Sketch by Jack Chalker

Tandjong Priok

We eventually arrived at Tandjong Priok about 7 pm that evening and alighted from the train. There appeared to us to be a lot of confusion because Japs and Officers went hither and thither. An advance party had gone a few days before, and we expected everything to be arranged, but it was about 9pm before we left the station and made our way to the camp.

We learned later that the advance party arrived at Batavia; it was thought that they were trying to escape, and they were put in the prison, such were the communications between the Japs in different parts of Java. So tired were we arriving at the camp, and it being too late for food, that we lay down and tried to sleep. I say tried to sleep, because when we woke up in the morning we were able to understand why sleep had not been very restful. The camp, which was surrounded by a high barbed wire fence, consisted of rows of stone built and slated cubicles. These had, at one time, been used by natives working in the docks. Tandjong Priok, being the docks for Batavia. Each two cubicles had a forecourt, the roof being extended over it and the whole having a cement floor. There was sufficient room for 2 men in each cubicle and 4 in the forecourt making 8 in each, what I will call a compartment. They were terribly dirty, although they had been white limed, and it was the cockroaches and other insects which has been the cause of our restless night.

The large camp had been divided into eight smaller camps, ours being number eight, and the next day we found a sentry at the gate with fixed bayonet, and we were now really prisoners in our small camp. It was only after consultations that we were lined up and allowed outside our camp, but within the outer perimeter, to fill our water bottles. However as the hours and days progressed, things became more organised and the sentry was withdrawn from our camp gate, the outer perimeter was constantly patrolled. Each camp cooked its own food, at first very badly, but improved with time. After a few months cooking was centralised.

At first we could not eat the cooked rice, which was the main dish at every meal, but our appetite, like the cooking, did improve, due to our hunger. The ration at that time consisted of about 15oz of rice per person, per day, which, after our appetites developed, we thought was very small. With this at dinner and tea would go a stew made from sweet potato leaves, with some sweet potato or a Kang Kong stew made from a green plant, or Pork Stew, with small lumps of pork in it, this being a real treat. At tea a small rice cake or other such delicacy might be added.

The menu would therefore follow the same pattern:-

      Breakfast A heaped pint mug of cooked (steamed) rice. One teaspoon of sugar A mug of tea (no milk)

      Dinner A heaped pint mug of rice (as above)One pint of stew (one of previously mentioned varieties)

      Tea A heaped pint mug of rice (as above). One pint of stew (one of previously mentioned varieties) A small rice cake, or small portion of mashed sweet potato or other small delicacy

      Supper Nothing provided.

Although, as I have said, the above appears very small, it should be compared with the menu of 1945, bearing in mind that rice is the main ration.

The Japs didn’t lose much time in putting us to work. It was Good Friday 3rd April 1942 when the first working party went to the docks. We were still fit and turned out in our usual tropical kit. We formed up in threes and marched away like a Guards Parade that is in comparison to the small, untidy Japs. Both going to and returning from work, The Jap guards walking behind each party, had to call us to march slower because they couldn’t keep up, and on the following day they appeared with cycles. Work in the docks consisted of unloading sugar, rice etc. from small Jap supply ships and barges, also any other general work required.

With the shortage of food in the camp, it wasn’t long before we started to help ourselves to sugar etc., and take it back to camp. One day, by accident or otherwise, a Jap N.C.O. discovered that a number of us had put salt in our haversacks to take back to camp. This of course was stealing, and the thought of such a thing made him furious. All our kit was collected by the Japs and searched. As salt was found the owner had to claim the bag, and was then lined up. When this was over, some 20 to 30 were lined up and by action etc. the Jap explained to the Officer in charge of us that he must punish us by giving us a slap to the face. Of course the Officer tried to explain that this was not done in the British Army, but we realised it would be much better if he administered the punishment, so we requested him to do it. I was standing about sixth from the end of the line, and the officer commenced with obviously gentle slaps to the face until he reached the man next to me, when the Jap stopped him. This Jap was a little above the average and he could see what was going on. He let the officer know it was not hard enough, and being next on the list I was very uneasy. Eventually the Jap walked up to the line to demonstrate, not to me, but to the man on the other side of me, and with one slap to the face knocked the man down. This he continue to do right to the end of the line.

That was the first lucky break I had with the Japs, and although I did get into trouble several times, I was lucky to avoid a severe beating which I saw many get and was lucky to the end in coming out alive, although that was a near thing, as I will explain later.

Looking back I can see now that camp life at Tandjong Priok was very good. There was a football pitch where the eight camps competed for a shield, made in the camp; the players included Wilfred Woller, Curtis the Cardiff City Cup Final player, and Billy Jones another Cardiff player who was nearly blind when released in 1945.

Religious services were held every Sunday morning under the shade of a few trees, where later an alter was built, complete with stained glass window.

There is one incident out of sequence which cannot pass. On the first few working parties we were amazed to see natives tied with their arms behind their backs, and around a tree or post on the roadside. On their chest would be a large card with Malay writing on it which we didn’t understand. Probably they had done something wrong but this unusual method of punishment horrified us because a man who was tied to a tree in the morning when we were going out to work would still be there when we went home in the evening.

Walter was put on a working party which was sent to clear some warehouses which had been on fire. Amongst the stores there had been a large amount of tinned milk. Some of this was good but tins which had blown and had holes in they were allowed to take back to camp. Even some of those with holes had milk in which was still good, which we were glad to have, and that which had curdled was put in a piece of cloth and allowed to become cheese. Afterwards Walt had the good fortune to be put into a wood cutting party at the cookhouse. He was able to get burnt rice from the bottom of the boilers, perhaps a little extra stew, or other odd scraps, which he brought into camp and shared with Wilf and I.

One incident at Priok which I always remember was the King’s Birthday, which I think is celebrated about June. It was arranged that at a certain time, I think, 11am, each camp should get together and give three cheers. The Japs must have thought we were going to try to escape, because when the cheers went up all round they ran out with machine guns, and the sentries on patrol of the boundaries were seen to put a round in.

On Monday 6th July 1942 we had another incident when the Japs ordered us to sign the following: - “I the undersigned do herby solemnly swear to obey all orders issued henceforth by Dis Nippon Gun”. (That is the Great Japanese Army). This caused a lot of trouble because we would then become traitors and liable to be shot by our own people. The officers protested until finally a letter was received from Maj. Gen. Sitwell, British Officer Commanding in Java, advising that the declaration be signed; he was then a prisoner in Batavia jail. Even then a number added ‘ under pressure’ after their name, but the Japs didn’t like that, and those people, and a few who still refused to sign were marched to the Guard Room and beaten up until they did sign.

This incident at Singapore was one of the most horrible of the war. The troops refused to sign and they were then all herded, including those sick with malaria, dysentery etc., and numbering several thousand, into the open and onto a Barrack Square. Here they had to cook all food, dig lavatories and forced to live for some days until they gave way and signed.

Numerous rumours had gone round the camp as the months passed, but we were surprised and excited on Sunday 13th September (the date should be noted, 13th again) to hear that a party were to leave the camp. All listened intently as the C.S.M. read the names of those to go, which had presumably come from the Japs. It was noticed that all Lance Corporals and a few others were to remain, but I don’t know why they were picked out. On Monday 14th we marched away from the camp and boarded a ship in the docks, sailing the same afternoon.


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