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Forty-Two Months in Durance Vile
Prisoner of the Japanese
By R Keith Mitchell
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2014 R. Keith Mitchell
All rights reserved.
Prisoners of War
Monday morning dawned to an extraordinary quiet in which almost nothing stirred and the only sound came from a dump of small arms ammo, which was burning at the far end of the cricket padang.
The sun rose hopefully and blazed in splendour throughout that day but did little to dispel the odd mixture of shamefaced relief and very considerable apprehension felt by most of us.
What did the future hold? An unknown length of incarceration under unpredictable conditions, which certainly must include a great deal of hardship of one kind or another. We shut our minds to it, for anticipation would not alter the ultimate unpleasantness and it was better to wait and see and take it as it came.
Plunder became a main preoccupation. We were in barracks normally used by soldiers who could now be anywhere on the island, or even dead. All troop movements were forbidden by the Jap Command, so it was probable that survivors could never return to retrieve their kit. Indeed few were able to do so and most captives eventually moved to their 'place of incarceration' carrying only what they had with them at the time of the cease-fire. Our men were simply seeing to it that items of kit that were 'lifted' were not entirely wasted, or handed over to the Japs.
The snag was that no sooner had a man collected a pile of 'winnings' and gone off to look for more, than his own kit would be plundered by someone else. I think we all finished up more or less as we started. It was misplaced opportunism at best in a period out of control, following one of extreme tension. Enforcement was to some extent in abeyance because no one was responsible for it.
My only permanent wins were a pair of highly polished 'square bashing' boots, sandals too large for me, a pair of natty silk pyjamas and an Aussie bush hat, and these were neatly balanced by losses from my own kit. A coveted pith helmet was won and lost again within ten minutes.
In the end the CO, Major J. F. English, called a halt, saying that his own kit and that of the Adjutant had already been rifled twice and 'All looting will cease forthwith!' And it did! Most felt rather guilty about it anyway.
The rest of that day passed quietly. The Raffles Museum was close by, a place full of ethnic and natural history exhibits, which would have delighted me at any other time. But now the curator, who was guarding his treasures somewhat fearfully, was worried far more about his wife and children who had been evacuated by ship a few days earlier. He could not have known it at the time, but his concern on their behalf was fully justified, and they could well have been among the many hundreds who died in attempting to get away.
There was still no sign of the Japanese, and not a civilian of any kind stirred abroad in the streets. Great oil fires continued to burn around the western and northern shores, and black smoke billowed upwards with one incongruous white column in its midst. Contrary to fictional accounts, the streets of Singapore were not filled with smoke. The fires (whose purpose was to deprive the Japs of stored oil) were a long way outside the city limits and in a generally still atmosphere there was little drifting.
We went to bed that night again awaiting orders from our captors. It was a silent and strangely 'empty' city and the future continued to be very much an unknown factor.
Next morning all men were paraded on the well-kept lawn of short, coarse grass in front of Government House. The CO had news for us. We were to move off in an hour's time to a 'place of internment'. Kit would go ahead by truck, but each man should carry water and would be issued with rations for the day. Mine turned out to be one small tin each of bully beef and condensed milk.
We paraded once more and Major English made a short speech wishing us good luck in what he called 'The first steps of our long journey into captivity', finishing with a short prayer. Sergeant Major Hill brought us to attention, saluted smartly and marched us off into the morning sunshine.
The great city of perhaps a million inhabitants, swollen by at least half as many refugees, could have been totally deserted as we marched through the echoing streets. No civilians ventured out of doors, or even showed themselves at door or window. The only sound was that of our marching feet along the familiar tramway route of the Serangoon Road, past shuttered shops and houses where pavements had formerly thronged with busy crowds. The only sign of life now lay in white rectangles of paper, each with a large bright red central disc, 'the poached egg', the flag of Japan - which were fixed to every door to convey the ardent support of the occupants for the invading forces. These could not have appeared without human hands to put the there, but those humans were now lying low, out of sight, waiting in fear to welcome their new masters, a fear that was to be amply justified.
The Imperial flag of the sun's disc with radiating rays was more difficult to draw and was not seen. It was this one that was known to British troops, extremely rudely, as the 'flaming arse-ole!'
Some bomb damage was evident on this route but by no means as much as one might have expected. The great majority of buildings seemed to be intact, and broken glass, so much a feature in bombed areas of European cities, scarcely existed in this place where almost all windows were shuttered and not glazed.
Onward past the end of the Lavender Street red-light district, with an ironic cheer. Past a familiar five-road junction with its now deserted police station. Its central island, where formerly a well-built Indian cop had directed traffic, was now occupied by four or five wrecked cars, piled nose-high to give cover for street fighting, which probably never happened.
On out of the built-up area, past the Pineapple Factory, and Japanese encampments among plantations littered with armoured vehicles and the medium tanks, which had served them so well. Here little scurrying Japs were busy with various chores and ignored totally the marching column, which passed obediently by them with neither guard nor escort, on the way to captivity.
