Notes from an Ex-Japanese Prisoner of War
Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment
Frederick Ernest Wiles
Photo taken in American uniform after sea rescue
The Battalion left Liverpool in late October, 1941, and travelled across the Atlantic to Halifax, where the Division changed from a British to an American convoy. Travelling from Halifax to Singapore there were three main stops, the first at Trinidad and then Cape Town where four days' shore leave was spent, and from there on to Bombay. At this station the first glimpse of the tropics was seen by most of the boys; we arrived there at the beginning of the New Year (1942), spending 23 days in India, Then the last move came to Singapore.
We arrived to find the island ready for evacuation.. Some of the Battalion proceeded straight into the front-line. The Japs were not on the island on arrival, only tkose Jap civilians who had always been there, or had infiltrated for the purpose.
None of the Battalion knew the island or the conditions, but we had already learnt that the situation was critical. At this stage the Battalion was split, Companies being some distance from each other. The Japs arrived on the west coast where there was least opposition. Then the struggle started and every man did his duty for country and for his Battalion.
The Battalion played a great part in the defence of the island, losing a number of officers and other ranks. On the 15th February. 1942, an order was circulated to the effect that the island had capitulated. This came as a complete surprise to the Battalion, who were holding their ground well, but apparently the enemy had broken through, gaining control of the city and supplies, also cutting the water supply. This was not known at the time by the Battalion, who were heart-broken at having to surrender after having put up such a gallant fight.
We remained in our positions for about two days awaiting orders, and were then marched to the north-east corner of the .island still at Battalion strength. Soon after this we were split up, some being put to work on demolition, others to various jobs about the island, one of the jobs being to build a memorial, on the highest point of the island, to the British and Japanese who had lost their lives. When the work was completed our trials began. We were moved to Thailand (Siam). Here we were put to work reconstructing a railroad from north of Bangkok to Moulrnein. The journey there was very hard, transport being by cattle-waggon - 33 men to a waggon with one meal per day and occasionally two. The last ninety miles were made on foot and forty miles of this through virgin jungle. Our men were beginning to fall out by the wayside until they could regain enough energy to struggle on. We spent the nights just where we halted, no camps, of course, being available.
On arrival at our. destination the first job allotted was to clear a space for a camp, which we then built out of timber, cut from the jungle. After the camp bad been completed, work on the railroad commenced in earnest, first clearing timber, the necessary bankings and cuttings, etc. Work was hard but the weather was good until the monsoons started, our first experience of a monsoon. It rained continually, and for five months we were knee-deep in mud, but worked on. Our clothes had already been worn beyond repair, our dress by now being the proverbial loin cloth. The food, or lack of it, was by now one of our greatest hardships, and consisted of rice, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and, occasionally, some sugar at breakfast. Mid-day meal was often rice only (one pint) in a steamed form. Tea - vegetable stew, which sometimes contained meat, jungle stew to the boys, who maintained their morale all through. The meat ration at our camp was one pig every third day for approximately l000 men.
The general treatment from the Japs appeared to be similar to that given in their own army, there being no discipline as we know it. Punishment was meted out on the spot according to the "so-called crime." For a minor offence the usual punishment was a slap on the face, for a more serious offence, such as slacking, etc., the punishment was being stood out in the sun for a few hours, varied according to the crime. Punishment for serious offences, such as being caught slacking twice in one day was a severe beating, which sometimes resulted in death, but happily none of our Battalion suffered this punishment. These punishments were given on the spot by the guards and, of course, varied according to their personal feelings.
The sick rate was something like 75 per cent., caused through malaria, cholera, beri-beri, typhus, and an epidemic of bubonic plague caused by the rats. The worst of the sick were sent to hospitals which were no better than other camps. They were made from bamboo with thatched roofs. Medical supplies were literally nil, but our own medical officers played an outstanding part and did their very best for the men. Amputations, which were necessary at times through tropical ulcers, had to be done with very crude makeshift instruments.
