Red Palm in the Morning

August 23, 2014

Heriot cover

The use and effects of red palm oil moved one POW to verse.  Guy Heriot was an internee first at Changi and then at Sime Road.  He wrote about his captivity in Changi Interlude which also included the poems he wrote at the time.  Many of the poems took a gently humorous line on the food and other privations of internee life.  My father would have enjoyed them very much.


Red oil in the morning

Is waiting for you;

If you don’t want your portion,

You know what to do.


But lap it up nicely,

Though it may appall:

You’d get Brimstone and Treacle

At Dotheboys’ Hall.


Mild Laxative action,

So some will not stay;

But what you retain is

Your Vitamin A


It cleans up your Scabies,

Pellagra and Sprue:

Red Palm in the morning

Is waiting for you.











Red Palm Oil

May 4, 2013

Outside of the United States red palm oil is one of the most widely consumed oils in the world. Rich in vitamins and antioxidants it is a popular dietary supplement and cooking oil.  On the other hand, it is also used in the manufacture of cosmetics, lubricants and ink.

It certainly had its uses for the POW along with other miracle fare such as hibiscus leaves, rice polishings and Marmite.

At Kranji there were lectures on red palm oil.  My father was there and naturally took copious notes.   He listed the oil’s many uses (from soap making to dog food), devoted a whole page to the process by which it was made and quoted the lecturer (a Major A.C. Smith) as saying that it “until recently” it had not been considered edible.  Well, quite.

(In fact, red palm oil was being consumed especially in West Africa where, as a 1932 article in the Biochemistry Journal noted, it had much the same function in the diet as olive oil had in Europe.)

Clearly, red palm oil was a bit of an acquired taste.  In Wartime Kitchen, Wong Hong Suen notes that it had previously been used for lighting lamps.  It had “an unpleasant smell and an acerbic taste.”  Both could be mitigated somewhat by adding soda (used for washing clothes) to the boiling oil.  Still, in a time of acute shortage the civilian population found it both cheap and widely available.

The oil available at Changi and Kranji was apparently of a fairly crude variety.  I can only imagine what it tasted like though my father never said much about that.  Along with many of his fellow POW, no doubt, he was more concerned with its after effects.  Here is one typical note from Kranji.

Red Palm Oil

The noticeable augmentation of Red Palm Oil to our diet (particularly in the morning porridge) resulted in a considerable loosening of the bowels.

By eating this oil in excess of the usual quantities it is found to have a beneficial effect on the healing of skin abrasions.  When at one time such sores took days to heal (if they did not develop into tropical ulcers) they now seem to heal without any ill effects.

By September 1944 conditions at Kranji were clearly very poor.  As my father’s notes during the first three months following the move from Changi were not dated there is no way of telling from them whether the situation had been bad from the start or had deteriorated over the summer.  Either way, the first dated notes were from September.   They make grim reading.

By then, he wrote, the POW at Kranji were living “a day to day, hand to mouth existence.” No planning was possible.  Rations, never adequate, were at starvation levels.  “Now virtually living on rice, greenstuff & water.” Cherished embellishments such as fish oil, sugar, salt and pepper were “almost negligible” while “dogs, cats, toadstools & swill gleanings are devoured as ‘lagis’” (the POW term for second helpings of rations derived from the Malay word for ‘more’).  In short, it was now “not so much a matter of staying healthy as keeping alive.”

My father had written well over a thousand pages of notes by this time but at no point had he described such levels of deprivation and desperation despite the fact that he would have been no stranger to either.

I have often wondered about this.  When he was on Tekong Island in February 1942 he managed to write not one word about the invasion that narrowly bypassed him preferring instead to describe the bedbugs beneath his feet rather than the bombardment above his head.  On one level this may have been a simple reflection of the fact that the world of nature interested him more than the world of people.  Could this in turn have produced a sort of insouciance that inoculated him from the horror?  Perhaps he simply preferred not to dwell on such things.  To this extent his almost obsessive note taking may have had as much to do with emotional distraction as mental discipline, if such a distinction makes sense.

Or perhaps he had come to the conclusion that he no longer had anything more to lose.

Dying and Living

October 29, 2011

Meals by Brian Spittle

The content and tone of my father’s notes changed somewhat during his last year of captivity. For the first time he started to reflect on his condition and references to food – or the lack of it – became very common. Until recently I had associated this shift with his move to Kranji. Conditions there were worse than at Changi and while the end of the war could now be contemplated what this would mean for him and his fellow POW was far from obvious.

Still, a more careful reading indicates that the shift began (or at least was first expressed) in March and April 1944 a few weeks before the move to Kranji.

Why this was so, I cannot say for sure. But this was a time of deteriorating conditions and morale at Changi. The Japanese were tightening their control over camp life and imposing new restrictions and regulations. And POW who had been more or less distributed across the Changi promontory were now required to move to the immediate vicinity of Changi gaol. On top of this, many thousands of prisoners were returning from upcountry and the collective nightmare of the Thailand-Burma railway. Many of them were in very poor condition.

Attap huts and tents were erected around the gaol and rations were restricted. Had it not been for the gardens cultivated by the POW, food would have been very scarce indeed.

Changi may have been a holiday camp compared to some others.  But by March 1944 it was starting to lose that reputation.

Dying and Living
It is said that you don’t need to worry so much about dying as you do about living.

Is it to reduce resistance or is there a definite shortage of food? Hip bones protruding make it difficult to lie on one’s side in bed (even with biscuits).

