If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you,
Except the Will which, says to them ‘Hold On!’
Mister Sam’s potent fertiliser
As timberyard volunteers we were allotted a space on the outskirts of the jungle for our yard. We actually thought that we would be able to cut down any trees we wanted to – but that was not so. We had to ask the Japs for every little bit of timber – and we were beginning to starve.
I requested of Col. Collins that he put me in charge of the timberyard. The reason I gave was that I had the respect of the Japanese soldiers due to Yashata telling them to ‘look after Mister Sam’. I made the proviso that I was to be in complete charge of the timberyard and should be authorised to tell anyone, including himself, what I wanted to accomplish. He agreed.
We had many different ranks working in the timberyard. It became an accepted thing for anyone to work for just a few minutes, or at least, as long as they felt able to. The Japanese would come to the timberyard and collect whenever and whatever they liked, and so we were getting nowhere fast. One of the most regular workers to turn up every day was Col. Collins himself. He set a fine example.
The friendship I’d made with Yashata was starting to pay dividends. He must’ve been someone in high authority because all of the Japanese soldiers were certainly on their toes whenever he was around. We were never able to get wood for ourselves until I eventually took charge of the timberyard and the name ‘Mister Sam’ started to make its mark. I just had to ask for timber and a lorry was put at my disposal and timber was delivered to our camp. The soldiers’ greetings were always “VERY GOOD MISTER SAM!” I became a vital cog in the machinery of survival.
My Colonel wanted me to accept some sort of promotion and he was to see that it would be back-dated. Finally I had to tell him of my little escapade when I first came into the army and I stole the camera. I was still ashamed of that deed and I was determined to my word at the time and never accept promotion. He said that I had paid for that action many times over. But, I stuck to my vow and remained a private.
I continued having Officers, sergeants, corporals and lance-corporals working for me. My little shorts with the big red heart were the centre of attraction. All the Japanese who walked past me would shout; “VERY GOOD MISTER SAM!”
All of the Officers and NCO’s buckled down to work and did all that I asked of them – so my job was made easy. We received food from the Japanese, which we shared with our closest companions. I would go to the Japanese Commander whenever I wanted wood or to find out how much he needed. The limit of our conversation was; “How many kilos Mister Sam?” I would tell him and I’d immediately set about delivering his order. We never had any bother with the Japs after that. It was a case of mutual respect.
I asked my Colonel if it was OK to accept food from the Japs and he said; “Certainly. And if you get any trouble with that – report it to me.”
Many prisoners were not willing or maybe even – unable to do physical work. They had some very bad feelings towards me for accepting food from the Japanese. The irony of that was that they themselves got their share and many of them would have not survived without that extra food, and even the odd cigarette or two. It’s a queer world.
During the time in the timberyard, I only had one upset. A corporal saw me crossing the Japanese lines for foodstuff and he reported me to the Colonel. The corporal was in fact a friend of mine and he knew how hard I worked in that yard. And yet he put me on a bloody charge. I was marched into the Colonel’s office to face the consequences.
I had to be put on a charge and the Colonel said; “We will let the charge go through this time. However, when the charge is over, everyone will understand the reason why you go into the Japanese lines in order to get as much food as you can for us all.”
After that incident everything was plain sailing and everyone knew where their extra food came from. All objectionable remarks became a thing of the past.
I was to be Private-in Charge of the Timberyard of large proportions, and it was lovely really. I’ve always been a hard and conscientious worker, and the pleasure I derived from that job was immense. I was essential to my fellow men, and so I progressed in my nursing profession by being able to acquire food. Throughout my working life, that particular job gave me the most pleasure and I never heard the word “Kurrah!” again.
Many’s the time I have said to myself; “But for the grace of Yashata, I would have had to bow and scrape to get wood and the bare essentials for survival. An awful lot of my colleagues owed their lives to that Man and his generosity.
I was still ashamed of my little episode with the camera in 1940. However, I did feel that through doing that job, I couldn’t really have been all that bad. I was doing a worthwhile job in the timberyard, and maybe in the end it wiped my slate clean.
When we first arrived in Kranji, we were still the world’s greatest urinaters. But the most hilarious sight was when we had to do the ‘Double Shuffle’ (urinate and faeces at the same time). There were no toilets whatsoever, or at least no outdoor ones. As we had 1600 P.O.W’s, something had to be done as a matter of some sort of priority. The erection of 15 toilets was soon under way. We used to collect all the urine and faeces. One can imagine 15 men sitting next to each other with thousands of flies buzzing around with great gusto. What a sight, and what could be more thrilling in P.O.W. life?
It may sound strange that we were to collect the urine and excreta from our ‘Bog’, but it was all saved to put on our gardens. We were able to get plants from the Japanese when we delivered their timber. However, it was to anger them greatly when they saw the results of our efforts in our gardens. They were to be the only vegetables we ever had during our P.O.W. existence. Faeces and urine watered down and mixed with soil, hay and grass were a hundred percent winner.
Extract from poem ‘IF’ by Rudyard Kipling