Sketch by Jack Chalker


On 9th October and went aboard a similar ship to that which had brought us from Java, but didn’t sail until the next day. Conditions on board were exactly the same and we were glad to sight land on Monday 12th October, and anchor in the mouth of a river. Next morning we moved slowly up the river and arrived at Kuching near mid-day.

It wasn’t long before we disembarked and started to march to our camp which was about three miles from the town. We had just started on the way when it started to rain, and it simply poured down just as it does in the Tropics. I remember I was very thirsty, and I was drinking the water as it ran off my hat. We were not allowed to shelter and were soaked by the time we reached camp. We marched in through the gates and just dived into the nearest hut.

We were surprised to see part of the camp occupied by Europeans who had been in the Government service or were Missionaries etc. While another part was occupied by their wives and Nuns, and it was here that the author of ‘Three Came Home’ lived.

Our first job, that was Wilf, Walt and myself, was to open a couple of tins of food which we had purchased in Singapore. Walt had a spirit stove for solid fuel, and we soon warmed up a tin of tomatoes. At the back of our hut was a civilian camp, and those people were soon at the wire to get all the news as to where we had come from etc. One of these men was an Englishman who had married a Diak, which is a native woman. He had his son in the camp with him, and very soon the little chap, about 8 years old, was through the wire with a tin of hot tea which the three of us shared and really enjoyed.

Early in the evening, when the rain stopped, we were all summoned to an open space near the Jap offices within the camp, to hear a speech from the Camp Commandant. This important figure duly mounted a platform. He was about 5ft tall, 40 odd inches round the waist, with a sword nearly touching the ground, and named Major Suga. He had spent some years in America and spoke faltering English. He commenced by telling us that we were to have two days holiday to put our camp in order, and explained that the two days would be ‘today and tomorrow’, it being then about 7pm. This was later turned into a standing joke in the camp and quoted as ‘three days holiday, yesterday, today & tomorrow. Major Suga also told us we would have to work hard, grow food for ourselves, and of course told us what would happen if we tried to escape, but it is almost impossible to escape from Borneo.

On 15th October, a Thursday, we started work in Kuching. I don’t remember the exact job on the first day, but I think it was to the shipyard.

The Japs had cleared a place on the banks of the river where they intended to build small wooden ships. It was our job to level the ground behind, where they later put huts to hold timber for the ship building. The method for levelling was for about one third of the men to get a Chunkel each, that is a tool similar to a mattock but having a blade about six inches wide. The other would get a basket each, or if they happened to be large baskets were permitted to be two men to a basket. These were wicker baskets shaped like a scoop with a handle on each side and varied in size, but usually holding about a bucket full of earth. Two men would then carry the earth from the man with the Chunkel who would fill the basket as he dug. If the men had to carry the earth a long way the proportion of men to each Chunkel was increased so that the man with the Chunkel was kept digging. If he was being overworked he would only half fill the basket and get away with it that way. Then the carriers would be pleased, but they had to be on their guard because if the Japs caught them with a basket half full they were in for it. The punishment would be to stand for long periods holding a full basket at arm’s length, and then perhaps get a few kicks at the end. However once the days’ work got underway the guards would relax for periods , and we loved to dodge the column, doing as little as possible even though it would mean a beating if caught.

Japanese Dollar

I recorded in my diary that the first pay was received in the week ending 14th November 1942, I received 55 cents as an N.C.O. while other ranks received 45 cents. When we were released we were paid 1s 2d, for each Jap dollar we had, so my first amounted to 8d.

My second pay was on 7th December 1942 and amounted to 90 cents (other ranks 75 cents) For 15 days work, this was 10 ½d. I should perhaps explain in fairness to the Japs that about 5 cents was kept back from each man to buy little luxuries such as fruit for those who were sick. This of course was done by our own people. The day after our second pay was a holiday to celebrate the Jap entry into the war, and although we were in no mood to celebrate we were pleased of the holiday.

