Sketch by Jack Chalker

Welcome to Changi

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are loosing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowances for their doubting too


Nursing for a nicer death

We came to a ‘Shanty Town’ where hygiene was absolutely non-existent and the idea of trying to live together was unthinkable.  One has a hard job to explain the disgusting conditions in that huge place.  We set about gathering up everything we could possibly find that would go into making a home; wood, cardboard, anything at all.

How everyone in that camp didn’t die of disease was an absolute mystery to me.  But every one of them had pulled together to make the best of the situation and slowly but surely things started to take shape.  Our gear started to sparkle because we were Field Ambulance Soldiers and essentially it had to be the case of  ‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness’.

Apart from trying to build a home for ourselves, we had to administer nursing aid to many thousands of patients.  The horrific circumstances were pitiful to behold.  Just how I saw my fellow soldiers suffer is something I have never come to terms with.

I have seen suffering, I have buried the sufferers, and tears have streamed down my face at the many terrible sights I,d seen.  I never ever dreamed how so many of my fellow men could have been so ill-teated – and to think that today we bow and scrape to the little yellow bastards who are allowed to build factories and live here in England.  By God – we have come a long way since 1945.

People say that we should bear no malice, but the torture and cruelty I saw has always made me wary of the Japanese race.  I only hope that the next war is a case of total obliteration, because I wouldn’t wish any human-being to go through the hell of suffering that I saw happen to my fellow men.

The Shanty Town had no running water and was simply prehistoric, filthy and dirty – until we all mucked in to make it habitable.  Pride made us do our best and I have to say ‘Well Done’ to all my comrades.  Their dwelling places became their pride and joy.  During all the time we were working on our dwellings, we were actually carrying out our nursing duties in a massive concrete building that had been converted into a hospital.  It was the absolute extreme to our Shanty Town.

Dull moments were few and far between.  We had hundreds, yes even thousands of people requiring our medical services.  And so it was full steam ahead to try and save as many lives as possible.


Menus issued to the prisoners to boost moral.

The actual meals were:- Rice and Soup made from anything edible on the principle that if it crawled it could be eaten. Dog was a godsend at the risk of having hands amputated. The rats that gorged themselves on the dead were in that recycle into the soup. Nothing was wasted.

Food was now in great demand and our soul-support was ‘Rice’ which was obviously not enough for our weak and dying patients.  Dysentery – was something that I had previously heard little of.  To see it was absolutely horrendous.  What were we to do?  We cured the dysentery and our patients then died of malnutrition because we had no food to give them.  They needed food to build up their strength to recover and so they died in the hundreds.  These were just some of the things that we nurses had to cope with.  I was only a few weeks into my nursing profession after four years as a professional footballer.

I was to become very aware of  the many faces of Death during the months ahead.  To cover a man’s face and say “God Bless You” made me wish I had been fighting in the military.  I had nothing to offer my patients but love, kindness, and even a smile because they were even too weak to converse.  This was the type of life that I was living at the tender age of twenty-two.  I didn’t know what the hell had hit me.  Little did I know then that I was to learn to cope for the next three and a half years.

Nursing our sick and dying was made so much harder because the Japanese had confiscated most of our medical supplies.  The M&B tablets were also taken and they were just new on the market – they would have made so much difference.  But, even with the medication, we knew for a fact that we would bury far more men than we could have ever saved.

During my nursing experience in that camp, the most incredible thing that I ever came to realise was the ridiculous number of people who just gave up on life.  They never fought to come out of that bloody hell-hole.  I saw hundreds die because of that most dreaded disease – ‘Not Fighting’.  I just couldn’t understand this because the very moment that we were declared P.O.W’s, I immediately said;  “I am going to walk away from this place, one day, to see my family and home again!”  I was soon to learn that all men are not the same.  To see so many men die from no disease at all was sickening to me.

Into our hospital came many sailors from the bombing and sinking of the ships; ‘REPULSE’ and ‘PRINCE OF WALES’ on the 10th of December 1941.  These sailors had dysentery and many were to die.  They were just skin and bone – no flesh on any of them.  It was a pitiful sight to behold, seeing one’s fellow men die in such a state.  ‘Belsen’ was awful they say – but Changi must’ve been on similar lines as far as the human body was concerned.  Those poor men were just like bundles of sticks held together with skin, and the number of casualties was out of all comprehension.

Dysentery was by far the greatest killer and undernourishment was next.  And so our battle was lost before it even started.  We had these great big buildings , so spacious, but the most essential ingredient – food – was not available.  Only the dedication of the nurses kept so many alive for so long.

There came a call for volunteers to help the doctors carry out post-mortems on the bodies of the dead patients in an effort to find out exactly what was happening to them.    I was still in fairly good nick so I volunteered because I thought that it would further my career when I returned to England.  It is said that if one sees the bones and innards of a human body, they would never ever forget it.  Believe me that is so very true.  I never ever did forget.

As a result of all the investigations we did, it was found that Ulcers were the things most common to every post-mortem.  Ulcers stretched throughout the length and breadth of the bodies.  The work was most interesting and the doctors were so helpful.  After that; it was back to the wards to help in any way we could to give the patients ease and comfort before they died.

During all the time we were nursing our patients, we had no complaints about the buildings.  They were absolutely massive – two or three storeys high and plenty of room that was so essential to cope with that type of sickness.  But’ it was food we needed.  All of the nurses felt so low, because we were so bloody helpless without the food to give our patients.  So much suffering, and so many deaths.

Besides dysentery; we had cases of Beri-Beri.  Ulcers galore and in every situation it was essential to have good food.  And all we were supplied with was Rice.  Our patients hadn’t a hope in hell chance of survival.  The smell of death filled our bodies and even penetrated our souls.

Yet, during all that time, my health was fairly good, and I didn’t have any extra food at all.  However, I do believe that those five weeks in that unknown camp, before we went to Changi, must have helped me. 

I had never touched my cigarettes, so that my pals and I would at least have something to exchange if ever the chance of food came along.  No-one, not even my pals, knew about those cigarettes.  But the days were fast approaching when we would need something more than rice if we were to survive.  Nursing was very hard and soul-destroying work.

I started to take note of all the places and situations whereby I could barter my cigarettes for food.  After all, food was the only thing I really needed.  Gold, silver, rings and even watches I could get for the asking – but only food was of any interest to me.  

I did notice however, that the officers seemed to get more than just rice – so they must have been able to do some bartering.  I knew just about everyone in my area and so I decided to take a chance.  The cooks were my number-one-target and it turned out that I was right to think so.  As long as the officers could do their fiddles, then so could I.  The amounts of food weren’t large but were enough to keep me and my two pals, Eddie and Bill, alive.  We continued to prosper and keep our health and so these two also knew about my secret cigarettes.

Bills 12th Wedding Anniversary

 We had just enough food to keep us going – but it was becoming time to think in terms of Years before we were to be released from Changi.

Extract from poem ‘IF’ by Rudyard Kipling



Shanty Town



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[Mister Sam] [Kick Off] [Nurse Sam Purvis] [Skipper of the 197th] [SS Washington] [Empress of Asia] [Singapore] [Singapore Hospital] [Road to Changi] [Welcome to Changi] [Shanty Town] [Selerang] [A Good Jap] [Walking Dead] [Kranji] [Timberyard] [The Last Post] [Setting of Rising Sun] [Acknowledgement] [The Last Laugh] [The Quest]


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