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.


Dennis and his comrades made their escape from Pladjoe by trucks supplied by the Dutch.

On the way there they met some lads by the roadside who shouted a warning to them to keep away from P2 or they would go mad. The truck carried on to the capital, Palembang.

Here they assembled under the command of Major Cutbush and began their march along a narrow track through the jungle. As they rounded a bend, the Major ordered Dennis, now carrying a Bren gun to stay behind. He concealed himself in a dry ditch with camouflage and trained his gun on the bend in the track.

Dennis told me he was beginning to worry himself with his thoughts. What would I do if the Japs show up?  What if the Jap troops come around the bend and he was to open up on them? They would scatter but all guns would be aimed and fired at him. He’d be dead meat for sure.

But the troops never came and he was thankfully recalled by the Major.

As they made camp for the night at a deserted native village, he recalled the lads’ roadside warning about staying clear of P2. In the pitch black jungle could be heard all manner of strange noises. Birds or monkeys screeching, twigs cracking as animals (or Japs) trod their way through dense undergrowth frightening the life out of them.

Sumatra is a beautiful place when in a civilised environment. But it could be deadly around the impenetrable jungle between the mountains and swamps were panthers roamed. Most of the country was unexplored and plagued by diseases such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid, malaria, black water and dengue fever. As if this wasn’t enough, snakes, mosquitoes, leeches, river crocodiles and alligators were ever ready to bite onto human flesh. In the sea, sharks would be waiting for their next meal be it animal, or human

That night when it was their time for guard duty, Dennis and his mate saw two eyes shining in the dark and silently coming towards them. Frightened out of their wits, holding their breath and standing stock still, the ‘eyes’ silently past them and disappeared. With a sigh of relief they spent a fearful couple of hours on guard. Next day they were told the ‘eyes,’ were just harmless fireflies.

Also that night while five of them were sleeping in a hut on some primitive beds, they were awoken with a squealing, swearing and shouting. Ernie ‘Mickey’ Cook, a despatch rider, sat cursing in the middle of the room. His bed had been overturned with him in it after a wild boar had come into the hut on its forage for food. Who was the most scared is in question, but the boar made its getaway in the confusion. Seconds later a shot was heard and a report came back that the boar had been shot by an officer.

The next morning the truth about the shot was known. A young RAF lad had cracked under the strain and blew his brains out with his rifle. As the troops walk passed his body, the ants were immediately covering his body and his face was already eaten down to the bone.

On their march to P2, Dennis was struck by the paternal instinct of a family of orang-utans’ holding hands crossing the trail in front of them.  He said it reminded him of a human family going shopping. But his next sighting of a wild animal unnerved him. Lying across the railway track in front of him was the remains of a huge alligator. Its head, severed from its body was on one side of the rail, its body between the rails and it severed tail on the other side of the rail. Obviously it had mistimed its crossing when a train was passing.

By the time they reached P2 and settled themselves in on the 16th February, the order was given to abandon the site and destroy all equipment including the cookhouse utensils.

Heading out, Dennis’ group came across a rail head just a few miles up the road. It reminded him of an old one shack station he’d seen in old cowboy films way out west..

Approaching the preparation officer, Lt McCorkindale, Dennis asked if he could go and try to find some means of transport to collect the rest of the troops. Permission was given only if he took someone with him, so he set off with Gunner Peter Musson on their search.

Eventually they came across an abandoned Ford V8 bus at a rail head with all the wiring ripped out. After about an hour, Dennis and Peter finally got the engine running and drove the bus back to towards P2.

Along the road they came across two columns of troops trudging towards them. Turning around, the mix of Australian, Dutch and American soldiers and airman thankfully boarded the bus. But one Dutch lad was drunk and carrying a Thompson machine gun. Suddenly he started firing it in the air and as he started to lower the blazing barrel, an American quickly stepped forward and with one blow laid the man out. The Dutchman was unceremoniously thrown into the bus.

Now fully laden and with men perilously hanging on to each side of the vehicle, it set off back to the rail head.

At the ‘station’ stood a goods train with a two man crew standing around not knowing what to do. The scared men didn’t want to be caught helping the Allied Forces escape by the Japs. Their problem was solved when an RAF man and a Yank did some bargaining with them and coal was shovelled into the engines furnace and steam was soon up.

The wagons were carrying sacks rice and bananas and each wagon had been emptied of its load by RAF and other forces to make room for them. The wagons were packed tight with them. Dennis and his group managed to find a  wagon empty of men, but  still laden with the sacks of rice, bananas and a crate of Dutch ‘Marauds’ cigarettes. Scrambling aboard the men perched precariously on the cargo of sacks as the train started to pull away. Some of the men were carrying articles they had picked up from abandoned houses. One had two thick stamp albums and ‘Spider’ Webb had hold of a complete tiger skin. What he was going to do with it was anybody’s business.

Above was a rusty corrugated metal roof that kept the sun off the men but was very hot to the touch and radiated heat onto them. They had to jettison the sacks to get lower in the wagon. As they passed native huts or small villages, the sacks were thrown over the side of the wagon. Looking backwards, Dennis saw natives eagerly snatch up the sacks and carry them off. Rice and bananas would be served at their mealtime for weeks ahead.

Running alongside the railway line was a road which was now filling up with people laden trucks and other vehicles heading south. The train was heading for the most southern tip of Sumatra, Oesthaven, 300 miles down the line.

After some time the train came to a halt and the yanks went up to the engine to investigate. The crew were still scared and refused to take the train any further. The situation was solved when the yanks drew their pistols and pointed them at their heads, ordering them to get under way. The yanks stayed aboard the engine and carefully watched the crew. A few miles further down the line they stopped the train again. This time there were no threats, bargaining, or persuading. The crew were booted off the engine and the yanks drove the train to a halt at Oesthaven.






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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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