The Rising Sun On My Back
On the 16th a Jap patrol entered our “hospital” and I feared the worst. All of them were black whiskered, with smutty little eyes and the squat pudding faces of bullies. They could have been brothers to a man, they were so alike. They snatched off watches and belted the previous owners with their rifles because these did not point north when they swung them around. They were under the ludicrous impression that they were compasses. They made dirty gestures at the photos of women and family’s they took from wallets. They stole everything, money, cigarettes, cases and lighters and were prepared to chop off the finger of any patient who pleaded that their ring was too tight to remove. We were lucky, we got off lightly, no one was killed, injuries were minor and I was thankful to get away with a back-hander for having nothing of value.
The impossible had happened! 80,000 fighting men had surrendered. The Japanese could not understand how we could lay down our arms without a fight, they would have fought to the last man. They spat on us and called us cowards, for not fighting to the death.
We were herded together for a march to Changi which had been divided into camp areas. The winding column was miles long as we struggled along, flanked on both sides by heavily armed guards. I possessed a white trilby had camouflaged with red sand, a pyjama jacket, K.D. slacks, white socks and canvas shoes, I was penniless and down to my last pack of fags.
We trudged through the shattered stinking streets of the city, through crowds of the hostile populace who jeered and screamed abuse at us ( it was noticeable that more of them were Chinese, who later took their lives in their hands to help us).
Corpses were everywhere, dead troops of all nationalities lay stinking and bloated and teeming with flies - the sight was gruesome and the smell sickening.
By midday I began to feel the effects of six weeks in hospital, I paused to rest and the nearest guard rushed at me screaming like a banshee and prodded me forward with his bayonet. I was near to collapse when we reached Changi Jail. Blood from my shoulder wound had congealed and the dressing was uncomfortable but I was so thankful to stretch out and immediately fell asleep on the concrete floor of one of the cells.
Changi Jail was one of His Majesty’s most modern prisons, proudly surmounted by a gleaming concrete tower which in turn was surmounted by a flagmast bearing the Japanese flag. It had been designed to house 600 prisoners and to cater for their needs with a steam kitchen supplied by oil burning boilers and latrines with cisterns. The boilers no longer worked because there was no oil and the cisterns didn’t flush because there was no water. In other words into this concrete prison designed for 600 inmates, without cooking or sewage facilities, tramped 3,000 P.O.W’s with very few stores and no equipment. By sleeping four or five to a cell designed for one; by sleeping on the safety screen that covered the well on each floor between cells; by sleeping under the wash basins that didn’t work, and in the corridors, every man found a berth. After three weeks, in which time we had seen very little of our captors, we were ordered to move out of the jail. Our regiment moved into Birdwood Camp, good dry huts that had been British Army Billets. For some weeks, apart from working parties cleaning up the aftermath we were able to relax. Our Own officers and NCO’s remained in charge but answered to the Japs for our behaviour. We eked out our tinned food but gradually it dwindled until eventually we were completely on Asiatic diet. This reduction in our diet showed in many ways. Dysentery, beri-beri, skin sores and general debility. I went down with my first attack of dysentery and was put on a diet of rice water, and dosed with Mag. Sulph. Sick parades had become a daily factor in every man’s life. The universal complaint was lack of vitamins - the universal symptoms, were “Happy Feet “ and “Rice Balls”. “Rice Balls” is not an elegant term. It was not, however, an elegant complaint, and no picture of the life we had is complete without its description. “Rice Balls” to us, meant not one of the favourite dishes of the Japanese, but the ripping raw of a man’s scrotum and genitals (by the denial of even a tiny quantity of Vitamin B2). There was first a faint discomfort, then the skin split and peeled off an area which might spread from the genitals right down the inner thighs. This entire surface then became raw and sticky and painful. By refusing us a spoonful each day of this worthless polishing taken off rice (and they could easily have given us sacks full) the Japs condemned us to years of living with a scrotum that was red weeping flesh . We ate rice. We ate rice only. Consequently we had “Rice Balls”. “Happy Feet” was another symptom of the same thing - the lack of vitamins. This scourge struck only about half the prisoners, but made up the balance by striking them with a pain twice as severe as anything any of us had ever seen. It inflicted them with persistent series of searing stabs in the soles of their feet. The pain was like fire. But when they put their feet in water, the coolness immediately tore at them like ice. So that once again they moaned for warmth. You could almost see the flesh drop from their bones and the life from their faces. Boys of twenty became suddenly old men - shrunken and desperate. As you looked at them, and from them to the Japs, you were filled with the deepest pity for them and a hatred for the Japs that nothing would ever eradicate.
