Sketch by Jack Chalker

Airfield at Yogyakarta

Prisoner Of The Rising Sun

The Airfield at Yogyakarta

 

The Americans had built large earthen dispersal pens. The Japanese wanted the earth mounds around these pens to be moved and put into the craters so that the runways could be levelled and made serviceable once again. A few trucks were available, so, in many ways like a chain-gang, we filled them up, Japanese soldiers then drove them to the runway, another team of prisoners would unload the dirt and another filled the craters. The guards would then return with their trucks for us to continue our task. This perpetual cycle went on for many days and nights. It was hard work and especially tiring for those who were clerks and had not done any labouring before. We knew, even at this early stage, that it was adapt or die. To aggravate our plight, the only food we had was what we could buy or barter from the local Javanese. Items for barter soon diminished and consequently we worked with empty bellies.

The Japanese army had not taken into account the tropical rainstorms which relentlessly came and went at this time of year. One night a deluge washed away the loose soil and left the same craters as had been there in the first place! At the onset, we RAF professionals had realised the implications of repairing a runway with loose soil, and although we did not fancy the concept of repairing the aerodrome twice, we certainly wanted to hinder the progress of the Japanese as much as possible. Our feigned ignorance protected us from retributions due to the oversight -in fact, we witnessed a public admonition which the Japanese officers received from their Commander. It made us feel better: even as prisoners we could strike a blow against the enemy. It was the first of many.

However, following the disaster, repairs had to be brought back on schedule and a large number of disgraced Japanese navy personnel (whose ship had been sunk whilst on active duty) arrived to work alongside us and the discredited army officers. These new recruits were quite respectful and would always lend a hand if one of the prisoners was having difficulty with the work. They now realised that there had to be something more sturdy in the holes, so large solid objects sifted from the debris left by the Americans and Dutch were thrown in and then the whole thing was wadded with soil and protected by a concrete surface. We did our best to "booby trap" as many craters as possible, but this was not often feasible as both prisoners and enemy were working together so tightly.

The Japanese found large bombs hidden in the surrounding sugar cane and cornfields. The Japanese commander whose self-indulgence started at daybreak with a salute from us all, ordered our C.O. to get us moving the bombs. Our C.O. complained that this was contrary to the terms of the Geneva Convention and refused point-blank. The Japanese commander then told us all that unless we fulfilled his orders, he would have our C.O. beaten. Our C.O. told us not to worry and ignore him, so the Japanese officer cleverly picked an older man, a Squadron Leader Accounts Officer and told us that he would be beaten instead. The Japanese commander knew that we would not be able to live with ourselves if this were allowed to happen, so we relented and moved the bombs. They had to be put in railway trucks. Surprisingly, the moving of the twenty bombs was less strenuous than the soil moving. We had lorries and there was ample timber, ropes and pulleys. It required teamwork to roll the 5OOlb. bombs up the planks and onto the vehicles, but there were lots of refreshment periods in which the guards and ourselves sucked the juice from the broken sugar canes. The next step was dangerous. The bombs had to be rolled up the planks from the lorries and into the railway trucks. A number of men, both prisoners and guards, hoisted the bombs by pulling on ropes woven through an intricate pulley system. The others pushed and made certain that the bombs didn't slip back or drop. I thought at the time that the guards looked as scared as I felt. Having completed that job we were sent on our way again.

 

Next Chapter

Arrival at Surabaya

 

 

 

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