Our day started at 6am with the bugle call, shortly after which most chaps made for the odd taps scattered about the camp to get a wash. Those detailed for food carrying would proceed to the cook house and, providing that the fires had burnt well during the night, breakfast would be dished out about 6.20 am. This would take some time and although it did not take long to eat breakfast, we didn’t have much time to spare until the bugle would sound again at 7am for the working party to get on parade. There would be considerable activity on the ‘Square’ counting the whole party, and getting deputies out for men who had been taken ill during the night, until the required number were all assembled. At about 7.15am a party of Jap guards would come in, we would then have to number in the Japanese language, and the guard commander would proceed to calculate the total number in the party by scratching on the ground. It might be any time between 7.30 & 8 am before he would be satisfied that his calculations were correct and then we would march off to the main road about a mile away where lorries were usually waiting to take us to work at the docks which were between three and five miles away. It was usual to get to work between 8.30 & 9am. About 10.30 we had a break of about ten minutes for a cup of ‘tea’ (no milk or sugar and brewed in a 5 gal oil drum which had been cleaned). Dinner would be 12 to 1pm, another break for ‘tea’ in the afternoon, finishing work at 5pm. Sometimes the Lorries would be waiting to take us back, but it often happened that we would have to sit and wait for them to come and it was usual to get back to camp between 6 & 7 pm. Although we would be starving hungry, the first thing most of the chaps would do was to dash for a shower before having food. We would then have tea or supper, call it what you like, it was the third and last meal of the day. This meal would be the usual pint if rice and stew which just managed to ease the pangs of hunger.

If the working parties had been to the docks, and had managed to smuggle rice into camp, there would be small fires on in various places during the evening cooking this extra, or those individuals who had brought tapioca roots from the gardening parties, or sweet potatoes or their leaves would be boiling their ‘stoj’, as we called it.

Many people in the camp had cultivated small pieces of waste ground, thus improving the appearance of the camp, and more important, as a source of additional food. Here they would mostly grow sweet potatoes because they yield three crops in the year, and their leaves are cut off frequently and boiled into a stew. I had a very nice plot which provided the three of us with many a good meal.

Even tins and drums for cooking our evening extras were very difficult to come by, but I was out on a working party one day at the docks when I saw a very suitable drum on the footplate of a small steam crane. I kept my eye on it all day scheming as to how I could pinch it. Once I took it and put it near the wall, but the native crane driver missed it, and after a little search found it again. However I was far from beaten, and when, late in the afternoon, the rain came. I saw another opportunity open to me. I had my gas cape on as I walked down the docks, and as I passed the crane whipped the drum under the cape. I walked on to the end where our food drums were and put my small drum inside. My drum had contained about 14 lbs of paint, and still had traces of it on the inside. The Japs would not let us take tins into camp, so I scraped up some grains of rice from the floor and sprinkled them inside my drum making it appear as if it had come out from the camp with our dinner rations. When we returned to camp in the evening, I walked boldly in carrying the real ration drum, a 5 gal oil drum cleaned out, with my small drum inside, and we used that for ages, right until the end.

A good example of the primitive methods of the Japs was the way tree trunks were landed at the ship building yard. These trunks, which were about 60 feet long and 2 feet thick had been floated down the river and were laid out on the river bank. A number of our chaps who could swim would wade into the mud with only their loin cloths on and secure a rope around

the trunk of the tree. Twenty to thirty men on the river bank would then haul at the trees, the men in the mud levering it with poles, until perhaps half an hour afterwards it was finally on the bank. The men who had gone in the mud might possibly get a little extra ration of rice, that which the Jap guards would have over from their dinner.

