Sketch by Jack Chalker

Life of Riley

This story is not Public Domain. Permission must be obtained before any part of this story is copied or used.

Batu-Lintang Camp


They arrived at Batu-Lintang during a monsoon late one afternoon. Stripping off their wet clothing, they hung it up to dry for the next day.

Colonel Suga

Colonel Suga

Came the morning, they were quickly called to parade and later that day watched as the camp commander, Colonel Suga, arrived in an American Buick. Striding over to an old abandoned cart, he jumped up on it and hand on sword, began his address to the prisoners.

 “You have been captured by the Japanese Imperial Army, blah, blah, blah,” he informed them, the prisoners not understanding the rest of his sermon. But at the end he said “You will have three days holiday…..yesterday, today and tomorrow.” 

Dennis and Sam remembered this as one of the few times the men all laughed together. Yesterday was gone, today had only a few hours left and tomorrow never came.  Incidentally, these four words were to become the title of Vern Richmond’s war memoirs.

Vern and Dennis were to eat and sleep next to each other on the floor of number 10 hut, until the end of the war.


Mystery PhotoFor the first 12/18 months Dennis was put to work in working parties outside the camp. It was while working in the river securing wooden pilings for a jetty, that he saw a small piece of paper sticking out of the mud. He quickly tucked it into his loin cloth with the intention of drying it out for use as a cigarette paper for one of the other lads. Back at camp he took out the paper and was surprised to see it was a small photograph of two girls in their twenties. When he dried it out and turned it over, he was even more surprised to see written in indelible pencil or ink, the words ‘CHILWELL 1939’.  Chilwell is the next village to Beeston where Dennis lived back in the UK.

He showed it to Vern and this photo was never used for the intended cigarette paper, but was secreted somewhere and eventually brought back home years later. This strange occurrence would be the reason Dennis and I were to meet some 60 years later, and even stranger, me writing of his experiences.  

The Japs wanted an airstrip at Kuching, but their aircraft often crashed into a hill that was at the beginning of a suitable flat open area. This makeshift airstrip was suitable for light aircraft but the transporters had difficulty on the approach and sometimes aborted the landing or crashed. The Japanese decided that the hill must be removed. They had hundreds of men at their disposal (literally) and they were duly ordered to the hill.

In searing heat and using basic tools such as pick, blunt axes, shovel and basket, the prisoners spent their working day removing trees, bushes and earth from the top of the hill.  Beatings, or bashings as they were called, were metered out daily. It was here that a Jap guard was given the nickname, “The Kuching Stamper”. His cruel streak had him stamping down hard on the baskets of earth that the prisoners filled, just so they could carry more. It would then take two men to lift the basket on to the unfortunate prisoners back, for them to totter away to empty it further down the hill.

Eventually, after weeks of labour, a safer approach to the landing strip could be made.

Dennis’ first hand experience of extreme cruelty from his captors, came when he and his mate, six foot six’ ‘Big Jock’ Tenant from Hamilton were returning to their hut. As they walked passed a Jap guard they made their customary bow to him. Either they had not bowed in the correct manner or the guard was bored and enjoyed the cruelty he could inflict on the undernourished ailing captives. He had them stop and face each other, Dennis’ head not reaching Jock’s chest.

Screaming in broken English and sign language the guard ordered the two men to strike each other. This was an often used method of amusing the guards. Jock slapped Dennis lightly across the face and he too, returned the slap.

The Jap strode forward screaming at them to hit harder. Dennis knew that if Jock did strike with full force, even in his poor condition he would easily knock him over. After a couple of more slaps, the Jap pulled Dennis back.

Angrily he looked at Jock and screamed.


The guard then turned to Dennis and punched him hard in the face. Dennis staggered back but managed to keep on his feet, knowing that if he fell, the guard would kick him viciously until he got up or died. Unfortunately his glasses were sent flying and as he bent down to pick them up, the guard rammed the rifle butt down across his hand and then stamped down hard crushing both glasses and fingers. This was followed with a rifle butt strike to his now visible ribs. Dennis went down in agony, nearly passing out. He cannot recall if he was kicked or not, but the next thing he knew was being pulled to his feet by Jock. The Jap was still screaming at them both when a Jap doctor shouted orders to him to bring the two prisoners to the veranda of the hut.

