Friday, 11 March 2011

Back to Singapore, Changi Army Barracks

The next morning I collected my few belongings together in my kitbag, along with my hoard of tobacco which I kept in an old worn out sock, my rice bowl and soup dish near the top just in case it was needed for a meal. When the working party had left we were called to parade ready to move, a last count and off we were marched and on our way to the docks, still wearing my bits of canvas boots.

We hadn't been told where we were heading for, but one of the guards said we were going where there was ice and snow and that could only mean Japan. My ideas and thoughts about going there were that we would be put in a proper P.O.W. camp, with perhaps the occasional letter from home and the odd Red Cross parcel, with good chance of surviving to see the end of the war. How naive of me. I was in for one big culture shock.

At the docks we boarded a merchant ship, about four hundred Airmen and Army personnel altogether, and put in the hold, it seemed no worse that our cells, the toilets were situated aft of the ship. We sorted ourselves out ad weren't too crowded, the hold covers were left off and the sun shone down giving us plenty of light.

Our meals were lowered down the hold in baskets, rice and soup twice each day, at 10.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. We were able to get drinking water from the tap on deck and allowed to wash with sea water. When on deck, I noticed there were no escorting ships and there seemed to be no other soldiers, other than the guards watching over us. As we sailed along we passed small islands of waving palms and sandy beaches, which looked so tranquil.

The war seemed unreal and just didn't fit in with the scenery. All this was observed on trips to the toilet, the only time were were allowed to move out of the hold. After three days, we arrived at Singapore and told to disembark. We were marched to Changi Army Barracks, a huge place that had been divided into fenced off sections, there was a gate in each section which led into the open areas, were manned machine gun post and searchlights. The boundary was surrounded by a twenty feet high fence.

My pal Bill and I with others, were put into a barrack block in one of the sections which was fairly crowded, the beds were gone so it meant sleeping on a concrete floor again. There were no guards here except for the occasional one passing through. If for any reason we needed to go to another section, we would have to wait until about ten men had collected, then wait for a guard to escort us across. It seemed like a holiday camp after the suffering I had witnesses and experienced for the last six months.

The rice for our meals was supplied by the Japanese with some vegetables, other food such as tinned meat and fish by the army N.C.O’s from huge stores. I was told a ten thousand ton Red Cross ship had docked with enough food, clothing and medical supplies to supply all the needs of the prisoners for the next six months. They had all been issued with Red Cross parcels before our arrival, all were being issued with English cigarettes, we as ‘visitors’ passing through weren’t given any. The ship had docked three months before our arrival, so I visited the store to see if I could get a pair of boots, but was told I was too late, there weren’t any. We asked some of the camp residents what work they were put to and were told there was no organised work. When labour was required for jobs inside or outside the camp, the N.C.O's would supply the necessary number of men.

I heard there was an Army dentist in another section of the camp, so applied for permission to visit him, deciding it would be a good idea to have a check-up by a British dentist whilst the opportunity was there. It was about twelve months since my previous check-up and knew we would be moving on as soon as a ship was available. When arriving at the dentist, I must confess when I saw the equipment he was using, I wasn't looking forward to any treatment that might be necessary. The drill, with a cable drive, was on an upright machine which had a treadle worked by an Army medial assistant, I had never seen anything like it before.

On examining my teeth, the dentist told me one needed filling and another would have to be taken out, which he said but for his limited supplied and equipment, could have been saved under different circumstances. The drilling was painful, but I kept telling myself it would be far worse if a Jap was doing it. I had cocaine for the tooth extraction and didn't feel it come out, but heard the tooth hit the bottom of the enamel bucket standing by the chair with some bloody water covering the bottom, probably so the patients didn't see the extracted teeth. I then realised why the chaps thought I was completely mad when telling them I was going to visit the dentist for a check-up. In spite of all this he did a very good job, I suffered no dental problems in the remaining two years and ten months of my captivity.

One of the permanent prisoners who had been given new boots gave me his worn out pair. The soles were almost through, so I cut my Javanese paid to make inner soles to fit them. One morning I was detailed to go with a working party and taken in a Japanese truck to a large hospital, where we were given small hand scythes and told to cut the grass. We just hacked away at the grass with no one working particularly hard. There were guards with us but they gave no orders.

I noticed there was a great number of wounded Japanese soldiers there and many of them had lost limbs. Most of the seemed to want to converse with the prisoners, the guards making no attempts to stop this. During the day two of them made their way across to me, one of them had lost a leg below the knee, caused by shell fire he said. He could speak a little English and told me his friend was blind. He asked me, “Was I in the RAF”, which I affirmed, he then said his friend was driving a truck when attacked by a RAF fighter, he was the only survivor and asked could he touch my face. Feeling apprehensive and half expecting my eyes to be gouged out, I replied yes. He felt my forehead, my eyes, down my face to my chin, he then put his hands on my shoulders and pulled me to him holding me for a short while. He then asked if he could have my RAF hat badge, which I gave him. They then gave me some cigarettes and said goodbye. That episode left me feeling rather bewildered and perplexed by the totally unexpected behaviour from these Japanese soldiers, it was so unreal after all the brutality and privation of recent months.

I lay awake for quite a while that night, thinking of the lack of hate that I had expected from them due to their injuries from which they would never fully recover. I felt that they were trying to tell me that we were no longer enemies fighting each other, our particular war had ended. I remembered hearing about and seeing pictures of their war with China and thinking what a cold brutal nation they must be, which sentiments had been borne out since being taken prisoner.

The next surprise in Changi camp was that they had a shop selling food for pound notes, US dollars and Straits dollars. Bill and I still had some straits dollars so brought some tins of herrings in tomato sauce and some tinned sausages, which we thought we might need when moved on.

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