Friday, 1 April 2011

11: To Japan by Sea, a Terrible Voyage - Part 3.

The cases of dysentery were spreading and the suffering men were getting thinner. They looked dreadful and were in terrible pain and hardly able to climb the steps. The storm was still raging and heightened even further, making it impossible for the sick men to get to the toilets without plenty of help from friends. The air had turned cold and most of us only possessed tropical kit and the toilets were being made filthy by those desperate men. There were buckets on ropes near the toilets and those of us who were fit enough, tried to collect enough sea water to swill them out before using them, but it proved too difficult with the wind and the sea threatening to tear the doors off.

The ship was being tossed about like a cork and the huge waves were smashing down on us, one almost laying the ship on its side and before it could recover, another hit us. It was a new experience but one I wouldn’t like to repeat. Our belongings were scattered and sea water poured into the hold soaking some of the men who had moved into the vacant area as the bottom of the steps, we thought the ship might be going down at that moment. The few boards that had been left at the top of the steps allowed us access to the deck for drinking water and toilets, were now being put in place by seamen, then the cover was put on and we were sealed in.

It was decided that the sick men would have to use the ore in the hold as a toilet at the extreme area only, that night three of them died. There was small comfort for the men whose blankets had been soaked when the sea poured in. There was no four o’clock meal that day nor one the following morning. We were hungry but had no appetite with the smell of the closed hold. The hatch covers were removed that afternoon, so we had some fresh air at last and a meal was lowered, the dead men were removed for burial. More deaths occurred that night and were removed the next morning. The storm lasted another three days before abating.

It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder who the men were that removed the dead bodies, I assumed they were trained people who normally dealt with casualties on the airfields, until I was approached one day by a Corporal I knew. He had been asked by one of the Sergeants to recruit four men to take turn in picking up and carrying away the dead each morning, and asked if I would help the following day to which I agreed.

He came for me around seven o’clock the next morning. We walked around in the gloom amongst the men still lying down, “Are there any dead about?”. We heard replies like, “There’s one under that blanket”, and “One over there”. I thought the plague of London and the cry of “Bring out your dead”. The men had died in various positions, but weighed very little as we wrapped them in their blanket and carried them on deck to be buried. On occasions there would be bodies from the other hold full of prisoners, we would lay ours alongside.

Whilst up on deck queuing for the toilet one day, I was able to witness a burial as four bodies slid over the side into the sea. I myself felt as fit and well as could be expected, my rice bowl and soup dish I regularly washed under some leaking pipes on deck that dripped hot water, which the Jap's didn't seem to object to.

Word came into the hold that the storm we had sailed though was a typhoon with the South China Sea was noted for. The weather improved, not the tropical warmth we had been accustomed to, but reasonable. Shortly after, we put in to port at Formosa. Some of the sick prisoners were put ashore, the remainder of us kept below except for visits to the toilets. I assumed we had stopped for water and provisions. There were about a thousand prisoners on board originally, and about the same number of sick and wounded soldiers.

We set sail once again and now knew the next stop must be Japan. After a day at sea, more prisoners began to die. I did another shift in the stoke hold, the stack of coal was considerably less that when doing my previous stint, and due to the calmer seas, the stokers were less demanding so we managed to keep them happy. These stokers appeared from time to time stripped to the waist, their bodies gleaming with sweat and in the light of the boiler furnaces, looked like demons. We enjoyed another shower and rice balls at the end of the shift. When leaving the stoke hold and walking across the deck, I noticed a plate which had the builders name etc. inscribed upon it which I cannot remember, but I do remember the date was 1893 and that it was built in Glasgow. I began to wonder how much longer before we reached Japan. We were well into the month of November, the weather much colder with continuous grey skies, I didn’t linger too long now when having to go up on deck.

I saw a Corporal approaching me once again and knew I had another job the following morning. This was something I would rather not have done, but not knowing the men personally, did not find it upsetting in that sense. I never occurred to me that I might die.

The next morning we had picked up two bodies and were told where another was. When we lifted the blanket, I saw it was an airmen I knew who had waved to me as he walked up the gangway onto the ship at Singapore, as I waited on the quay for my turn to board. It gave me a terrible shock to see him and I was stunned at the sight of his awful wasted body. He was lying on his front in a comfortable sleeping position and I just hoped he had passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was in my thoughts for a long time after we had finished the job and I now realised it was people that I did know that were dying.

The rice and soup were still our main diet and we were absolutely sick of it. The same amount as before was lowered down to us twice daily, with less men to eat it, but hungry as we were some was thrown away. I was now glad of my blue jacket which I had decided to hang onto in the heat of Batavia, but only possessed tropical trousers. I now had an almost new pair of army boots that had belonged to one of the dead men, which he no doubt had obtained in Singapore. It was now nearing the end of November and we were all praying for the end of this terrible voyage. Men continued to die and a large number were very ill. My friend Bill and I managed to stay well and looked forward to being housed in a proper P.O.W. camp.

1 comment:

  1. Frank,

    What a hellish experience! And how somehow appropriate that the stokers in the furnace room had the appearance of demons.