Sunday, 3 July 2011

18: Food Sharing, Potatoes and Worms - Part 2.

On the poles that carried electricity cables to the Ohasi village were several loudspeakers. I had no idea if the civilian population had radios, but at various times we heard loud music played and some talking, which was possibly news programmes.

On one of our days off, guards suddenly burst in and herded us all out onto the square as we were. Two guards then moved amongst us, searching those that looked as if they might be concealing something about their person. Meanwhile inside, our beds and belongings were being turned over and ransacked by other guards. After half an hour we were allowed back in. On another occasion we were all ordered out onto the square and lined up. A Jap officer then announced we would be staying there until someone admitted to the theft. I had no idea what was missing and never found out. After fifteen minutes, there was a murmuring amongst the Indonesians, and then five of them pointed to one man, the unfortunate man was led away and we were dismissed. Back inside the hut the Indonesians refused to discuss the incident.

Anyone needing surgery could expect pretty primitive remedies and or treatment. The surgeon operated on an American miner whose thumb had been damaged and the bone become infected with the iron ore. The cut the bone out completely and sewed the flesh together, a marvellous job, although the thumb was pretty useless, it was mush better than an amputation.

It was not good for those needing dental treatment, the surgeon explaining he was not a dentist and further more, he had no tools suitable for the job. There were two men who were suffering and needed to have teeth extracted, so one of the prisoners who was employed in the mine workshop, stole and thoroughly cleaned a pair of pliers. The surgeon then said he did not have enough local anaesthetic for tooth extractions, as it was needed for wounds contaminated by the iron ore. So the arrangement was that the man with raging toothache was refused treatment for about three days and when he could stand the pain no longer, he was to call the surgeon day or night. The sailor who assisted was a huge man who held the patient down whilst the surgeon did the rest. If this took place during the night the job was carried out in the hut. I was very glad that I'd had the foresight to visit the dentist in Singapore.

Our irregular foreman who we had on occasions, didn’t work amongst us as the other three did. He would fold a cloth, placing it on a rock upon which he would sit for the whole shift, except for the meal break. We didn't know his name, but secretly called him “Heap High”. He sat so that the railway line was in his sight at all times, smoking his pipe, watching and counting as we pushed the trucks to the chute, happy that we were reaching the target. As we passed him with the loaded truck we would say “Okay”, and he would answer back something that sounded like “Heap High”, hence his nickname. At the chute we would hurl a couple of rocks down to make a noise and then push the loaded truck back to the rock face, loading a few more rocks higher on the side he sat. We would repeat this performance all shift, except for an occasional emptying of one. We were sorry we didn’t have him more often. At one time during the summer, he took us out on the hillside for our meal break. It was a glorious day with the sun beating down and we experienced a rare feeling of freedom, laying relaxed on the grass, how we enjoyed that break.

Earth tremors were fairly frequent on the Island of Honshu where we were and I became accustomed to them. On one of my days off whilst lying on the bed, I heard a noise in the distance and as it came closer, the only way I have of describing it was the sound of a large number of traction engines or steam rollers, their iron wheels grinding on a concrete road. As the noise increased, the building began to tremble. I looked out of a nearby window and saw all the Japanese pouring from their building onto the square. All the dishes, tins and mugs were falling off the shelves and outside, the filled water butts were spilling over. The noise was now deafening, everything was moving and shaking, the earth, the buildings, there was the occasional crash as boulders came tumbling down the rocky hillside at the back of the camp, then gradually it passed on its way along the valley. The waters butts had to be refilled, these were kept full at all times for the purpose of fire fighting, the Jap’s then returned to their building. Going to work the next day, I had expected to see some damaged to the mind but everything appeared to be in order.

One one of our rest days, the weather was very hot and oppressive, we were once again hustled out of our hut into the square, whilst another search for a radio was carried out. I felt the ground come up and woke up in the sick bay with a saline drip in my arm. I was told to keep out of the sun unless wearing a hat. There wasn’t much choice, with the guards rushing in from both ends of the hut driving us out.

We were nearing the end of summer when, one day Hia San our foreman told us tomorrow night was a celebration. We were rather mystified as to what there was to celebrate but he said we would have Saki, of course we only believed things when they happened. 

The following day at work, Hia San didn’t chase us to reach the tonnage target as was usual, disappearing on two occasions before we’d had our meal break, which we thought was overdue. He then went off once again saying he was going to see if the men in the office had gone home, on his return he said “All clear”. He then took us out of the mine onto the hillside, telling us to sit and eat our meal. A friend of his then appeared carrying two bottles of home made wine, Saki. Small glasses that would hold about a measure of spirit, were then passed round, it tasted slightly sour but alcoholic. He and his friend chatted and offered round smokes for the rest of the shift, we didn’t enter the mine again that night. Hia San stumbled back down the hillside with us, to the waiting guard and handed us over, he usually walked back with us to Ohasi, but not that night.

Autumn was approaching and one day, as always, on the look out for anything edible, I noticed a small field with what looked like a crop of potatoes growing in it. A closer look next day and I was sure, so that evening on the return journey from work, I put a spurt on so I was well ahead of the single guard bringing up the rear. Moving quickly, I went into the field and scraping round one of the plants, found four potatoes. I rubbed as much dirt off as was possible, then ate them raw before arriving back at camp. They tasted earthy, not at all pleasant, but I was hungry enough to eat anything. I repeated this performance as often as I was able, until one day the potatoes were harvested and my extra source of food came to an abrupt halt.

Two or three weeks later, I started suffering stomach pains with no relief. I felt alright otherwise except for the hunger pangs which were always there. Walking to work one day, I had a strange feeling in my back passage and putting my hand there, felt a large worm hanging half out. I grabbed hold of it pulling it out and threw it to the ground, deciding I would report to sick bay next day. Next morning, I went to see the surgeon and explained what had happened, his reply was “Not another gold brick”, an American expression for something worthless. He thought I was trying to escape work and told me to bring him a worm, he would then treat me. As turned to leave, I had another jab of pain that made me wince, the sailor assistant asked where the pain was, I told him my lower abdomen. He placed his hand on my stomach and felt it, then turned to the surgeon saying “You had better give him some treatment, his stomach muscles are tense and tight”. With this the surgeon gave me some worm tablets and told me not to eat for eight hours before taking them. He didn’t think the tables were strong enough for the type of worms I had, if I found another, I was to keep it for him to see.

About this time, one of the men from the other end of our hut managed to escape from camp, but his freedom only lasted twenty four hours. Why he thought it was worth a try in the land of slant eyed people, I’ll never know. Where could he possibly go without being noticed? His close companions in the hut were fortunate there were no reprisals against them, as was the case in the Java camp. We didn’t seem him again.

1 comment:

  1. Frank, I recognize the prisoner who had his thumb amputated as Ben Kelley of the 131st Field Artillery, Texas National Guard. Yours is a more detailed account than I'd seen of this. A camp worker - Cato, I think -- ran and got some anaesthetic, for which Kelley was most grateful! Apparently there were a great many infections around this time.
    Thanks so much for your contribution of so much detail.