities of food were distributed. 1, for example, received about 10 pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of sweet biscuits, 20 pounds of different varieties of fruit and tins of all kinds of food. It was a most thrilling occasion. It was later explained to me that the "Open Day" was a benevolent gesture of the camp commandant, who was a gentleman of letters and genuinely sorry for our mistreatment. As we were permitted to cook food near the huts where we slept, besides in the cook house, the aftermath of this day resulted in some wonderful concoctions. I actually made 20 pounds of marmalade from a recipe in Pears Cyclopedia, one of the many books hoarded by us inmates.
In October 1942, we were moved to the Lyceum, a Dutch high school adapted as a prison camp. There were very few work parties here, and food, though adequate, was of poor quality. The worst thing about this camp was the fact that, from the main hall where we lived, we could see the guard room and the lawn in front of it. Here we were often unwilling witnesses to brutality to Indonesians who, chained to a tree on the lawn, were beaten mercilessly several times a day and given nothing to eat. When they collapsed they were removed and others took their place.
Because of the lack of work parties, we got very bored, and it was here that I made a Monopoly board from the top of a tea chest. The money and cards were made from used cigarette packets. Three of us played this game endlessly and became expert "sharks" at it.
The first death occurred here. The Japanese hired a proper horse drawn hearse and the camp commandant, accompanied by soldiers with reversed arms, led the cortege. Although the Japanese showed great respect for the dead, they did not seem to realize that if they had provided better medical treatment, that death, and many future ones, would not have occurred.
After a few months at the Lyceum we were marched to the Darmo Camp. This was formerly a Dutch army barracks, and both food and accommodations were very good. Existence was also made easier by the presence of a young Korean named Kasayama, who spoke excellent English and got along well at that time with us all, although after the war he was found guilty of cruelty by the War Crimes Commission and sentenced to life imprisonment. Because of his knowledge and English, however, he was released at the request of the American forces to act as an interpreter.
Kasayama was not always available, and his absence once led to at least one misunderstanding. Christmas was approaching, and the Japanese sent a non commissioned officer to the senior British officer to ask him what the POWs would like to be able to buy for this occasion. He said, "I'd rather ask Wing Commander Coffey," who was the medical officer, but the Jap did not wait to hear him out. He said, "Oh! Coffee!" Subsequently they sent serving after serving of coffee, and we had far more than we wanted.
In most camps, prisoners were allowed to have a party to celebrate Christmas or the Emperor's birthday. The Japanese used to love attending these, although, unbeknownst to them, much of the script was insulting to them and to the Emperor.
After a very pleasant stay in Darmo, we were again moved back to the Jaarmarkt. There were not so many work parties, and the food was generally good. On one occasion I was walking - barefoot, as usual - in the dock area when I slipped and lacerated my foot on a rusty nail. Our medical orderly bandaged the foot up, A guard took me to a tram for a five-mile ride back to camp. When we got there, the camp guards were very dubious about letting me in, but relented when shown the wound. I was fortunate to get a tetanus injection, and after a few days on crutches I was ambulatory again.
By this time most of us had few clothes or shoes left. One day we were issued two new pairs of hoots, shirts, shorts, G-strings, and vests. We soon learned why. We were inoculated and put aboard a transport, one of three bound for the Moluccas, a small cluster of islands in the south western Pacific Ocean, Northeast of Java, belonging to the Dutch. Here we spent some time on the island of Haruku.
Before departure in Surabaya harbour we saw one of the transport ships catch fire and blow up. We were not too happy for ourselves after that seeing how many bombs and explosives were being loaded onto our ship.
There must have been 1,500 men on our 8,000 ton cargo ship. We did not think that we could survive the 14-day journey, but we all did, although we were weakened after being fed the extremely poor food. Happily, we were allowed to spend much time on deck, and sometimes the crew or Japanese passengers would pass unwanted food to us. Kasayama was also on board, and many of us had long conversations with him in English.
