Sketch by Jack Chalker

Changi

My God what a night that was. The Japs were extremely clever at infiltrating our positions, we no sooner had taken up our positions when they seemed to be at our backs and again the usual cry would come up 'Fall back to new positions'. How many more new positions could we make. Again we were surrounded and had to fall back and this time I was extremely lucky. I was chatting to my sergeant, weighing up the situation, when all at once down came the mortar bombs, one landed near the sergeant and he took the whole blast. It killed him outright and this saved my life.

We knew things were not going too good for us, then the news came that the Japanese had begun shelling the city of Singapore. This was bad news, because the water became contaminated and disease broke out among the civilians. There was nothing the authorities could do about that and finally, a thin red line was drawn around Singapore, the news went round that General Percival had to surrender to the Japanese.

We were in the vicinity of Thompson Road when this all happened. The order came round to discard our weapons and make sure, the bolts of the rifles went one way and the magazines the other, and then make for the city centre as soon as possible. We didn't know what was ahead of us, as we had never met up with our victors.

As we arrived in Singapore, we were met by our Military Police and were put in a large compound and told to wait for further orders. We were there most of the day wondering what was going to happen to us and finally the first batch of Japanese entered the city. All they had was a bandolier of ammo and a rifle. What a rough lot they looked. These were 'The Imperial Guards' or supposed to be. The first thing we saw was some-thing I shall never forget, I saw my first execution. A chinese head being chopped off by a Japanese officer, what a sight, then we began to wonder what was going to happen to us.

We were in the compound all that night and in the morning we were paraded and handed over to the Jap guards. Where we were bound was anyone´s guess, until the talk went round we were making for Changi on the north-east of the island. A distance of fifteen miles. As we walked through Singapore, I remember distinctly many Jap flags fluttering from the windows, the people of Singapore must have been expecting it to fall. We were now beginning to get very hungry and did not know where our next meal was coming from.

Then we arrived at Changi. The Japs had taken over a RAF camp and we found ourselves bedding down on the floor of Roberts Barracks. Our cooks had found the necessary kitchens, etc., and at once stared preparing a meal. We were still using our own rations until this started to run out and then eventually after a few days did run out. Then the Japs had to do something about it, hence our first meal of rice and soup. We were rationed out to so much per man but this was inadequate, hence we began to feel ill. Nothing could be done about this as every-one was in the same boat, but the longer this diet went on the more we got used to it. Then we were moved out of Roberts Barracks to a tented camp, after about two days the Japs needed working parties, etc., to clean up the city.

Hunger was making us do all sorts of nasty things, such as stealing from the Chinese. We did barter now and again for any watches or rings we had, but when they had gone we resorted to helping ourselves. The Japs hated the Chinese and they would stand and laugh at our stealing from them, although we found it very degrading, but when one is hungry it's the survival of the fittest.

When in camp, we were looked after by our own C.O. etc. so to keep up our morale we had to do drills. This was a good thing as long as you were able, but then the Japs began to cut our rations and things became desperate. Into the camp came lorry loads of rice, but a different rice to the kind we were used to. It was called lime rice, 'What are they trying to do to us?' it was awful. We knew, hunger was a terrible thing but this was impossible to digest.

The C.O. immediately went to the Jap Officer in command and explained the situation to him and fortunately for us this rice was withdrawn and was substituted by half rations of white rice. We got hungrier and hungrier. The Chinese used to walk through our camp after shopping, and things got so bad, we used to waylay them to take all their goods, well it was the only way to live.

After being in Changi about eight weeks, we again were on the move. This time we walked to Bukit Timah on the other side of Singapore. A shrine was to be built on top of a hill near the Macritchie Reservoir. All day long we carted stones up and down this hill. Two men to one basket, my what a job! out of every hour you had five minutes break, rain Or shine.