Now we met long columns of Indian and Gurkha troops moving west on the wide road. Shouts were exchanged and Johnny Gurkha waved and grinned as he always did.
Passing Bidadari, where communal graves were still unused, a man pointed in consternation at the seminary building, which less than a week before had been our Signal Office. Now it was a total wreck, blasted apart by shell or bomb. Once again we wondered how the fifth-column could have 'fingered' this one building in the school complex?
Still we marched in the noonday heat on towards the village of Paya Lebar, between hedgerows now. The sickly sweet smell of death was here, for it had been a minor battle area. The body of a large Sikh havildar leaned wide-eyed and turbaned over a hedge, caught by death in the act of climbing to safety, already bloating in the heat.
A wrecked thirty hundredweight truck and its driver, revoltingly spread-eagled on the road behind it, had both been gutted by a single mortar bomb. No locals had yet dared to come out to clear the obscenities of battle.
Onward, parched now in the blazing heat, further and further to the east, branching left and then right, through a maze of secondary roads, waterways and plantations of bananas, coconuts, pineapples, rubber and rice, past kampongs, all equally quiet and apparently deserted, but still with every house and hut sporting its 'poached egg' symbol, hoping to appease and placate the feared and invincible Jap. For he was now the unknown and dreaded factor in the existence of all survivors on the island, and indeed throughout all the vast areas of the East Indian Archipelago, which were to fall to his rapacious and greedy hands.
In some hours we passed the blank forbidding walls of Changi Jail, the 'Alcatraz of the East', where the verge was littered with anti-tank mines, hastily removed to make safe the way. (I wondered how these came to be available when our Command had held steadfastly that tanks could not be used in the Malayan conditions?) The jail would house servicemen for a while but was soon to become an appalling place of internment for those British civilians, men, women and children, who had remained on the island. Later, much later, it would accommodate the remnants of the captured servicemen who now marched past its walls.
Late afternoon, and with the sun already low, we rested in a sandy hollow, somewhere in the large area of the Changi Cantonment, awaiting further directions. Here again was the smell of death, some poor devil buried in a shallow grave, or perhaps unburied. Battle had raged briefly in this place several days earlier and decomposition is rapid in that climate.
It was dark, apart from the glow of oil fires some thirty miles away, when we dragged wearily up a steep hill and into a large stone building. Without light there was no possibility of sorting ourselves out and we slept where we stopped on the cool stone floor. The entire march had probably been no more than sixteen or eighteen miles, but far enough in that heat. At the end of it we had reached a peace-time Army area which was now to become our prison.
Next morning saw a great re-shuffle of persons. Temple Hill had been the HQ of the military area, and with all ranks from generals downwards crammed together, it was obvious that this fine tree-shaded building could be meant only for officers, even if they were now captives like the rest of us. So other ranks were ordered down the hill to occupy wooden barracks on its steep sides, and a cookhouse was established by the valley road below.
Orders came from Japanese Command that all radios and cameras were to be handed over. Our small radio went without a qualm, for it was demonstrably useless to us but I was inclined to hang on to my camera, bought only two months before, until others objected saying that it could cause trouble for all of us if it were found. So it went, although I kept one roll of exposed film in the forlorn hope that it might be worth processing when the war eventually ended. With no possible source of film and no processing available the camera would have been quite useless, except possibly on the black market, should there ever be one.
I had found a good mattress somewhere and slept reasonably comfortably on the floor of the new quarters for the short time we were there.
Some signalmen were now ordered to act as batmen to various officers. Protests were made, for this was believed to be a voluntary job for which we should not be detailed. As usual the Answer was 'You heard the order! Obey it!'
I found myself looking after two second lieutenants, each about ten years younger than myself and seemingly far more embarrassed by the situation than I was. Duties were light and rarely took up more than a couple of hours each day; cleaning their tiny room, fetching several glass bottles of water, which had been declared safe by the medics, from a stand-pipe a quarter of a mile away; and doing a small amount of 'dhobi' for them. For this they paid me a dollar a day, which was welcome for I had gone into captivity absolutely penniless. At the time there seemed no reason to believe that this money would ever be any use to us, but I felt naked without it and still had some faith in the British notes. Others were less sure and at least one man proudly boasted that he had used a ten dollar bill as toilet paper. If it gave him a millionaire complex at the time he may well have regretted it later, for that money still had value and was to be in extremely short supply. So was toilet paper!
Those two officers were pleasant young men, polite and almost apologetic when asking me to do anything. I wonder whether they eventually survived and I regret that their names and unit are now quite beyond recall.
They asked me to get rid of a spare camp-bed that was cluttering their inadequate room. It was the usual kind that folded down into an awkward bundle of linked spars and canvas.