Dismissing the guard and beckoning the men inside, Dr. Yamamoto, pointed to the telephone on the wall and made signs that it was out of order. Dennis limped over to the telephone and recognising the model, managed to unscrew some fasteners and open a small hatch on the wooden cabinet. There inside was a small plaque signifying the model, serial number and where it was made. It was made by ERICSONS of BEESTON. 

Dennis had to laugh even though he was still in pain from the rifle butt blow.

 “Bloody hell……I could have even made this myself,” he said to Jock. “I made these back home in ‘Blighty’.”

Dr Yamamoto eventually had Dennis understand that he could take calls but not ring out. Dennis was to fix. The phone was dead and removing another panel on the side of the cabinet, he extracted a badly corroded battery. This is all that the machine needed and he showed it to the doctor.

“AH SO”, he said smiling, now understanding the problem.

 He reached into his desk drawer and brought out two cigarettes. Handing them to Dennis he told him to smoke them back at his hut. They both bowed and left the hut.

Dr Yamamoto was one of the few decent Japs in the camp that treated the men like humans.

The Japs were given nicknames by the prisoners such as, Little Pig, Big Pig, the Malingerer and The Bear, just to name a few.

Little Pig took great delight in slapping prisoners daily and the brutal Big Pig, would demonstrate his ‘party piece’ to other guards at the earliest convenience on working parties. He would line up the weary, skeletal prisoners in such a position that when he struck the first man with a bone crushing blow to the head, others went down like dominoes.

Another instance of bestial cruelty metered out was when the prisoners were made to line up beside their sleeping area when the men came back from working parties.

One of the young lads aged about twenty one, had cut the bottom out of his aluminium water bottle and made a false bottom to conceal items. He regularly smuggled in an egg or two this way, but his luck had ran out.

Obviously tipped off, the guard walked slowly up to each man and took their water bottle from them, inspecting it closely and shaking it near his ear. The Jap made his way slowly down the line and standing before the young twenty one year old, shook his bottle. A rattle came from it and the now frightened lad knew he was in for a beating.

The guard grinned and pulled the bottle apart revealing two eggs. He then slowly walked across to another guard and gave him the eggs. He turned toward the young lad standing at attention, and swinging the water bottle by its thin strap at shoulder height, walked slowly toward him. He raised his arm and brought the metal bottle slicing across the side of the lads head, instantly opening up his skull. He died before he hit the floor.

Often men would be forced to stand to attention in the blazing sun, others being made to hold heavy rocks above their heads while the Jap guards held bayoneted rifles under their arms. Dennis plainly recalled seeing one young lad hanging from a tree branch six or seven feet from the ground and a grinning Jap torturer holding his bayoneted rifle between his legs. The sadistic guard had the lad making bird calls or chicken and rooster noises.

*A Lieutenant Scott, an ancestor of the Scott of the Antarctic fame, was in the Tanjong Priok camp when he was told to sign a “No escape” declaration. He refused and Major Cutbush told him it would not go on his record as they were to sign under duress. Lt Scott still refused as he did not want to bring shame on the family name.

Within minutes of his last refusal, a party of Japs dragged him out of the camp and down a dusty track. Tieing his hands behind his back, the Japs selected a particular tree and tied him to it. They then hit the tree with their rifle butts and stood back as a swarm of red ants angrily left their nest and covered the unfortunate officer. He was left in that position for three or four days covered in his own excrement. Dennis never knew if he survived as he was still tied to the tree when he left the camp

*  Lt Scott of the 79/21st LAA RA is on the Roll of Honour of the Java Index on Ron Taylor’s Rising Sun web page. Could this be the same man?

 Sam Barker recalled a conversation with another prisoner, John (?), over the cruel treatment from one of the Jap guards.

“He’s mine,” said John.

“Oh no he ‘aint. He’s mine. I’m going to strangle him with my bare hands when this is over,” threatened Sam

“We’ll see then,” mumbled John, “We’ll see who gets there first.”

