Friday, 24 June 2011

18: Food Sharing, Potatoes and Worms - Part 1.

Food was the overriding factor that governed our days, our stomach, our feelings, we seemed to be getting less rice. I was constantly ravenously hungry and was now eating a plant that grew at the roadside. In my eyes, if it looked like celery, which it did, that was good enough for me, it must have been wild celery.

One day on the way to work, I saw a woman by the stream cut the heads off two fish. That night on the walk back, I collected them to take back to camp, intending to boil them in a tin on the fire, drink the liquid and eat the heads. However, a chap who worked in the limestone quarry asked me to sell them to him for cigarettes, as he never had much chance to find any edibles to supplement his diet, so they changed hands. There was no way I could cook them until my day off, which was still two days away. The fires had to be out by nine o’clock, long before I returned from my shift at the mine. That was an incident repeated in many different ways in the quest to fill our stomachs.

On one of my days off, I was lying resting out of sight on my bed, when I heard loud shouting in Japanese coming from the direction of the square. I thought possibly a prisoner had been caught at some misdemeanour, so cautiously looked through the window. Instead I saw a Japanese soldier standing to attention, a Japanese officer just walking away from him, a Sergeant then started to slap his face and punch him. When he stopped, a Corporal began beating him, this punishment continued until about six ordinary soldiers had taken their turn. I spoke to Sakata and asked him what it was all about, he told me that was the punishment meted out for a small offence in the Japanese army, the offender being beaten by his superiors.

The weather was changing and turning colder now, autumn was rather wet, of course it didn't affect our working conditions, that was one thing that in my life that stayed constant. It was hard work but employed my mind to a certain degree. The ore was full of seams and needed a bit of thought as to which seam to hit so that it cracked and fell apart.

The sharing of the rice and soup was a serious business watched closely by all. The occupants of the upper level bunks sat close together, legs dangling over the edge with all eyes fixed on the man filling the measure before tipping it into the bowls lined up on the table, making sure he didn’t press more rice into his own bowl. It would have been farcical if we hadn't been so hungry.

If there happened to be lumps of anything in the soup, they were equally shared. Each tub fed twenty two men. Of course there were disagreements and one complain if backed up by others, meant a change of server. After one such argument I was asked to take over dishing out the rice, I agreed and lasted a little over six months before being accused of packing my own bowl too hard. I counted this an achievement to have lasted so long. The benefit of dishing out the food was that you could scrape the last grains from the tub, before washing and returning it to the cookhouse. The soup man was allowed a little drop extra, their ration stayed on the table for examination whilst they returned the cleaned tubs to the cookhouse.

Christmas came during my time as a server, no complaints on that day, we had been given an American Red Cross Parcel. There were between seven and ten packets of twenty cigarettes, the variation being made up with more or less food. There was chopped pork, ham, salmon and various other tins of food, coffee, sugar, powdered milk and bars of chocolate, a brilliant effort by the Americans. It seemed the best Christmas I'd ever had, we had a day off and marvellous atmosphere in the hut.

Christmas 1943 was unforgettable with snow outside. It was a cold winter, we were issued with a pair of metal plates with spikes to place on the soles of our boots, tying to the laced instep for walking on the icy roads and slopes up to the mine. Early one morning we were called out to clear the snow from the camp grounds, as over four feet had fallen overnight. When we went to work that day the snow outside the gate was six feet high, this we had to climb up to an icy path on top of the snow. It was a slippery walk to the mine, I managed to slip off the path on two occasions, going in up to my armpits, and had to be pulled out. I wasn’t alone, we all fell off at one time or another. When we left work that evening, a snow plough had cleared the worst and made a wide path.

The seasons at Ohasi were pretty reliable. The winters were cold with plenty of snow, spring brought the warm sun, summer was settled and very hot, autumn was the rainy season. We sometimes experienced high winds which rushed through the valley and on one such occasion, saw the roof of a large building lift and then settle with one gust of wind, but the second gust blew it completely away, before breaking up amongst the houses.

It was now March, spring had arrived and the weather started warming up. There was just one guard escorting us to work now, it was possible that the number of Army personnel stationed at the camp had been reduced, it was difficult to tell. There were a few rumours of allied successes going the rounds, also talk of a radio in the camp. I think perhaps our spirits had taken a boost, the Japanese became suspicious.

