Sketch by Jack Chalker

Thailand to Japan

Thailand to Singapore

I was then moved to Singapore. This time there were only twenty of us to a box car plus the inevitable bucket and a bale of straw to open up a place on the floor. The journey only took forty eight hours to get back to the surroundings familiar to us. River Valley Road Camp.

On the second night in River Valley, I was sleeping on the top platform in an atap hut when I was woken by someone asking whether I had been in ‘J’ Section. I replied in the negative. It transpired that Captain Jappa had come to see his men. In those days, ‘J’ Section was a troop of men, forty or fifty strong that ran the communications for a Brigade Headquarters. This section was fifty percent English and fifty percent Indian and commanded by Jappa, a Madrassi officer who had been trained in Sandhurst and held a King’s Commission. Most of the Indian Officers pre-war had been trained in India and held Viceroy’s Commission, so Jappa was a rare bird. He had broken out of his camp about three miles away, broken into our camp and was trying to find the English troops that had served under him in ‘J’ Section. The breaking in and out of camps was a feat in itself. He had taken his life in his hands doing so.  When we were in Paris in 1967, I was talking to the Indian Ambassador and we were joined by the Indian Defence Attaché. I steered the conversation round to Jappa, I knew he was a General and the attaché said, ‘oh, what a pity, he was in Paris last week and is back in Delhi now’.

Anyway, we were marched down to the docks and were on our way to Japan.

From Singapore to Japan

We dodged about in the Inland sea, and eventually landed in Kobe on the island of Kyoto in June 1944. From Kobe, we were taken to Osaka by train, across Osaka by tube. We looked a sorry sight being pushed into carriages with shoppers, but the civilians didn’t look at us, they just averted their eyes and pretended we weren’t there. Then we boarded lorries that took us to Iruka, a small mining village in the mountains.

We were put in a camp built entirely of pinewood without any foundations; the houses just rested on concrete blocks. This was on account of earthquakes and in the event of an earthquake (we had four while we were there) the building just bounced up and down on the concrete blocks. We stayed in the camp for 48 hours before being moved to another, brand new camp close by, but before we were paraded, and we told we were going to work in a copper mine, and if there were any engineers amongst us, to step forward.

By now, I had been able to gauge how far we would go with the Japanese, so when they said they wanted pattern makers among all the trades, I said I was a pattern maker. You will remember that I had been an apprentice in Calcutta and had spent six months in the pattern shop. The pattern shop is the part of the foundry where carpenters make wooden patters from which the molders form molds to receive the molten metal. Basically, the patternmaker has to be a carpenter and a good one at that as he works with different measurements depending on the coefficients of expansion. I lasted 3 days in the pattern shop, but more of that later.

We were marched to our new camp with a high wooden fence, a guard room and search lights and barbed wire. I didn’t know where they expected us to escape to, as again we would have stuck out like sore thumbs. The new camp was a revelation, made entirely of pine and joined mostly with mortice joints and hardwood pegs. The building was on two floors in the shape on an ‘e’. The offices and stores were on the vertical bit, the prisoners had two of the wings and the Japanese were billeted in the third. There was a corridor that ran the whole length of the wing with six rooms off it. Each room was 18 feet by 15 feet with two shelves on either side, one about eight inches from the floor and another about four feet. Each shelf contained six ‘Tatami’. I must explain that a tatami is a mat about two inches thick and made up of rice straw, compressed, with a fine reed mat to cover it. In Japan when they describe houses for sale, they say the bedroom is eight and a half tatami by nine tatami. Anyway, I grabbed the bed or tatami on the top bunk and near the window. Pacitti, an Italian who came from an ice cream making family in the east end of London slept next to me. We never got on well all the time I was in Japan.

