Missing-believed drowned, but rescued from the sea to endure three and a half years of starvation, torture, ill-treatment and continual bombings in a Japanese hell camp, released on the eve of J-day a naked barefooted shadow of his former self. Such were the experiences of signalman R. J. Wagner, who is at present visiting relatives in Foxton. He is now returned to normal health, having regained five stone in weight and an inclination to become a number of the J-force, but a vivid recollection of his past experiences is likely to prove a very definite bar that respect.
Appealed for by his employers as an essential worker when he joined the army in 1941, and released, Signalman Wagner immediately gratified his desire by straightway joining the Navy and left New Zealand on board the Monowai then on the Suva run. Returning to New Zealand he was transferred to the Aquitainia and sailed from Wellington with the Seventh Reinforcement, but transferred from the Aquitainia to HMS Exeter at Colombo. The Exeter was at that time based at Colombo as a unit in the Eastern Striking Force. Two months later the Exeter set out with the U.S.S. Houston, H.M.S. Electra, Encounter, Jupiter, two Dutch ships: Deruyter and Java and six U.S. and one Dutch destroyer to stem the Japanese Invasion. The Exeter was "winged"in the first encounter in the Java Sea on February 28th, 1942 when the Deruyter, Java, Electra and Jupiter were all sunk. She put into Sourabaya that day with half her boilers gone, but put out to engage the enemy again the following day. Engaged by five Japanese cruisers and 11 destroyers, a firepower of 40 eight-inch guns to the Exeter's six, she put a fight lasting four hours. The Exeter threw everything she had at the enemy and finally, when the ammunition was exhausted, the crew was ordered to abandon the ship which was in a sinking condition. The HMS encounter and USS Pope which accompanied the Exeter in the engagement while also sunk. As the Exeter lay helpless a Jap destroyer went alongside and shot two torpedoes into her and she blew up and sank. Of her crew of 849 only 62 were lost in the engagement. Prior to abandoning ship lifebelts were strapped onto the wounded and they were thrown into the sea. The uninjured clung to rafts and wreckage.
They were in the water for periods varying from 4 to ?? hours before being rescued by a Jap destroyer and suffered considerably from exposure and sunstroke. Hauled aboard the destroyer they were well treated for some reason or other as each man came aboard he was sprayed with disinfectant and he was then given tea with milk and many biscuits as he wanted. The Japs were very courteous and the Exeter men had seen them standing to attention and saluting as their ship went down. They also saluted the dead floating in the water as they passed. This impressed the prisoners immensely but not to the extent the treatment of the marines on Macassar did!
The destroyers took the Exeter survivors to Borneo and they finally ended up at Macassar in the Celebes, where they were handed over to Japanese Marines who were nothing more than the worst type of Jap army man wrapped up in naval clothing. Here the captain and senior officers, together with about 200 man, were separated from the rest of the crew and taken to Japan. Two officers were drowned when the ship they were on was torpedoed by an American ship.