We arrived first at the port of Ambon, where we unloaded some supplies. Then we sailed north across the strait to Amahai on the island of Seram. The second ship unloaded all Dutch prisoners and supplies, while some of the supplies were unloaded from our ship. We then sailed buck across the strait to Haruku, which is only approximately six kilo meters square and which was our final destination.
We were taken to the quarters that would house us all. They were dreadfully built bamboo huts with palm roofs, set in a nutmeg plantation. In contrast, between the huts were beautifully built latrines with individual cubicles, set over trenches only half a meter deep. There was also a partly built cook house by the river half a kilo meter away, but there was no firewood - and it was the wet monsoon!
There was plenty of rice, but no vegetables or meat. These commodities were still on the ship left at Amahai while all the cigarettes were still on our ship. The cooks slaved in the pouring rain to cut down bamboo and timber for the fires while we were unloading the ship. Eventually, we had some half-cooked, smokey rice and nutmeg water, ready just after sunset. What a treat that was.
Everybody was utterly miserable. We had no ground sheets, and the water ran right through the huts, soaking our straw bed-mats. The next day we were marched three kilo meters up a grassy slope towards two hills. We had to scrape the tops of these hills and fill in the valley between, to build a three kilo meter airstrip. And this was using only manual Labour, without wheelbarrows! We dug with hoes for two days. Then dysentery struck and all except 200 men got the disease. The latrines were overflowing, the rain kept pouring down, and the POWs were starting to die.
Those able to do light work dug the latrines deeper. All the cubicles were removed. I cannot recall how I was able to survive; I only remember drifting my way to the "intensive care" hut, going blind, and then, as if by a miracle, finding myself able to walk again. Finally, I was placed in a "convalescent" hut.
All this time, the fitter men were labouring on the airstrip for up to 12 hours a day with no respite. The daily death rate sometimes reached 30. It was, of course, impossible to build coffins, so the bodies were buried as they died in a common trench. By December 1942, 500 men had died. The medical officers kept a record of the cause of death, and, in their opinion, the greatest single cause was malnutrition. It is difficult, if not impossible, to understand how a civilized nation like Japan would allow such things to happen.
As the monsoon rains faded away, at long last, things started to get better. First the British officers persuaded the Japanese to allow a latrine to be built over the sea. The dysentery just about vanished. Then the leader of the guard arranged to build a new cook house next to the river. (Incidentally, this man was found guilty of cruelty and hanged after the war in front of the huts.). One by one the prisoners demolished the original huts and built new ones after working all day on the airstrip. A well was dug and a firm sandy square was laid out in front of the huts.
A hospital ship appeared and took the 500 sick men back to Java. Work on the airstrip continued, and by about February 1943, the first Japanese single and twin-engine aircraft landed.
One day, a twin-engine plane crashed into the rock face at the side of the airstrip. The Japanese quickly set up a bucket brigade, using the POWs. Fire was averted, and the crew was rescued. The next day the Japanese asked for the names of the rescuers. At first they refused to identify themselves, but on being assured that they were to be rewarded, they responded. Each was given a beautifully worded document, praising them for their "gallantry," and a present of sweet rice cakes.
Later on we heard the sound of different aircraft. We ran like the wind away from the runway, which was then blasted by American B-17s. None of us was hurt, and the Japs soon had us filling in the holes. Down in the village, however, many huts, including the quarters of the Korean "comfort girls," were badly damaged. Some of us were detailed to help clean up the women's quarters. We were appalled to witness their living conditions. Out of gratitude, the women offered us food and drink. We felt very sorry for these conscripted prostitutes. The Japanese had treated Koreans like slaves from the time of the conquest of Korea in 1909.
Because of this bombing incident, the Japanese were determined to widen the airstrip. Now those of us who had been in the "hospital" when the strip was first built got our turn working on the coral rock face. We had to cut holes in the rock, using hammers and chisels, so that 100-kilogram dynamite charges could be placed and detonated. Then all the debris had to be carted from the tops of the hills to the bottom. By this time the Japanese had acquired enough material to make a crude railway on which hopper cars ran. A number of nasty accidents occurred on this railway.
