On our way to and from the airport we marched along a narrow gravel road to where we crossed a railway line at a level crossing. The trains that ran on this line were electric powered by overhead cable, not unlike our suburban trains at home.
On either side of the gravel road was a twenty feet wide grass verge which bordered a plantation of coconut palms.
One evening, on our way back to camp we were halted, a train was due. Where I had stopped, close by was a Javanese with his push tea-stall selling cakes and biscuits. The train hadn't yet arrived, I was starving hungry as always, and, having my Dutch guilders with me, decided to take a chance, leaving the ranks to buy some cakes, hoping to get back in line before any of the guards saw me.
When I arrived at his stall the Javanese trader seemed frightened and made no attempt to serve me. I pointed to the cakes behind the glass showing him my money, when I heard calls from the ranks, “Get back, they're coming”, I moved quickly with a glance as I went and saw one of the guards running towards me. I resumed my position in the ranks just before he reached me. He stopped and motioned for someone to move out, I was well aware of the collective punishment handed out if I didn't move, so stepped out onto the verge.
A Sergeant arrived and spoke to the guard, I was then moved further on to the verge so that I was in full view of the whole column of prisoners, presumably so they could witness my punishment. I had not, so far, received any of the anticipated blows which seemed most unusual.
Next, the Japanese Officer-in-charge came along. The Sergeant called me to attention in front of the Officer, who then began to speak to me in Japanese and by the tone of his voice, I knew it was a reprimand. This was the first time since the start of my captivity that I had been, or had witnessed a formal lecture being given. Usually, there was a shout then blows from a rifle butt, kicking and punching. I was wondering, was I being given notice of a court martial?
Honour and trust was valued highly by the Japanese and I began to think I had insulted the Officer-in-charge by leaving the ranks. I had no idea what he was saying, my only course was to look him straight in the eyes as I received his verbal abuse. His tone became more agitated as he worked himself into a frenzy. I prepared myself for the blows that were sure to follow as his rage increased. I knew a formal charge wasn't going to happen now, he was just another Japanese about to launch into another kicking and punching frenzy.
Suddenly, in one swift movement, he unsheathed his two-handed Samurai sword and raised it with both hands above his head. I managed to retain my steady gaze, keeping eye contact. My thoughts were, ‘So this is the end, at the side of a Javanese road, I wonder if it will hurt, will it need two blows?’ We stared at each other in silence, my next thought was, ‘This is not a very brave thing to do, chopping down an unarmed man’, trying to convey these thoughts to him with my eyes.
I do not know how long we stood thus, there was plenty of time for my thoughts as the silence continued. Suddenly he moved, slowly lowering the sharp edge of the sword onto my shoulder and stopped, then gently slid it off towards him, replacing it in its sheath. Perhaps he intended to cut through my shirt to show me what I had narrowly missed, but this was intact when I examined it later.
He then spoke calmly, wagging his finger in front of my face, and by the tone of his voice, I could only assume the message was “Don't do that again, or else”, which I didn't ever intend to. I was just thankful that my head was still firmly fixed to my body. He then motioned for me to rejoin the ranks.
Afterwards, I pondered over my narrow escape and wondered, was it because I looked him straight in the eye, did my thoughts reach him, was I honourable because I never moved the whole time and remained standing to attention? The answer I will never know. The Japanese were certainly very strange people. I felt sorry for the Javanese trader who I had involved. He had panicked and ran off when the he saw the guards coming after me. They had called on him to stop, but he had kept on running, so some shots had been fired. I think he reached the palm trees safely, so he may have got away. His tea and cake stall was overturned by the guards, the glass broken and the contents kicked about. A high price to pay by an innocent man.
When we moved off there were a lot of comments and questions from my fellow prisoners. “Was I frightened?”, “Did my past flash before me?” and comments such as “You were lucky”, “That was close” and “You won't do that again in a hurry”.
I had to agree, it had certainly been a close thing. I did wonder if, when we reached the prison, I would be taken for punishment, but fortunately not, as I had been dealt with on the spot by an officer. Next day, as we passed the spot I looked for the wrecked stall, it had completely disappeared, reclaimed later for repair I hope.