Macassar prove to be a Japanese hell camp. The men were herded into bamboo huts and slept on clay floors or boards, if they were lucky, with nothing to cover them. Their clothing consisted of a strip of rag to which a couple of tapes were attached. Of footwear they had none. For breakfast they received a small mug of watery rice and a cup of weak coffee with no milk or sugar. For dinner a ball of rice the size of a tennis ball, a piece of cucumber or raddish, and for tea a ball of rice, a piece of fish and pieces of cucumber. Water was strictly rationed and was supposed to be boiled before use. On this diet they were compelled to work from 7 am to 7 pm daily on aerodrome, road and rail construction work. On the road job and they had to lay the stones in place and then hitch ropes onto a steamroller and drag it along to roll them in. They were barefooted and if the "driver" of the roller, who frequently jambed the wheels so they had to haul it backwards to straighten it up, thought a man was not pulling his weight he would shake him up with a bamboo pole. The steamroller was not permitted to be fired but had to be manhandled. In addition to construction jobs they had to tend about 10 acres of sweet potatoes and the penalty for stealing these was beheading. In his starved condition a man often stuffed a raw potato dirt and all, in his mouth and ate it. Many suffered from worms as a result. On one occasion some prisoners picked up some pumpkin seeds and they took to the compound and planted them. The Jap's did not take any notice until they flowered. Then they placed a stick alongside each flower with a notice "Here is 1 pumpkin." Sometimes the flowers dropped off, sometimes small pumpkins grew and then rotted or the ants got away with them. In each instance retribution was taken out of the prisoners of the loss of one pumpkin. When the pumpkins matured they were taken away by the guards and the seed returned to replanting. The men were desperate for food and killed and ate snakes, rats, cats, dogs, or any live thing that came their way. The camp commander intimated that he would give a pig to the camp on any day on which 17 inmates died. Often account would get to 16 but they did not get a pig until the tally indicated was reached. Then they cooked it hide and all, stewed with grass and radish tops. They had to guard their dead at night, standing to for two hours at a time, to keep the rats off them. During the whole time they were imprisoned they received no mail or news of the outside world of any kind other than what the Japanese dispensed and they had a good propaganda system. The day after the Featherstone shooting incident they knew all about it and they sought out all the New Zealanders in the camp. The men only escaped torture or worse by getting away with an excuse that they were born in England and had happened to be in New Zealand when war broke out. On another occasion a paper was produced depicting a photograph of a city in shambles, described as Wellington. It was stated that while the Japs had not been able to get to New Zealand the gods had been pleased to be reduced the city to ruins by an earthquake. They were continually guarded and brutally knocked about on the least pretext. Guards prowled through the huts at night and frequently attacked a sleeper "for laughing". Whistling and singing was strictly forbidden. If a guard imagined a prisoner had done something to offend him, he would immediately knock him down. If he rubbed the spot where he was struck he was struck on the other side. If blood came he was told to rub dirt in the wound to stop the bleeding. Generally if a guard struck a man twice he completely lost his temper and called for his bat and went berserk. The bat was the common weapon of torture. An autographed baseball bat weighing 8 pounds was a favourite weapon in the camp and the person on the receiving end collected anything from five to 200 blows from it. One English sailor received a record 207 blows and had to work the next day. To attempt an escape was impossible. Three Dutch prisoners and eight natives tried it. They were beheaded. As a warning to the others all prisoners had to witness the floggings and tortures. Of medical supplies there were none. The camp included about 1500 men and comprised, besides the Exeter men, Dutch and American prisoners of war. Amongst the Dutch was Dr Schmidt, a well-known medical man, and he did wonderful work for prisoners and Japs alike. They allowed him to retain his own instruments and he performed all sorts of operations but he was not provided with any anaesthetics. When he took ill no attempt was made by the Japs to save his life and he died. A dentist in the camp had all his instrument taken from him and had to carry out any extractions with a pair of pliers. Sickness was rife and 38 percent of the prisoners died. There was plenty of food on the island but the Japs begrudged giving any to the prisoners. The camp was a total blackout until an air raid came, when the lights were put on and the bombs came. On one occasion they counted 130, thinking each one spelt happy days for them but they were fated to see the thing through and it was not until Japan capitulated that they received any relief. Then it came from the Australians who parachuted food supplies to them pending arrangements for the evacuation which was brought about speedily.
The only act of kindness shown during the three and a half years in the camp came from some Italian merchant seaman who had been on convoy duty for the Japs and were interned when Italy collapsed. They sent along to packets of tea. The prisoners, however, greatly appreciated the sympathetic feeling of a German family on the island, whose members spoke to them whenever possible. On each Christmas they also displayed a Christmas tree on their veranda for the men to see as they marched past to work.
Signalman Wagner spent his 21st birthday in the prisoner of war camp which cost him five stone in weight. Today, however, he looks little worse for his terrible experience. He will be released from the Navy on the 26th of this month.