Friday, 25 March 2011

11: To Japan by Sea, a Terrible Voyage - Part 2.

Life was getting pretty unbearable in the hold, after five days some of the men were suffering from diarrhoea. As we lay trying to sleep at night, the rats would become active, I felt one run over my face one night, which wasn't very pleasant. The monotony of the same diet didn't help either. Bill and I had decided to keep our tinned food that we had purchased in Changi until we needed a break from the pink soup.

Early one morning the ship turned into land and we came to the Mekong Delta with its mangrove islands. All this was learnt by groups of men forming a growing queue for the toilets. The ship cruised slowly towards Saigon, the heat and humidity was intense, the hottest place I'd ever been. We anchored off shore and could hear small boats or barges alongside. I saw people walking about in clean clothes on the quayside, making me feel more filthy that I actually was. After darkness we felt the motion of the ship and the air freshen as we sailed out to sea again.

Next day the condition of several men who were ill with stomach trouble worsened, there were no medicines or medical help whatsoever. The rice contained weevils and it was at this time that my mate Bill and I decided to start on our stock of tinned food, sharing one tin of herrings between us for one meal and keeping the tomato sauce for another, we had seven tins together. The convoy now consisted of four ships and two destroyers. The skies became overcast, instead of the constant blue sky, there were grey clouds and the air felt much cooler on deck.

The first man in our hold died, this was reported to the Japanese by our officer spokesman. The man was buried at sea the next day, with a Japanese Officer present and to which twelve prisoners were allowed to attend. These formalities were not continued with a Japanese Officer present as more deaths occurred.

After three days out at sea the weather had deteriorated, the sea became rougher and the skies were on blanket of cloud. Our Sergeants in charge were told ten men were needed from the hold to work in the stoke hold so asked for volunteers, ten of us went forward. Three men were duly called to so the shift. I spoke to one of them later and asked him how he fared. He told me he and his mates had been totally unprepared for events that occurred. The work was extremely hard, but when relieved by the Japanese stokers, they were taken to the hot showers given rice balls then left alone with no guard. There was lots of hot water and it was possible to do washing as no one had checked on them or bothered how long they had stayed.

The next day the Sergeant called out three names, mine being one of them, to go to the stoke hold. We were led to the centre of the ship and down steps where we came to what looked like a coal mine, the complete width and up the sides of the ship was coal. There was a bulkhead with large openings through which we could see men feeding coal into the ship's furnace. There were planks placed on the coal which sloped up to these openings. Two of us were to fill the barrows, the third man push them up the planks and deliver. We took turns wheeling and shovelling. Wheeling the loaded barrows was most difficult, the sea becoming rougher as the weather worsened, it was almost impossible to keep them upright as we struggled up the plank. On several occasions one of us would lose our balance and fall over, sliding with the coal and barrow down the sloping mound of coal.

The stokers were using it as fast as we could deliver and kept calling on us for more. It was a hard eight hours slog. We were eventually relieved by the Japanese crew and taken to the showers, each of us receiving our reward of two rice balls. These were pure white, nothing like the dirty looking weevil ridden rice that we were being dished up in the hold.

It was the first time I had looked in a mirror since leaving Singapore and I was shocked at my appearance. I resembled and felt like a dirty unkempt tramp. That shower felt pretty good after going for so long without a wash or shave, I was loathe to leave it. Being forewarned, we had come prepared with our change of clothing, I had my tropical long trousers to wear so was able to was the filthy ones I had taken off. As we opened the oval door to go on deck to return to our hold, the gale force wind hit us. It was howling through the rigging and whipping the spray from the huge waves, the rain coming in almost horizontally.

The waves rose higher than the ship as we went into a rough, the next minute we were plunging through the waves then riding high on a crest. The deck and toilets were deserted and as the ship momentarily leveled out, we ran for our hold. We hadn't realised how ferocious the weather had turned during the last eight hours. Being in the bowels of the ship we hadn't heard the roar of the sea and wind, we certainly felt the motion. After the fresh air, the stench and warmth of the hold hit us but after a time one became acclimatized. It was pleasant to feel clean once again, so settled down and enjoyed a smoke of the rough tobacco I had kept in an old sock from my prison days in Java. The men around me were just as pleased that I had hung onto it. Cigarette papers were hard to come by, so all types of paper was used, I had the tobacco so finding the paper wasn't my problem in the barter system.

1 comment:

  1. Frank,

    Thank you so much for this very detailed account. This October (I believe that's the month) voyage of the Dai Nichi Maru from Singapore to Japan was a particularly terrible one, I know. You add a great deal to existing accounts: the toilets for the prisoners being on only one side of the ship, whereas those on the other side were for the Japanese; the dirty rice vs. the clean rice; and the detailed description of stoking the furnace. I knew that the prisoners worked in the furnace room, but had no details. And how calm you were in the midst of this. Thanks again.