This is a personal story about luck, both good and bad, and the way that random events impact on human outcomes. And it is mainly also a personal wartime story about suffering and endurance, which I am sure my father, who is the main character of the story but who is no longer around, would be happy to share. It comes from his unpublished memoir, ‘There and Back’, written in 1947.
I was given an orange one Xmas. When I was very young, during the war. Quite a treat, then.
My father was given one too, on Xmas day 1942. It was a very rare treat for him, too, since he had been a Japanese prisoner of war since March of that year. For ten months, he and his fellow soldiers had been treated very badly and entirely contrary to the Geneva Convention for the treatment of prisoners of war, and had been living on a near starvation diet.
On Becoming a Prisoner
After enlisting in the army in 1939, at the age of 20, in company with his school friend, my father was sent, after training and after the war had started in earnest, to a unit manning a searchlight battery on the East Anglian coast.
One day in late autumn 1941, a sergeant poked his head round the shed door and asked, ‘Anyone here drive a three-tonner?’ My father volunteered the information that he had some little driving experience, I think driving a tractor on his uncle’s farm, and this reply sealed his fate for the next four years. He was immediately issued with a travel warrant and ordered to transfer to the 48th Royal Artillery Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, which needed a driver, and was assembling in Glasgow for embarkation to the Far East. The Regiment consisted of three batteries, totalling over 1,000 men.
My father’s school friend was subsequently selected for officer training and spent the war behind a desk in London.
The Regiment sailed from Greenock on the River Clyde on the converted troop ship Duchess of Athol on December 8th 1941, one day after Japan had attacked Pearl Harbour. Japanese ambitions for a Southeast Asian empire incorporating British and Dutch interests, possessions and oil resources in the Far East were well-known to HM Government.
There were 3,500 men on board, plus all their military equipment, so it was very tightly packed, and soldiers slept where they could, often on the floor and in the alleyways. The ship joined a 23-ship escorted convoy, and zigzagged its way down the African coast to Freetown, then Capetown, then Durban. Here, the Regiment trans-shipped to the smaller ship Duneera, and the convoy left for Singapore. On 6th February 1942, with the convoy approaching Singapore, the battle defending the city against the Japanese was just beginning. Five ships from the convoy entered Singapore Harbour, while the Duneera was re-routed to nearby Batavia in Java (then Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta, capital of Indonesia).
By 15th February, Singapore had fallen, and the Japanese Army had invaded Sumatra, the neighbouring island to Java. My father’s battery, of about 300 men, with all its guns, lorries and other equipment, was selected for transfer by ferry to Oosthaven (now Bandar Lampung) at the southern end of Sumatra, and deployed along the road leading to the north of the island. Then news came through that Japanese paratroops had captured the main airport in the north, Palembang, and killed many men. A command decision was made to abandon the island, so the battery was ordered to return to Oosthaven. Here, the lorries were destroyed, and the guns and men were evacuated back to Batavia.
Back on Java, each of the three batteries of the 48th Regiment were allocated to defend one of three airports on the island – Batavia, Tillijap 20 miles away, and Bandoeng (now Bandung) in central Java, 100 miles away. My father’s battery, with fresh lorries, went to Bandoeng, and set up their guns in defensive positions around the aerodrome. Next morning, 28 Japanese planes attacked them at 1,500 feet, and caused much damage to the runway and buildings. Six Japanese planes were brought down by the battery.
Three days later, the Japanese planes attacked again, this time from a high altitude, so were able to bomb undisturbed. Then they dived and strafed every visible target with machine guns. The next day, the planes returned and strafed the regiment again. Many men were killed or injured. The Japanese had mastery of the sea and air, and were quickly becoming masters of the land. The battery defending Tillijap aerodrome had been wiped out by Japanese paratroops, and the battery defending Batavia aerodrome had been withdrawn and now joined my father’s battery in withdrawing to the south of the island in the hope of finding a ship there.
After driving for a day and a night, they hadn’t yet made it to the coast. The convoy stopped and an officer told them that the entire regiment had been surrendered to the Japanese. Their war was over and they were officially prisoners of war. March 8th 1942. The Regiment now consisted of two batteries of around 600 men in total.
For the next several months, the prisoners were held in two transit camps. The first was a school in Batavia, and the second, much worse, the town jail there. Some men were detailed for cooking, food or latrine duties, but most were put on working parties repairing roads and airfields. Because the Regiment’s army issue rations had long been used up, food supplies came from Japanese requisitions from the local population. Initially, meals consisted of rice and vegetable stew, with tea and an occasional bun. This became very monotonous, and left prisoners feeling hungry all the time. But this level of hunger was nothing compared to the poor rations that were to be provided over the next three and a half years.
Many new prisoners arrived, Americans, Australians, and RAF, taking the total in the prison, with a capacity of 800, to 2,500 men.
Men began falling ill, with boils, diarrhoea, malaria, dysentery and other illnesses caused by the poor diet and an absence of medical treatment. Men reporting sick were excused work, but were sent to a hospital area (just a room) on part rations. One night, my father was so ill he only just managed to crawl his way across the courtyard to the hospital. His cell mates did not expect him to return. The next morning he was stretchered to ‘the death centre’, where he was treated by a Dutch doctor with a diet mostly of water. Men lying next to him died in agony because of the limited medical supplies. Finally, after a month, he was strong enough to return to his cell. But many didn’t make it.
After two months, the Japanese requested a deployment of prisoners for a working party of prisoners to Borneo. The battery which had been defending Batavia was selected, and one morning around 300 prisoners were marched off. Nothing more was heard from these men, and all were presumed to have died there.
On November 1st 1942, the remaining 300 men of the Regiment were told that they were very lucky, they were going to be transferred to Japan, where they would be well fed, and paid to work in a factory. They left the prison by train, then by boat to Singapore, where they were transferred to a very old ex-British tramp steamer, which took them via Saigon and Taiwan to Shimoneseke at the southern tip of Honshu, the main island of Japan.
This hellish sea journey lasted a month. It was overcrowded, the men were battened down in the dark holds of the ship, under the hatches for most of the journey, either one, two or three levels down. Access was by ladder. It was initially stifling hot and suffocating, later becoming freezing as more northern latitudes and winter approached. The men wore only tattered, poor quality tropical clothing. Facilities and food were basic and minimal, and medical care non-existent. The ship was sometimes battered by storms, Many prisoners were dreadfully ill, and the many who died were just thrown overboard. My father was chosen for deck duties (latrines, deck sluicing, coal stoking) which gave him some respite from the suffocating atmosphere below deck.
On arrival at Shimoneseke, November 30th 1942, the remaining 200 (approximately) men of the Regiment, including nine officers, were met by the Nipponese camp commandant, nicknamed Negus. He spoke good English, but couldn’t pronounce the word ‘next’ properly, saying ‘negus’ each time. Hence the nickname. Again, promises of clean factory work, good food and accommodation were made.
After a long overnight train journey, they arrived at their destination (Mene Matchii), at the end of the railway line. The prisoners were immediately appalled to see a very small and decrepit coal mining village in a valley high in the mountains, with a biting east wind blowing. The villagers appeared to be very poor, living in a kind of shanty town of shacks, and the mine entrance was right there by the railway.
Next… Hell under ground.
This is part 1 of 3: Read part 2 here