15th Feb ’42

February 16, 2012

They are not making much of it in Chicago, where I now live, but today is the 70th anniversary of the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese.  By the same token, and according to his notes at least, it is also the seventieth anniversary of my father’s first day as a POW at Changi.  Except, as I noted in a prior post (May 10, 2009) copied below, it wasn’t.  As he used to put it, he had a “grandstand view” of the invasion from his vantage point on Pulau Tekong.  It would be several days before he (and what I gather could only have been a handful of others) were picked up by boat and ferried back to Singapore.  He had been lucky up to that point and in one respect at least would continue to be.  By that I simply mean that he was spared the horrors of the railway.

A quiet anniversary then.  But no less heartfelt for that.

singapore-jan-422

My father’s drawing of Singapore island prior to capture
showing Pulau Tekong and Pengerang (on the mainland)
where he had been posted to do anti-malarial work.

_____________________________________________

“Taken POW”

Allied forces in Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942 with food and water supplies running out and amidst scenes of  destruction and  mayhem in the city.

My father was still on Pulau Tekong which had been completely bypassed by the invasion.  As he told the story to me, it was some days before the Japanese came to pick them up though he may have been dating that from the invasion of the island rather than the surrender.  In any case, the Japanese finally made contact with them.  “Should we come over to Singapore?”  the British inquired. “Good heavens, no!” the Japanese replied, or at least words to that effect.  “You stay put until we get you.  It’s a hell of a mess over here.”

And so it was.  About 50,000 allied personnel were told to move at once to the vicinity of Changi, the British military complex situated in the northeast corner of Singapore island.

My father said nothing of this in his notes at the time though he described the general chaos from a sanitary point of view in an unpublished paper he wrote after the war.  I’ll come back to that in a later post.

The images were certainly graphic.  A year or two before he died he recalled the shock of returning to Singapore after the surrender.

The mind was suddenly concentrated — focused starkly — at the horrendous sight of the island’s civilian administrator tied spreadeagled to a tree in full sun.  He was responsible for the distribution of food (rice) to the small community of people living permanently on the island.  But apparently supplies had been withheld to be released in the event of a siege.  This was resented by the people.

As can be seen, below, his entry for that day is simply: “Taken POW 15th Feb ’42”   I don’t suppose that he had much opportunity to elaborate.

Taken POW

I first heard from Midge Gillies a couple of years ago.  She was writing a book on the day-to-day life of POW, particularly the various sorts of educational activities they were engaged in.  She had read my father’s article on Singapore birds in the Raffles Bulletin and had a few questions about his experience at Changi.  We have been in touch ever since.

Midge’s book is about to be published and I am very eager to read it.  This is not simply because it  includes references to my father’s work but also because it both illuminates and enlarges our understanding of the everyday life of many POW.  The perspective she brings is certainly consistent with what I have learned of my own father’s experience.

The dominant images and stereotypes of POW survival have to do with gritty determination and discipline on the one hand and matey comradeship on the other.   And so it must have been.  But even in the most adverse circumstances when mind and spirit were most constrained, men and women continued to discover, explore and learn.  This was one of the most effective survival strategies of all, of course, but precisely because it was often more than that.

Changi was perhaps a bit unusual with its ‘universities,’ libraries and theatres.  But this was partly a function of scale.  In any case, remarkable though they were, such more or less formal activities didn’t begin to account for the countless stories of individual POW who were not content with mere survival.

The Barbed-Wire University is full of such stories.

 

 

 

The contrasts could hardly have been greater.  My father arrived in Singapore on a troopship after several weeks of dodging German U-boats and bombers across the Atlantic and a meandering circuit that took in the West Indies, Capetown and the Indian Ocean.  I touched down three minutes ahead of schedule in a Qantas airbus.  His accommodation consisted of attap huts and stifling, overcrowded barracks buildings; mine included hotels that were (at least in my experience) practically the last word in friendliness, efficiency and comfort.  He lived on near starvation rations and worse; I was lucky enough to sample some of the delicacies that make Singapore one of the foodie capitals of the world.

I was very conscious of these things, particularly as my reasons for visiting Changi were as much meditative as investigative.  In part, I was hoping to get a little closer to my father’s experience.  Of course, you don’t do that just by standing in the same place seventy years later, particularly a place that has changed so much.  But some things do start to get a little clearer.

