Life as a Japanese Prisoner of War (POW)
The Japs we met face to face were a funny lot chattering away; they had us all lined up all they were taking was gold rings and wristwatches of the lads.
Orders were received for all Army personnel to assemble at Changi Army Barracks. Changi POW Camp was opened after Singapore's fall, it was the main camp for the captured allied forces. Changi was one of the better prisoner-of-war camps, particularly those on the Burma–Thailand railway. Messing was left to the cooks with rations supplied by the Japanese. We kept our own discipline and eventually tents were given to us for shelter from the sun and rain. There were no Japanese in the camp for quite a while, then they started moving prisoners down into Singapore City to start clearing up. Any builders or joiners were the first to go.
We were marched into the docks area and set to work loading and unloading ships at Keppel harbour. A group was formed under our Officer, Major Flowers and we were mostly loading goods to go to Japan. The ‘Tatouta’ was marked as a Red Cross ship taking Japanese personnel back to Japan. Some Red Cross goods were left behind after the ships left and one which was welcome and actually very useful protection from the sun, then and in later years, was a Trilby hat I managed to acquire for myself.
This work was pretty arduous especially in the hot climate. A lot of Australian POWs worked in the docks and they were experts at pilfering. The warehouses were full of all kinds of grub and even tobacco leaf, which we rolled and smoked. The Japanese guards eventually realised what was going on and we were subject to ‘snap’ searches during our shift and when returning back to our billets which were now a disused warehouse, a Godown. It was also at this stage we were ‘roll called’ sometimes two or three times a day.
Numerous incidents happened while we were captive at the docks;
One I remember especially is, one day while in the hold of a Japanese ship unloading Saki, cases and cases of it, a Guard came down into the hold which was not unusual, he found a case that had become damaged and opened it. Not only was he having a drink but he was also passing the bottle round! By the end of the shift quite a few of the lads had accepted a drink and were a bit unfit to work. We managed to get the ones under the influence back to the billet but we did have to hold one or two of them up.
By now our dress was beginning to get a bit shabby, our Major refused to allow lads out of camp unless tidy. The Japanese had been collecting the ‘spoils of war’, our kitbags and spare clothing, this was bought into camp and shared out between us where needed.
Life was monotonous, but some of the lads got a concert party together and put on all kinds of shows, even getting dressed up as women which fooled some of the Guards as they had to backstage to investigate.
The first casualty was a soldier out of ‘Norfold’. He was caught out of bounds trying to steal from one of the warehouses and he was shot instantly.
One ship that came into Singapore during our time there was the ‘Tuta Maru’. It was being used as a hospital ship taking the Japanese back to Japan.
Next came a bit of a shock, we were asked to sign a form promising not to try to escape as this was against War rules! We refused to sign any agreement. So on the 2nd September 1942 the action taken at the Changi Camp to ensure we complied was to collect all the POWs, some 15,000, and to parade us on to the square in the Selerang Barracks, which was originally intended for a maximum of 1,200 men. Where they, the Japanese Guards, had machine guns placed at each corner. Being held like this conditions deteriorated rapidly. There was no shelter, only one water supply, no food and no sanitation.
The senior officer in charge was an Australian and eventually, after several days, he gave the order for us to sign so as to relieve the conditions under which the Allied Troops were now suffering. Now we knew what our captors were capable of and what we could expect in the future. Evidently it turned out that four men had tried to escape but were recaptured after the attempt failed. In an effort to stop further attempts, the Japanese required all POWs to sign a pledge of non-escape.
Our general health was beginning to deteriorate now. The medical staff were unable to administer anything. The worst affliction was scrotum dermatitis. The disease cut the working parties in number which really got the Japanese upset, many of us being forced to go out to work under great duress. After two or three weeks this began to clear after taking Red Palm Oil which one of our officers was able to purchase by
being allowed out of Camp, under escort, in the town. Red palm oil is rich in vitamins and antioxidants and is a popular dietary supplement and cooking oil. Though it is also used in the manufacture of cosmetics, lubricants and ink.
We worked as slave labour on the docks at Keppel Harbour for many months until our next move in November which was to the Singapore railway station, more roll calls and then we were loaded into metal trucks which filled with 20 to 30 men per truck. We speculated where we were going next?
Upcountry promising better conditions?
The doors on the trucks were sealed shut during transit and the heat making the conditions terrible. We stopped once a day for natures needs and were given a bowl of rice with a watery vegetable soup made by the Guards. Our journey was 600 miles taking nearly a week.