One day, my mate said to me, 'Jock, let's have a break in these trees, the Japs won't see us.' 'O.K.,' I said, 'come on.' Unfortunately we got caught by the Jap guard. He made us go to the top of the hill and we had to stand to attention for four hours in the boiling sun. After that we were made to dig a trench six foot deep, six foot wide and three feet across. This was to be used as a loo. Talk about degrading, this was the worst! After we fmished this trench we were told to join our colleagues. When we finished our day's work, our C.O. was told by the Jap officer what we had done wrong and told the C.O. to deprive us of our stripes. This did not make a lot of difference to us in any case, but before we broke up to go to Thailand we got these stripes back.

I know we were hungry but this was terrible, so my mate and myself decided to try something else to suffice our hunger. We asked for our rice ration and said we would endeavour to cook it ourselves. Well we acquired a billy can and began to cook our own rice. Well this became very successfiil and with a substitute of various spices, etc., made our meals much more palatable than the rubbish our cooks were dishing up.

At night time my mate and myself would venture beyond the perimeter to see some Chinese people who lived in a small village outside the camp. They were extremely good to us and although their rations were limited used to give us what was left of their meal. Some rice and fish. Now you may think 'fancy grovelling after the Chinese and degrading yourself', 'No Way,' this had to happen if you wanted to see home again. My mate and I did make it home again and believe me, I have never regretted grovelling in any way. It meant the difference between living or dying. Not much alternative is there? This is not the only thing we did to lower our standard of living and if the same predicament ever arose again I would do the same again, grovel, beg, steal and do anything to acquire food to live, and I say without any fear of contradiction I would never go hungry again.

Morale was getting very low, disease breaking out, ring worm, ulcers, malaria to name but a few, and then came the rumours of the Germans capitulation. How many times have we heard this, and then one day came one of the worst set backs. The sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse. What a shock, the Jap guards brought magazines into camp about the sinking of these ships and made sure to give them to us to rcad.

At times like this what could we do to cheer ourselves up? The Japs would try anything to break our morale and believe me, they were succeeding. What for instance was happening on the outside? They even got so low that they would tell us that the Americans stationed in England were molesting our wives and sweethearts. Anything to break us, but we stuck it out, all we heard from them was a quote, 'Tojo No.1, Churchill no good, him No.10', you can imagine what we were calling them under our breaths but that's as far as it got. Understanding their wants became very difficult. Their language was extremely difficult to pick up, even their actions to make us understand caused a problem and of course their patience became exhausted and eventually this meant another good hiding for being unable to understand. The thought was in all our heads, 'I hope I meet up with you when this bloody war is over'.

One day I felt very ill. I reported to my doctor and he examined me. He found my temperature to be 103 degrees and I was immediately taken to the camp hospital such as it was. I was found to have contracted a fever called denque. As medicine was very scarce I got very little treatment, luckily I got over it and was soon back on the shrine, but I learned a lesson which was not to start dodging the work again. Food rationing was also increased. In response to this our cooks came up with a new dish rice cakes. Although this was not very appetising, it did make a change from the ordinary rice. We still had the hunger pangs.

We had been at Bukit Timah for about two months when word came that we were to be on the move again. We were supposed to be going to a 'rest camp' in Thailand. Little did we know what was ahead of us. This was when the trouble really began. There followed ten months of the worst years of my life. Hunger, greed, theft, you name it, I did it all and more. If you wanted to live you had to do all this, if not you were left at the wayside to die. I had no intention of dying yet, so it was every man for himself.

The next part of this book is really about how unlucky one can be through part of one's life and still come out on top. Despite the hardship, I must say that I am one of the lucky ones.

Thinking back I remember how as I lay on my bunk deep in thought I recalled that in my teens a friend of mine joined The Gordon Highlanders. I had kept in contact with him in the early years and then he was posted to Singapore. I wondered if he had got through the war airight and become a P.O.W. Well there was only one way of finding out so the next day, after work I wandered into the lines of the Gordons and asked if anyone knew my friend, of course they did and directed me to his hut. You can imagine his surprise when he saw me coming towards him. 'What are you doing here?' he said, I told him of my plight and he said how unlucky I was. He said he had deserved what he got because he volunteered for the forces, but to be called up and become a P.O.W. How unlucky can one be? I replied I was lucky as I was still alive, quite a lot of my mates were lost in the battle of Singapore.

