Sketch by Jack Chalker


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The Will to Live



One morning, we paraded as usual for work on road building but instead were marched right down to the docks. We never thought for one moment that we were going on a journey in a “hell ship.”

At the docks we formed up with another party of POWs. Now there were about 400 of us. Quite a number of these men had malaria, dysentery and a few had beriberi. The Japs had pulled a fast one on us. Most of us had no personal belongings; many had not even a shirt on their backs. We were all forced into a small compound where there was only room to stand. The docks were swarming with Jap guards who were as brutal and vicious as any humans could be. We were made to stand from the early afternoon to about late afternoon the following day, and were given no food or water. Japs beat men up for asking to relieve themselves. We relieved ourselves where we stood.

Morning came and we were in a pitiable state. Men had slumped to the ground, near death, many were seriously sick, but still held themselves up proudly. How we hated these Japs, and they in their turn hated us. These beasts required no excuse to practice their sadistic brutalities. Late that afternoon we started boarding the “hell ship.” This ship was not seaworthy, but only fit to dump garbage not far from shore.

The Japs took us out of the compound 20 men at a time, forcing us to run with our sick, beating us with rifle butts, bayonets and bamboo poles, until we reached a small shed which was supposed to be a medical inspection room. Here we were given a degrading medical inspection that I will not attempt to describe, it was horrible. We were given an injection that made us feel horribly sick, but as we had no food as yet we had nothing to be sick on

Japanese soldiers, armed to the teeth with their rifles, bayonets, bamboo poles and lengths of rope, were lined up from the inspection to the bowels of the ship. We were made to run the gauntlet and, with our sick, received terrible punishment. Men fell down ladders to be picked up by their comrades, broken and bleeding. We could barely see with the poor lighting in these holds. The human cargo was eventually loaded on this miserable ship, the hatches battened down on us—the air and heat was terrible. With hunger and thirst, men began fighting like animals, the dying and the sick were practically forgotten. Despair was everywhere

Weariness and fatigue took over and we became quiet again and fell into troubled sleep hearing the moans of our sick and dying and prayers from some asking God to deliver us from this evil and promising to be good everafter. I myself hoped that a British or American warship or submarine would take us out of our misery. Later during the night, the ship began to move. Time did not mean much to us, we awoke and found ourselves in ‘Dante’s inferno’. The air was thick with the stench of starving, thirsty, demented humans. Men relieved themselves where they were, many had dysentery. Five men had died during the night and many more would not see the end of this journey.

At noon the Japs called a few men to come to the upper deck to lower food to us. This was rice in the form of rice balls and some water. It was pantomime at its worst with 400 men trying to grab their meager share. The fitter and more sensible men did by superhuman strength manage to restore some sort of order. Sharing out the water was most difficult as the Japs only gave us a few tin cans. It was terrible to hear men plead for more water after their meager share. The five dead men were carried up on deck and thrown into the sea in their nakedness.

We tried to organize ourselves by splitting into groups and appointing leaders. I was chosen as a leader of about 30 men. My responsibilities were seeing that my own group was fed in an orderly way and that each man got his share. Of course, we only got food once a day. Each group looked after their own sick and carried their dead on deck. This also was once a day.

There was not much we could do for the sick as we had nothing medical with us. The best we could do was to try and clean them as best we could and comfort them. Somehow space was made for latrines, of course the stink was hellish. There was no room for exercise so we mainly sat around with our own thoughts and waiting for one poor meal of a rice ball and a little water. What made most of us survive this trip was the will to live. I am not sure whether it was 6 or 10 days we were aboard this “hell ship,” but it seemed an eternity to most of us. Men died every day, I would say that altogether 40 to 50 men died. How we wished for a British or American submarine to torpedo us. We were quite willing to take our chances. Eventually we arrived in South Formosa.


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