My wounds still required treatment, there were two in my arm and one in my chest and only two would heal, one was always open and weeping, this went on for several months. Finally one of the surgeons ( a brain specialist in peace time), with the aid of an X - ray screen and by poking around the bone in my arm with a steel probe found a particularly severe sliver of bone. This was cut out two days later and in a couple of weeks my wounds healed. Most of the prisoners daily left camp in working parties - they were mainly employed on clearing up the City, burning thousands of bodies (like with barbed wire and massacred by machine gun fire or used for bayonet practice) and moving Japanese stores and equipment. Anyone caught stealing were severely beaten, often tortured. The returning working parties were systematically and thoroughly searched, consequently there were few opportunities to supplement our meals of rice and vegetable water.
In the first six months of our captivity there was an abundance of rumours - daily we heard of the Scots Guards landing on the coast or a battle fleet escorting a huge armada of troop laden craft. Java had been recaptured and two hundred planes landed, and so it went on. I believed they were deliberately started in an attempt to keep up morale. In my heart I fervently hoped that some of what we heard was true, but I soon realised that the Japs were boasting truthfully, they were supreme in the East. I could not foresee them ever being overcome. Had we not been easily annihilated by a force so inferior in numbers but vastly superior in jungle warfare.
One evening we made the decision to pool our remaining cash, which amounted to more than two hundred dollars, Johnny Walsh and I were chosen to be the ‘scavengers’ because we were both on sick list and not required to work. Next morning, with empty kit bags and valises we crawled under the barbed wire and slipped away through the trees towards the beach. The underground was thick and tangled an progress was slow. We heard voices and hid from a passing Jap patrol, them continued our journey as soon as they were out of ear shot, reaching the beach hot and breathless and scared. We kept to the tree line and progress was quicker now as we made our way along the beach. We were contemplating the prospect of returning empty handed when we came upon a Kampong a short distance inland from the beach.
The Malays were friendly enough, keen to do business, but very scared, they knew they would be shot if they were caught, they kept glancing furtively around and urging us to hurry. With bags a packs full of tined and packet food we hurried away retracing our steps along the beach, and in our haste nearly walking into a Jap patrol which was resting near the point where earlier we had left the undergrowth. After a long wait, there was no sign of them moving, so we decided to go back towards the Kampong and strike off in another direction. After some while I began to stumble with weakness the weight of my load seamed to have doubled. We were exhausted and lost, and sat down to rest. The sound of voices aroused us and we were relieved at the unmistakable sight of Australian bush hats. We called and waved hoping they could direct us, but to late we saw the Jap guards.
We turned and ran, shots followed and we stopped with our hands raised - a riffle but in the middle of my back knocked me to my knees, another blow to the back of my head floored me, I was still conscious and a Jap screamed at me to get up. The little bastard saw the dressing taped to my chest and ripped it of, although healed the scar was still red and tender. He prodded it with the muzzle of his riffle. He lunged several times and each time I retreated a step until with a final vicious lunge he knocked me backwards into the undergrowth. We were made to pick up our bags and join the Aussies. Then to a chorus of high pitched screams and repeated blows, we were driven along, finally, arriving at a large house near the beach, which was the HQ for the Changi patrols. I was dizzy with exhaustion and my shoulder throbbed with pain, the scar had split open and was sore where the blood had hardened. We dumped the food inside the gates, and to more screamed orders lined up in a single rank. I was scared now, I recalled the recently issued decree stating, that any prisoner caught outside the camp parameter would be considered an escapee and summarily shot. There was a huge pile of food just inside the gates but no sign of previous owners, I concluded that they had been shot and that our turn would soon come. Every Jap who passed by punched or kicked us. The guard prodded us with bayonets and tormented us by aiming their riffles and pulling the trigger with the safety catch on. Then the sudden arrival of a ‘Sumatra’ which in it’s fury drove everyone for cover, sent the Japs scurrying. We remained standing in file, and I felt as if I was slowly beaten to the ground by the incessant pounding of the rain, which was so heavy visibility was only a few feet.
