Changi - Our First Camp
Long March to Changi
By Leo Rawlings
The checking being satisfactorily achieved, we started to march off to our first prisoner-of-war camp, which turned out to be Changi, and on the way we saw some awe-inspiring sights; not least being the vast damage to the buildings, blasted by the air-raids and shelling.
The sun was directly overhead in a tropical blue sky, and the temperature was up in the nineties, and with all the gear we were carrying, the sweat streamed out of our skins and our clothes were soon as wet as a dishcloth.
Our starting point was outside the city, and the route was along a country type of road lined with trees and hedges, with small village like areas scattered along the whole route. The Japs escorting kept us moving at a good pace, just a little slower than a gallop, and soon the party I was in, straggled to a few hundred yards long.
The results of war were obvious from the start, and we passed burnt out vehicles by the dozen, houses flattened, and dead British soldiers still lying where they had been killed, some of whom were part way through hedges with rifles still held in their hands, with congealed blood blackened on their uniforms. It wasn't a pleasant sight and it sickened the hardest of us.
The natives lined the route and hissed at us as we passed, they nearly all had little white flags with the rising sun on them, and they appeared happy that the British Imperial power had been beaten, and they were now in the Co-Prosperity Sphere of Asia, which the Japs called their new set-up.
Some Indian troops who had deserted in Malaya had gone over to the Japs and many of them were lining the route as guards to prevent us from straying from the roadway, and quite a few clouted passing British troops with sticks, and shouted abuse and insults.
Little did the natives or Indian soldiers know what was in store for them, and soon they would wish the British Raj was back again, as no British soldier ever treated either with the violence the Japs meted out during the next few years.
I do not know how far we marched before we reached Changi, but it seemed an awful long way in the blistering tropical humid heat, and we had no rest during the journey, however, I am pleased to relate I saw no ill-treatment by the Japs on any soldier on that particular day.
At last we reached our destination and we had to form into lines of three to be counted again, and as the party had been so spread-eagled it took nearly an hour for the tail-enders to arrive. After roll-call we broke off and were allocated spaces in single-storey buildings scattered over a fairly extensive area, and in this instance I was put next to a friend from another Company, called Harry Chambers from Ashington, a lad whom I had enlisted with at Fenham Barracks in 1939.
Harry or Henner as he was wore often called was a tall gingery-haired good-looking lad who always wore a moustache and was a real dry character, but just the sort of fellow to be with in this type of situation. Another roommate was Bill Davies also from Ashington, and he was a fairish haired, smart lad from mining stock. Both Henner, Bill and I were Corporals and were keen dancers, and had had many good times together before coming abroad.
Sorting out the equipment etc. took a while, but there seemed no rush and time was our own at this stage, and after a wash and clean up we felt pretty good. We had a meal and then grouped together, and had a good discussion on the past few days, and noted who had been killed or wounded. The list was long and several good friends had died in action.
As more troops came into the camp, news spread about the atrocities the Japs committed when they entered Singapore and particularly in a large hospital where they butchered patients, nurses and doctors, for no other reason than they were not Japanese.
Then more soldiers, Argyle & Sutherland Highlanders, Gordon’s, and Leicester’s, and Artillery joined us and the tales they told of more atrocities up in Malaya, of troops being bayoneted to death, heads sliced off with Jap swords, hands being bolted together, groups being drenched in petrol and set alight, and other no less horrible experiences, were experiences we had not witnessed up to that time, but they horrified us and made us wonder what was to come!
We talked into the small hours and then off to sleep which we certainly needed.
The next day broke, and as usual that sun was there directly above us and we sweated profusely even before breakfast, which was tinned bacon, bread and butter and tea. Roll call was held, and then we formed into working parties for camp duties, fetching firewood for the kitchen, cleaning latrines, sweeping roads in the camp, and other menial duties,
The only occasions we saw the Japs was at roll-call or an odd one walking along the perimeter of the camp, however, within a very short period our English food ran out, and Jap guards moved into the camp and life changed dramatically.