Anyway, we were issued with two green cotton suits, one lined and thicker for Sundays, small caps with peaks as the Japanese soldiers wore, white cotton underwear and socks without heels and canvas boots with rubber soles and a compartment for one’s big toe, our feet were a bit sore when we first wore these boots, but we soon got used to them and were surprised with the amount of extra grip and balance they provided. We were also issued with number plates to wear on our chests at all time, they told us! Mine was “roko ju hatchi’-sixty-eight!! For bedding we were given four small cotton blankets and a tiny pillow filled with rice husks. Heating was provided by a small square wooden bucket, called a hibachi, filled with sand on with four or five pieces of charcoal are burned, it is remarkable the amount of heat that is generated especially when you have had twenty-four souls in a small room. Of course, one had to let out the fumes before we went to sleep. The camp was staffed by an army Captain, his staff of four or five for administration. A medical gunso or sergeant who also looked after two other camps, three interpreters, ten guards who were allowed into the buildings. These consisted of old soldiers some of whom had been wounded, six men that manned the guard room and were changed every fortnight. About twenty guards mostly students from universities who patrolled the inside of the perimeter fence and the outside of our huts and lastly the home guard who patrolled outside the perimeter fence. So, we were well guarded. It was notable that in Japan there was little physical violence and pressure. It was mainly mental starting with three roll calls or ‘tenkos’ after lights out when the guards would burst into our billets, put on the lights and proceed to count us in loud voices. I learned to sleep through all of this in about six weeks. Just a small word about the interpreters. The senior one was an old man that spoke seven languages, but unfortunately English was not one his better languages. The second was a young man who was born in Canada and spoke with a beautiful Canadian accent but again his Japanese was not his strong point; he was a swine, really detestable. The third was an old cabinet maker who lived in London for twenty-five years, his English would have allowed him to go shopping in London but no more. Most of the trouble in camp was fueled by these three men’s mistakes in English, and once when those of us who worked on the surface of the mine were accused of mutiny, it was only the senior interpreter pronounced ‘work’ and ‘walk’ the opposite way.

And so we went to work, I was the only one in the pattern shop with all these Japanese who were very polite but soon discovered I wasn’t what I was cracked up to be, so I was transferred to the foundry where my hand was not steady enough to do molding and I joined three other POWs- all from London- who used to break up boulders containing silicone used in smelting, loading the cupolas where the metal was extracted from ore and also riddling the sand and loam for the molds.

Life for the first six or eight months was pretty uneventful until our American Red Cross parcels arrived, and we were given one parcel each. They contained everything. ‘K’ rations, cigarettes, spam, chewing gum, even toilet paper, but as time wore on, we had one parcel between two, then one parcel divided between sixteen and the food would go into the cookhouse and thirty-two would divide the remainder.


The camp was made up of Royal Signals and Northumberland Fusiliers, but there were only a dozen Signals from my old regiment and it was not the same. There was not the ‘esprit de corps’ that there was when we were in Thailand. The cook house was run by Honest Joe Redfern and all his relatives from the Fusiliers. You could spot a cook a mile off. He was large and white while the rest of us were lean and brown. The job on the surface of the mine suited me. We were given tice sacks to burn over the molds to harden them and I used to shake out the rice from the sacks. I could gather a pound of rice from a dozen or so rice sacks and with the sieves and paddles we used in the foundry, it was easy to segregate the rice from the stones and chaff.

I was washing my hands under a tap when an American voice said, ‘Hiya fella”. The voice was that of a Japanese who had spent years in the States. I cultivated his friendship as he was in charge of the rations store in the mine and I was always obtaining extras such as oranges etc that he gave me or left them where I could find them. Then there was the shed behind the foundry where the Japanese working on the surface used to kill cattle. About once a month they would bring a cow to the shed and kill it, this was illegal as everything was rationed, everything, including plates and cups and they never got any meat from the ration store. So, the cow was killed, and everything parceled up in small brown paper packages, what they couldn’t use was put into the furnaces when they were alight, so it was easy to steal one of the parcels and smuggle it into the camp. One had to take chances as we were often searched, sometime before we left the mine and sometimes when we reached camp. I was nearly caught once. I had pinched a small packet. The Japanese at the mine couldn’t report anything as what they were doing was something illegal. And when I unpacked it, it contained about a pound of tripe. I obtained some string and tied the tripe on to my waist under my clothes, it was a bit cold, but I didn’t allow that to deter me, I cut off the extra string, about a yard or so, and stuffed it into my pocket. We were searched when we arrived back in camp and the piece of string was found. The guard that found it was dancing around and shouting that I had stolen the string and was going to escape. I was too frightened to say anything in case he found the tripe round my tummy. I hate tripe but when I got it off, I was able to sell it for three cigarettes to someone that kept extolling its virtues. I thought I would try it one day. I did, and still hate it.