Friday, 17 June 2011

17: Boils and Blood

Boils had begun to break out on my neck and round my chin, so I decided to go to the sick bay which was run by an American surgeon who had survived the sinking of the U.S.S Houston, also a sailor who if I can recall correctly, was named Schofield from the same ship - the surgeon’s name evades me. I showed them my boils and explained the problems I had experience with my hands and legs. They had nothing with which to treat me, other than a mild disinfectant with which the sailor bathed my boils. I was told to let them heal themselves, but must try to keep them clean. Apparently they had done some amputations of toes and fingers that had become affected with the iron ore dust. I still had my bandages, so wrapped these round my neck to keep it clean at work.

The journey home from work in the dark with some of the men at the front walking at a much faster pace, had a purpose I discovered. On the way to work they would take not of any fish hanging to dry outside the houses, or anything else about that was edible, then steal some on the way back. Their mates following behind, would wait at a slower pace giving them time to do the stealing before anyone else caught up with them, they would then have a share of the spoils when back at camp. The searches were not regular, if the guard Sergeant was not about, there wouldn’t be one. I assumed they thought we were unlikely to steal iron ore.

The boils on the front of my neck and chin had healed, but I was now having trouble with the back of my neck. This gradually worsened, so after two weeks I went back to the sick bay, I was told the whole of the back of my neck had lifted and there were six holes where pus was oozing out. They opened up the holes pressing down to get all the pus out, then fed strips of bandage into each hole leaving the ends hanging out so they resembled wicks. I was to return each day to have them changed and my neck cleaned.

This went on for two weeks, after which, on the next visit, the surgeon told me he had nothing to give me to cure my problem, explaining my condition was caused by diet we were existing on, mainly the lack of green vegetables and fruit so therefore could see no cure. He went on to say he had attended a survival course in the U.S. Navy and remembered being told of a drastic way, where no drugs were available, that might effect a cure. It would involve taking half a pint of blood from the artery in my right arm as quickly as was possible and putting it into the cheek of my bottom which had small blood vessels and could be absorbed more easily. This must be done before the blood had time to cool. If this did happen, the blood would congeal and possibly kill me.

If successful, the result of this swift operation would be a sore and aching seat for about three days. I agreed to take the risk. We then had a little chat, he explaining I would have to stand up ready with my trousers down whilst he drew blood from my arm as no time could be lost. “Was I frightened of needles?” he asked. He also pointed out that drawing my blood out in such a large quantity, would have a mental effect on me but on no account must I feel faint or want to sit down.

The syringe was warmed and put into the artery of my right arm, it was a very thick needle. I began to feel my strength ebbing but remembered what I had been told. As soon as the syringe was filled the surgeon and his assistant got behind me. I felt a jab as the surgeon began emptying the syringe, whilst the sailor massaged my bottom to distribute the blood. At last it was over, I was warned to keep walking about and to eat standing up, the walk to the mine should help.

In the ensuing days, I continued to have my neck treated, this slowly improved and eventually healed. I had no further trouble regarding blood disorder and the soreness in my bottom went after five days.

Friday, 10 June 2011

16: Warm Weather and Tobacco

It was May, the weather warm and my legs were at last beginning to heal. I can't say it was a pleasant life but it was certainly much better than the existence at Hakodate and the shipyard. The work was heavy and tiring, the hunger was always there but we were gradually beginning to reach the target set for us by the end of the shift. Our foreman began to leave us alone for periods, so we would take the opportunity to rest making enough noise and throwing the occasional rock into the truck to satisfy him that we were still working. We were allowed just half and hour for our meal break, if things were going well, they would shout “Smoke”, we would then have a ten minute break.

