Friday, 8 April 2011

12: Across Japan, Shimonoseki, Honshu Island to Hakodate, Hokkaido Island

At last one evening we arrived at Japan. What we could see looked like a wooden settlement and reminded me of films I had seen in the past, of Alaskan fishing ports. We were kept on board for another couple of days, most probably whilst their own sick and wounded were taken ashore. Our turn came at last and we were lined up on the quay, each man was asked if he was ill, if the answer was affirmative, he would be separated and put with another group. Some of the very ill had been carried ashore by friends and lay on the quayside, others still lay in the hold. An estimated one hundred and eighty six men had died on the voyage, official deaths according to the War Graves Commission, 88 British the rest other nationalities.

The new guards were tall, all over six fee high, smart and well dressed with fur lined boots on the greatcoats they wore. Their behaviour differed from our previous guards and not a blow was struck, they just gestured when they wanted us to move. From the quay, we walked into a series of tunnels that went on and on. It was difficult at the time to understand why this wooden structure was not made of a more permanent material, as it was so vast.

Eventually we emerged and came to a railway station with the name Shimonoseki where there was a waiting train. We boarded and were given a meal in a wooden box, before reaching our seats. The meal consisted of cold rice, fish and pickle. We noticed later that this was a standard Japanese meal sold at the stations as we journeyed along. This we were given three times each day whilst travelling on this train. Japanese green leaf tea was given after each meal. Looking around as we moved off, the carriages seemed similar to ours and had padded seats and a door at each end where the guards stood.

We stopped at each large station along the way for about an hour, and each one was packed solid with civilians who had obviously just come to stare. They must have been informed of our arrival in advance, as there was a repeat performance at each stop. I thought we must be some of the first prisoners to arrive in Japan. Early in the morning on the second day of our journey, one of the guards came along the gangway and told us to look out of the side window, shortly after Mount Fuji came into sight. It was covered in snow and in the low sun made it look pink, the guard said it was the best time of the day to view it. It was indeed a marvellous sight.

Our next stop was Tokyo and again the platforms were a solid mass of people, a sea of heads as far as the eye could see. After our customary wait, we continued our journey. Our final stop was Amori which we reached early on the third day, this was the northern end of the main island Honshu. We left the train leaving our gentleman guards behind and were taken to a ferry terminal, where we boarded the ferry for the last stage of our journey. It was a rough sea crossing and took about three hours to reach Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido, where we disembarked.

As we left the terminal, the bitter wind hit us, the streets were frozen and ice and snow covered the wooden houses. This was something we were totally unprepared for, some of the men still wore shorts. I did have my blue jacket and long tropical trousers, but was freezing and longing to reach our destination to be out of the biting wind and snow flurries. After marching through the town, we started an uphill climb before coming to large wooden gates. These were opened and we passed through. The single storey wooden buildings looked very much like a hospital and as we were on a headland, it could possibly have been a sanatorium. After a wait, we were allowed inside.

There were tables set up down the centre of the long room we entered and as we passed along, each man was given ten blankets and a full kit of repaired Japanese soldiers heavy twill uniform, from which the marking of rank etc had been removed. We were given a number and strangely enough, by coincidence mine was Hyaku San-Juu Ni (132), the same number given to me at Bouie Glodok prison in Java. We were also issued with two pairs of second hand cotton material long pants that had been patched and seen better days, and a pair of second hand cotton boots. This issue of clothing was our uniform which has to be worn at all times.

It seemed warm as we entered the building and I was wondering how much colder it must get to be issued with ten blankets. There were cubicles down the side of the room, measuring roughly fourteen feet by nine feet, where each man was allowed about a three foot space for sleeping, each cubicle taking half a dozen men. We lay side by side taking up about seven feet in length for our bed and belongings, leaving a two foot width for walking to and from our beds. These cubicles had light sliding doors which consisted of paper fixed to a light frame, of which one door was missing. If anyone was to stumble on these whilst getting up or going to bed, we would simply have fallen through. We were warned that any damage done to these would be punished.

The toilets were holes in the floor and were situated at one end of the long room alongside the washroom, which contained wooden sinks and cold water only. This long hall type room also contained two cast iron barrel shaped fires and a few benches, the whole building placed on concrete piers. We were told later there was a bathhouse just outside, this was lit once a week. The bath was an oblong wooden construction with metal floor, duckboards placed in the bottom and a fire lit underneath, it was here we washed our clothing. The bathroom was the warmest place to be. The cubicles we slept in had the standard Japanese matting floor covering, the softest we had slept on so far, we always removed our boots before entering I was soon to be disillusioned regarding my idea of a P.O.W. camp.

1 comment:

  1. Frank,

    The description of the wood tunnels you walked through to reach the railway station in Shimonoseki is fascinating and invaluable. Many of the men who made this journey were so weak and ill during this portion of it that their memories fail them on exactly how they reached the train.

    It's also quite interesting that the guard on the train prompted you to look at Mt. Fuji. The diarist that I've researched mentions seeing it, but does not include the detail of a Japanese pointing it out -- which is touching in a strange way.

    Finally, I have to wonder how on earth you survived Hakodate with a pair of cotton boots!

    Thank you, thank you, for all of this.