Eventually the runway was completed, but it became obvious that the Allies had control of the skies and sea. The POWs were therefore moved to the next island of Ambon. There they were ordered to help finish the airstrip being built by other POWs at the town of Liang. The morale of these men was dreadful. They had never recovered from the dysentery, and the camp was in the same condition as ours was when we first arrived.
After a few weeks the airstrip was deemed complete, but by then very few serviceable Japanese aircraft remained. It was evident that we were about to be moved again, and we ended up being billeted in the Dutch Reformed Church in the city of Ambon.
That day, during a light air raid, leaflets were dropped advising everyone to leave the city, because it was about to be destroyed. The Japanese responded by moving us across the bay to a former leper camp in Lahat. Indeed, the next day the bombers arrived and completely wiped out the city. I was sent with two others the day after to find the body of a POW who was killed, and we buried him.
The leper camp was low lying and infested with mosquitoes. Fortunately we were soon taken to the docks, and about 500 of us boarded an 800 ton coaster. Well over half of us were stretcher cases. Since the holds were laden with empty 50-gallon drums, the stretchers were laid on top of these. The fitter men each acquired two drums to sleep on. It was not easy to find a comfortable position.
The Japanese imposed a rule that in general we should all stay below deck. Those who could walk were allowed above to use the toilets which were set over the ship's side; the sick men all needed makeshift bedpans. I was enlisted as a temporary male nurse, wearing a Red Cross arm band. This gave me the advantage of having access to the open deck at all times and raised my morale significantly.
We sailed westward from Ambon, reaching the Southwest coast of Sulawesi after a few days. Here we were greeted enthusiastically by the inhabitants, who seemed to have a surplus of eggs, meat, and vegetables. While our ship was tied up, we were ordered to camouflage it with tree branches. We ate better than we had for years. Unfortunately, the price of everything inflated as the locals caught on. But we benefited immensely from the short stay.
After the Japanese had presumably been told that the area was cleared of Allied submarines, we sailed westward again towards Ujung Padang. Here we docked and loaded the ship with food. We left for the next stop which was the island of Laut on the Southeast coast. We tied up for several days, receiving food again from the locals, before setting out southward towards Surabaya.
The journey had taken four weeks, but thanks to our enforced anchoring, we received plenty of fresh food. No more than 25 people had died. This was in contrast to a later ship which left Ambon for Java. They were not allowed ashore, and had to anchor in Makasar Bay for four weeks. Blackwater fever' killed half of those who had embarked.
Back in Surabaya, we were quickly transferred to a passenger train in which we travelled in comfort to Jakarta. We were accommodated in Kampong Makasar on the outskirts of the city. Camp conditions were better than those at Haruku when we left it, and work parties were employed almost exclusively at a market garden called Tanjung Oost. We had to march the six kilo meters from camp, starting just before dawn at six. In camp we were each issued a 100-milligram loaf of yeast bread which was carried with us to the garden. We would arrive at about 8:30. An infusion of tea was provided while we ate and rested until nine.
We worked here quite leisurely with hoe, spade, and hands until one in the afternoon, when we assembled again for the return march. Back in camp we were given a rich stew of spinach and meat with rice. Unfortunately, I could not digest this food, possibly due to the long walk barefoot in the sun. I was unable to keep it down, but must have derived some nourishment from it, because I gained weight. And apart from the daily vomiting, I remained relatively fit.
Our next move arrived far too soon. Our destination was Singapore in Malaysia. For this journey we were accommodated in the steerage section of a small ferry. We were not allowed on deck, but the journey was over in three days. We were fed with good quality, indigenous food, but in quantity sufficient only to hold body and soul together.
"Also called malarial hemoglobinuria. this disease is an exaggerated form of suburban ma/aria wherein blood is liberated in the urine. In severe cases it results in death.
In Singapore we lived in the River Valley Road Camp, where we met people who had worked on the infamous railway between Thailand and Burma. Their conditions had been similar to ours but they had also been attacked by cholera, resulting in an extremely high death rate in certain areas.