We had three regular foremen and one other on just odd occasions. One regular was a barber from Yokohama, who had been put to work in the mine because he could speak a fair amount of English. He told me he used to cut the hair of seamen and had learnt the language from them. He was a nice man who never said outright, but hinted, that Japan would never win the war against America and Britain, his name was Sakata. The second foreman was short and stocky and went by the name of Kimura, he would always work us hard endeavouring to get the very best from us plus that bit extra. He would work with us moving from one gang to the next, it was always a relief when he moved on. The best way to stop him helping out and making us work even harder, was to look industrious as he walked around. The third foreman, named Hai, seemed rather full of his own importance, I had the feeling that this had been promotion for him. We called him Hai San the Japanaese equivalent of Mister, he was fairly easily manipulated.

We had no problems provided we kept working. If we had been troublesome and didn't work well the foreman could call the guards who were stationed outside. This would bode ill for us as the guards didn't like having to come into the mine.

Food was still our priority, we received the same amount of rice as at the previous camp, obviously a standard ration, plus the rice ball given by the company. After our midday meal the miners were given their ration for the evening meal, which we took to work and ate four hours into the shift. By the time we had finished work and walked back to camp at night, we were ravenous with nothing to eat until breakfast next morning. Instead of the soup to accompany the rice to take to work, we were given a small piece of fish or pickle. The men that did a day job were given their midday meal after breakfast to pack and take to work and were able to have their evening meal after work and relax. There was a tap outside the cookhouse where we were allowed to draw hot water to drink before our meals, this helped to fill our stomachs and prevented us eating so ravenously.

The summer weather was hot. When not working or collecting bundles of wood or emptying the cesspit, I spent most of my remaining free time inside the hut, there was nowhere to sit outside. A lot of this time I spent trying to repair my clothes, this before leaving for work after our midday meal. Most of the guards would leave camp with the workers each morning, this enabled us to do our washing without too much interruption.

My hands and legs had healed completely, being able to walk about comfortably made life so much easier. I felt cleaner and so much better in myself. I found that the despair I had felt disappeared and once again without any concious effort, found myself looking forward to the end of the war.

The tobacco we were now smoking was a fine as hair and nicknamed ‘Frog Hair’. The main problem was obtaining paper to roll the cigarettes, which I had managed somehow at Hakodate. What I needed was a Japanese pipe to smoke, so asked Sakata if he would get me one, this he did and if I remember rightly, only took a token amount of money for it. This pipe had a metal mouth piece and a metal end with a bowl which was about half the size of an acorn cup, these two pieces were connected to a stem of bamboo. To smoke this was an experience. A small ball of tobacco was rolled between the fingers, placed in the bowl and lit, two inhalations and then blow the glowing ash from the bowl into a tin lid, place another ball of tobacco into the bowl, press this into the hot ash then two more inhalations repeating these actions until I had finished my smoke.

The guards were changed once a month and still we had our share of brutal ones turning up. The main reason for the regular chance was so they didn't become friendly with prisoners and favours given. One night after work, I was washing when I heard the sound of guards boots enter the washroom. I had my head over the sink and before I could was the soap from my eyes and turn round, he was behind me smashing my head on the sink after which I had to turn round and stand to attention.

Friday, 3 June 2011

15: Move to camp near Ohasi, Honshu Island, hard labour in the iron mines - Part 2.

Instead of perhaps a little sympathy and understanding from our new fellow prisoners, we were shunned as if a leper colony had moved in with them. I presume it was just self preservation on their part. Eventually we were told by a Dutchman that we were unwanted prisoners at our last camp, so had been moved on to this one. We now knew why the far end of the hut had been reserved for us. No one had bothered to find out or ask us the circumstances of our move. The American Captain was a Texan who made it crystal clear to us, that we were not welcome at this camp, as if we were uninvited guests, so in turn we ignored him which annoyed him intensely. When he made any announcements to the inmates of the hut, we would continue to talk and carry on whatever we may be doing, but still listening with one ear. One evening he could not contain himself and yelled out “And this includes you shit birds down the end there”. We were winning the battle.

The Lieutenant asked us to bath after the rest of the camp because of our sores, we could understand that and hoped we could recover our health here. We were obviously in a far worse state than they, and our clothing was dirty in comparison with theirs. The routine was more relaxed, lights out at nine o’clock instead of seven as at Hakodate, morning roll call at seven. The men did various jobs, some in a timber yard, others overhauled and serviced the mine machinery and trucks, others at a limestone quarry and the remainder at the mine. The miners which included us new arrivals, did an eight hour shift starting at two o’clock in the afternoon, until ten in the evening. This meant assembling for a roll call in the square at ten minutes to one, where we were checked off by a mine official who carried a clipboard, checking and entering the number of workers for each level of the mine. We would arrive back at camp about eleven o’clock at night, after completing our shift.