Later on in the year, they noticed the guard missing. John later saw Sam and pointed out the guard nearby.

“There he is.”

“No, that’s not him. I’ve just been told that he died,” said Sam

“Then I’ll find his grave,” growled John feeling cheated.

They walked over to the Japanese cemetery area and found the grave. They reckoned it was this one as it was the only one with freshly turned earth, unlike the prisoners’ cemeteries where at least two graves a day were dug.

John fell to his knees and clawed at the earth on the grave cursing.

“You bastard… bastard,” he cried feeling cheated at losing his promise to kill.

Shocked at thinking he was trying to dig him up, Sam pulled him to his feet before they were spotted by other guards. The two men started to walk away when John suddenly turned and stood over the grave. Looking around and seeing no Japs were in the area, he urinated over the grave.

“That’s better,” he smiled, even knowing that if he had been spotted he would have taken a very severe beating……or worse.

The two men walked back to their hut, Sam still feeling cheated out of his promise too.

Just before he was liberated from the camp, Sam was put on a ‘stinga mati’ party to work. This was Japanese for half dead. Among other complaints he had leg ulcers and very bad ones on his feet. He had seen men with ulcers open down to the bone.

While in Batu Lintang, Dennis did not witness beatings every day, but heard of them daily from other men. Towards the end his worst condition was being slowly starved and worked to a standstill. The intense heat and humidity made the unfortunate captive slaves collapse. When they did, the guards would kick them, drag them to their feet and slap them, forcing them to carry on. Of course, many times the poor souls would simply lay there and die, their ordeal finally over.

Every morning a body was taken from the hut and buried in one of the many cemeteries around the camp. Dennis was to tell me that sometimes he would be talking to a fellow prisoner as he lay resting, and then find out that he was dead seconds later after his tortured mind and body could take no more.

Both Sam and Dennis were to tell me that there wasn’t a certain type that would perish. Bigger stronger men would succumb. Once the spirit had died, so did the man.

Dennis and Vernon stepped forward one day when volunteers were asked for by the Jap guards. Sixty men were needed for some assignment ‘up country’ where they were told they would be better treated and fed. As the two men neared the lines of volunteers, they where sent back to their hut as the numbers were now made up. The men marched out of the camp and were never heard of again.

An unusual request came from a Jap guard one day whilst Dennis was at his workbench. The guard handed him a length of rubber tree timber about five foot long and six inch thick. Through sign language, pointing to his rifle and the odd English word from the Jap and  odd Japanese word from Dennis, plans were made to make a wooden rifle to be used for army drill. Deft strokes of a machete soon had the timber resembling a rifle. With further cutting and shaping the task was completed.

And as Dennis was to tell me in 2006, “I must say I made a bloody good job of it too.”

The guard must have thought so too walking away smiling with his new piece of equipment.

But he was back again a few days later, shouting and glaring and waving the wooden rifle in Dennis’ face.

Quickly taking it from the Jap before he wrapped it around his neck, Dennis inspected his work. The wooden ‘barrel’ of the rifle had warped and veered over to one side at a sharp angle. The Jap started again to ball out Dennis and once more started waving his arms about. Fearing a beating, Dennis quickly explained, again through sign language, that the wood had been out in the rain and left in the hot sun. The quick drying had caused the timber to warp drastically into the comical shape it was now in. The Jap calmed down as he began to understand Dennis explanation, then to Dennis’ relief, he left.

What I was surprised to hear from a few ex Jap POW’s, was that their own Red Cap Military Police still treated them like dirt. Even the Japs laughed at their treatment to their own men. Dennis was instructed by them to build a bamboo cage for them to house their prisoners. This was installed at the end of the hut were the Red Caps always had their space away from the ranks. These Red Caps, Dennis noted, were never on work parties and only used as guards. This of course pleased the commander as it left some of his soldiers free for more important war work.

Even Dennis was taken to his C.O. for some insignificant reason and was given seven days confined to barracks. This worked out well for Dennis as he had to do easier work inside the wire. Outside the wire perimeter, he had been pushing stripped abandoned heavy trucks and equipment around the yards. In camp he was taking water to the camp ‘hospital’ hut, escorted by George Pringle one of the military policemen at the end of his hut.

