Shortly after this, we had our orders to be ready the next day. After breakfast we were collected together and marched down to the docks. When we arrived there were already a number of prisoners boarding a small merchantman of about four thousand tons, the Dai Nicchi Maru, so were kept on the quayside until it was our turn to board. I noticed the ship was not very high from the quay or in the water, so gathered it must be pretty well loaded already.
The queue of men on deck led to the rear hold, we slowly made our way watched closely by several guards. I came to the steps and went down to the first level of the hold where guards were closing us up so no space was wasted – when all the floor area had been filled the hatch cover when on. The hold was lit by a couple of light bulbs on a piece of flex. It was sweltering hot and when my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, I saw I was in the centre with my back against the bulk head. There was just enough space to lie down with our few belongings. The hold was piled high with ore almost to our level, which we thought to be tin ore from Malaya. The deck below was stacked with vehicle engines and gearboxes.
There was the usual hubub of noise as the men talked and sorted themselves out, when suddenly above the noise a parade ground voice said “Gentlemen, if we could have your attention please”. There was a sudden hush, everyone appear to stop in mid-sentence. It was a long time since we had been on a parade ground, but his voice had the authority that we remembered and responded to immediately. As we looked through the gloom, four Sergeants could be seen standing at the bottom of the steps leading to the deck. One of them spoke saying there needed to be some organisation and if we had no objections, they would be willing to take charge. We had no idea what to expect in the days ahead and agreed it would be better for us all to have someone to work out rotas of any duties that may have to be carried out. They then asked for the most Senior Officer in the hold to join them as our spokesman to the Japanese. A Flight Lieutenant then came forward and agreed to be C.O. of the hold. That business dealt with, the hubub resumed.
The hold had become terribly hot and humid and some of the men needed to go to the toilet. The guard at the top of the steps told them they would have to wait until more men needed to go, so I and others joined them. There were two rows of wooden cubicles at the stern which partly hung over the sea and didn't look too safe, one row on either side of the ship, one side for Japanese use, the other for ours. There was no washing facilities whatsoever.
I learnt later that there were a thousand prisoners on board, divided between the two holds at the stern. Whilst queuing for the toilets, I met up with some men from Bouie Glodok prison. They had left a fortnight after our departure and put directly on board the ship, and had been cramped in the other hold for four days before we boarded. I was glad I had volunteered to go, my predictions had come true.
We had been on board for about six hours, when some rice in two large wicker baskets and some buckets of a pink fishy smelling liquid were lowered into the hold. The Sergeants immediately appeared and stood by the food, informing us they would serve it. Whilst two did the serving, the other two saw to it that one section of the hold at a time got their share. They worked the amount out well will a little over, this was then shared round equally. I think we were all grateful to those Sergeants for their foresight and willingness to work to make things run smoothly.
We sailed about nine o’clock that night, the hold felt less humid so we settled down to sleep. There was a blackout on the ship, but our lights were left on. I slept well that night with the motion of the ship and the sound of the waves slapping against the hold.
The next day it became clear what our routine was to be, we had two meals each day, the same diet of rice and pink liquid for every meal, drinking water was obtained on deck, but only when going to the toilet. The worst part was not being able to wash ourselves. We had to wait until then men needed to use the toilet before being allowed on deck, so there was always a queue, this made it possible to stay on deck for a spell of fresh air. Needless to say the odour in the hold was unpleasant with so many unwashed bodies.
The guards became more relaxed whilst at sea. One day whilst on deck I saw three ships in our little convoy escorted by a destroyer. The ships were not large so assumed there must be submarines in the area to need a destroyer escort. It was now about eleven months since America came into the war and they were probably becoming quite active in the area now. I was thinking we wouldn't stand much chance if we were unlucky enough to be torpedoed.