Changi gardens

July 18, 2010

The Japanese provided relatively little to the Changi POW in terms of food and the designated rations were fairly theoretical.  On the other hand, they did allow the prisoners to cultivate gardens and keep poultry to supplement their diet with much needed vitamins and protein.

Presumably my father drew the above map to indicate some of the cultivation.  The area detailed is around the Changi Tree — the legendary landmark of pre-war Singapore.  (Not that there would have been much left of it in 1943 as it had been cut down by the British during the invasion to deprive the Japanese gunners of a useful range marker.)  The vegetable gardens are clearly marked in green with other cultivated areas such as coconut plantations and ornamental gardens also indicated.

The map was undated but in another notebook he refers to it in an entry from about April 1943.  Here he describes some of the changes in vegetation that had taken place in the first year of captivity.

(1) The gradual encroachment of the jungle toward the camp, particularly lalang*.

(2) Intensive agricultural activities in certain areas (marked on map) particularly in the G & W area.

(3) The cutting of timber (principally rubber trees) outside the area.

(4) The breeding of poultry, chiefly ducks & to a lesser extent chickens.

Green Book 1, inside front cover.

* Lalang was a long grass cultivated for soup.  It was rich in vitamins.

Letter from home

July 10, 2010

It appears that Sybil was the conduit for communication to and from home throughout my father’s captivity.  Of the five postcards he was allowed to send home between February 1942 and August 1945 four were addressed to her.  And she wrote to him frequently at least until March 1945, though it is likely that he did not receive all of her letters.  At the same time, I have found only one letter from his parents.  I have to think that they wrote others, possibly many others,  but it is odd to say the least that none of them have have survived given how much care he took to preserve envelopes.  Even in this one letter, shown above, it is clear that communication was going through Sybil.  Could it be that they simply didn’t write?  My paternal grandparents were not known for their emotional warmth, it must be said, but such reticence seems scarcely possible even by their standards.  And yet what little evidence I have seems to suggest it.

Something else doesn’t add up either.  The letter is dated February 15, 1943 and refers to a card that Sybil had received from my father and shown to them over Christmas.  But my father’s own records indicate that the only postcard he had been permitted to write prior to that time had been sent in July 1942 and in any case had been addressed to his home rather than to Sybil.  His next postcard was not sent until February 22, 1943, a week after this letter is dated.  If this is one small example of what historians do whenever they try to make sense of personal records from the past it’s a wonder any history gets written at all.

How to write a letter

July 5, 2010

In February 1944 The British Red Cross launched a monthly newsletter for the relatives of reported prisoners of war or those missing in the Far East. My grandparents saved all but a few of the issues published during the remaining year and a half of the war.

The first issue of ‘Far East’ came precisely two years after the fall of Singapore. But even then the editor could write that “contact with the (Japanese) prison camps has been only partial, intermittent and uncertain, and we know nothing reliable about the camps holding most of our men.”

Instructions for composing and addressing letters to FEPOW were printed on the back page of the first issue. As can be seen, letters were to be limited to 25 words,  written in block capitals or typewritten, contain no enclosures and deal only with personal matters. It’s hard to imagine what one could say in 25 words but no doubt Sybil — and many thousands of others — got very good at it.

Letters to Changi

July 5, 2010

Sybil numbered each envelope so I know that she wrote at least 120 letters to my father over a three year period. The last envelope among his notes was dated March 1944.   Still, there is some mystery to the numbering because in at least one instance it is out of sequence with the postage dates. Perhaps this could have been cleared up easily enough if all the envelopes had survived but only a few of them did. This in turn is also a bit of a puzzle because my father kept every scrap of paper he could to write on, including the envelopes of other prisoners.

The letter illustrated here was sent in December 1942. It is clear from the address (British Prisoner of War, C/O Japanese Red Cross) that she didn’t know which camp he was in.  She was using the same basic address convention in March 1945 which implies that she still did not know of his whereabouts or condition even then.