Then again when we first went to the aerodrome, which is about 7 miles from Kuching, there was a small hill about half a mile from the runway which the Japs felt was in the way. We were sent to dig this away and throw the earth into a little valley. There was no question of a Surveyor marking where the work was to commence, but a Jap just walked up the hill, took a look at the runway, and said ‘start here’. The hill proved too big to be moved by the chunkel and basket method and the work was later abandoned, but while we were there the planes were daily passing over our heads in order to land, and as each one would go in someone would say ‘ go on crash you bugger’. This was the wish of everyone of course and one day we were rewarded because we had the pleasure of seeing one plane over-run the runway and turn over. On another occasion a year or so later we were actually on the edge of the runway on our way back from work when a very big plane came in to land. Again we all voiced our wishes, and in trying to swing from the runway to the parking area, it must have been going too fast because it crashed into a hill.

One job I liked was sailing up and down the river on a launch transporting planks from a saw mill to the docks. About four of us would haul the planks onto the cabin of the launch and then get a good rest while we sailed up the river. In the early part of our stay in Kuching I was sent, on a number of occasions, in charge of a grave digging party to Kuching Cemetery, and the Roman Catholic Cemetery. Although this was not a job that anyone would like, it had to be done. There would be one Jap guard with the party and, with the exception of the very bad guards, there was always a good chance of getting something extra by being allowed to buy fruit etc. At the Roman Catholic Cemetery, which adjoined the Church and Manse, we were always well treated by the Priest, who I think was an Austrian. He would give the Jap something nice to eat, or get around him in some other way, and then the guard would allow him to give us little extras to eat which to us was quite a feast. I always remember how I enjoyed the sweet iced coffee. This would probably not be appreciated in this country, but after working in the tropical heat it certainly did taste wonderful.

It was while on one of these grave digging parties in Kuching we were told that another grave would have to be dug the following day for a person who had died in Kuching Jail. Nothing much was known as to who was in the jail except that some had been sent down from Sandakan in north Borneo having done nothing wrong. On the following day the grave was dug by the appointed time but the body had not arrived from the jail as expected. It was early afternoon when the coffin arrived in the jail van, but to our surprise Gestapo and high ranking Officers accompanied it. We had some difficulty in getting the coffin out of the van and then carried it to the grave on poles. When the poles were removed to lower the coffin and the bugler was sounding the Last Post, I noticed blood on the pole which I was holding. I thought this strange because the man was supposed to have died the day before, but it was not until we returned to the camp that we realised what had happened. Walter had been out with the wood cutting party when a convoy which included the prison van with Gestapo etc. passed near. One of the Officers ordered the guards to take our men back to camp immediately, and this was done, but not before they had learned from some natives that there had been a white man and some Malays in the prison van. It did not need much reasoning after that to realise that we had buried a man who had only been murdered a short while before. Although every other grave was marked with a cross bearing the name of the man, the Japs refused to disclose the identity of this person, but it was learned later that he was an Australian Officer who had been concerned in the operation of a wireless set at Sandakan Camp, which the Japs had discovered.

Day after day we went out on working parties, perhaps working for a fortnight without a day off because the motto of the Japs was ‘no work, no food’. They wouldn’t allow for those men who were ill, they were always wanting more men out to work, so those who were lucky enough to keep fit had to keep turning out. I will say that in my opinion work was a good thing for us, and had we not had to work more would have died, but we had to work too hard for too long a day. Many, who dodged working parties by pretending to be ill, or exaggeration of illness, would just spend the day rolled in their blanket sleeping, and it was possible to actually see them gradually fade away. Even when we did get a day off from working parties it was probable that you would have to turn out on a camp working party inside the wire or just outside. Even men with small ulcers had to work, usually cultivating the land to plant Tapioca.

When we worked at the aerodrome we had to march about two miles to meet the train, the only stretch of railway in Sarawak runs from Kuching to the aerodrome, about seven miles. At this time there was no coal for the engines and sawn up rubber trees were being used in its place. When the engine started to move a constant shower of sparks would come from the funnel, and since we were in open trucks behind the engine many had nasty burns. On those journeys we called for all the curses imaginable to be cast on the Japs.

