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.

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