Sketch by Jack Chalker

Life of Riley

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Going Home

Hospital Ship ‘WANGANELLA’


Fast Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB’s) and Sub Chasers ferry the sick to the hospital ship ‘Wanganella.’

Sam and Vern were eventually ferried by an MTB to a hospital ship anchored out in the bay and then taken to Labuan field hospital (tents) on the beach. Here they was issued with two bottles of beer a day, and as Sam wasn’t a beer drinker he traded them with the Australians.

He acquired some cheese and even managed to get a Spanish onion. This was what he had waited nearly four years for. A simple, cheese and onion sandwich. Delicious.

He was lucky to get through his physical ailments quite quickly and passed his medical examinations. But he was to fail his mental state of mind and would suffer years of cruel nightmares and depression.

From Labuan they were shipped back to England via stops at Madras and Bombay.

Even today (2006) Sam told me that he didn’t want to answer too many questions about the Jap treatment of prisoners in camp, as it would start the nightmares of Japs chasing him again.


The ‘Wanganella’, converted to a hospital ship



The airstrip that they had worked on previous, was later to be  used by Dakotas for transporting patients to Labuan, an island just off the coast of Borneo further north.

Dennis was transferred there from this airstrip with six nuns from the camp

Labuan Field Hospital-2

Labuan field hospital on the beach

At Labuan, the sick would be treated at the 2nd/12th Australian Hospital Unit, under canvas on the beach. It was here that Dennis first heard of, and then received, the treatment ‘SIGMOIDOSCOPY’.

Sam Barker was to tell me of his introduction to the treatment he received at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Roehampton, in England. The treatment was a method to explore the lower part of the intestines by way of inserting a narrow tube with a light attached, into the rectum whilst the patient knelt on a table. The doctor then looked into the tube to inspect the patients’ innards. The treatment wasn’t painful, just uncomfortable as before insertion of the tube, air was pumped into the rectum. The doctor told Sam that many of the patients fainted before climbing onto the table. He asked him to try to allay their fears.

The comical side effect of this treatment was demonstrated when a group of civilian dignitaries, men and women, were being given a tour of the wards by the matron. A patient had just left the treatment room and was walking back to his bed at the end of the ward. Each step was followed by a loud breaking of wind and he farted continually as he passed the blushing women of the group.

 “Sigmoid oscapade?” asked the matron.

“Yes ma’am,” replied the patient.

“Carry on then,” she said and explained the patients plight to her visitors

‘RAJULA’ - October 1945

From here sometime later, he was transferred by DUKW to the hospital ship “RAJULA” lying at anchor in the bay. This ship would take the patients to Singapore where he would spend a few days receiving more care and treatment.

A few days later he was shipped with others to Madras in S.E. India. Here, Dennis never forgot the welcome they all received as all the ships in the harbour sounded their sirens and horns welcoming them.

He was carried from the ship on a stretcher by natives and other natives threw cigarettes, sweets and chocolates to him. He was taken to an awaiting train and laid on the seat in a carriage with another patient. As the carriage filled up with more troops, Dennis feared being crushed as he lay helpless on the stretcher.

A Sgt Major came to his rescue when he looked into the carriage. Seeing the two stretcher cases, he bellowed orders to four of the soldiers and had them taken off the train. They had been put in the wrong compartment. They then followed the NCO along the platform to another carriage where they were ordered to place them inside. Inside were two officers, who, after seeing another stretcher case placed in their compartment, complained to the NCO.

This proved to be a bad move on their part as the NCO proceeded to bawl them out, embarrassing them as he told them who the stretcher cases were, where they had been, and what they had suffered for the last three and a half years. The officers quietly moved to another compartment. Dennis and ‘Taffy’ Hughes from Anglesey then had the compartment to themselves till they arrived at the station at Jalahali. Here they were put in an ambulance and taken to a temporary hospital town on the outskirts of Bangalore. This was a complex of temporary building for the anticipated treatment of wounded forces.

Hospital Town at Bangalore




The photo above was taken just before he left the hospital in Poona in 1946

As did many of the Beri-Beri victims, Dennis did not now posses the skeletal look of other p.o.w’s. Effects of the disease cause the body to retain water and he was ‘looking’ a lot fitter than of weeks before. Note that I write ‘looking‘, but physically he was still very ill and was suffering badly. His treatment here, among others, was a shot of penicillin every four hours, for twenty four hours. He was still not allowed solid food.

It was now November and the wards were nearly empty as the patients were moved out and sent home. Ex prisoners of war were treated like royalty and the staff attended to all their needs. Nothing was too much trouble for them.

One of the patients in the ward asked Dennis what he really missed.

“A slice of buttered toast,” he replied.

