Friday, 4 February 2011

7: Hard Labour, Batavia Airfield - Part 2.

It was clear that our captors were striving to bring the airfield we were working at up to operational use and that we were the only prisoners available at that time to do the work. My own thoughts at the time were to wonder whether the urgency was because they intended to strike at the surrounding islands from there.

Each night after roll call in the cell, I'd take my blanket outside and lay watching the tops of the waving palms that grew the other side of the prison wall and think of the wonderful world out there, it was the only time of day I felt at peace. My other thoughts were mainly of food, good food, lovely meals and to feel free. The first man to die in the camp was an airman, a muscular man who had given demonstrations on muscle control as entertainment on the troopship coming from England to Singapore. We were stunned that such a superbly fit man should die. Other deaths followed, some from dysentery, others just seemed to lose the will to live. The sick bay was situated in the Army part of the camp and as most deaths and burials took place whilst we were at work, we were unaware of just how many occurred unless they were actually from our cell.

We never waited around in our cells for the guards to come for us in the morning if we could help it, it was not that we were keen to get to work, but anxious to avoid the digs from their rifles and blows from the butts, so we would be ready and waiting in the yard. Several mornings as I sat waiting, I notice one of the Army chaps who looked familiar but never gave any sign that he recognised me. I was sure I had met him and that he was from Tilbury in Essex. One morning I tried to chat but he didn't speak another word. I'd never seen anyone look so unhappy. His friend said he was not feeling too well, so I left him be At a later date I saw his friend alone who tole me the chaps wife had written to him saying she was going to live with another man. He had received the letter just before being captured. A few weeks alter I was told he had died.

One night an Australian aircrew of three men escaped from the prison and managed to reach the airfield, they were captured as they attempted to ready a plane for flight, all were shot the following day. Several men who had slept next to and near the escapees were taken from their cell and put in a detention camp for two weeks, where they were badly treated and given just one meal a day. Their crime was that they had not reported that their companions were planning to escape. There were no further attempts after that, as we were told in future it would not be detention camp but the firing squad, they knowing that we would not leave our pals to suffer the penalty for us.

Some of the prisoners, including myself, began to get sweat rash around our groin, it was probably something to do with our bad diet. The M.O. had nothing with which to treat us so it steadily became worse. It was not caused by un-cleanliness, as we now had the wash cubicles which we used regularly. I had an area of around six inches down the inside of each leg that had turned red raw, my scrotum had lost all of its skin and oozed a clear liquid. This made me very uncomfortable, especially at work, so I tore up a worn shirt and tied it to my belt from and rear to help prevent the chafing. Our M.O. eventually came up with a cure. We were to urinate into a tin and then bathe the affected parts with urine. It took time, but gradually healed. Any sign of it starting up again, we immediately started the treatment. It was about this time we began receiving the occasional packet of cigarettes.

Marching to work one day, we were stopped outside what had been a Dutch Army barracks. An officer asked if any of us knew anything about painting. Five men, including myself, put our hands up. I was chosen and taken inside to the kitchen area by a Japanese soldier where there was a huge dresser, a pot of paint and a brush. I looked at the dresser and decided it needed cleaning before it could be painted. When the soldier who had left returned, I pointed out what needed to be done, so off he went and returned with a bucket and cleaning rags. I then carried on with the work with occasional visits from my soldier guard.

Just before midday he came and asked where I was from, I told him England. He then pulled from his pocket a postcard size photo of a Japanese girl about to be raped by Uncle Sam with John Bull holding her down. I didn't know quite what to say, his gaze watching my face intently as he awaited my answer. He then pointed to me and said “You Japan”, I told him we didn't do things like that and pointed out that both Uncle Sam and John Bull in the photo both had slanted eyes. With signs and gestures, we both agreed we were members of our country's armed forces and enemies. He then told me to stop work and have my meal. I then washed my hands in preparation to eat. My soldier returned once again and asked to see my food. He then waved his hand over it and told me not to eat it. He once again disappeared and on the return, brought me a cooked dinner of meat, green beans and rice on a plate. What a feast! It was unbelievable to be sitting at a table eating a good meal and feeling like a human being again.

He was a young soldier who I thought must have come from Japan for the invasion of Java and as the Dutch has capitulated, had had no experience of fighting or seen any bloodshed. When I finished work that day, I asked if I would be needed next day, to which he nodded yes. My sank as we continued to march past without halting the following morning. The guards at the camp who changed monthly, were entirely different and hardened species. We were forced to stop and bow to them as they walked around the yard and stand up and bow when they entered our cells. Out of the ratio of five guards, one would be a brute who would look out for any excuse to beat or club one of us with his rifle, one to be avoided at all costs, the remaining four not quite so sadistic but needed to be treated with caution.

One day a civilian was brought into camp who was said to be a Swiss naturalist captured in the jungle. It wasn't long before he was helping out in the cookhouse saying he could improve our diet using the plants that were plentiful and growing locally. There seemed to be an improvement in our soup on occasions, but it wasn't to last as he was moved from camp after three weeks. I read after the war that it was Laurens Van Der Post, who had probably been spying for the allies.

Whilst working at the airfield, if near the perimeter fence, Javanese would come with bananas and other fruit and offer to sell to the prisoners at outrageous prices, the guards on odd occasions would allow this. I had some genuine Dutch Guilders but Japanese currency of occupation was now in use. We were now being paid a small amount of cash, I used mine to buy razor blades, toothpaste and soap at the camp, which was awfully poor quality stuff but better than none. The person in charge of our cell would be called to the main building and handed our pay with the goods to sell. There was never sufficient cash to buy all three items at once, so always had to decided which I needed most. The cigarette issue had been stopped and we were now given three small cigars on the odd occasion.

1 comment:

  1. Frank, The level of detail here is remarkable -- and also horrifying. The episode where the three Australians tried to escape and were executed must have been terrifying. The skin problem also sounded quite awful. The incident involving the young Japanese soldier who got you a good meal was touching, however; would that he had been your guard for a longer time!

    It's occurring to me now that three Dutch soldiers were executed at the camp in Bandung, Java, in April 1942, and I've read that this happened at approximately the same time, in multiple locations throughout Java, with a total of about 43 or 46 executions in all, to make the point that no one was to try to escape, and discipline was not to be taken lightly.