Every tenth day we had off, sometimes eleventh instead, depending on the number of days in the month. Each month in our free time, we had to carry ten bundles of firewood down the sides of the valley for use in the cookhouse and for the bathhouse fires. These bundles each weighed about fifteen pounds.

The toilets were the usual holes in the floor over a cesspit and turns had to be taken in bailing the sewage out and tipping into a channel near the back perimeter fence, which ran into a fast flowing stream that ran down from the mountain. Three men at a time did this chore, one man bailing, the other two carrying and tipping.This work involved frequent changing of positions, no one wanted to be rear pole carrier, as the stench from the large open buckets was awful.

The area at the front of the building was out of bounds. We could wander about at the back of the hut in our free time, the guards still patrolled and the bowing had to be observed. Sitting on beds during the day was not allowed, but on the board at the end of the bed was acceptable. Those of us in the higher bunks were out of sight, so were bothered less.

I discovered that only twelve men had died in this camp in contrast to the fifty two at Hakodate. We were to be paid as before and in addition, on arrival at the mine, the company gave us a rice ball the size of a small orange each day. It seem my dock foreman at Hakodate had indeed done my a favour. After our midday meal of rice, the men that worked at the mine were paraded on the square with two guards. There were three separate groups of us, thirty in each group, the Americans, which included the six Englishmen who were already resident at the camp when we arrived, the Dutch Indonesians and our group the new arrivals. After the mining official had done his business of counting us, three mining company men then joined us, one to each group accompanying us as we marched out of the gate.

Once outside, I saw that we were in a narrow valley, the gravel road was about twelve feet wide, the mine railway line ran alongside. There were some Japanese houses a little way from the camp, the village was called Ohasi. As we marched along we passed cultivated fields before the valley narrowed, with a range of small mountains closing the valley in. There was a large watercourse running along the valley floor, where later a railway bridge was erected over. After a forty minute march we arrived at the mine buildings with a large entrance into the hillside. The mountainside was worked at different levels, the railway running through the lower entrance, where the electric train picked up the loaded full size trucks, taking them into the yard where they were in turn picked up by a steam engine. The electric train then returned to the mine with the empty trucks it had picked up.

The Americans and six Englishmen left us at ground level, we continued up the narrowing road for twenty minutes until we came to another entrance, this was where our group was to work, the Indonesians carried on up the road. We were marched inside for about a quarter of a mile, until we came to an office where we were issued with protective hats which we were to retain, also our rice ball. Our foreman was awaiting us, the guard then left.

Electric cables with sockets provided light as well as miners lamps. As we went with the foreman, I noticed light railway tracks with medium sized trucks. It was then that I realised it wasn’t the coal we had expected to mine but iron ore. The rock face was drilled during one shift and detonated and blasted at the shift change over. Our task then was to fill the trucks with the blown out ore, working four men to a truck. There were four trucks for each man, sixteen tons to be collected and loaded by each man per shift.

On our first day we fell short of our target. The foreman came to each group of four men in turn, trying to speed us up. The rock was the heaviest I had ever lifted in relation to its size. We had the usual Asiatic tools for the job and a large hammer to break the rocks. After loading, the trucks had to be pushed to the chutes dug through the rock to the lower level railway line, we then tilted the trucks sideways so that the iron ore emptied into the chute and filled the trucks below.

Placed across the opening of the chute, were some old railway line to prevent the truck toppling down with the ore. Work over at last, we came out into the night and our guards were waiting outside to escort us as we walked down the mountain side to join the others. We walked back to camp, the guards at the rear chatting to each other. We were very tired, had worked hard but not achieved the target set for us but it was a pleasant evening, not the cold we had been accustomed to for so long. The American group that included the half dozen Englishmen, had walked much faster and got well ahead of us and were waiting a short distance from camp. The guards formed us up and we marched through the gates, a quick look in our bags and we were dismissed.