June 20, 2009

During the first few weeks of captivity at Changi the POWs were still heavily reliant on the food supplies they brought with them.  This gave the meager meals a certain eclectic quality.  On Saturday March 21, just over a month after his capture, my father described his rations for the day as follows:


Small portion of tinned bacon, Heinz beans & tomato sauce

Boiled rice

3 biscuits

Mug of tea


Boiled rice & a little tinned pineapple boiled up with it.


Boiled rice, either curried or plain, with a little local vegetable & corned beef added.

Mug of tea

It was more than a week after assembling the POWs at Changi that the Japanese delivered the first rations.  These consisted largely of rice.  As Brian MacArthur describes it in Surviving the Sword, relief was short-lived as the rice was maggot-infested and in any case consisted largely of broken grains, husks and gravel.  It was also dyed yellow and smelled strongly of sulphur.

Even had the rice been of reasonable quality, it would have still presented a challenge.  In Britain at least, the pre-war cuisine — if you could call it that — had little place for rice.  My father was completely unfamiliar with it, except as rice pudding.   Not that he cared for it very much.

The notes from March and April 1942 express a certain curiosity edged with wariness.  They also indicate early concerns about the possible health implications of a rice-based diet.  There would be much more about that to follow.

Rice should never be soaked for longer than 1 hour, but must be washed thoroughly.  When boiling the rice the grains must not be “packed” in the boiler.  Otherwise they will tend to cluster themselves in hard lumps & eventually retain heat so that they “burn.”

Limed rice can only be told when in the sack by tapping the latter with a stick when the lime dust is caused to come out as dust.

Malaya does not grow very much rice & most of it has to be imported for home consumption.  It is to keep out grain-eating insects during transit & storage that the lime is added.

Rice causes constipation.

Book C, 118-119

Rice should always be steamed, not boiled.

Rice obtained from the bottom of the pan, which is usually burnt, is much sweeter than the remainder.

Eating of large amounts of rice causes the passage of large quantities of urine (due to the large amounts of water absorbed by the rice).

Book C, 126

Undercooked polished rice, if eaten in quantity, is liable to cause jaundice.

Book C, 137

Polished rice is entirely white & shiny & slips easily through the fingers. Unpolished rice shows longitudinal streaks of brown on the surface, giving the whole grain a matt finish.

Rice boiled with coconut milk is said to be very delicious.

Book C, 148

Anti malarial drains

June 13, 2009


Latrines, incinerators, Otway pits and anti-malarial drains; besides food and disease, these were the main notebook topics (and presumably preoccupations) during the first few weeks and months at Changi. Such was the prevailing necessity. But the notes also reflected my father’s interest and training. He had developed a passion for natural history as a teenager and had already published a few notes in the The Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine and elsewhere. As far as I can tell, his drawing skills were largely self taught though he had done a number of technical illustrations for the Bulletin of Entomological Research while working at Farnham House Laboratory. He had also qualified as a sanitary inspector before the war and had been trained to do anti-malarial work with the RAMC.  In any case, he returned to the topics again and again in his notes.

In later life, the fascination with drains became almost obsessive. We moved house several times when I was a child and in almost every instance it wasn’t long before my father was excavating a patchwork of ditches in the garden. So deep were these that when digging them he would sometimes disappear completely from view save for the occasional shovel-full of earth tossed into the air.

There weren’t many mosquitoes in our part of Devon but then of course that wasn’t the point. The reasons for the obsessiveness lay elsewhere.

Given the climate and conditions, flies were both a general nuisance and major health threat. Every effort was made to stamp them out, including the literal; at Roberts Hospital doctors, orderlies and even patients had their fly-swatting quotas. Here is a diagram of an early fly-trap for an Otway pit constructed with a metal funnel “such as a petrol funnel with the stem sawn off” and a wooden box with a hole in the bottom to take the funnel.

The trap is fitted on top of the Otway Pit which merely consists of a large hole dug into the ground and covered with a fly proof board with two openings: one to take the fly trap, the second to receive an oil drum to act as a filter.”

Book C, 112-113

There were many other contraptions of this sort. One of them is described more for “its novelty than any efficiency derived from the device.”

“The trap merely consists of a series of lemonade or similar white glass bottles inserted by their necks into holes made to receive them in the vertical timber forming the superstructure of these two improvisations.* Every morning two men visit the traps equipped with two containers, one filled with disinfectant, the other being intended to receive the results of the previous day’s captures. Both containers are provided with handles which are slung over a pole which is carried jointly by the two men. each bottle is visited in turn and half-filled with the disinfectant. The flies are attracted to the light & enter the bottles. Here they fly about trying to escape & eventually get drowned in the disinfectant.

* Otway Pit and Deep Trench Latrine

Book, C 182-183

The Otway Pit

June 7, 2009

As far as my father was concerned, there could have been no greater coincidence of collective and personal interest during the early months at Changi than in matters of waste disposal. Here is one of his many diagrams for an Otway pit which functioned as a septic tank for the disposal of liquid wastes from the hospital and kitchens. The diagram was drawn sometime in March or April 1942.

As my father explained to me, “dry” refuse at Changi was almost non-existent.  Almost everything that could be reclaimed for other uses was reclaimed.  It was, he said, “the exact opposite of a throw-away society.”