At ‘San Mile’, that is three mile, we worked on a straight piece of road, trenching and cutting trees to make a secret landing strip for aircraft. Often we woke up because it was probably spotted by aerial photographs and our bombers gave it a proper doing later on and made sure nothing would land there.

On all of these jobs we managed to contact the natives secretly to sell them various things and buy fruit. At ‘San Mile’ one of the natives was friendly with Sgt Ivor Kent from Swansea who by some means got in touch with the native again after returning home. Ivor Kent gave me his address when I met him in Swansea and I also wrote several letters and received Xmas cards from the native who was then a Sergeant in the Sarawak Native Police.

Composed at Kuching

Life in the camp continued uneventfully until about the beginning of 1945. There had been deaths every week from the time we were taken prisoners, but things then started to get worse and it became a daily happening. A new cemetery was opened near the camp and a squad of about six who did little less but dig graves. As far as I remember there were between 300 and 400 buried in this cemetery during 1945, the highest number in one day being 15. The Japs would, or could not provide enough wood to make individual coffins for the men, so five coffins were made, each having a hinged bottom. The dead body was rolled in a blanket and after being lowered into the grave a catch on the side was released and the coffin withdrawn for further use. The Last Post etc. was always sounded at the graveside, and the coffin covered with a flag.

It was about March 1945 that I was confined to camp with a small ulcer on my foot, and transferred from the hut in which I had spent 2½ years, to another set aside as a sick bay. Tropical ulcers are deadly things which start maybe as a pimple, or a small cut and gradually get bigger until they may be as big as a teacup, and making a hole right into the leg. Mine was about the size of a two shilling piece when I finished going out on working parties. Although there was very little treatment, one reason for being sent to the sick bay was to give the foot with the ulcer rest, and prevent further infection from contact with the earth etc. and the ulcer was progressing quite well, although it was a slow thing. Then one morning at the beginning of May my left leg became very swollen above the knee particularly, and very tender to touch, and by mid-day it was agony for me to stand or attempt to walk. We had two doctors who were allowed to come into the camp, one Col. King who was about 60 and was said to have spent most of his life as a Doctor in Africa. Everyone said he was a good ‘Wag’ Doctor (our name for the natives) and that he should have stayed with the natives. The other Capt. Bailey who was said to be only a medical student and equally as useless, though it must be remembered that they had very little drugs. One point in their favour was that they did continually complain to Yamamato the Jap camp Doctor, but with little effect. They were both very puzzled over my leg and from their remarks I gathered that they couldn’t understand it.

I was put on a salt free diet, and since salt was the only thing which did flavour the rice, it was pretty grim without it. This was the diet for those suffering from Nephritis, and I therefore thought that I had this complaint. For about a month I was in terrible pain when standing, and this was only to go to the lavatory, which was a covered drum outside the hut. We still had a few odd things left which we were able to sell, and Wilf and Walter did all this and also brought me little extra bits of food which really helped so much.

Things were getting tight for the Japs about this time and of course the first to feel it were the P.O.W.’s by having the rations cut. Since I was on a salt free diet, which also meant that all liquids were cut out except for one cup of tea at night, my diet was as follows:-

      Breakfast – One tapioca cake (size of a Welshcake)

      Dinner - ½pint cooked rice

      Tea – ½ pint cooked rice & about ¼ pint mashed tapioca

It can therefore be seen that it was only the little extras that kept us alive. Gradually my leg got better until I was able to stand without much pain, and then walk a little, but later on Wlif had ulcers develop on his ankle, and Walter on his leg so that by August we were all in the Sick Bay. However we managed to get little extras a couple of times each week, thanks on many occasions to Jack Snell who was a Sergeant in charge of vegetable cleaners and a friend of ours. In August I was picked out to go to the Hospital Camp, which was the other side of the road from our camp. This was the first time that Walt, Wilf and I had been separated, and it was not a welcome parting because few, if any, returned from the Hospital Camp, it being considered a one way journey, ending in the Cemetery.

