The Rising Sun On My Back
“Between the acting of a fearful thing and the first notion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream”……… Shakespeare
Final preparations were made and a week later, a week of intense security during which no one could leave barracks, we boarded trucks for the few miles to the station. We “entrained” for Liverpool, “detrained” at the station “embarked” at the docks, the entire operation proceeding with startling smoothness Our “troopship”, the 27,000 ton Dominion Monarch was a peace time luxury cruise liner to Australia - She must have winced at the instruction of one thousand troops in hob -nailed boots. There was no one to see us off and no band when, shrouded in northwards to pass out of sight of land - the 137th were off to war. We rendezvoused early next morning and late afternoon our convoy comprised thirty ships of all shapes and sizes. For three days the weather and the sea were very unfriendly. I was soon violently sick. I laid down to die and for three days was prostrated on the cabin floor. But death did not come, instead the sun began to shine and the sea returned, food which became steadily worse in direct ratio to the weather as it grew steadily warmer.
Daytime was when the army seemed to enjoy itself most. It organised us into long sessions of physical training and deck sports; we were lectured on the horrors of tropical diseases and the dangers of venereal disease. We were lined up at least twice a day to sweep the spotlessly clean decks. And also the days passed, days which in spite of the army’s attempts to keep us occupied, nevertheless were enjoyable and managed to be exciting. We were still uncertain of our destination. I enjoyed my free time, playing cards reading and at night listening to the Regimental Dance Band which played on into the early hours of the morning.
Our first port of call was Sierre Leone on the West Coast of Africa where we anchored in the harbour - no shore leave. We enjoyed watching the native “bum boats” and bartering for their wares. I marvelled at the way one black lad was diving from his small canoe and retrieving silver foil. He stood balancing precariously in the canoe and shaking a fist skywards shouted “You no bloody white men you black man” and a roar of laughter went up from the troops lining the ship rail.
We sailed on through calm seas and clear blue skies, warm balmy nights with moonlight so bright one could read by it. We steamed into Cape Town into a different world, such glorious colours of tropical shrubs and trees, and Table Mountain towering over the town like a huge ant - hill with the top sliced of flat. The ship was a buzz of excitement - we were told that shore leave would be allowed and we were told for five days. At the harbour gates we were met by townsfolk who invited us to their homes. Those who accepted were driven away in large American cars, Studebakers, Lincoln Zephyrs and the like, but I preferred to find my own entertainment in town.
I walked in to town with Johnny Walsh and after several drinks we went our separate ways. I boarded a bus to Rondebosch Fountain, mainly because I liked the name, but I soon realised there was nothing there and I waited at a bus stop to return to Cape Town. A car pulled up and the young lady behind the wheel asked if I would like a lift. Of course I accepted and climbed into the rear seat, the front passenger seat being occupied by her two year old daughter. Her face was scarlet as she said “Please don’t think that I make a habit of this”, and to save her further embarrassment I remarked that most of my friends had been adopted by people of the town and I understood the patriotic motive behind her offer. Her name was Irene and I was attracted to her and by her quaint Afrikaans accent. I accepted readily when she stopped the car and asked if she could take me home and after a short drive we entered the driveway of a white painted bungalow with red tiled roof and a garden full of bouranvillas, hibiscus and many other glorious flowers and shrubs. That evening she introduced me to her parents who spoke a little English and were somewhat aloof, but nevertheless seemed to accept me. Her husband was a Captain in the South African Army serving in North Africa and it was some months since she received mail from him. For four days we were constant companions and did not return to ship at night. I knew I would be in trouble when I returned but I knew also that whatever punishment I received could not overshadow those few days. In that time I was regally entertained and thoroughly spoilt, and the little girl liked me immediately, which I was assured was most unusual. Of course this paradise had to end, we all wished I could stay and I was tempted when Irene suggested I jump ship - but it was impossible. Finally that awful moment arrived when I had to leave, we were all sad tearful, I promised to write and one day to return, and with regret and sad heart, with the certain knowledge that we would never meet again, I said goodbye. With heavy tread I turned my back on these lovely people who had shared with me one of the happiest moments of my war.
Off the East Coast of Africa the convoy divided, the main body heading North West to the Middle East and the Dominion Monarch together with the cargo ship carrying our equipment and stores, and destroyer escort turned North East towards our destination which we now knew to be Singapore.
We stayed on day in Colombo where we had a few hours ashore. Many of the streets were full of crippled beggars who accosted me with regularity and great persistence. I was pleased to return to ship.
I was impatient now for our journey to end. We knew our destination and I was excited with anticipation at the thought of reunion after six years with Mum, Dad, Margaret and Colin, they of course had no idea that I was soon to join them in Singapore.
We stood, young and full of hope leaning over the deck rail completely unaware of what lay ahead of us as we steamed into Singapore’s Keppel Harbour on the afternoon of November 29th 1941. We had a little time to take in the scene as very quickly we disembarked and filed off the ship in one long khaki column. Filed down towards wharves seething with native labourers who managed with a minimum of shouting and gesticulating, to do a minimum of labour; and in that heat who could blame them.