The patient disappeared for five minutes and then returned with two slices of hot buttered toast. No words could possibly describe what Dennis must have been feeling as he savoured every bite and mouthful. After years of starvation, a simple slice of toast was ambrosia to him. Every mouthful brought back memories of home.

A  Red Cross nurse named Josie asked Dennis if he had any relatives in the army. He told her about Vern, then he remembered his brother in law, Bill Spackman, was somewhere out this way. She went away and made some enquiries and within days, Dennis had his first visitor. His brother in law, Bill... She had arranged for a two week leave for him if he visited and wheeled Dennis around in his wheelchair outside the building.       

 Eventually, Dennis was the only ex p.o.w patient left in the hospital ward and it was now his birthday. A nurse came to his bedside and told him they had a surprise for him as it was his birthday. Placing him in his wheelchair, she pushed him along corridors and into a large room where all the doctors, nurses and other staff were waiting for a film projector to start. Dennis was wheeled between the groups of staff and positioned so he could see the screen. The lights went out and the projector started up, the flickering images on the screen showing a newsreel and a piece about NOTTINGHAM. After about five minutes the film ended and the lights went up. The nurse turned his wheelchair around and to Dennis’ surprise, all the white coated staff were standing beside a table. They sang “Happy Birthday” to him as the nurse wheeled him to the table where an iced cake had been made especially for him. Written in icing across the cake were the words, “DON’T  FENCE  ME  IN.”

Needless to say, Dennis shed a few tears.


Dennis (front left) with Antoni (white trousers) and other patients at Poona

Poona No.3, I.BG.H. (Indian British General Hospital) would be the next stop where he would spend Christmas. He was now classed as ‘walking wounded’, and was only allowed out into the town for a few hours each day.

In one of these exercise days whilst walking down Commercial St market area that he got talking to a friendly market trader. The trader offered to send a food parcel back to his mother in England and he would personally post it. This was agreed and 40 was charged for this huge parcel. Dennis knew his mother would love it.

Antoni, an Italian prisoner of war at the hospital presented him with a cigarette case as a memento. He had made it from an aluminium army mess tin and engraved it with delicate curling leaves on one side and a Maltese cross on the other. Dennis treasured this gift and still possesses it today. Antoni stayed in India.


Engraved cigarette case

During his stay here, he was surprised to have a few visitors to his bedside. Moving from bed to bed around the ward were Singhalese women and Dennis watched them, waiting for them to stop at his bed.

What a friendly, caring group of ladies they were he thought as they neared his bed. As he propped himself up on his pillow, the first of the smiling women sat beside him. After asking of his health, she quickly turned the conversation to Dennis’ occupation back home. He told her of his work at the Ericsons sawmill and suddenly, she arose from the bedside, and bid him good luck and moved to the next patient.

This was to happen a couple of times with each visit from the ladies and when they had left the ward a nurse came in and informed the lads who the women were. It appeared that the women were given permission to visit patients, but their underlying motive was to secure a husband for their daughters. They were all looking for a man with a good profession such as lawyer, doctor or businessmen with their own business. It seemed that they were out of luck in Dennis’ ward.

Sometimes the patients would take their plated meals out into the garden area to eat. It was hear that he remembered they would come under attack from the Shitehawk birds as they dived to the plates to scavenge what they could. Often, if quick enough, they would swoop in and relieve the patient of his slice of meat from his plate.

Dennis was eye witness to another type of Shitehawk too while in this hospital. Typical of Army bullshit on hospital inspection day, the bed bound patients were to “lay at attention” when an officer made the rounds. ALL toilet doors were open ajar at a certain measurement taken with tape measure and flowers placed in the bowl. Patients were not allowed to use the toilets at inspection time?????

It was now late 1946 and at this hospital Dennis met ‘Jock’ Walsh from Crieff, Scotland, and they were both diagnosed with having T.B. They were both taken by ambulance to a ship bound for South Africa where they were to spend time at a sanatorium. As the ship was about to sail, Dennis was hurriedly taken off again and returned to the hospital. The doctors had given second thought to their diagnosis. The symptoms were similar to TB, but it was proved he had not got T.B.#

A few weeks later, he was taken from the hospital and put on the ship “Strathaird”, bound for Southampton, England.

At last, he was going home.






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[Life of Riley] [Early Days] [Royal Artillery] [Empress of Japan] [SS Narkunda] [Chaos] [Escape] [Sumatra] [Action Stations] [Pladjoe] [Palembang] [Leaving Oesthaven] [Java] [Japanese at Batavia] [Tanjong Priok Camp] [Back to Singapore] [Batu-Lintang Camp] [Glimmer of Hope] [Liberation September 1945] [Going Home] [Back in England] [Mystery Picture] [National Memorial Arboretum]


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