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.

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

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.

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

Originally uploaded by Brian Spittle

The massacre of prisoners and patients at Alexandra Hospital on February 14 and 15, 1942 is one of the more notorious incidents of the war in Malaya and Singapore. Even as a young child I remember hearing stories about it though never from my father. In fact, he was busy making notes about bed bugs and latrines on Pulau Tekong at the time. As it turns out, however, what happened at Alexandra Hospital was of a good deal on interest to him.

After my father died I discovered three detailed eyewitness accounts of the incident among the notes he had hidden away in the attic. All were in his own hand writing.

One of these accounts was by someone he knew quite well as a fellow bird watcher at Kranji, J. Wharton. An extract from his account appears in the illustration. Another was from a Private Gurd, and has been quoted in other published accounts of the incident. The third, by a Lt. F.T. Moore, can be found in the following BBC site, WW2 People’s War:*

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/60/a8515460.shtml

It is identical to the account in my father’s notes.

I have no reason to think that my father knew either Private Gurd or Lt. Moore.  Presumably their accounts were in general, if clandestine, circulation in the camp. Neither can I be sure when my father copied them. He used discarded Roberts Hospital memos from August 1942 on which to do so but could have equally well used his notebook,  My guess is that the accounts were copied down much later, possibly when he was at Kranji.

I later learned that my father had another connection to the incident. The sanitary assistant he relieved on Pulau Tekong was subsequently posted to Alexandra Hospital.  He was to be killed there.

* WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar

“Taken POW”

May 10, 2009

British 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. (‘Changi Years Recollections’)

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

February 6, 1942

May 10, 2009

My father’s last dated note before before the surrender was on February 6, 1942.  This is precisely one day after Japanese forces  began their bombardment of Singapore, one day before they conducted a diversionary move by landing on the adjacent island in the Straits, Pulau Urbin, and two days before the full-scale invasion began.

You would never know any of this from my father’s notes.  Instead, while Tropical diseasesthe din of warfare raged about him, he was busy compiling a summary of first aid  treatments in the tropics.  These included remedies for Bowel Troubles (Mist. Alba, 1 oz. dose), Sores on Lips (Ung. Ac. Boric), Tropical Ulcers (Sulphonamide paste), Cleaning Wounds (Pot. Permang. crystals; Eusol) and Dhobie Itch.  The treatment for that, reasonably enough, was Dhobi Lotion.

His notes over the next few days before the surrender continued in similar vein with detailed diagrams of drinking wells, wash houses and civil latrines, along with notes on anti-malarial measures, the quality of water and the disposal of urine.