Naturally meeting up with him again after all these years, and in such an ungodly place called for a celebration. But how can one celebrate with nothing, so we promised that if ever we came out of this hole we would meet up again and really celebrate. Well it took a few years and by the grace of God we did meet up again and in our home town and really did celebrate. His name is Doddie Davidson a native of Fraserburgh.

And so, What is our Destiny? A rest camp, recuperation, looking forward to it. Who's kidding who? We were marched by Jap guards to Singapore Railway Station. At the station were steel trucks for the transport of cattle. Surely we were not to ride in them? We were put in groups with one Jap guard, thirty men to a truck. We could not believe it. After a few moans and groans we boarded and finally with a push and shove managed to sit down. We did not have a lot of kit, but that had to go with us. After sitting in the truck for about an hour, we finally steamed out of Singapore Station, bound for Thailand - five of the worst days of my life. One could not do one's business while the train was travelling and don't forget some of us suffered with diarrhoea etc., and of course the rice diet did not help. The train did stop now and again to pick up fuel and water, so one had to be quick and with Jap permission get off quick to attend to nature's call. In the daytime, the trucks were very warm indeed and at night extremely cold. At certain stations the train would stop, then we made a line to collect our food of rice and soup and got back onto the train again. What a journey! As expected we lost some men on the journey and their bodies were left at the next station to be buried by the residents.

The journey lasted five days, leading up through Malaysia to Thailand. Eventually we pulled into a town called Bangpong. "All men out" was the order given, thankfully for that I had made it. My prayers had been answered. But I must emphasise that this was one of the worst five days' travel I have had in my lifetime. Although there were no actual beatings, the Jap's attitude to us was changing. Without a smile on his face, he would shout obscenities to us for no reason at all. Being prisoners of war, he looked upon us as the lowest of the low. At the railway stations we stopped at he would embarrass us in front of the natives by shouting at us in his language and finished up with spitting in our faces. How was it possible to stand this punishment and still keep one's temper?

Very few of us had any money and we were desperate for food and drink, by now we had already traded in our pieces of jewellery such as watches, rings and anything of value to the natives. if you were wearing a decent shirt or a decent pair of shorts, you were able to trade them for a small bunch of bananas if you were lucky, and this of course was done when the guard was looking the other way. Some of us became very good thieves and while the train stopped at the station, one soldier would be doing a deal with a native and as the man would be stuffing the notes into his pocket, distracted by the deal, he would not be aware that one of the guys would be picking his pockets before reboarding the train.

This happened at every stop along the line. However, as bananas are very hard to digest we suffered from diarrhoea and answering the call of nature was extremely difficult. Eventually we had to ask the guard for permission to get near the sliding doors of the wagon, open them as far as possible before relieving ourselves. This of course was very difficult to do as the train was moving along, well it was either that or do it where you sat and of course this could not be done as all your mates sat beside you. Anyway peeing out of the doors was bad enough, but to have a shit out of the doors, especially suffering from diarrhoea, you can imagine the predicament, especially if the wind was blowing the wrong way and paper was not available. Now this not only happened to one prisoner but to quite a few, so you can imagine the smell, etc.

Another trick played by the soldiers would be to cover a small coin, if one had one, with silver paper and as the train was preparing to move, hurry towards a native and trade the coin for a loaf of bread. Before he realised that it was a counterfeit we would be on the move, with him running after the train.

As the journey to our proposed rest camp progressed, all talk on the train was about food. We were really looking forward to it, but were also very apprehensive about the situation as we doubted the Japs' promises. As time rolled on, this rest camp proved to be a myth as we found out later on. Mind you, it did not surprise us, because we could not imagine, travelling five days on a train, in such horrible surroundings, suffering from all sorts of degradation, filth, exritta, etc., and still end up in a rest camp! Despite this we hoped and prayed that we would end up at the rest camp. You can imagine our despair when we ended our journey and found that it was all lies. Under no circumstances could we trust the Japs again.

