Shortly after our return to Changi, working parties were formed and sent off to various parts of the island. My working party arrived at Keppel Harbour to do stevedore work that is loading and unloading Jap ships.
We were housed in one of the warehouses on the quayside, which was a steel-framed building cladded with corrugated iron on the walls and roof. We had ample room, and each had a timber-framed bed with wire netting for the mattress, and we had lots of sacks for bedding if we hadn't blankets.
The food was better at Keppel Harbour than it had been at Changi, and as we were all fit men, or at least rather fit, we had no reason at this stage to have a hospital, although we had a medical section with us that dealt with the everyday problems of sickness or accident.
Our first job was to sort out a miscellaneous collection of merchandise stored in a particular warehouse, and we had a pretty good time feeding our faces with tinned caviar, hams and fruit etc., and how it arose was due to the Japs not being able to read English, and not knowing what was food or otherwise. The Jap guard would look at a crate or box and ask what it was, “Meshi-ka?” he would enquire, which translated means “Is it food?” and if it was, we would tell him “NIE, it's grease or oil or anything unedible,” to which he would reply “O.K. English soldier take,” and when he went off we would have a beano.
If the boxes, tins or jars were shoe polish, or mepo or soft soap or anything unedible, we would inform the Jap it “Joto meshi,” in other words, “Good to eat,” and he would open it and have a mouthful, and more often than not spit it out, and look at us as though we were stupid, and say “Englisho meshi joto nie,” amongst other words we couldn't understand, but by his mannerisms he appeared to be saying something like “No wonder you are prisoners if you eat stuff like that, it's bloody awful.”
We managed to kid them along for a period, and we ate like lords, and also took quite a bit back to our billet for those who weren't on the working party.
One of our mates managed to pinch some iodine, and took it back to the medical orderly, who was very friendly with a couple of blokes, who had a severe dose of Changi balls, and they had tried all sorts to cure it without success. When they got to know we had a stock of iodine they decided to paint the affected parts with iodine, much against the warnings of the orderly. Sure enough they loosened their pants down and slapped on the iodine but within seconds they were making a bee-line for the docks, and doing quicker than evens, they dived into the water, and started like hell to wash the iodine off their poor old red hot changi balls. They were nearly driven mad with pain, and splashed about the water for some considerable time before they cooled down.
Iodine was not the treatment for changi balls.
We took on other duties than loading and unloading ships while we were at Keppel Harbour, and one day I was a member of a group who were sent on a working party on the outskirts of the city, and our work consisted of rolling partially empty fifty gallon drums of aviation spirit to a point near the railway at the side of this field.
We would empty them and make up full drums, which we then had to roll up some planks, and stack them on the railway trucks for transporting up to Burma, so we were told. An incident happened which we all so delighted about, and it involved one of the nastiest little guards we had met up to that time. He was a little speedo merchant, and he had us sweating like hell rushing about the place with these ruddy petrol drums. He was the bloke who said when they were full, and ready for the bung to be driven home, and this occasion was to be his last on this earth, thank the Lord. With a cigarette in his mouth he poked his slanty-eyed little head over the hole to inspect and whom! He and the drum just went up in a flash, and what we witnessed may be queried by the medical profession, but happen it sure did, and I saw it with my own eyes.
This pig of a human being was dressed with a cap, gee-string, socks, and boots, and as he was standing up in the flame I saw his entire skin roll off his body to the ground, and for a split second I saw a skin-less human being, if that is a correct description of a Jap guard. Fortunately for us another Jap guard saw what happened, and that I am sure saved us from a ruddy good hiding, and perhaps being shot.
We were certainly becoming hard people, and that incident gladdened our hearts, heaven forbid.
Having seen the incident first hand, it had a moral, and that was, don't smoke when handling petrol.
Another incident which ought to be recorded but unfortunately the chap doing the job was a stranger only known as Bill, and was never on a working party with me again, I think he was from the Royal Regiment. He had a pair of boots on with steel toe caps, and as the barrels were rolled into position on the railway truck, he kicked and kicked at the old drums until many were punctured, and we often wondered how much petrol actually reached its destination in Burma. Sabotage like this was being done every day, and medals would not have been sufficient compensation for the risk that some of our troops took, but they did it without any thought of such recognition.
As we marched from the Harbour Camp we marched like soldiers, with arms rising to a horizontal position on the forward and backward swings, and when we halted it was in real military style, and how the natives liked it, particularly the Chinese. We thought it would be a moral booster for them, and it certainly made us feel good. At the risk of death, Chinese men and women and children ran into our path, handing us little bits of food, fruit or in some cases money, and wished us well, and any of those brave people who were caught by the Jap guards were assaulted in brutal fashion, and some were carted off.
We witnessed a Chinese funeral when we were out on the fringes of the city, but we thought it was a carnival, and our immediate thoughts were that some of the natives were celebrating something or other. There was, what appeared to be a decorative float, music and people dancing around, and when we were told it was a funeral we couldn’t believe it, but apparently when a Chinaman dies it is a moment of joy, and the spirit moves on in a happy state.
The regular soldiers in our midst used to kid us that Japanese women were set in a horizontal position, and not like the Europeans vertical, and thinking the Japanese were a one off race of people anyway, we had no reason to disbelieve. However, an incident happened on the docks which disproved this.
Standing on the docks a big ship pulled into the quay side, a little distance from us, and the decks were filled to overflowing with women, Japanese women, Geisha, home comforts for the troops.
What the mentality of the Japanese is I never did find out, but these women were herded off the ship like cattle, with Japanese men guards actually clouting their own women with sticks to drive them along the docks to a position just behind us, and they were made to sit down in the shade of the overhanging roof at the front of all the warehouses. They were only a few yards from us and were sitting in a crouched position on their hunkers. None of them had any pants on, and what a sight it was but the regular soldiers were wrong as they were all truly vertical just like any other women, but if they hadn’t been I certainly would not have been surprised.
We were in Keppel Harbour for several months, and at the end of our stay, we were witnessing some of the effects of war on the seas in the Far East, as several ships coming in had extensive damage, and the Japs must have at last come to realise they were now in war in earnest.
We had heard from Changi that a few months beforehand several thousand prisoners-of-war had been sent north to Siam, now known as Thailand, to build a railway and the Japs had killed the troops. The Japs had said that where they were going there was lots of food, and the work would be fairly light, so they were recommended to take all their sick with them as they would have a better chance to get healthy again.
Life in Keppel Harbour had not been too bad, and sickness had been kept to a minimum, and thanks for this must go to many Chinese, who managed to get medical supplies for us, however, at last we were informed we were to be moved up into Thailand with our friends, and for our benefit.