In bulk these do not satisfy. By long residence in the camp it has been possible to discipline oneself with regard to being able to exist on half rations. At one time rice was plentiful & the difficulty was in flavouring it (with tinned fish, tomato, egg, blachan, condensed milk, curry, coconut, pickled whitebait, raisins, soya bean sauce, salt, cinnamon). Now the reverse is true. Meat, vegetables, sugar etc. being relatively more plentiful and rice scarce.

In the early days novelty made the meal enjoyable. Now it is monotony.

Green Book 12, March-April 1944

Cigarette image

My father took up smoking in Changi along with many other POW. He said that as much as anything else it helped to relieve the boredom. After all, as Lady Bracknell put it in rather different circumstances in The Importance of Being Earnest: “A man should always have an occupation of some kind.”

But as can be seen from his note below and others to the same effect, it also helped to alleviate the almost constant hunger.

Of course cigarettes were in very short supply and fetched enormous value on the black market. They were also of very poor quality; “noxious” was one word my father used to describe them.

This wasn’t just a question of the tobacco. Such was the scarcity that all sorts of substitutions were employed. Dried hibiscus and other plant leaves were used to supplement what little tobacco was available and pages torn from books were substituted for cigarette paper with the thin pages from bibles being the most prized.

I never saw my father smoke a cigarette after the war. He did enjoy a pipe, though seemed to be addicted less to the tobacco than the pipe itself. While it was a semi-permanent fixture in his mouth he rarely bothered to light it.

However, in one of his occasional enthusiasms he did once try to grow tobacco. In fact, he grew about a quarter of an acre of it. Tobacco cultivation being something of a rarity in our part of Worcestershire it was a project that attracted a good deal of local attention.

Once the leaves were harvested they were carefully dried in the attic. This was done over my mother’s protests as the smell permeated our small house and was particularly virulent in the summer months. After a year or two the first of the leaves were retrieved and rolled quite expertly into a cigar. I well remember the moment when my father sat down in his armchair and with great ceremony raised this first homegrown cheroot to his lips, lit it and inhaled.

A moment or two passed and then he practically levitated in a fit of coughing and wheezing.

“Absolutely awful!” he spluttered.

Smoking as a substitute for food
Nicotine acts as a drug upon the senses & appears to ward off hunger. At any rate it satisfies after a poor meal. As a result many become heavy smokers.

Poor quality tobacco is improved greatly by soaking in a weak solution of water & sugar, rinsing out & allowing to dry in the sun.

Dampening tobacco
Papua, hibiscus and banana leaves are chiefly used.

Green Book, General Notes. March-April, 1944

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.

Back again

August 11, 2010

Green Book 3

Two months after my father was discharged from Roberts Hospital he was admitted again due to a second bout of dysentery. This time, however, his stay was relatively short, from April 8 until April 21, though he would remain on a restricted diet until June.

Once again he recorded his condition and diet on a daily basis and included a number of notes on the causes and treatment of dysentery, as illustrated.

On his last day in hospital his diet was as follows.  As was often the case, the attention to detail blended the descriptive with the sarcastic.

21st April, 1943

Breakfast at 9 am

White rice

Brown rice

White rice and tomato stew

1/2 pint tea (no milk or sugar)


White rice boiled

Peanut rissole

Togay soup (no Togay)

No tea

Green Book 3, p.13

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.

The following note was probably written in October 1942 and in any event before admission to Roberts Hospital with pellagra in early November.

Rice diet

When the prisoners were first on a practically wholly rice diet after previously living on more or less European food, a large proportion of the rice was turning to water & passed away as urine.  Moreover little goodness appeared to be absorbed by the system with the result that emaciation, weakness & fatigue quickly set in & weight loss took place.

After 8 months, however (February to October, 1942) health had more or less been completely restored, weight had returned to normal and little more than the usual amount of urine was being passed.  This tended to show that the constitution had changed sufficiently to enable the utilization of rice as a food for the body, which apparently it was not at the onset.

It should be mentioned that during the whole of this period there had been a more or less steady ration consisting of approximately 16 oz of rice and 4 oz of other commodities per day giving a daily ration of about 20 ounces per man per day.  Extras in the form of iron rations at the commencement & a Red Cross Supply at the end of the period did not alter the position to any extent.

Book B, 88-89

Health and Food

May 2, 2010

This note is from November 1942 or thereabouts, though whether it was written before or after the onset of pellagra and tinea cruris is not clear.  Either way,the diseases were very much on his mind as he refers to them several times on adjacent pages.

I’m intrigued by the use of the past tense.  It is consistent with the detached way in which he often wrote about things; from an early age he had been well trained in the language of the scientific report.  On the other hand, I can’t help wondering whether it also reflected a different kind of detachment; one that perhaps helped to protect him from the deprivations and horrors of daily life.

Health & Food

That these two factors are closely related was abundantly shown in the POW camp where both men & dogs were living on impoverished rations,  The dogs ate mainly rice.  Their meat diet consisted only of bones which had been boiled to such an extent as to devoid them of all nutrients. The dogs, although remaining apparently healthy, developed mange.  This was demonstrated even more so by a bitch which developed mange very soon after littering.However, they did not appear to suffer from any of the deficiency diseases.

Men were also existing on a rice diet augmented with vegetables, meat, fish & fruit.  But the scarcity of the B group of vitamins was largely responsible for many deficiency diseases such as the various manifestations of beri beri & pellagra.  Skin diseases also increased & wounds took much longer than usual to heal.

Book B, 99