As a matter of fact, we thought these rest camps were to be run by the Red Cross, although the Japanese Government had already broken the Geneva Convention by so much ill treatment of us P.O.W.'s. But it was a wonderfiil thought and we imagined at last, we were to be looked after by some sort of an organisation such as the Red Cross, What a Hope!

As time rolled on we began to smell, being cooped up in such a small place which lacked washing facilities made all of us begin to scratch etc. This drew blood and these became sores in a short time and with no doctors available, this began to worry us a lot and though we complained to the Jap guard, there wasn't much he could do about it, so all we could do was grin and bear it. One would not believe what a body could stand in such filthy circumstances: the hunger, the thirst, mixed with dysentery and diarrhoea, heat during the day and the cold at night. To try and keep warm at night we would try and cuddle up with one another but again this was practically impossible because of the sores we were suffering from. We were worried about contracting some sort of skin disease from each other. Terrible to think of such a thing, but in the circumstances, it was a case of every man for himself with the hope of getting out of this hell hole, without any of the diseases that were breking out amongst us. I was fortunate not to catch any of them, how I don't know, but again this did not stop me from visiting the doors of the wagon and again relieving myself in the most extraordinary way. Laughable now, but you can imagine one's thoughts at the time.

Eventually after five days and nights of one of the biggest nightmares I have ever had, we arrived at Ban Pong, the end of our train journey. I was lucky to be alive, because in that wagon alone we lost six men through exhaustion, heat and cold, not to mention other ailments. The train consisted of twelve wagons, each held about thirty men, but we were only concerned with our own wagon. We were all supposed to be human beings not animals and how we managed to keep our spirits up and not throw ourselves from the train is mystifying. You try and forget the horror ever happened but one dreams about it and thoughts come up again about it. To see your pals living in such squalid surroundings and thinking of who was the next to die is a terrible thought, but this was in everybody's mind. Boy, was I overjoyed to reach the end of our journey and looked forward to our rest camp.

Rest camp they said, what a con! As we soon found out to our despair. We marched from the station to a large camp and there must have been a storm lately, as the camp was flooded.

The water was about six inches from the top of our beds, what a welcome. We did not remain there long, but the next part of the journey was most harrowing. It was a forced march from Bang Pong to Kanchan Buri a distance of around forty miles. The heat was terrible, you had to keep going or be prodded by a Jap bayonet. When was this going to end? It seemed that if one did succumb to the misery it would be a blessing, but thoughts of home always were uppermost so it was a case of soldiering on and praying. Our guards must have been pretty tired and fed up with all of this: the travel on the train, the marches from town to town, etc. They were accustomed to the rice etc. and I say it myself, we were getting accustomed to it also, the problem was that there was not enough of it. Also drinking-water became hard to get and with the heat etc. one became very fragile. The guards would become very irritable and would relieve their anxiety on us if we were unable to keep up.

At last we came upon our destination, Kanchan Buri, and the infamous River Kwai, a muddy, filthy river which was to be our only means of transport At this time the building of a railway was not even thought about by us P.O.W.'s We were, however, beginning to think that the things about rest camps and recuperation which the Japs told us about were rubbish.

After waiting about two hours in the stifling heat we eventually boarded small boats and these took us to the other side of the river, and there we met our first big obstacle - 'The Jungle of Thailand'. A thick bamboo jungle of snakes, lizards, scorpions and all sorts of creepy-crawleys that one reads about in books. Little did we think that one day, some of these creatures were to become our life blood by being put in the boiling pot to add to the meagre rations supplied by the Japs.

