I’m not sure when my father decided to learn Malay though my sense is that he didn’t get down to it in earnest until the move to Kranji in May 1944.  At any rate, most of his Malay language notes date from his last dismal year in captivity.

Not that he did date them, or many of his other notes for that matter.  But everything was carefully numbered which in itself became an index of his changing condition and state of mind.  Paper, along with just about everything else, was in very short supply at Kranji and he was reduced to writing on every scrap he could find.  Such was the new state of parsimony that each side of an envelope would now be counted as its own page.

Still, the Malay language primers he was using must have given him some puzzling moments.  They had obviously been written for the pre-War colonial elite and didn’t try to disguise it.  Expressions such as: “What an idiot you are!  I tell you to bring water and you bring oil!” and “Does Madam know that dinner is ready?” would have had limited applicability in a POW camp.

Or anywhere else for that matter.  When my wife and I visited Singapore a few months ago I took a look at these books to see if they might be helpful but had much the same problem.  Foreign language phrase books are almost completely useless in real life situations it seems to me but when was I ever going to tell someone that “People say that he is a great opium-smoker” or that “The cleverness of Europeans is very great indeed”?  Not often presumably.

My father was quite proud of his working knowledge of Malay.  As a child I remember him breaking into it from time to time and being greatly amused by our puzzlement.  No doubt he quite enjoyed asking us whether his dress shirts were finished.

A Changi education

July 3, 2011

Both the British and Australians established ‘universities’ at Changi but they represented only one aspect of the much larger educational enterprise in the camp.  Much it was informal with thousands of books in circulation and lectures on all manner of subjects from the most general to the most technical.

I don’t suppose my father ever read as much, or at least as widely, as he did at Changi.  He taught himself a working knowledge of Malay and attended numerous lectures on mathematics, literature and history as well as architecture, surveying and town planning.  Whether any of this was under the auspices of Changi ‘University’ I have no idea.  He never mentioned it in his notes nor in subsequent conversations.  But his book and lecture notes account for a substantial portion of the 1,500 or so pages that he brought home with him.

Most of the notes reflect his interests in biology, natural history and public health.  They ran the gamut of lecture series on bacteriology and horticulture to one-off talks such as Mr. Hutton’s  ‘Sheep Farming in Scotland’ and Mr. Gelliman’s ‘The Australian Wool Industry.’   Such was the thirst for knowledge and mental activity  that lectures on even the most arcane topics were often well-attended.  Still, I can’t help wondering how many showed up for Mr. Coleman’s four-part lecture series on ‘Manures.’  What I can say is that Mr. Coleman found at least one eager student in my father.  I have the notes to prove it.

Today of course we are accustomed to the commodification of knowledge and the notion that it must be packaged, priced and marketed but only to those who are deemed ‘qualified.’  There was no credential for a Changi education but perhaps we could learn a thing or two from it.

 

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.

 

 

 

Selarang

April 23, 2011

IMG_1307 by Brian Spittle

Model of the old Selarang Barracks now on display at the current barracks

My father never mentioned that he had spent several months at Selarang.  But his Liberated POW Questionnaire in the National Archives at Kew says that he arrived on August 27, 1943 and indeed I have found a single reference to the move on this date in one of his notebooks.  Our visit to Block 151 was therefore followed by a quick  trip to the contemporary barracks a mile or two away.

Presumably, my father followed the movement of the hospital to Selarang as he would in May 1944 when it moved again, this time to Kranji.  In fact, although his bird notes began during his last few months at Roberts and carried over to some extent at Kranji, the vast majority of them were made during his time at Selarang.  Why this was so I can only speculate.  Perhaps he had a little more freedom when he was there.  He doesn’t write about such things so it is impossible to say.

The note about his move to Selarang is easy to miss as it had been subsequently crossed out along with one or two brief observations about conditions in the barracks.  These notes are very hard to read but I can just about make out that personnel were moved from the square after August 17, 1943 and housed in tents and atap huts nearby.  He also notes that there was a “concentration of troops” (sic) in and around Selarang in October and November which — ever mindful of the sanitation implications — necessitated additional toilet and cookhouse facilities.

The original Selarang Square buildings are long gone though the square is still there.*  We were quickly ushered past that, however, and on to the officer’s mess which now houses a small museum.  The exhibition focuses as much on the postwar period as the Japanese occupation.  There’s an old computer terminal and an even more ancient mimeograph machine.  While there is a large model of the original barracks (shown above) and a few artifacts from the wartime years, I did not get the impression that the museum would be of more than passing interest to those interested in the FEPOW experience.  But then it’s not exactly open to the public anyway.