Amusements were arranged by the men themselves, concerts and sing-songs. The Japs were very perturbed by the fact that the men would continue to sing at all times, they could not understand us and, in fact, tried to suppress us, without result. Material for dresses were obtained from mosquito nets which were procured from time to time for this purpose. Some of the lads made a really fine job of make up, those dressed as ladies being especially pleasing and amusing. Football was played when possible, but, of course, was impossible during the monsoon period. Fishing was a constant form of pleasure and very useful, too, helping to supplement our rations. The river, which was also our means of water supply, held an abundant supply of fish and appeared not to have been fished in previously. During the fine weather a day off was given and a few fish were persuaded to leave the river on these days, with the aid of a little dynamite which we were able to obtain owing to the nature of our work. Also we were fortunate in keeping the river near us, as the railway which we were building followed the course of the river.
Bridge building was rather crude. A block was laid of cement and then huge trees just stood on the concrete base; the timber was green, just as we cut it from the jungle. Elephants were employed to haul the timber, but some of the larger trees they refused to mow, in which case enough men were put on to do the job.
After being at this camp from March until the end of May we made it quite comfortable. Then news came that the fittest men were to go.to Japan. About three thousand men were selected, including myself. We proceeded to Singapore, where we awaited transport. The camp here was the same one that we had previously occupied before going to Thailand. But the food here was the worst we had ever had, consisting of rice, tapioca, nuts, and a little sugar. We were beginning to get fed up now, waiting for the ships which were to take us to Japan. At last they came and about 1,300 were taken on our ship the Rakuyo Maru. We were packed tightly in the holds. Those who were taken ill during the process were allowed on deck and were passed up from man to man.
We spent five days on this hell-ship, receiving one meal a day, sometimes two. The meals were just rice and a portion of sugar, the second meal, if and when we received it was half a pint of vegetable stew. Our drinking ration was one pint of water a man, which was very readily drunk as the rice appeared to be cooked with salt water.
It was on the morning of the 12th September, 1944, that our break came. Our escort, consisting of one large cruiser and eight destroyers, was attacked by submarines. First the cruiser went off like a huge firework and- was soon followed by several of the other ships. Our ship received two torpedoes, which luckily were just, in front of the part-which we were occupying.
All our men were very calm and when we had managed to get on deck we found the Japs had gone and taken all the lifeboats with them. There was no time to lose as the ship was sinking fast; so we went over the sides with anything that would float and had a feeling of being free for the first time for nearly three years.
The whole scene was marvellous. Several oil tankers and cargo ships burning fiercely,' much to our delight. One destroyer which was left picked up the Jap survivors, leaving us to our fate. The sea at this time was very calm which helped to cheer us, although we were in a rather sorry slate, being covered with oil which covered the sea for some distance round. At night the sea began to get rough and the current split us into small groups and by morning we were some miles apart. Hunger and thirst were now beginning to have effect, the latter being the worst. Our numbers from now on gradually deteriorated.
The fifth day arrived and still no sign of help. We would have even welcomed the sight of a Jap ship at this stage. The party that I was in, which originally numbered ten when we left the ship, was now down to three, consisting of two Australians and myself. About noon one of the Australians passed away, leaving the two of us. We could just see another small party in the distance and were wondering who would survive when we thought that we heard the sound of an engine. It was rather difficult to see as out eyes were full of oil, then out of the blue appeared a ship. Our hearts lifted, and as it drew nearer we could see that it was a submarine, and American at that.
Survivors rescued from the sea
We were soon hoisted aboard, where we received the very best attention. How good the food was. The Americans could not do enough for us and gave us everything except the submarine.
We spent five days on board and finally landed at Sailar. in the Pacific. We did not need much treatment, freedom was itself a tonic.
The American Red Cross fitted us out with all that was necessary. The tour home was marvellous, via Honolulu, San Francisco, and thence by rail to New York, from there to good old England which ve had almost given up hope of ever seeing again.
F. E. W.
[Note,—F. E. W. last saw Lieut.-Col. D. Rhys Thomas in Thailand in June last, where he was in command of a British Convalescent Camp for prisoners of war. He was well and doing splendid work.—ed.]
Supplied by Robinia (Binnie) Briffault (Nee Wiles)