This downpour provided a welcome respite from our tormentors, they left us for an hour standing stiffly at attention, wet and cold and very frightened. When the rain stopped they re - appeared and continued bating us. I was making an extreme effort to stifle the fear that was making me feel sick. It would take little more of this to make me panic, the urge to run, blindly, was difficult to subdue. An officer arrived at the HQ on a motorcycle and after a briefing by the guard corporal he hurried into the building, to emerge ten minutes later with written orders which he handed to the NCO. The guards began screaming at us again they beat and clubbed us into two files and laden with bags of food we had bought, we filed out of the HQ. Our route at first led along the beach for about a mile. The sand was soft and deep, and the going exhausting, I fell and was clubbed and kicked to my feet. I was week after my long period in hospital as the heavy pack was making my knees buckle. Several times we tried to rest but the guards kept us going. The shoulder strap was chaffing my chest wound which began to bleed again and when I appealed to one of the Japs we punched me in the mouth and screamed at me like a madman. I fell forward on my face into the sand and before I could regain my feet a blow paralysed my left arm.
I staggered along, spitting sand and blood, barley able to drag one foot after the other, until mercifully we left the beach and came onto a dirt track leading to a road. When finally they let us rest I was near to fainting, I fell to my knees and rolled onto one side struggling to remove the pack. An Australian kneeled over me and said “here let me help you”. Easing the straps from my shoulders he removed a sweat cloth from around his neck, folded it into a pad and pressed it against my shoulder. When we moved on he help me with the pack, easing the cloth under the strap to protect my wound.
Several times they stopped Jap vehicles to ask for directions, but no one seemed to know our destination. Soon we came to the gates of Birdwood Camp and we stopped. I shouted to one of the men on the gate to fetch Major Gill, my O.C. He soon arrived and began trying to persuade the Japs to let us go. After a while he had them in two minds, and said to us, “go on, sneak away, while I keep them talking”. After walking a few yards I looked back to see the Jap NCO trying hard to look past the O.C. who was twice his size. We kept walking and turned between two huts making our way wearily to our own billets. I dropped to my knees on the wooden floor of the hut and willing hands eased the pack from my shoulders. My wound was washed and dressed and water fetched so that I could strip wash. I couldn’t relax though, I was so screwed up inside, that try as I might, I could not rid my mind of the fear that any minute they would come looking for me. Nevertheless partially recovered I tried to dismiss the fears and devote my attention to a meal that had been prepared from our recently acquired food. I broke open a steaming steak and kidney pudding and tasted the first mouthful, delicious! But before I could sample a second mouthful, I was violently sick, and began to shake from inside, my belly shook uncontrollably, I felt cold and my teeth chattered. Covered in several blankets I curled up on the wooden floor, feeling that I would never be worm again. But the gradually the shaking subsided and I began to calm, eventually falling asleep through sheer exhaustion. The next morning I was week and drained of energy, I had experienced real fear for the first time. I was convinced that I was going to be executed, and felt that I had been spared. For some time after, whenever a Jap vehicle or patrol entered the camp my heart sank, I thought they might still come looking for me, but finally the fear receded and I considered I was safe. (I believe that fear is relative. If one experiences the ultimate, looks death in the face yet somehow survives, then all subsequent fears dwindle into insignificance).