Dennis personally did not witness any of the prisoners being struck by the MP’s but heard stories from others that they had. A scuffle was heard at the end of their hut when the MP’s were with a young lad behind the screen.

Shouts of, “Leave him alone” were bellowed from the prisoners.

A sergeant came from behind the screen and threatened them to be quiet or he would ‘have them all’. This only inflamed the men and a reply of, “Come on then” was issued.

The sergeant quickly retreated behind the screen.

After the war when a few POW’s were writing their memoirs, an ex Red Cap MP who lived near Dennis sent him a copy. He wanted him to sign the work as a true testament to what had happened to them. Dennis showed the “work” to Vern and a couple of other ex p.o.w friends and then they went to knock on the door of the author of such rubbish. Reading the exploits of this man made him out to be a ‘John Wayne’ type character. Of which he was certainly not. Getting no reply to their door knocking, they screwed the ‘fairytale’ up and shoved it, unsigned, though the letter box. Dennis heard nothing more from the author.                    

Back in the camp, Capt Kettlewell was putting together a group of men that were to be called ‘the engineers’. Dennis’ cousin Vern was amongst the first 3 or 4 to be selected, and when the Capt asked them if they knew people suitable for the tasks involved, he put forward Dennis’ name.

The group, now numbering about eight men, worked in a hut near the perimeter fence at workbenches they had to build themselves from timber purloined from around the camp.

Various tools such as saws, chisels, hammers and suchlike that had been salvaged from abandoned homes when they had trekked through Sumatra were now put to good use.

A naval artificer named Witter took command of the team consisting of Dennis Riley, Vern Richmond, Len Beckett, ‘Spider’ Webb, ‘Matty’ White and others whose names have sadly been forgotten over the passing of 60 years.

They began by making tubs for the cookhouse and scoops for the rice from tins and wooden floorboards. Other items were made for other internees around the camp, from toys for the children with their mothers in another part of the camp, to crosses for the graves of the unfortunate prisoners. These poor souls were either to die from starvation, tropical diseases, beatings and torture, or like many others, “due to arduous conditions of captivity” as stated on my dads’ death certificate. In other words, STARVED, BEATEN AND WORKED TO DEATH. Or to be more precise and using even less words…MURDERED.

Outside their hut No10, the prisoners endeavoured to try and grow some vegetables to supplement their ration of one cup, (two if they were lucky) of rice per day. Often the plants would be uprooted before they had fully grown by other prisoners (and guards), such was the desperation for food. The ‘gardens’ were small plots along the length of the hut, the end garden being the property of their own hated Redcap MP’s.

As often was the case, Dennis could not sleep and in the darkness made his way to the door at the rear of the hut. He decided then and there that he was going to rob the MP’s garden. Slowly creeping along the wooden sides of the hut and straining to listen for the guards footsteps, he turned the corner at the end of the hut. Silently waiting and listening, he could feel excitement rising as all was deathly still and quiet. Even the insects in the bush were silent. Turning the corner to the front of the hut he was now at the MP’s plot.

Crouching down he felt for the vegetables foliage sticking out of the ground. He knew he was gripping the leaves of tapioca plant, similar to a carrot, and tried to pull it out of the ground. It refused to move an inch. He squinted into the darkness and listened. There was still no sign or footsteps of the guard. Raising himself up he straddled the plant then bent down and gripped it with both hands. With a final tug at the well anchored plant he strained to straighten up. What followed startled Dennis, making him nearly jump out of his skin.

The eerie silence was broken by  LOUD, uncontrollable thunderclap fart as Dennis let rip.

He thought that everyone in camp would have heard it.

Shaking with fright he released his grip on the obstinate plant and turned and ran back to his sleeping area in the hut. Eventually he did fall asleep.

Another time back in the Tanjong Priok camp, he was out on a working party when the signal was given by the lone guard, to rest. A lorry rolled up and they were issued their stew like supply of rice, sweet potato leaf and water. The guard pointed to an area for them to sit as he unslung his rifle from his shoulder.