I would have liked to have nosed about the famous square a bit but this is a functioning barracks, not a visitor center.  We were reminded of this every time our car had to pull over to make way for a passing tank.  In any case, my only points of reference beside the square were from my father’s bird notes.  Of the rubber plantation, padang and chicken run there was not a sign to be seen.

* I am fairly sure that my father played no part in the Seralang Barracks Incident of August and September, 1942 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selarang_Barracks_Incident). My understanding is that Roberts personnel and patients were not moved to the square at that time, though the threat was made.  I have not yet found any references to the incident among my father’s notes though of course he would have known all about it.




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.

First letter from C.A. Gibson-Hill, Raffles Museum

On returning home from Singapore my father focused his attention on finding a job, getting married and writing up his Changi bird notes, though not necessarily in that order.  I cannot say to what extent and on what level the notes continued to be a refuge for him but he certainly devoted a considerable time to them.  Within eighteen months he had completed a 112 page manuscript which included, as can be seen from the extract on the left, a detailed section on camp vegetation

He sent the manuscript to Frederick Chasen in June, 1947.  Chasen had written the definitive study of Singapore birds and had been curator of the Raffles Museum.  But in July he received a reply from C.A. Gibson-Hill, who was to be the last British director of the museum, with the news that Chasen had been killed just before the fall of Singapore.  A fairly lengthy correspondence then ensued with Gibson-Hill concerning the publication of the manuscript which eventually appeared in much shortened form in the Raffles Bulletin in January 1950. Both the delay and the aggressive editing were in part due to paper shortages brought about by the ‘Malaya Emergency’ (or the ‘Anti British National Liberation War’ depending on your point of view).

And that, for all my father knew, was that.  About a year or so ago, however, I noticed that his article — Nesting habits of  some Singapore birds– was still available as a pdf on the web site of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, now part of the National University of Singapore.  Given that I had the original carbon copies of the manuscript I thought it just possible that someone there might like to see one of them.  Still, I was not prepared for the enthusiastic reply.  Not only is the article still read; it apparently also remains one of the few in-depth studies of Singapore birds. There was therefore genuine interest in seeing the original manuscript, which was no longer in the museum’s records, as well as copies of the field notes (if you could call them such).

We spent a delightful day with the current ornithologist at the museum who somehow made time for us having only a few days between trips to the Sarawak interior and Christmas Island.  We visited the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (just down the road from the Kranji camp would have been), enjoyed a leisurely meal and talked about the bird notes, Gibson-Hill and Singapore.  I passed on the copy of the original manuscript that I had brought with me.

Clearly, the journey had just taken another turn.

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.

Pulau Tekong

January 23, 2011

I had hoped to see Roberts Hospital, if any of it remained, as that is where my father had spent his first seventeen months as a POW before being moved to Selarang Barracks.  One place I knew I wouldn’t be able to visit was Pulau Tekong  in the Straits of Johore.  This is where he had been during the last few weeks before the surrender scuttling back and forth in a small motor boat between the island and Pengerang on his various anti-malarial errands.  Tekong is now a military training area and so off limits to the public.  Still, you can get a good view of it from Changi Village as it’s only a few hundred yards away. A visit to the adjacent island of Pulau Urbin probably provides as good a sense as any of how it used to look as there has been little development on it in recent decades.

The Japanese invasion of Singapore ignored Tekong but made a diversionary feint through Ubin.  Seeing how close these islands are to each other, to the mainland and to Singapore it is easy to imagine just what a “grandstand” view he had.  By the same token, he was probably lucky to be where he was.  Well, comparatively speaking, that is.

Looking Towards Pulau Tekong from Changi Village

On a bumboat to Pulau Ubin

Pulau Ubin

Changi Village then and now

January 22, 2011

Changi Village is quite a bustling little place these days.  There’s a hawker center, a hotel and a golf club.  You can also watch Premier League games in at least three or four restaurants along Changi Village Road though of course at any one time it’s going to be the same game.

It would have been a much sleepier place in 1942, just one of several kampongs or hamlets dotting the Changi coastline.  Still, though the pre-war photograph my father brought back doesn’t indicate it, changes must have been evident even then given the construction of the British military base.

What I had not expected is that quite a few of the old army buildings are still standing.  Take a stroll up Netheravon Road past the sailing club and you suddenly come across the old army hospital half hidden in the trees.  Turn left up Hendon Road and you’re in the heart of what I take to be Kitchener Barracks.  The buildings seem deserted now but look essentially as they must have done when they were part of the POW camp.   Which immediately raises the question:  how much, if any, of Roberts Barracks is left?  Inexplicably, I had neglected to find this out before the trip.  Now it becomes the burning question.

Changi Village pre-1942

Changi village today

Changi hospital

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.