Soon after, some of us were transferred to a camp within the dock area of Tanjungpagar. Here we were employed largely as dockers, and there were often useful pickings of tinned food and cigarettes from damaged cases. Unfortunately, by this time I had contracted chronic dysentery, which prevented me from joining the outside work parties. So I took to collecting unwanted scraps of woollen goods, unravelling them, spinning the thread into yarn, and knitting this material, using needles of either bamboo (for body items) or barbed wire (for socks). In this manner I was able to obtain food and cheroots by trading with those who were working outside.
The food ration by this time was extremely sparse. The military officer estimated that our daily issue provided about 400 calories. It was fortunate that in April 1945, we acquired Red Cross parcels, one to be split between each two of us. Our captors next decided that we should go to Changi Prison, the largest and most comfortable camp in Singapore. It was run in the recommended Red Cross style, administered entirely by the British army. Japanese guards were not allowed within the confines of the jail. It was highly organized. Red Cross parcels had been received, but were not distributed directly to the prisoners. Instead, the food was sent to the cook house to augment considerably the normal diet. This resulted in extremely tasty soup and rice dishes, supplemented by attractive extras. Red Cross clothing was received and sent to a tailoring department where one pair of American slacks was converted into two pairs of shorts.
By this time our personal clothing had dwindled to two G-strings and one pair of shorts. My own shorts were originally my RAF tropical trousers, which had been turned into shorts and patched 32 times. The issue of clothing at Changi Prison was a most welcome gift.
Life at Changi was far from arduous and intensely boring, except at meal times. We were glad when we were asked if we would like to move to a camp just outside the wall.
There were daily work parties, and we were given an issue of oatmeal porridge made with powdered milk, plus five cigarettes per day. The work took place mainly at the Chinese High School on Bukit Timah Road, which had been turned into an officers' hostel. It was intended that this would be the place of the Japanese last stand in response to the expected Allied invasion. We dug tunnels and trenches under and around the school. Sometimes we were made to work all night but were rewarded by ample food. Most of the enemy officers could speak English. We all did our best to convince them that it would be so much better for all if they were to surrender rather than fight to the last!
One day started differently from the others. This time I was not working at the school, but near a barracks. The soldiers were harassing us, and we were feeling quite uncomfortable when all of a sudden the guard said, "Work stop! All men go home!"
So back to camp we were driven and were told that the war was over. Since the Japanese had been ordered to keep all of the prisoners together, we moved back into the prison. The occupants of the cells were British Royal Navy, and we received a warm welcome from them, Outside, food started pouring into camp from Singapore cold storage, which was stocked almost as high as it had been at the surrender. Also interminable flights of U.S. B-24 Liberators were dropping food by parachute. Most of this ended up in the cook house, The HMS Sussex sailed into harbour and from then on provided us with a first class, three course dinner every evening. In spite of all this excitement, I was bored by the lack of work parties, so I eventually volunteered to help clear out the drains running under the prison, on a daily basis. It was a filthy job, but it was interesting to tour the catacombs. At least we got a hot bath with real soap after our four-hour stint.
After nearly a month of quasi freedom, the Dutch troop ship Tegelberg arrived to take us home. Once aboard, I gained weight at the rate of a pound a day. By the time I disembarked at Liverpool, my weight had increased from seven stone ten pound (108 U.S. pounds) at the time of Japanese surrender to over fourteen stone (196 US, pounds). When I arrived in my home village, my brother, emaciated after serving in the Middle East for three years, was thought to have been the prisoner of war, while I was taken for a war profiteer! How ironic.
Athur Stock returned to England in 1945 and became a military technical instructor at the RAF. He decided to continue to teach as a civilian and eventually worked for BOAC for a number of years.
He earned an electrical engineering degree and ended up working in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as a test engineer.
Arthur retired in 1987 and pursued his numerous hobbies, among which was that of watch and clock repair.
Arthur passed away on December 19th, 1997, his wife Joyce still lives in Belfast.
If there are interested parties who need more info and who want to contact her, please email me and I will be able to connect them with Joyce.
Jan Krancher:- firstname.lastname@example.org