The guard sat near the prisoners and lit a cigarette while they ate. The prisoners started to talk amongst themselves, cursing the Japs from a pig to a dog and their parents’ credulity to wedlock.

The Jap guard calmly smoked his cigarette as the men waited for the slap from him, but it never came. He continued staring into space while he puffed at the cigarette. The men now knew that he could not understand them and breathed a sigh of relief. Their berating of the Japanese race continued in slightly more louder tones with the occasional chuckle.

After about ten minutes, the Jap got back to his feet and slung his rifle sling over his shoulder. Turning to the prisoners he said, in perfect ENGLISH, “Right then, Gentlemen. I think its time we started work again. Line up please”

Dennis said that there was a stunned silence from the men. They couldn’t believe it. They quietly started to line up. The guard started to smile, and as he was next to Dennis told him that he understood and sympathised with them, but he could do nothing and had to follow orders. He said he would not report them.

Dennis commented on his good command of the English language even though spoken with the Japanese ‘twang’. The guard asked Dennis were he was from in England.

“Nottingham,” he replied.

“Ah, Nottingham,” he said smiling, “The ‘Trip to Jerusalem,’ ‘Salutation’ and Nottingham Castle. I know them well.”

“How?” Dennis asked at hearing of the names of the two pubs next to the Nottingham landmark.

“I went to the University there. And I married a girl from Derby. I was recalled by the Japanese Imperial Army,” the guard replied before walking away.

 The guard must have been moved on from the camp as Dennis never saw him again.

Opposite Dennis’ hut was my Dads’ hut, No.11. Here was a very unpopular *Sgt Dawes, who was an unsociable character and often upset a lot of the captives in some way. One particular day he had upset someone just one time to many. Dennis was told the story after seeing and hearing the commotion coming from the hut.

All the hut walls were made from planks of wood but many were missing. These planks were taken by the woodworkers and fashioned into something useful to use in the camp. The gaps in the walls provided welcome ventilation on humid nights for the men as they slept on the floor, their heads next to the hole just above them.

On this night of the commotion, a couple of these grieved lads had gone across to a makeshift latrine near the hut. The latrine consisted of a disused oil drum with the top cut off and a wooden shelf with a hole cut into it placed across the open end of the drum. The two lads had managed to carry the half full stinking container of human excrement silently across to the wall of hut No.11.  Selecting a particular part of the wooden wall that had planks missing, they lifted the drum and poured the vile stinking contents through the hole.

Immediately a yell went out and the two lads ran off. Dennis was told by a lad in the hut that Sgt Dawes had been laying on the floor when the contents of the latrine came pouring through the hole in the wall, completely covering his head. He had jumped up choking and spluttering only to slip and fall in the excrement of dozens of prisoners.

Now long overdue at long last, the Sgt had indeed been shit upon by the lower ranks. He never found out who the culprits were.

As my dad was in this hut, I hope he was one of them.

* Dennis told me that after he had returned home he had received letters from Sgt Dawes’ parents, asking if he had still been as vile a man in camp as he had been at home. Even his parents found him unpopular.

Col.King was the camp doctor and Dennis, having a bad case of ring worm and sweat rash between his legs, went to see him. As their captors refused to issue drugs and medicine, treatment if given often sounded harsh.

Col.King’s standard reply was, “Stick it in the sun.” This order was frequently given to patients no matter what the ailment.

Tropical ulcers were known to have been treated using maggots (and even fish when standing in the river) to eat the dead flesh and pus in and around the sore.

Vern Richmond was known to have pulled teeth from desperate toothache sufferers, with a pair of pliers.

The prisoners must have thought it was Christmas when one day a shipment of bananas was delivered. This would supplement there rice ration and definitely be an improvement on the ‘cancom,’ a ground covering plant that they ate the stem of. The cancom was grown by the pow’s wherever they could.

One enterprising prisoner, a tall Scot by the name of ‘Big Jock’ (what else?), was watching a work party emptying the latrine drums further down the track away from camp. As they passed his ‘garden’, he instructed them to empty the contents into a ditch he had dug. He then dug the fertilizer in the poor soil and planted his cuttings.

