Sketch by Jack Chalker

When Hope is Gone

When Hope is Gone - Changi


What is it in us, when hope is gone?

What is it in us, to battle on?

Is it the strength of that inner self?

Have nothing to do with status or wealth

A determination one's courage strong and sure

After bad comes good, it process slow

Have faith in oneself, and you will know

That time heals all wounds, keep that in mind

A peaceful feeling, its conclusions you will find.


The Suffolks were at first left to fend for themselves but then their ordeal began when they we were marched to Changi to begin three and a half years in captivity and the start of a living nightmare.

The people of Singapore, mostly Chinese, had a really bad time during the occupation, in the first days we saw our first sights of Japanese brutality. One could see the heads of the victims stuck on the railings for everyone to view. We were shocked to realise that this was the way of life we were about to enter, we had very little information or knowledge of Japanese history. Everyone thought they would be a pushover which of course we learnt was not the case.

The first man I saw wounded badly was in the fight for Singapore, he was laid down near a tree, before he died he kept calling “mother”.

After being taken prisoner and working on the Thailand to Burma railway I was to hear this many times again, just before a man died, he would always call for his mother. At first the Japs at the guard house would all come out and stand to attention at his funeral in respect, but this soon faded out as there were so many being hurried so they just sat there, some of them would even laugh. We had to bury our mates the best way we could, always in a hurry as the Japs wanted us for work. The Jap officers said they didn’t care how many prisoners or Japs died so long as they got their railway finished. Punishment was harsh and all those that were too ill to work were put on half rations, this only made the situation much worse because the rations were always shared out.

At Changi we were given a talk by some high ranking Jap officer, he of course had to have a table to stand on so as he could look down on the pows who were taller than he was. There was an interpreter present so we gathered the officer didn’t speak English. He started to tell us that a way to keep prisoners healthy was to give them some work to do and this had been done we were to move soon and go into a proper camp where there were huts and the food would be better, he went on to warn us not to try and escape as we were surrounded all over Asia and punishment for trying this would be severe, to end it all he said planes were taking off from Tokio and bombing London, something we knew was impossible at that time. The interpreter then said it was the end of the talk so one of the pows shouted out "altogether boys" and with that everyone replied “for he's a Fxxxxxxxxx liar!”. The interpreter didn’t make a sound, I believe he was too frightened and the officer gave a bow in a manner which we thought meant, we had taken it all in.

It is a strange situation to be in when one is first taken prisoner many thoughts go through the mind as regards to what the future might hold. As time goes on one gets set to the new way of life and as times get harder a special comradeship developed, making us realise were all in the same boat and I think it was a common thought that if you helped, someone somewhere might help you in time of need. It was difficult to have the same friends all the time because the Japs had a way of taking men and mixing them or moving them to another camp. However it made no difference there was always a comrade and closeness was always the same.  It was a natural to ask each other “where do you come from mate ?” or “are you married, have any children, how long have you been in the services” and so it went on. At the back of everyone's mind was the thought we've got to sweat it out. Soon after we were taken into captivity our General, Beckworth-Smith of the 18th Div was allowed to talk to us. I well remember some of the things he mentioned,  mainly of course to look after your health and keep alive. He also said we were to have the best education as a pow especially on how to survive and get the best out of life under the present circumstances. Looking back many of his words were true although at that time nothing was known about the Thailand-Burma Railway, we never saw him again.  The Japs gave him a rough time, he was not by any means a young man and he passed away I believe.  However the seed was set and we started our education. Comradeship was much closer than you would get in the normal services, I don't remember any fighting to start with. It became a normal thing for someone who was ill with dysentery or malaria to give his meal back to be shared amongst the others. Something different in today’s world when the question would be asked what have you got to give me in exchange. Perhaps an example of this happened in the early stage when the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk, the survivors that landed and took up the fight on shore only had what they stood up in so many had a whip round and gave a spare shirt socks or anything they could spare to help out,  after all we were in a desperate situation before we were even taken prisoner. If only we could follow this way of life today what a better world we would live in.

There was a rumour just after we were captured to the effect that we might be repatriated to a neutral country because the Japs hadn't the means to look after us.

Turned out to be just wishful thinking of course but it all added to give us that ray of hope. Our minds could not keep away from the life we had back home the things we cherished and the moans and groans that we made over simple things, it made us realise how our mother used to care for us the way she used to try and make ends meet when money was short only to be told sometimes that the toast was burnt or the meat was tough it was something that hurt and a reminder of perhaps just how ungrateful we had sometimes been. Out of this came some rewards in later life we all must surely appreciate the good things best of all freedom and a full stomach which helps us to be contented if only others could adjust to our feelings what a better world it would be.

Our first heartbreak was having Sikh guards watch over us who you had to salute, these men were supposed to be on our side. They had gone over to the Japs, no doubt thinking they would be better off. Under Japanese rule perhaps they realised the mistake they had made but it was too late, they could not turn back.

The dangers we faced, were accepted and as part of our new life. We were first put to work on the docks at Singapore, loading and unloading huge shells. These were so hot they Oozed a kind of candle grease out at the end. When an officer complained that it was against International law, he was slapped down and told to get on with the work. Luckily there was no accidents but it had given us an insight of things to come. Perhaps the Japs were miss-led by our larger physique, thinking we were all like Hercules and treated us like elephants With the climate and the conditions under which we worked, we soon proved them wrong.

At the beginning it was in our minds that we would soon be set free, rumours were rife the best one was that the US forces had landed up country and were pushing the Japs down Malaya. It was hoped they would soon be with us but of course this was not the case, we kept watching the shores at Singapore there was no sign of boats or planes from our side and the truth began to sink in. We were by ourselves and we were feeling like " The Lost Tribe ".


Next Chapter

Act of Courage - Death Railway



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