In his memoir Basil Street Blues the biographer Michael Holroyd writes of the space that was left after his parents died and of his need to fill it with a story.   Many of us have the same experience, he suspects, leading us “to ask questions when it is apparently too late for answers, and then to be forced to discover answers on our own.”

That’s what I was doing in Singapore.

Block 151

February 7, 2011

I never thought seriously that I would one day find myself standing inside the building where my father had once been a prisoner of war.  Singapore was a very long way away from the England of my childhood, both in imagination and geography.  Working on his notes over the past couple of years has brought it much closer in imagination at least.  But I now live in Chicago and in terms of miles that is about as far away as you can get.

My reasons for coming to Singapore were to finally get a sense of the place for myself.  The use of the word sense is deliberate; I wanted to see, hear, touch, smell and taste it.  Of course, the island has been transformed — many times in fact — since my father’s day.  But hints of its wartime past remain.  As it turned out they were sometimes rather more than hints.

I did not realize, even by the time of my arrival, whether any of the old Roberts buildings were still standing.  Had I known more about the Changi murals I would have learned quickly enough that Block 151 had been preserved as that is where they were housed.  But my interest in that building had more to do with the dysentery wing.  This is where my father had been (both as an RAMC orderly and patient) from the establishment of the hospital facility in March 1942 until he was moved to Selerang in the summer of 1943.  His early notes on camp sanitation,  deficiency diseases, drainage systems and ottway pits would have been written here.  He knew Block 151 very well.

It was Jeya, the director of the Changi Museum, who told us that the building did indeed still exist but that as it was on the air force base, a high security area, it was not accessible to the public.  Still, he encouraged us to contact the public affairs office at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) as exceptions were sometimes made for families of former POW.  This we did though without any great confidence that there would be a reply let alone permission to visit.

We were wrong.  The staff at MINDEF were more than helpful and bent over backwards to arrange a visit even at such short notice — we were due to return to Chicago a week later.  True, passport numbers and other information had to be provided for security purposes.  A car also had to be hired from a company acceptable to MINDEF as taxis were not allowed.  But these things were quickly sorted out as they tend to be in Singapore and permission was granted within a couple of days or so.

And so at the appointed hour we presented ourselves at the west security gate at Changi Air Force Base.  A military vehicle would escort us the rest of the way.

The building stood on a slight rise with open ground to one side of it and trees on the other.  I was certainly aware of the enormity of the moment as we approached and yet before I knew it we were inside.

What we had been given permission to see was the old chapel containing the Changi murals.  The story of the murals is both remarkable and inspiring (go to http://www.petrowilliamus.co.uk/murals/murals.htm to learn more) but it was not what had drawn me to this place.  I listened as the history of the murals and their rediscovery was explained but what I wanted more than anything else at that moment was to explore the building and the grounds outside and to be alone with my thoughts.  For security reasons that would not be possible.

Still, half way round the world and nearly seventy years later I was standing in the very place I never thought I’d see, a place my father and so many others had been forced to know so well.  That was more than I could have hoped for even days beforehand and I am enormously grateful to Jeya at the Changi Museum and Simon Soh at MINDEF who did so much to make it happen.

Visiting Changi

January 1, 2011

 


In my first post I envisaged this blog as something of a personal journey and one that was likely to veer off down all sorts of side roads and byways. In what I suppose is something more than a byway, it’s a journey that has finally taken me to Singapore.
I’m writing this in Changi Village, a place my father knew well as a POW. Much has changed since then of course and large parts of the camp have either disappeared through commercial development or are otherwise inaccessible as military installations.

A lot can still be seen, however, and much more mentally reconstructed. For instance, if you walk down Changi Village Road, go past the mosque at the corner of Loyang Road and turn right up a little side road that looks as though it leads nowhere you will find yourself at a rather fashionable little watering hole called Lava Edge. Here you can enjoy a cold beer while looking out over the local golf course. As it happens, you’re also looking in the general direction of  Changi Hill. And the other side of that is where Roberts Hospital was located and where my father spent the first part of his captivity.
Let’s just say that knowing this (while enjoying the cold beer) is enough to bring on a fairly complicated mix of thoughts and emotions.  After all, it’s been quite a journey to get to this place.

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.