Several months passed before Dad and I met. Communications and movement between the two camp area was very restricted and it was early in June when one of Dads gunners changed places with me and I was able to join him at Fairy Point were fait decreed that we should share a room in the very house which had been the family’s home before they moved to Selerang. He was Quartermaster to a mixed group of gunners, sappers and sailors from the ‘Prince of Wales’, ‘Repulse’ and ‘Dauntless’ I wondered around looking for familiar faces and found one - Sgt. Richie who had been Dads back man for as long as I can remember. He had almost become one of the family and it was nice to meet someone I could talk to about the past. I knew no one else and Dad was the only officer in our group, so we shared together most of our spare time. We had so much to tell each other about events in the five years since we last met in Portsmouth. Dads position helped a little towards a slightly better diet, but he always had to be carful and he was not one for taking unessasery risks. At this time our physical condition had declined conciderably, he was a slim 13 ½ stones and I weighed 8 stones.
Working parties were transported daily to Singapore to help clear up the city. I was still on the sick list and not required to work, so I lazed around a lot and helped with the lighter camp duties. I reckoned that I could endure this if conditions got no worse, but of course they did! Both Dad and I had suffered several bouts of dysentery but had managed to avoid Malaria. At this time I began to suffer from “Happy feet”, which intensified at night so that I had little sleep, spending most of the night walking in the moonlight. I had seen men suffer terribly from this complaint and I was frightened because there was no treatment available. Dad was trying to buy marmite, our only source of vitamin B on the black market, but for some while having no success. The pains got progressively worse before Dad returned from Singapore one day with a full jar of marmite. After some days on the daily ration, the pains began to subside, though never completely leaving me.
In early September we were all given a printed parole form and ordered by the Japanese to sign and return it. This attempt to extract from us a promise mot to escape was prompted by the capture of four prisoners attempting to escape. At first all except four men refused to sign. The next day we were warned that if we didn’t sign all 18,000 POW’s would be removed into Selerang Barracks, which was designed to accommodate a regiment of 1,000 men. That same day the Japanese carried out the execution of the escapees, two of them being brought out of hospital to the execution ground. The whole episode was shocking. The shooting, carried out by Indian troops with an Indian commissioned officer in charge of the firing party, and actually taking a riffle himself, was horribly bungled, some of the four requiring shot after shot before they were dead. We again refused to sign and were duly ordered to Selerang Barracks. The barrack area was approximately 300 yds X 500 yds, the over - crowding and the scene on the barrack square defies description. The whole, one mass of men, trailers and makeshift bivouacs, and in the centre a vast space on all three floors, verandas and roofs of the barrack buildings were covered with troops. I became separated from my group and found myself with Gunners of the Coast Defence Regiment. I met George Morris who had been an apprentice with me and B.S.M. “Piggy” Mayo one of our apprentice instructors who later died.
The Japs installed machine gun posts at each corner, and guards and Indians patrolled the entire perimeter, and to accidentally step or fall on the path invited a clubbing or a shot. That first day there were four new cases of diphtheria and forty of dysentery.
Our senior officers tried to have the wording on the form changed but this was refused. The Japanese then threatened to bring in the 2,000 hospital patients who so far had been left out of this punishment. To make them move, many in critical and dying conditions would have been fatal. The day passed (4th September), there was one heavy shower which soaked many of us who were in the open, files were beginning to multiply at an alarming rate, to eat anything, one hand had to be waved continuously until each spoonful had been devoured. The latrines were rapidly filling up, as also were the urinal pits. There were never less than 100 men standing in a queue to use these trenches. That evening the Japanese issued an order; we would sign forthwith with the inevitable consequences if we refused. So on the morning of 5th, Colonel Holmes, Commanding British and Australian troops issued a special order detailing the circumstances under which we were compelled to sign. We signed for the sake of the men who were sick and dying and many others who would very shortly fall sick. The move back to our camp areas was accomplished by late evening, and I for one was very glad to be back in Fairey Point.