So now our troubles really started. The Japs gave us tools etc. to hack our way through the jungle and after about three hours, we came to a clearing in the jungle and partly built huts. These huts were built of bamboo and atapp, no nails were used, only ties which was a sort of strong grass. This camp was given the name of Chungkai, and in time was known as the base camp of the infamous `Railway of Death'. Our first task as soon as we arrived was to finish off some of these huts so that we had an abode to live in, one could hardly believe the hardship this caused, after hacking our way through the jungle, there was no sign of anything to eat or drink and in that terrible heat and to the words of the Jap guards 'Curra', our morale was beginning to falter, but in the months to come found that this type of work was simple. We finally had something to eat, then it was back to the building of these huts, after a few days, we finally finished them and prepared for the next task.

We soon found out what that was. All the fittest men were picked to work on a railway from Kanchan Buri to Molmein in southern Burma, a distance of four hundred miles. So this was to be our recuperation. We might have known, one does not have to travel all that way to find a spot to recuperate. We did not know what was ahead of us and maybe it was a good thing we didn't. The next nine months was one of the worst I spent in my life and will be in my memory until I die. I thought the journey was bad, My God!

Things got so bad in the camp that things began to happen on the stealing side, by all means steal from the Japs, or the Thais, but not from your own. Unfortunately this was happening and the Military Police were detailed to catch the culprits, how low can one get, stealing from your mates? One event that comes to mind is that of the POW who had unfortunately died. He was laid out in preparation for his funeral, as in England, his friends visited him to pay their respects and someone must have noticed he was wearing a good looking pair of shorts. The inevitable happened, someone deprived the corpse of its shorts, this is the honest truth, one would not believe it.

Well the police were out to catch this thief and they did. He was taken in front of the C.O. but as the only punishment could be to hand him over to the Japs, he handed him instead to the Military Police who punished him for what he had done. At night they took him to some secluded spot in the camp, seeing him around the next few days, he looked a sorry sight I must say, but he deserved no sympathy, being the lowest of the low. Of course he did not intend to wear the shorts, but to sell them to the natives. As I will repeat again and again, hunger makes one do some terrible things even to rob the dead.

Something very extraordinary happened in the camp unbeknown to us. A water buffalo was being led into camp, we had seen plenty of them about, but never seen one being led into the camp. This animal was handed to the camp commandant, to be killed and used in our cook house. What had happened, had the Japs gone crazy? Or had they seen the light and thought they would give us more rations, so as to get their railway finished quicker. The question was how this animal was going to be killed, the Jap commandant was approached and he gave the Cook Sergeant a rifle with one bullet to do the job, now a water buffalo is not a small animal and it would take more than one bullet to do this job, but he said no more bullets. In the end one had to hammer his head until he became unconscious and then the necessary task of cutting his throat and bleeding it to death.

We had one or two professional butchers attached to our cook-house and they proceeded to skin the animal and make it ready for the stew pot. Well this meal was really looked forward to, mind you there were around six thousand men in this camp, so the meat was very scarce, but the goodness was there and also the fat that came off the animal was used to fry rissoles. God what a blessing. Thanks.

This kind of living did not last long and it was back to the jungle stew again. You see, there were what you call yams growing in the fields around the camp, these belonged to the natives, but none were given to the P.O.W.'s. So again we resorted to stealing. This took us outside the perimeter of the camp and if one was caught it meant standing outside the guard house, holding a brick above your head for a certain length of time or another punishment the Japs would devise. They would get a kick out of seeing us suffer. 'You no good,' they would say, 'Dame, Dame' and another back-hander would hit your face. The trouble was you had to grin and bear it. Fighting back was out of the question, although many times I wanted to do so, but held myself back, with the thought that one day my turn would come to get my own back, in the meantime, I bit my lip and was patient. Now back to the yams, I was writing about, we did benefit in a way, because the natives gave us the tops, which when chopped up and cooked gave the soup a bit of body, at least we thought so at the time. The crazy thing was we did get a ration of salt and sugar and which ever seasoning you used it turned out to be a vegetable stew, or a sweet. What a way to live! The alternative was to die and I had no intention of doing that yet, No Way!

 

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Prisoner of War - Thailand