I had another friend who was a ward orderly in the Hospital which was just another hut which housed the worst cases, and he often brought me little extras which again helped me carry on until the day of release. His name was Bob Grigg who came from just outside Reading. One thing which I had looked after and had not sold was my mosquito net, and I was very glad of it when in the hospital because the mosquitoes were very bad there, but few nights passed without being awakened by the orderlies carrying out the body of someone who had died. Luckily the Japs packed in before my turn came around, but I shudder to think how near I was to having a part of Borneo all to myself. I was still in the Hospital when our planes were dropping leaflets and when we got the news over the camp radio that the Japs had capitulated, but we were warned to say nothing to the Japs, not to make it obvious that we knew, but the chaps still in the camp across the road couldn’t be subdued and raked out all reserves and had a proper feast. I can still see, as I watched from the veranda of the Hospital, the small fires dotted in every open space sending up a glow into the sky as palls cooked up to celebrate.

The following day I was sent back to the camp with a number of others and was able to enjoy the extra rations and clothes etc., which the Japs were immediately able to find for us, with Wilf and Walter. We were not able to get back into the same hut together, and remained separate until the journey home, but that will follow later. I must now go back in my story to almost the last working party that I went out on, and the first visit of ‘our people’ to Kuching.

It was Sunday 25th March 1945, Palm Sunday, that I was in a working party on the aerodrome. As usual we were digging a small hill away and filling in a hole, but quite near to the runway. We saw a plane going over very high, and said, as we had done on hundreds of occasions before ‘that is one of ours’. This had originally meant an Allied plane, but we had been with the Japs so long that it took on the meaning of a Jap plane. Suddenly natives started to stream along a footpath quite near and told our guards that there was an air-raid warning on. Again we heard this dozens of times, and taken shelter without anything happening, so we just laughed. Within a few minutes however this mysterious plane returned and crossed the aerodrome again much lower and the Japs ordered us to take shelter in some long grass about 15 yards away. Once again the plane turned and we could tell that it was lower still, then we heard a swish of the bomb, and the ground vibrated as they hit the runway. This was the first allied plane that we had seen in 3 ½ years. It was an American plane, and they were not satisfied with dropping bombs but returned again, and machine gunned the spot where we had been working and shelters where we usually had food. When they had gone we were able to pick up a number of cartridge cases, and there were numerous holes in the ground. Immediately the Japs set us to build an air raid shelter, which was little more than a trench with about two feet of earth on top, and was absolutely no good. They kept us there until about 7pm even though the train had been waiting since 5pm, our usual finishing time. I think this was the last working party that I went out on because I remember that Good Friday was the next time we had a raid.

It was about dinner time on Good Friday, all the food carriers had gone to the cookhouse, when planes were overhead before anyone realised it. The food carriers came hurrying back with dinner, and it was served in the huts, one of the happiest meals for years because we were able to watch two Thunderbolt planes diving on the aerodrome and giving it a real doing up. There was never any resistance from the Japs, and I don’t think they had any kind of anti-aircraft guns. As a result of these raids there was great speculation as to the distance away of their bases, and our troops, and the date of release. The most optimistic of us looked forward to release in a couple of weeks.

The raids became more frequent and we wondered whether bombs might be dropped on the camp in mistake for Jap barracks, but on one occasion a fighter passed over the camp in level flight and fired a burst as a recognition signal. I well remember one raid when twelve bombers came over in formation, we were all in trenches, and dropped all their bombs on ‘San Mile’ where the Japs hoped to make an aerodrome. The vibration was so great in the camp, which was about a mile away, that things fell from shelves in the huts.

Later the raids became daily, and the planes were so low that we could see the American markings on them. On one occasion we were in the slip trenches when a plane released pamphlets, but the wind took them all away from the camp. Life carried on like that, with men dying daily, until the Japs capitulated on 15th August 1945.


Next Chapter

Japanese Surrender



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