When the plant took hold and spread, it was rumoured to be the best tasting plant of all that was collected, shared or stolen by the other prisoners.

At Christmas Ron Killick and the other cooks would try and turn out something different and try to fry rice to make cakes and they tried to share the food fairly. Fights would break out if one man seemed to have more than his neighbour.

Some one in the cookhouse had made a guitar like instrument complete with strings, but didn’t know how to tune it or even play it. Les Towle from Linby, just outside Nottingham, worked in the cookhouse and he knew that Dennis could play a banjo and passed the instrument to him. After it was tuned, Dennis was to get up and play George Formby songs on the nights they had a concert. These were put on every three or four weeks.

A comedian by the name of Tubby Levi of the R.A.F. would also entertain the grateful audience.

*Viv Orchard would often sneak out through the wire at night to try and scrounge anything edible. He came back one night in 1945 with a few sweet potatoes. As American Lockheed Lightening ‘planes were often seen overhead, open fires were banned unless permission to build one had been obtained.

Someone sought permission on the pretext of having to wash ‘clothing’ and surprisingly, was given. Now all that was needed was a cooking utensil and someone ran to the ‘cookhouse’. The cookhouse in name only, was a brick fire trough and cleaned out oil drums for saucepans. At the cookhouse they were told no clean drums were spare but they could have the one waiting to be cleaned. This was taken and put on bricks over the now burning fire. Water was added to the oil and grease caked drum and the sweet potatoes dropped in. When the Jap guard was spotted heading towards them, old remnants of clothing was quickly added to the boiling water. A stick was used to submerge the rags beneath the scum of oil and grease bubbling on the surface. The Jap looked into the steaming lumpy mass and grimaced before striding off.

After the scum was scooped away and time given for the potatoes to cook, they were quickly shared between the men and devoured. Dennis remembered the meal as being the best meal he had tasted even though they still needed more time in the pot.

Freddie Harris, an Oxfordshire lad, made Dennis’ stomach turn when, after butchering a yak, proceeded to drink its blood. In fact this, when mixed and boiled with whatever other meagre rations they had, would provide them with the protein their bodies desperately craved for. Freddie certainly knew this.

Sometimes a film show was put on by the Japs. The screen was erected and the Japs would sit on one side of it and the prisoners on the other. They would often show propaganda films of their tanks blazing across the screen, but the prisoners weren’t so stupid as to recognise, even though the picture was reversed, that the tanks were in fact only ONE tank, filmed in different locations. The reversed same number on the tank side gave it away.

*After his daring and suffering in the camp, Viv Orchard returned to Noel St, New Basford, Nottingham, later moving to Radford Bridge Rd until the mid 1960's when he moved to Ravencroft Rd, Bulwell - he died on 13th January 1982 from an infection.

 Like many of the prisoners, Dennis and Vern never gave up hope of the Allies winning the war. They made plans to work together when they returned home. Vern drew plans of a boat they would build and Dennis still has this drawing today. Dennis remembered drawing a picture of his Norton motor bike down to the finest detail. He was very proud of this drawing but eventually it was torn into strips to make cigarettes. He regretted it ever since. Other drawings he did on fiercely defended paper were lost when he was taken unconscious to hospital and never returned to camp.

He cannot remember how the drawing of the boat came to be in his possession. Vern may have left it with him after the war.

Boat drawing by Vernon Richmond
Vernon Richmond and wife Molly 1941

Vern Richmond, at Batu Lintang camp, was approached by a Jap carpenter who stood watching him work at his bench. Speaking English, the Jap told him to come and work in his carpenters hut and from that day on, Vern never went out of the camp on a working party again. The friendly Jap took him under his wing and gave him an easier time in camp than most of the other inmates. Vern had indeed landed a ‘cushy’ job and was one of the few lucky ones to return home in better health than most of the others.  

In later years well after wars end, this friendly Jap had tried to get in touch with Vern by letter. Unfortunately Vern had since passed away. 

Vern died on August 9th 1986






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