At the end of an easterly train ride, we arrived at Surabaya. We were taken to what appeared to have been a large exhibition centre with permanent trade halls, exhibition kiosks, a sports stadium and all the amenities expected at trade exhibitions. This was to be our camp. Already in occupation were a great number of Dutch army personnel and Dutch-Javanese officials. To we British, there seemed to be a sense of order about the camp. There was even a cookhouse and a first aid post. The Dutch officers and officials occupied the permanent blocks and had their beds enriched with mattresses and mosquito nets. The other ranks and minor officials had to make do with the bare market stalls. Our British officers were accommodated with the Dutch officers, but the other ranks, including warrant and non-commissioned officers joined their Dutch counterparts in the market stalls. A great deal of comradeship was struck up with what one Cockney called us, "the stall holders " .The Dutch were keen on chess and had managed to retain their boards and pieces. Before we had arrived, they had played amongst themselves and organised tournaments. We were invited to join shortly after our arrival. Only two Englishmen admitted to having played the game, both R.A.F. corporals.
The Dutch, who organised the chess tournaments decided that the English opposition should be disposed of quickly, so they had us play the East and West Java champions in the first matches. Because everyone was at work during the day, and because it was far too dark when we ceased our labour to even see the boards and pieces, the games had to be played shortly after sunrise. So one morning at 0630 hours, I had to play the East Java champion. To my amazement I won by playing the only opening that I could remember from my grandfather's teaching many years before. Many times since, I have tried to beat my son with the same opening, but not succeeded. Perhaps, if I were a Dutchman, my son could be enjoying himself in Java and be himself the East Java chess champion? Card games were also played at these anti-social hours. The officers had packs of cards and played Bridge, but I doubt if they had as much enjoyment or became as expert partners as two airmen who had a most dilapidated pack and thought out their own system of bidding.
We were not long in finding out what the Japanese wanted us to do. They wanted gun emplacements built. Clay was needed for this task and there was an abundance of this substance around, wet, messy and exceedingly heavy. Here we were to become not simply diggers of clay, but beasts of burden engaged in building protective banks. Whilst clay digging, it was easy to get your spade into the soggy substance, the trouble was getting it out, because its was so clammy that the chunks extracted were gigantic and consequently cumbersome and heavy. After a few hours of trial and error we worked out the best way to achieve what was needed. Two men were required to become beasts of burden and carried a large sack tied at each corner with a loop at each end that was suspended over a stout bamboo pole. This makeshift carrying sling was then shouldered and the two men would walk one behind the other with their load.
So the clay was dug and put into the slings, the bamboo pole put on the shoulder, and off the carriers trotted. The load was dumped. This carried on until the Japanese considered the mound was the required size. At the end of each day, the diggers were wet, dirty and tired. I would honestly say that the task we eventually completed would probably take in modern-day terms four bulldozers about two weeks to complete. But enormous things can be accomplished with bare hands - think of Stonehenge. At the close of each day the carriers' legs ached and their shoulders were sore, the mound builders were wet and dirty but all at least were returning to the only meal of the day. It was called buffalo stew, but you were lucky if you could find a piece of actual meat in it. They say that ignorance is bliss, and I still don't know to this day what the ingredients were, however, it had been boiled for so long that it looked like watery rice pudding and tasted like wallpaper paste smells. The amount issued was about as much as would fill a cup. After the stew, if you had any medical troubles the first aid centre was open. It was very poorly lit and mistakes were often made by the untrained staff. I had an experience of this when diluted acid was used on me instead of a Calomel lotion substitute to clean a rash which I had on a very tender part of my body. After the meal and medical visits, we were all required to return to our billets. In the few minutes remaining before lights out, we occupied ourselves with general knowledge quizzes, spelling Bees, and lectures. The Japanese guards used to wander around checking that everyone was in their place. The men talked over the jobs they had been doing during the day and especially took interest in the way their allotted guards had treated them. The trouble with the guards was that everything had to be done as fast as possible, they relished running alongside the clay carriers and hitting them with their canes as if they were driving oxen. They laughed if someone stumbled and a prisoner was covered with clay. The guards always, for some reason we could never fathom, insisted that the smaller of the two carriers was at the back. Consequently the sack was frequently slipping down into his face or chest. We witnessed this trait of sadism in the Japanese on many occasions. For example, we never knew if a rugby match organised by a Welsh international sportsman was ordered by the Japanese for their entertainment or whether it was for recreation for the prisoners. The ground was hard, the weather at the time was intensively hot and sticky, so the game, became a real forward tussle with lots of agonizing scrums which the Japanese seemed to enjoy. The players included a number of south Welsh army men reared on the game, some Scots who played in some of the teams north of the border, and a few Irish and English who had learned the game in the services. The Scots and Welsh united forces and crushed we English and Irish. However, despite that painful defeat, I still love the game, but am wary of arguing too vehemently with the Welsh or Scots!
The gun emplacements were finally built and the hard labour ceased for a short time, so the Japanese decided that the sick and injured who had been kept working despite their maladies should now be moved as their usefulness was over. We found out later that they were dispersed over Java, Sumatra and some even went to Japan.