At the mine, we warmed ourselves round a large metal stove made from an oil drum on its side, the fuel being wood, but as wood was too precious, we had to go into the nearby hills and dig out tree stumps and their roots. I remember sitting on the side of a hill during ‘Yasume’ –a rest period- and was thinking what a lovely country this was spoiled by them. The civilians were very polite to us in the mine and the second in command was on old man called Aki. Aki san we called him. Aki san was kindness itself. A holiday never went past without him bringing in some little cakes or sweets for the four of us that worked in the foundry. He always said ‘dojo’ please, when he asked us to do anything. Of course, the pronunciation of my name escaped him. I was Ash-a-ree. He never called us by our numbers which the camp guards insisted on doing.

We were continually hungry, and things were getting worse. I remember the most popular book in the camp was Mrs Beetons Cookery Book. It was a large book, about three inches thick, and I wondered how it had got into the camp. It must have weighed a couple of kilos. Who could have carried it for so many miles, through jungles of Thailand and to Japan? But it was lovely to dream about ‘taking a dozen eggs’.

The Americans had started bombing Japan and we were not very popular, as the whole population was being trained to repel the invaders. The women with sharpened bamboo sticks and we were again the enemy, so the mood changed in the mine. I was stealing newspapers in the workshops and foundry. A Japanese dare not leave his newspaper, which was only four sheets, down for a minute and it would vanish. Philip ‘Plum’ Warner, a sergeant in the Signals, had only one ambition and that was to stay fit enough to play rugby for the Harlequins again when he was released. I heard that he did. Well, he was a master in a school at Eton, not the famous school but one in the town, had taught himself to read Kata kana. The Japanese have three written languages, Chinese characters (Kanji) which they borrowed from the mainland. A Japanese and a Chinese can write to each other in Chinese characters although neither need know the others language. Kata kana, a language written very much like short hand was invented to keep pace with the technical advances they had made. Hira gana was something akin to Kata kana but more flowery and of course romanised Japanese. School kids have to cope with all three. Well, Plum had taught himself to read Kata kana and I was relied upon to supply him with newspapers. It was pretty easy to follow the Allies advance in Europe from the little maps they published. We learnt about D-Day and the advance towards Berlin this way. It was about this time the interpreters started questioning me. Every day when we returned from work I was taken away before supper and questioned as to how much Japanese I spoke. While we were in Thailand we were encouraged to speak Japanese and given little phrase books, but when we were in Japan we were forbidden to speak Japanese so that we could not converse with the civilian population. Well, I was terrified, mistakenly I thought that they suspected me of supplying Plum with the papers or supplying the camp with the news. I kept denying that I could speak Japanese and I was telling the truth because in Thailand we had refused to learn it and in Japan I didn’t have the opportunity on the inclination to learn it. On the third or fourth night I was shown the cage near the guard room and told I would be put in it if I didn’t confess. The cage was similar to those they took pigs to market in, not long enough to lie down or high enough to sit up. I was in a quandary. If I said I could speak Japanese, they would expect me to speak it, if not I would spend the night in the cage. So, the next night when the Canadian Japanese started the same questions, I asked why they suspected I spoke Japanese and he replied that on my identification card that had come from Singapore, the fact that I could speak Hindi had been recorded, he went on to say that the pronunciation and grammar were the same. I was so relieved that they didn’t know anything about the newspapers that I started laughing and he let me go. The interrogations and face slapping ceased. This bit of information made me prick up my ears and I started learning Japanese. I used to learn two or three words a day. I borrowed one of the books that had issued in Thailand and as it was just a process of learning new words, which I did while still relating to Hindi and pronouncing like Hindi.

In 1967 I was asked to say something in Japanese. My mind was blank, and I had forgotten everything. The Japanese now lead the world in calculators and silicon chips and things like that, but in those days, they were still using the abacus in the mine office to work out the salaries. I was amazed at the speed with which his fingers flew around the beads, but he was even more amazed at the time it took me with pencil and paper. I was faster than he was, and he couldn’t understand my workings.

When things were getting tough, the Japanese thought they would plant a vegetable garden, but as the camp was built on slag bought out of the mine, just rocks ground down from which the copper had been extracted, there was no humus in the soil. Every day, two men would not go to work but would carry a large wooden bucket on a pole between them and a ladle on the end of a stick to fill the bucket and fertilize the garden from our cesspit. When that was low they would have to go into the village and shout ‘Benjo’ and women would indicate whether they needed their cesspools cleaned. I was on this detail twice or three times shouting ‘Benjo’. So, we grew sweet potatoes and ordinary potatoes in the garden. The Japanese ate the potatoes and we ate the tops which I had always believed to be poisonous.

