9th - 16th December 194161
John Lewis is an area food control officer during the bombing of Penang
JSA Lewis OBE (1909-2003) went out to Malaya in 1928 to join the Customs Service. In 1937 he became engaged to the well known actress Dulcie Gray (nee Savage-Bailey) whose father was a lawyer living in Fraser’s Hill. This did not work out and John married Gwynedd Samuel in 1938 in Penang, the daughter of Charles Samuel. He was working in Port Dickson before going on leave in early 1941. On his return from leave in Australia he was posted to Penang and when Penang was attacked John was reassigned by the Customs Department to be a food controller. This included transporting rice and other foodstuffs by municipal lorries from the harbour godowns (warehouses) in which the reserve stocks were kept. He was then evacuated to Singapore where he was put in charge of food control depots, had a lucky escape from a shell which destroyed his brother Tiny Lewis’s car, was then forced by the Japanese after the surrender to assist with food control and opium packing and distribution to addicts, before being interned in Changi and Sime Road PoW Camps in Singapore between 1942-1945.He retired as Deputy Commissioner of Customs in Malaya on independence in 1957.
The local reaction in Penang on 9th December was panic and a rush to buy foodstuffs. The rice permit system was brought into operation by 10th December and confirmation was given to the local inhabitants by radio and newspaper that there were ample stocks of food in Penang and not to panic.
On 11th December at about 9.30am 27 aeroplanes flew high over Penang town in close formation and unopposed. We thought that they were British aeroplanes until the bombs suddenly whistled down killing hundreds of people out on the streets and causing chaos. That afternoon thousands of Penang residents evacuated the town and made their way to nearby villages such as Ayer Hitam, Pulau Tikus and Jelutong. This exodus continued the following day and by nightfall Penang, a town of some 150,000 people, was empty except for the dead.
The main task now was to feed the dispersed population and it was decided to open food depots at Ayer Hitam, Pulau Tikus and Datoh Kramat village markets. There was a problem however because when I telephoned the Municipality on 12th December to order lorries to transport the rice and other foodstuffs from the harbour to the depots I was told that all the native drivers had run away to take care of their families. Luckily the Customs Department had four vans and the Police had a few more. They had to be driven by European Customs and Police Officers as about half the Asian staff in both departments had disappeared. It was dangerous work. Every morning promptly at 9am Japanese aeroplanes flew over Penang town at tree top height to see what we were doing. Any lorries moving about were likely to be shot up and we had no defence against them. As the harbour labourers had also taken leave without permission the officers had to do the loading and unloading. The food was sold at the depots to refugees but given to those who claimed they had no money.
Penang Hill was served by a funicular railway and urgent action had to be taken to supply foodstuffs to those living on the hill before the Japanese destroyed the railway or the power station providing the electricity.
By 14th December the enemy were attacking a position at Gurun on the mainland about thirty miles north of Penang and Butterworth.
During the afternoon of 16th December orders were received from the Military authorities that all Europeans had to be evacuated from Penang that night as it was about to be cut off by the Japanese army pushing southwards through Kedah. About 230 people boarded the local ferry boat and sailed for Singapore. This action was looked upon by some people as disgraceful for abandoning the local population to its fate but the fact was that the Japanese attacked Malaya in order to oust the British and had no hostile intentions against the native population.
On 19th December the military evacuated Penang.
61 John Lewis’s personal account of his experiences written when he was in his 80s is reproduced in “Eastern Customs” by Derek Mackay referred to in Appendix 5.