Sketch by Jack Chalker

Once More in Batavia

Prisoner Under The Rising Sun

Once More in Batavia

 

By now, stories were circulating about other islands that had been liberated by the allies. The frequency of the air raids and what was about to happen confirmed our secret hopes. We did not return to our original camp, but went along the docks to some storage buildings where there were some deep slip trenches. We were only just in time: the tanker which had brought us had already steamed into the outgoing ship lanes when a big air raid started. Several of the ships were soon ablaze and we were glad that the slip trenches were deep. After much machine gun strife we survived with no casualties. Our guards must have decided that this was no place for them, so they herded us onto a train going back to Batavia. On arrival, there was a truck waiting for us and as we drove along we recognized numerous landmarks. But it was one of the two Dutch men who told us where we where exactly. It was called "the bicycle camp". It was a brick built camp which had been used by the Dutch-Javanese Army and had all the amenities needed. We fifty were put in a part which was separated from the rest by a high bamboo fence and were not aware that there were other prisoners beyond the fence until the following morning when we heard the working parties going out. We were made to empty out what belongings we had left by a new Japanese NCO. I had carried with me a leather case containing an ivory Mah Jong set (purchased in Singapore), a bible and a copy of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" .On the fly leaves I had noted all the names and numbers of the men for whom I had dug graves as well as where they were buried. A fire had been started, and despite my explanations and protests through the interpreter, both books were thrown onto the fire. He was well aware that it was part of my religious faith to have a Bible. Maybe he haMahJong-tnd read a translation of the words written by Kipling about the Japanese being "half monkey and half child" or the poem of the garden and was not too pleased, as he seemed to especially relish the burning of the Kipling. Furthermore, perhaps he knew that without my record, it would not be known how many had been massacred or died of malnutrition. I was also very annoyed and frustrated that at this late stage the Mah Jong set should be stolen from me when previously, I had refused to barter with the other guards who could quite easily have taken it. This man was a bully and sadist of the worst kind. Physical pain is easier to endure than psychological torture. I did before my return, however, acquire another Mah Jong set, I had so grown to enjoy the game!

 

As usual, the opening speech by the commandant included the rules of the camp - but this time they seemed more lenient: our food for the day would be delivered each morning at the gate and we could collect it and cook it however we liked. However, we were not to attempt to get in touch with the other prisoners or natives by climbing the fences and were told that we would be required to keep a fire watch each night from a small lookout post on a roof to warn of pending air raids.

The watch tower was at the centre of the roof and it was decided that turns should be taken on a one hour rotational basis so that no one would become fatigued and lose concentration - after all our lives were at risk from "friendly fire", and at this late stage (we'd all guessed), that would be a wasteful way to die. There was a ladder up the side of the building leading to another across the steep roof below the tower. The tower boasted its own bamboo ladder which creaked ominously whenever anyone used it. Neither the ladders nor the tower looked very safe but we were all rather light in weight by now and still had good enough eyesight to negotiate the rickety assault course. Several of us had practice runs and from this vantage spot could see not only the horizon, but also over the fence to the guardhouse where the Japanese guards were quartered. After a couple of days we discovered that each day's food was indeed delivered punctually as promised and that it did get a little cool at night in the watch tower! The tower was useful in another way: we also knew whenever an inspection was imminent!

Events began to happen quickly, all of them pleasant. A white "Sunderland" appeared on the horizon and met with no enemy resistance. It flew over, looking wonderful as its fuselage glinted in the sunlight, and we English could not hold back our emotions. Cheers were mixed with tears and when they made their second run we saw small parachutes descending. The Japanese remained in their guardhouse during the whole incident and did not try to stop us from retrieving the gifts from heaven. It was confirmed - this island would soon be liberated. We also guessed that some surprises had arrived. Packets of cigarettes! What dreams were being woven that afternoon in the smoke ascending from our first "Woodbines" in years.

Out of the blue, we were informed that we were to have a very important visitor and were all told to assemble on a field formed into a parade ground. A jeep arrived carrying Lady Mountbatten, accompanied by some fine upstanding Scottish officers. We Sassenachs were informed that they were the Black Watch.

Lady Louis Mountbatten-1 Lady Mountbatten spoke to the assembly and told us that everything was in hand for our release, but that the war with Japan was not yet finished. She then spoke personally with several groups. I had the honour and pleasure of having a few words with her. She was a remarkable and great lady and made me, together with my comrades feel like men again. The following day, which was my thirty-seventh birthday (11th August 1945), we received our first Red Cross parcels and mail. The parcels, which had arrived two years earlier and been kept by the Japanese, had been broken open and most of the contents (especially the sweets) removed. This, once again, proved that the Japanese were not "honourable gentlemen" although we had all already agreed with Kipling's sentiments on the matter. From this point on we did no more work for the Japanese (except the watch tower which was for all of us) and we spent our time reading our mail and exchanging what news we had with one another.

A few days later it was my turn in the tower for the early morning watch and through weariness from playing cards late into the previous evening was beginning to lose interest. Suddenly, as the first rays of dawn broke over the sea there was a great commotion in the guardhouse. Lights came on and I saw that on the platform outside the guardhouse stood a high ranking Japanese officer waiting for his men to assemble. They scurried out from their billets, formed ranks and immediately stood to attention, falling silent at a signal from one of the officers. Their stillness whilst listening to the news was tangible and spoke volumes about its effect on them. After the short speech, to a man, in perfect synchronisation they all bowed to the rising sun and began to disperse silently with bowed heads. Although I spoke few words of Japanese I had the deep impression that they had been told that the war was over. One of the RAF officers, who had joined me when the commotion began, and who had made an effort to learn their language confirmed my belief. I can boast that I was there when this historic news was delivered.

We did not immediately become free men, but had a few days to go. The Japanese guards that remained (some had mysteriously disappeared which led to much conjecture) continued to hold the guardhouse and we were informed that this was to protect us from the Javanese, but they did not prevent our party of fifty getting together with the prisoners in the other part of the camp. There were some who had left from Surabaya at the same time as us and had not been through what we had; some had been to Sumatra and worked on manufacturing tobacco; some had worked cleaning up oil plants. Wherever there had been dirty or heavy tasks to do it seemed as though allied prisoners had been conscripted to do it. Those who had left Haruku had lost a lot of their number at sea. Not having the strength to make it back to Java, they had been dispersed around the surrounding islands. We were now the fortunate ones waiting for the navy to set us on the road home. I accompanied a Naval and an RAF medical officer into the Japanese quarters where we found large stores of medical supplies and Red Cross goods which had not been passed to the prisoners. These supplies were soon in use and people's pains & maladies began to be alleviated.

 

Next Chapter

By Dakota To Singapore

 

 

 

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