Friday, 28 January 2011

7: Hard Labour, Batavia Airfield - Part 1.

On our first morning at work we wondered what was in store for us. All the airmen were formed up in the yard in ranks of four, and with several guards and a Japanese officer we were marched out of the gates along through the town with a number of spectators watching, then on to a rock chipping road where we heard machine gun fire in the distance, then across fields and eventually arriving at Batavia Airport.

After some consultation between the officer in charge of us and those in charge at the airport, we were marched to the runway which had been devastated by three charges detonated at intervals which left huge craters along it. There were several other craters that had been caused by bombing. We were then marched twenty men to a crater and given tools which consisted of a wicker basket with a pole through for two men to lift and a three sided wooden tray, which was to be filled using a mattock and hammers to break the rock.

Work began in the sweltering heat watched over by Japanese soldiers, the slings and baskets had to be loaded full, the trays weighed twenty eight pounds when full and had to be picked up by one man and carrier to the crater and tipped, then back again and refilled. This was accompanied by constant shouts of “Speedo, Speedo”, it was going to be an awful day. Any man appearing not to do his best was beaten, some were made to hold an empty oil drum over his head at arms length then beaten when they could not carry on.

At lunch break our meal consisted of rice packed in a two inch deep rectangular box with a small piece of fish which we were allowed to eat in the shelter of the palm trees. Our meal over, it was back to work with no let up. We would have liked to change about with the work, but it didn't seem a good idea to chance anything which might aggravate our captors and cause further beatings.

At last we were told to put our tools together, leave them and form up ready to march back to prison. We were dead beat and fortunately they didn't worry too much about our marching together until we reached the main roads. Halted at the gates of the prison we were then counted before entering, locked in our cells and food brought shortly afterwards. The usual diet again. Not much was said as we sat or laid down feeling completely exhausted and almost too tired to eat.

After the meal and a drink, we began to talk and discussed our various experiences of the day. Some had removed their shirts and been badly sunburnt, some had blistered hands and others sore shoulders from carrying heavy loads. Unexpectedly, during the evening a RAF medical officer appear at the bars of our cells accompanies by a guard asking if anyone was unwell. He told those suffering from sunburn to come to the bars then rubbed them with ointment warning them to wear their shirts in future as he hadn't much hope of getting further supplies of medication.

There was another roll call that night. We carried on in the same pattern for a fortnight. The searing heat and the pace at which we had to work , plus the lack of decent food began to take its toll, we were unable to go on being pushed to our very limits. With no rest, raw hands and diarrhoea, then dysentry, work was slowing so we suffered more beatings and blows with rifle butts, we just couldn't go on.

That night the M.O. came to the cell bars and was furious when he saw the state we were in. He told us he would try to see the Commandant with the C.O.

The next day we were not called for work so just sat or laid resting until afternoon when the door was unlocked, we were then herded out and put into ranks on the square. The camp Commandant then addressed us and said that we had worked hard so had been given the day off. Some restrictions were to be lifted but would be renewed if we didn't behave. Then our C.O. spoke to us saying he had had a talk with the Commandant regarding our working and living conditions. He had told him there would be no prisoners left to do any work if there were no immediate improvements.

The changes to be made were that the cell doors were to be left open and if we so wished we could sleep outside the yard. We were not to stroll about outside and must not collect into groups. Washing facilities were to be made in the yard and another concession which pleased us greatly, was that RAF and army cooks would take over the preparation of food. The rice and stew was to be put into tubs and collected from the cook house by men from each cell, the grandly named stew consisted of some type of greens, the water it was cooked in plus an occasional potato and the liquid. We were each to keep our own tin bowl and dish. Food was our top priority, so this news alone was much welcomed by all.

Our spirits were lifted with all this information and that evening after roll call I moved my blanket outside along with a few other. It was great to lay under the purple sky looking up at the stars. I slept well that night free from bugs at last. Our blankets and any belongings still had to be kept in our cells at all times, except when in use.

There were always guards present in the yard, they had to be saluted or bowed to and were pretty troublesome at times, we never knew when to expect a beating. The real purpose of going outside was to wash or do washing.

Toilet facilities were to be made in the year as the holes in the cell floors were full of flies and were the main cause of the dysentry which had broken out. The RAF officers, who up until that time had been placed in the various cells along with us men, were now moved into one cell together and were put in charge of various sections of men as we were marched to work.

At the airfield we were now allocated a ten minute rest time, four men at each interval, depending on the guard, sometime we weren't so lucky. We were being driven as hard as ever but it was a relief to know there wold be the occasional rest, no one slackened, things were a little better and it was in our interest to keep it that way.

Over the next few days cubicles were built out of the bug ridden table tops by some of the prisoners and placed in the centre of the yard over the main drainage channel that run under the prison wall through an iron grille. This was a cement channel eighteen inches deep and approximately twelve inches wide, designed to cope with the tropical downpours. The cubicles straddled this drain and were to be our toilets. There was running water from a fire hose, this was placed in the channel for flushing purposed each morning and evening for our use before leaving for work and upon return. The cell toilets were clean and not used again. Other cubicles were made with gratings to stand on, so we were able to wash and have hand showers. Water for this purpose was obtained from a tap in the yard.  Behind the prison was a small river into which all the sewage ran. On the opposite bank live Javanese in bamboo huts. Their toilets were cubicles place on bamboo rafts moored to the bank, so all their waste went into this river in which they also bathed and did their washing.

1 comment:

  1. Frank,

    I suppose that the craters in the air field were caused by Allied demolition crews before they had to abandon the air fields. It's so ironic that you and other Allied prisoners then had to do hard labor to make the repairs.
    I'm also amazed that raw sewage from the native Javanese settlement went into the river, this close to the major city of Batavia.