The Rising Sun On My Back
Dad used his influence to have me transferred to a temporary hospital situated in his barracks, and soon had me home in Selerang. My arm was strapped into a most uncomfortable contraction called an ‘aeroplane splint’, and I was driven to the hospital twice daily, for treatment. I enjoyed the ten days or so being fussed over by everyone but on Friday 30th January Mum was ordered to leave. On the following morning we went aboard the ‘Duchess of Bedford’ to see them off. I said my very unsatisfactory farewells and turned away while Dad said goodbye. The ‘Duchess’, together with the ‘Empress of Japan’ left Singapore in the heat of noon. Indian soldiers were still unloading ammunition from the ships until the moment they sailed. The two ships, carried some 900 European and Asiatic women and children, were attacked by Jap bombers, the ‘Duchess’ being damaged and putting into Sunatra for repairs. They both arrived safely in England, the ‘Duchess’ in late March.
When we returned to Selerang Dad invited two of his friends to stay with us. On the fifth of February Jap planes made a high level blanket bombing run and we sheltered in the sandbagged food store as the bombs whistled down. As the explosions crept nearer, the ground vibrated and I covered my ears to blot out the overpowering volume of noise. Then I thought the earth had erupted, an explosion right on top of us made the walls around us tremble, and the front of the house collapsed. The door of the store blew open hitting dad on the shoulder causing him to cry out in alarm. When the noise subsided and the dust had cleared we clambered out to survey the ruins. The front half of the house was completely demolished, and the contents of the rooms broken and buried beneath a pile of rubble. Dad was stunned, I tried to imagine his feelings - everything of value lost, half the family in an unprotected ship vulnerable to attack from the air and seas, and a useless wounded son on his hands who now had to go looking for a hospital to take him. He must have felt wretched.
I presented myself at a converted hospital in Selerang Barracks and as walking wounded I was shown to a bed on the top floor. On the 10th February the hospital was blanket bombed several times. It was scandalous that the barrack buildings had been constructed of inferior materials. Several received direct hits, the bombs going through the two floors and exploding in the ground. Dozens of wounded were killed and wounded again, and the next day (my birthday) it was decided to evacuate the school on the Bukit Tinah Road. By the 12th the fighting was nearer there was no defence against enemy planes that bombed and strafed at will. Everything that could burn was on fire and a pall of black smoke from nearby oil storage tanks darkened the sky. The sound of small arms and grenades was uncomfortably close, when in the late afternoon, a young infantry officer covered in black soot and oil, with grenades hanging from his webbing, burst through the door. There was a moment of stunned silence, then “what the hell are you doing here” , he shouted in shocked disbelief, “the Japs are half a mile up the road, for Gods sake get out, and fast”. We needed no prompting, there was a mad scramble to gather our belongings and head for the ambulances only to find there were no drivers, the Indian drivers had deserted. Patients who could drive took to the wheels of the three vehicles and we careered down the Bukit Tinah Road to Singapore Town. We passed our infantry who were dug in on both sides of the road and soon we came under machine gun fire from the air. We were dive bombed just outside of Singapore Town, but kept going to reach the Town unscathed.
We were directed to another school at the rear of the Cathay Building but when the building began to receive direct hits from the mortars, We were once again evacuated this time to the Raffles Theatre, which had been converted into a hospital. Once again my bed was on the verandah, overlooking a square where lines of assorted guns were sending up a continuous barrage. The noise from this incessant firing, together with the noise of exploding enemy bombs and shells was ear-splitting. Shrapnel struck my bed and the railings, and the wall behind was pock marked by mortar bomb fragments. On the evening of the 13th we were evacuated yet again to an infants school. From the upper floor I could see that Singapore was a mass of burning houses, buildings and warehouses. Burning oil flowed down the banks into the waters of a small waterway and fanned by a breeze drifted through the city burning all in its path. Chinese boatmen and their terrified families fought to save their pathetic sampan homes and many were burnt to death.
Jap planes took advantage of the glare to pinpoint targets with well aimed bombs. Doctors and nurses, Australian and British, were fearless. Time after time they defied death to dash out under fire from the shells and mortar bombs, to rescue wounded soldiers and civilians alike. I had met one of these angels in white when we sailed from Liverpool. We were lining the ships rail “wolf whistling” the fifty nursing sisters of the QAIMS who were coming aboard, when Ernie Lee dared me to go down and help one of them who was having a terrible struggle to make her way up the gangplank with her baggage. To a tremendous chorus of boos, whistles and cat calls, I struggled past several nurses on the gangplank and relieved her of the heaviest of her bags. Her round hat had fallen back on her head to reveal a mass of tumbling black curls and face scarlet from the effects of her exertions. I helped her to find her quarters on the boat deck and she thanked me many times. I don’t know who was more embarrassed. On the day we crossed the equator from north to south, Ernie Lee and I were taking part in the “Crossing the Line” Ceremony. We had been shaved ducked and were standing beneath the boat deck, when a voice said “hello” we looked up to see the tousled haired nurse with two friends changed into their white uniforms, now that we had reached tropical waters. We chatted for a while and knowing that our respective decks were out of bounds to each other we arranged to sneak up the forward ladder and meet them under cover of the boat stations. That night set the pattern for many others. Whenever it was possible we met, they brought a bottle and we shared the cost because we could only obtain beer from the bar. “Paddy” Murphy and I became very close and when we said goodbye six weeks later we exchanged addresses and hoped that somehow we would meet again in Singapore. Well, it happened just as we wished, but in circumstances we had not really anticipated. When I returned to Singapore to the Raffles Theatre, Paddy was working there at this time, I required little attention, my dressings were changed twice daily and on only two occasions did she perform this task. I could feel in her every touch much more than the usual tenderness and her voice, usually so happy and full of fun, was quieter. I could sense the underlying feelings of emotion when she spoke to me, no need for me to describe my feelings.
The next day when I was evacuated to the infants school, I had to leave without seeing her, and knowing what might lie ahead of us, my mind was filled with terrible dread. As it transpired, the sisters were given little chance of survival. Their evacuation was left right to the end, it would have been more sensible to have let them work on and take their chances as internees. Their ship set sail into waters which were alive with enemy naval vessels under skies completely dominated by their planes. The ship was sunk in the Banka Straits, several were killed by machine gun fire including the matron, but most survived and landed on Muntock Beach where they surrendered to the Japs. Paddy was one of those killed when they were ordered to walk into the sea, and when waist deep, still facing out to sea, they were gunned down. Only one sister and a soldier survived the massacre.
Rumours of our surrender persisted and the fifteenth dawned ominously quiet. Firing was sporadic and planes flew over without strafing or bombing. It was obvious to all that we had “chucked it in!” It was unbelievable! How could this vital impregnable fortress be allowed to fall to those strutting black bearded little bastards. What I did not know then was that we had already been left for dead. My overwhelming feeling was of despair and I despised the people who led us to this ignominious end and then blamed us, the ordinary “squaddie” for not fighting well enough to save their faces.