PART 2 of 3.
You can read part 1 here.
A Miner’s Life
Accommodation at the camp was in four wooden, purpose-built, two-storey huts, each holding about 50 men, three to a room. A high wooden stockade surrounded the buildings, and included a single gate in and out, a guard house, and sentries on duty at all times. Escape would have been hopeless and pointless. Each room was about 8 feet (2.4 m) square and contained a shelf for belongings, three mats on the floor, six eiderdowns and a small brazier for keeping warm or brewing tea. Meals were taken in a dining area at one end of the building, and the prisoners prepared the food.
Seven men died in the first week, and they were each placed in a rough wooden coffin, and transported by six prisoners a mile (1.6 km) up a mountain path to a place of cremation.
The mine was a drift mine. The prisoners were divided into three shifts, and work continued 24 hours a day, 6 days a week, with one rest day. Later, the rest days were only granted every 10 or 12 days.
Prisoners, escorted by guards and wearing their working clothes, boots, helmet and carrying a small lunch box, walked a mile from the camp to the mine opening, where they were issued with a head lamp and battery. Supervised by Japanese miners, they then walked another mile down the main drift, which was a dark tunnel about 20 feet wide, with rails running down the middle. The rails were for trucks to haul coal and stone out of the mine and stores to be taken in. Prisoners were then searched for contraband, and cigarettes.
The next part of the journey to the coal face was down a very steep smaller tunnel, over a mile, around 1 in 8, with jagged and loose rocks underfoot and on the sides and roof of the tunnel. Finally there was a further, and smaller, steep descending tunnel of about half a mile in length, leading to the coal face. No lighting, apart from their head lamps, and no ventilation.
The work of one shift was to drill 16 holes in the coal face, insert dynamite charges into each of the holes and plug them with clay, move back 100 yards, fire the detonator, move back to the face, hew the coal down, pick up the coal into wicker baskets and tip it into the waiting trucks. These trucks were then pushed back to the end of the tunnel, where a winch hauled them away. Trucks frequently fell over or came off the rails, and had to be manhandled back upright and the coal reloaded. Then back to the coal face, extend the rails, extend the compressor pipe, cut wooden pit props to size, and erect one each side and one across the roof. So the face advanced about three yards every day.
At the end of the shift, prisoners faced the exhausting return journey, mostly uphill, usually taking one hour. These journeys into and out of the mine, and the shift work, were totally exhausting for the men, who were thoroughly under-nourished, weak, often quite ill and generally completely unfit for this gruelling labour.
By the end of the first month, both of my father’s cell mates had died. After surviving the Japanese attacks on Java, the prison in Java, the hellship journey to Japan, and the journey to the mining village, they had finally succumbed to the accumulated effect of the malnutrition, the hardships, the illnesses, the Japanese beatings, and the medical neglect. My father’s Scottish friend, a teacher from Edinburgh, was one of the men moved into my father’s room.
And so the monotony, ugliness and ever-present hunger, of life at the prison camp went on, and got progressively worse, for 32 months from 1st December 1942 until the Japanese surrender on 8th August 1945. Rations were repeatedly cut. The winter weather was bitter. As the Japanese war prospects declined in 1945, the guards and miners became more and more jumpy and autocratic. There were few events to relieve the monotony. Prisoners drank up to 15 pints of water a day to try to relieve the constant sense of hunger.
My father was twice sentenced to days in solitary confinement, eight days in total, a small dark room without any comforts. Once for stealing some clothes, and again for trying to smuggle a bar of soap into the mine for bartering for tobacco. He felt he was lucky that the sentences were comparatively light.
A Swiss Red Cross visitor arrived in the second year. He was well-received by the Japanese, the men were given the day off and a football to play with, meals improved for the day, and piles of tea and cigarettes were set up in the dining room for the visitor to see. Photos of the men at play were taken, and a generally false impression of camp life was given. Later, three bags of food supplies arrived, giving each man a very small issue of cocoa, sugar and oatmeal.
Occasionally senior Japanese army chiefs arrived for an inspection, and again there were improvements made for the visit, immediately removed after the visit was over.
Eiderdowns in the room began to disintegrate, the braziers were removed, faintings and beatings became more frequent, illness was a constant presence and men continued to die. My father suffered most of the time from beriberi and general weakness, and from a damaged ear drum following a beating. He was placed on camp work above ground for a month due to a serious bout of diarrhoea. He spent a week in the hospital following a fall down a rocky slope, and had a carbuncle sliced off his knee by a Japanese so-called medical student. He survived all this.
Bugs and lice were a big problem and could not be eradicated despite daily washing after the shift and washing clothes. Prisoners regularly visited the dustbin looking for thrown-away scraps of food, such as the uncooked head of a fish.
In November 1944, 350 American prisoners arrived, mainly captured in the Philippines, and the camp was extended to house them. In December 1944, the first letters from home were received, but by the end of that winter most British prisoners felt they would not survive another winter.
Coming… will it ever end?