Then there were the plays. In order to keep morale up, we used to have plays. Plum Warner wrote one and the Japanese then ordered he would take three days off work and write another, and so it went, every month or so, Plum wrote a play. It was rehearsed for a week or so after working hours and then produced for the whole camp including the camp commandant. I took part in a couple. In the second play, I was cast as a gangster giving a credible performance or so I was told. For some reason or other, I asked to be left out of the next one and was most disappointed when no one begged me to be in the next one! Oh, what vanity!

The copper mine was an old one, the copper in it was not a viable proposition in peace time and had many old workings of which there were no plans or drawings. The rule was that if one’s lights went out one stayed behind until help came. One lad got lost and was missed when we had role call on returning to camp. The commandant organized search parties, but the lad was not found until the next day. We learned later that the camp commandant reported that the lad was trying to escape and that he had personally apprehended him. Shortly after the camp commandant was posted on promotion, he hated the job.

The Americans started bombing in earnest. I remember one day seeing B19s and B29s over us, stretching in droves to the horizon at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and they were still coming and going back at 7 o’clock in the evening when they had dropped all their bombs. We had a visit from a Japanese army general and he ordered all of us working on the surface down to the mine. So, I had to say goodbye to any rackets as well as all the schoolboys and schoolgirls who worked with us. Yes, everyone had to work. No work, no ration book. So, high school girls had to work every afternoon, but they were a nuisance as they were curious as monkeys and watched our every move. As I moved to the door, one of them would say ‘Ass-a-ree, nan des ka? Ashley, what is it?

The mine was a copper mine and as it was in the side of a hill, the tunnels went into the side of the hill and upwards. There were three hills and I was sent to work in the second one. For four days, I was a driller using a pneumatic drill that drilled into the ceiling at an angle. When our shift came out, the Japanese would dynamite the ceiling and drop down tons of stone. The next day’s shift would load all this stone onto barrows on railway lines and it would be taken out to be crushed and the copper extracted. There were quite a few Northumberland Fusiliers who had been coal miners in the North East of England and they applied all their jargon to the mine, so we had deputies and galleries. The drilling was too much like hard work and dirty too, for although one wore a mask and goggles the dust which was black got into the pores of the skin, so I decided I had had enough and somehow got off drilling and became a drill carrier, keeping the four drillers supplied with drills which frequently broke.

By now, I was speaking enough Japanese to be able to hold small conversations, always the same conversations, with the Japanese in the mines. There were few miners and they were all old men. The mine was run by the POWs, Koreans and women. They all had realized that they were going to lose the war and all they wanted to know was what was going to happen to them. So, every day I would meet the deputies and we would blow out our carbide lamps and have the same conversation. When would the war end etc etc etc.

I had never been in a mine before and it was pitch black. The blacksmith that sharpened the drills always game me small good ones. We carried them on our backs in a harness. Two or three drills an inch and a half in diameter and two meters long are a good weight when they had to be carried up ladders, some of them fifty or sixty rungs. But I managed to survive until suddenly all work ceased and we were confined to camp. I was friendly with a Guard who was a university student and he spoke a little English. I think his name was Yamamoto and I remember him telling me that a new weapon had been used by Truman and even the cats and rats in their holes had died and there were plans to kill all the prisoners should the Americans land. I told the story to Plum Warner and it took a day or two to sort out the message. Yamamoto kept saying Hiroshima. We had no idea who Truman was or what the weapon was, but we understood that it had been dropped on Hiroshima which was devastated on the 6th of August (please note the date as it is your birthday). Then the Nagasaki bomb was dropped and the Japanese capitulated on the 15th of August, but we were totally ignorant of anything like that had happened. All the guards on our camp were replaced by others. This was a shrewd move as we didn’t hold any grudges against the new guards.

I must say at this time that there were two British officers and a British doctor in our camp. The officers Captain Marshall, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and Lt Phillips, Royal Signals were supposed to be in charge of us, but we seldom saw them, and they were never involved in and hassle when the lads got into trouble with the Japanese. They just kept to their quarters, some saying that they were eating our Red Cross parcels. Marshall was an ex ranker and was about 40 years of age. Phillips was a bespectacled young man of about 23 or 24, tall blond but with stoop.


Next Chapter

Liberation and Home


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