Within a few days, rice became the staple diet, with watery soup a luxury, and the guards started savage attacks on our soldiers just for the hell of it, no reason, it became their sport.
Instructions from the Imperial Japanese Army were issued to all prisoners-of-war including officers, that we must salute if we wore a cap, or low bow if not, to all Japanese soldiers irrespective of rank, and this did give the guards a reason for bashing the troops. If we just flicked our hand up in salute, the Japs would stop us, make us kneel and then slap our faces backwards and forwards several times (they made you kneel because they couldn't reach your face if you were standing), and it was very embarrassing, as the majority of British troops could have knocked the living daylight out of any of the guards if on equal terms.
As the days passed food rations deteriorated, and violence from the guards increased, and life became very difficult, although work generally consisted of camp duties at this stage. We had to travel long distances for firewood, and one day we got as far as Changi Jail, and what we saw was very depressing as women and children were climbing up the gates to wave to us, and shouting questions as to the whereabouts of their husbands or fathers etc., and most were crying tears of sorrow. It was bad enough men being prisoners but women and children; my God it hurt us to see those poor unfortunate human beings, in this predicament.
None of us had mosquito nets, which was a must in the tropics to guard against that ruddy malaria-carrying mosquito, and on Singapore there were millions of these ruddy insects. A mosquito net is an oblong sort of tent made of fine muslin net, which is draped from the ceiling on strings, and over the bed, and when one climbs into bed he tucks all sides under the mattress or blankets, thus preventing the mosquito from getting on to and biting the body, and leaving the malaria poison.
When you went to sleep you pulled the blanket or sack or whatever you had up over the head instead of the mosquito net, but as the climate was very hot, even during the night, the bed covering soon had to be pushed off, and then the body was at the mercy of the mosquito. When lying down in the dark you could hear the mosquitoes zooming about your head like bees and due to the lack of protection many, many prisoners-of-war succumbed to malaria in its various forms. The symptoms are high fever, headaches, shivers, and a mild form of coma and depression. The recognised cure is quinine, and lots of cold water drinks, rest and sponging sweat from the body, none of which we had or could do, and if the body was strong enough and the dose mild you could overcome it in a period of time, but if the body was weak it killed you, and in our weakening state many did die from this disease.
The other disease, which reeked havoc, was dysentery, and it had mild and strong types. I believe the term “Bacillary” was the mild form, and “Cerebal” was the dangerous type. Dysentery is a disease spread by flies, and flies we had by the billion in the tropics, and the bug attacks the stomach and thereafter other parts of the body. It is taken for granted at home that you turn the tap on to fill a glass of water and enjoy it, but the water in the tropics is brimful of disease, and we soon learnt that all water for drinking had to be boiled. We had cans of boiling water near all cookhouse food points, and as you went to get your rations you dipped your mess-tin, cup and utensils in the boiling water before getting your food, and you did the same after you were finished. The flies were so numerous we had a system where if you were not on a working party you swotted flies, and you had a poor day if you didn’t fill half-a-dozen jars of the stinking disease carrying insect.
Dysentery became prevalent and troops affected lost flesh quickly, and without treatment bodies deteriorated to living skeletons with skin on. It was unbelievable that such change could take place within days of contracting the disease.
Changi life was beginning to tell its tale with conditions getting worse through lack of food, and increased violence from the Jap guards, but worst of all was the lack of medicine, for although the Far East was the main source for quinine our captors refused to let our doctors have any, and very few prisoners-of-war were able to stop those blasted mosquitoes from doing their worst, and on occasions there were more sick than fit.
Naturally, rumours were rife even at this early stage, and the Allies were alleged to have landed in Malaya, and were pushing down to us on Singapore island, and we ought to be freed shortly. The truth of the matter, as we learnt after we were eventually being freed, was that there were no Allies at that stage within a thousand miles of us, however, such rumours kept us sane, and did so for the next four years.