As I was descending the stairs with this disorderly double armful I saw an elderly officer plodding up towards me. Crossed batons on his shoulder-straps and a very impressive array of 'scrambled egg' on his cap suggested that this was top brass indeed, far higher than I had seen at any time since I had been called up. With both arms occupied I could do no more than give him a smart 'eyesright' as I passed. I should have stood still! On the move, taking my eyes off the stairs proved my undoing and I tripped. Rather than go 'base-over-apex' down the stone stairway I dropped the bed, which made an impressive clatter, and grabbed the stair-rail. The old chap caught my arm and was quite solicitous in his enquiry 'All right?' He even gave me a helping hand to pick up the bits ot bed scattered down the stairs. This, I learned later, was Major General Sir Lewis Heath, Commanding Officer of III Indian Corps, and apparently a considerate man.
Afternoons were free and on several days I wandered down the crowded road past vast RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) stores full of an extremely varied stock of equipment, and on to Fairy Point, a small jetty sticking out into Serangoon Harbour in the Strait of Johore, opposite the jungle-clad island of Palau Ubin.
For a few days a native boat had been rowed across the small estuary bringing fruit and other things for sale or barter. One day, without warning, there was a short burst of machine-gun fire and this little enterprise was liquidated with an unpleasant finality.
I was fishing from the jetty half an hour later, using a bent pin and a line made from thin string unravelled from a polo-stick I had found, when one of the Chinese traders from the boat floated past, his legs fixed in a running posture and hands clawed in search of safety, head, open-eyed and open-mouthed, six inches under the water and very dead indeed. No more trading came that way!
I did catch a small fish but threw it back as it was too small to be worth cooking. It was still larger than the weekly ration we eventually lived on and I would have been less sporting about it at a later date.
Back along the same road a long line of Chinese boys sat patiently in the sun, strung together by a stout wire, which was cruelly twisted around their wrists. They could not escape and could do nothing to help themselves, but waited passively, watching white prisoners pass up and down the road. I tried to speak to them but got no reply. Like so many of the native population these boys knew no English.
An hour later a long burst of machine-gun fire was heard from the direction of the beach. Then our Command was ordered to provide burial parties to dispose of the bodies of these youngsters, who had been shot on suspicion of communism, based on secret reports from Jap tourists and residents before the war.
Two years later I met a Chinese lad who claimed to have survived such a massacre. His story will be told in due course.
Killings of this kind were to continue for a long time. The Japanese were masters now and in 'liberating' these lands they would repress their newly acquired subjects with the utmost ruthlessness and there were going to be a great many such arbitrary executions of Singapore and Malayan civilians in the next few years.
They were also reported to have executed many Malay fifth columnists who had helped them during their advance down the peninsula, on the principal that such people, having betrayed the British, were not to be trusted by the Japanese. Treachery was the reward of treachery.
Jap orders almost immediately after the fall of Singapore had converted the whole region to Tokyo time, which was one and a half hours ahead of local time, so the sun now set at 8 p.m. instead of the former 6.30 p.m. At the same time Emperor Hirohito renamed the city Shonan-To, or 'City of the South'. He could have called it Timbuktu if he had wanted to, we were no longer greatly interested.
A swimming pagar, a fenced shark-free area on the shore, was within bounds in those early days and was used as much as possible, for we had no facilities for washing in fresh water. The cookhouse had a spring-wound gramophone and a single record that was played ad nauseam from reveille to lights-out until we would cheerfully have jumped on it. Deanna Durbin and 'Ramona' rapidly lost favour!
The first cases of dysentery were being reported and I was feeling far from well myself, with little energy, a state that I attributed to the heat and to the change of diet. We had brought in a certain amount of European food, but this was dwindling rapidly and the Japs were supplying nothing but rice, rice and more rice. In the form of a good rice pudding this might have been palatable from time to time, but as plain boiled rice for three meals a day, week-in and week-out, it left a lot to be desired. Stomachs revolted and almost everyone suffered from digestive troubles brought on by this gooey, badly cooked, incredibly monotonous food. The very small amount of Australian tinned stores remaining was to be eked out for as long as possible.
Excerpted from Forty-Two Months in Durance Vile by R Keith Mitchell. Copyright © 2014 R. Keith Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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Table of Contents
1. Prisoners of War,
3. Chronic Ward,
4. The Selarang Incident,
5. Roberts Hospital,
6. Amoebic Ward,
7. Halcyon Days?,
8. The Wood Party and Other Things,
9. Rain and Other Matters,
10. Changi Village,
11. Brigade Cook,
12. A Move to Aussie Area,
13. Destination Unknown,
14. Dai Nippon,
15. Hakodate Prison Camp,
16. Summer Camp at Yakumo,
17. Hospital and Rats,
18. The Airfield is 'Open',
19. And Now to Muroran,
20. A Considerable Hunger,
23. Half-duty Party,
24. Kozaku Again,
25. 'Goodbye!' and then Disaster,
26. 'A Camp to Special Order',
27. Failed Iron-makers!,
28. An Historic Day,