The hospital was filled to overflowing with wounded who had been transferred from the city hospitals, and prisoners who were suffering from the more serious types of malaria and dysentery, and already we had cases of beri-beri, which is a swelling on the legs or stomach.
Many other diseases counted as minor were becoming common, and I well remember my first sight of “Changi balls” I visited a lad called Patterson, who was in our billet, but had contracted cerebral malaria, and was in hospital in a coma, and winding my way through the wards I saw terrible sights of injury and disease. One section of the hospital housed prisoners lying naked on their beds, and their agony had to be seen to be believed, and the reason lay there between their legs. Their genitals were swollen to the size of a football, and they were red-raw and running, and it was not helped by the continual desire to scratch as the disease created a terrible itch. This was “Changi balls” and it was created through the lack of vitamins, as our staple diet was rice and very little else, and the only cure was better food.
Some prisoners were on working parties outside the camp, and it was remarkable the amount of stuff they could steal and bring back into the camp. There was a story told about someone managing to get hold of some jars of marmite, and this food was supposed to have the vitamins needed to cure “Changi balls” so he gave it to the hospital.
One patient was given a small jar and told to get it used up as soon as possible, and two or three days later when the doctor visited him and asked how he was feeling and had the marmite helped, he said he thought it had, but by gum, it had smarted when he put it on! The bloody fool should have drunk it.
The Japs made a film of their victory in Singapore, and for one episode we were made to line the roads and take part, we never did see the film, but it would be comical, as the film man didn't appear to have a clue.
Life was getting desperate now, and it was made more so when we were each made to sign a piece of paper stating we would not attempt to escape, and upon instructions from the officers we refused. We were given a second chance, and when we again refused to sign, we were all bundled in a barrack compound which we understood housed four hundred British soldiers in peace time, and something like twenty times that number of us were squeezed in.
Everyone able to walk was made to move into this area, and we were told we would stay until we did sign the no-escape notice. This of course was contrary to the Geneva Convention, and Bob Steele was reminded about his knowledge of the talk he had given us way back on the tennis pitch.
There was insufficient room for prisoners to lie down, and to make things worse many holes had to be dug for latrines for such a large number of men, and in some places the cookhouses were adjacent to a fly-ridden latrine. Many dysentery cases were amongst us, and it was obvious the conditions we were now facing would deteriorate, and it did in a very short period as the disease spread like wildfire, and the medical men in the compound just could not cope. Men were so ill they could not reach the latrines in time, and would excrete in their pants, and it would run down their legs on to the ground.
Dysentery is a disease which causes extreme stomach pains, and when a person has a bad dose he is doubled up in agony, he has the feeling he has a load to drop but when he excretes very often it is very small, and blood and mucus is the sole content.
The disease is not as violent as cholera but in the agonising period the flesh literally falls off the body, and the face caves in and eyes became piecing beads, and a patient soon succumbs without treatment.
This then was the beginning of an awful situation, poor conditions, insufficient food, insufficient medicine, and the first death through dysentery to be followed by many more.
What was the true value of a signature on a piece of paper made under duress? Nothing! And the troops were now in conditions, which could reek havoc. Our officers understood the desperate situation and common sense prevailed, and orders were given to sign the notice of intention on the understanding that if any of us got the opportunity to escape, to do so. The signature may mean a lot to the Japs, but it would mean absolutely nothing to us, and so after just short of a week we were marched back into the camp at Changi, but life was never the same again, and the Japs became vicious, and meted out some terrible bashings for no reason whatsoever.
It isn’t quite correct to say we all returned to Changi Camp, as Captain Burns, from Morpeth, didn't return until quite a few days later as he refused to sign the notice, and he suffered extreme torture for his pains.
Captain Burns was a very likeable officer, he was a blond haired good looker, smart and impressed everyone he came in contact with, and even the Japs are alleged to have respected him for his courage, a lone battler for justice.
He only agreed to sign after extreme pressure from senior officers, and when he returned it was obvious he had been bashed about a bit, and had very little food as he looked haggard and badly beaten, but they hadn't been able to break him completely.