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.











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.

Making do

September 29, 2012

In conditions of scarcity everything becomes useful.  As my father put it many years later, Changi was “the opposite of the throw-away society.”  Nothing of any conceivable use was discarded.  Scavenging and salvaging were essential activities and the need for improvisation put a premium on inventiveness and ingenuity.

This was one thing at Changi.  It was quite another at some of the smaller and more remote camps that had even less access to supplies and were under the direct command of the Japanese.

Kranji may have only been ten miles from Changi but it might as well have been a world away.  As usual, my father never wrote about this directly.  There are no ‘dear diary’ observations about his changed circumstances.  But the evidence is clear enough.  The obvious difference in paper quality has been mentioned in previous posts.  As can be seen from the illustration, he was soon reduced to writing on the backs of envelopes and cardboard packages.  But within a page or two he started to list some of the other ways in which the POW were now having to make do.  There was hardly a need to say more.


Cigarette papers:  made from toilet paper in the early days – now newspaper.

Sand or Ash:  these are excellent for scouring plates, wash basins etc.

Watering can: consisting of a tin with perforated bottom & attached to a stick

Garden rake: made from nails or a portion of concrete reinforcement wire

Rubber latex: used for patching rubber to rubber, cloth to cloth, paper to paper etc.

Evelyn Cheesman

September 1, 2012

While about a third of my father’s time as a POW in Singapore was spent at Kranji, the notes from that period are a very small fraction of the total.  A lack of paper would have helped to account for this but so would a general lack of reading material.  There was no shortage of books at Changi and as previous posts have indicated he read very widely, probably more so than at any other time in his life.  To say that his notes on these books were copious would be to understate what in some cases was essentially an exercise in transcription.

Another point that I have neglected to make much of so far, largely because I’m not quite sure what to make of it, is that he rarely wrote about his primary interest, that is, insects.  During the years leading up to the war he had been a lab assistant at the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham House in Farnham Royal near Slough.  During this time he had worked with some of the leading entomologists of the day and had illustrated a number of scholarly articles.  He was not only fairly knowledgeable about insects; entomology had become something of a passion and remained so for the rest of his life.  It is curious then that he wrote so little about it either at Changi or Kranji.  There would have been no shortage of bugs after all.

Perhaps part of an answer can be found in his note from one of the few books he was able to read at Kranji: Evelyn Cheesman’s Land of the Red Bird.  You don’t hear much about Cheesman now but in her day she had been a very visible figure in the world of natural history and a prolific author.  Many of her books were based on her remarkable expeditions to the south seas where she hacked her way through remote jungles, bantering with everyone she met and getting herself into the most extraordinary scrapes in the breezy and yet indomitable way only a certain sort of English lady of that period could do.  Her accounts were of serious entomological and botanical interest yet they often read as page-turning adventure stories, as indeed they were.  You get the idea from just three of the titles: Hunting Insects in the South Seas, Backwaters in the Savage South Seas and Camping Adventures in Cannibal Islands.

But my father just had Land of the Red Bird an account of her insect-collecting expedition to New Guinea.  I’ve read it and suspect that he enjoyed it very much.  He made a couple of pages of jottings on it but the ones below are representative.  He would no doubt have agreed with her on the topic of eating half-dried fish and found her advice on leeches to be most useful.  Her humorous perspective on stings and bites would have appealed to him greatly.  But her observation about the difficulty of doing entomology in the tropics must have been of special interest.  And of course he had no access to a microscope, test tubes or preserving fluid, the essential tools of the trade.  He would simply have to content himself with reading about entomology rather than doing it.  But at least it would have been a darned good read.

Kranji Notes, page 1.

Half-dried fish:  “Chinese and Malays eat it.  I noticed that they always mix it with quantities of pepper, chillies and other hot condiments, and can well believe that it is only by cauterizing the palate first that any human being could take such food.” (p.21)

Leeches:  “It is said that salt will make them leave their hold, but salt is dissolved almost as soon as it is exposed to the air and does not remain long enough to have any lasting effect.  Strong tobacco juice is supposed to discourage them.  (p.79)

Stings & bites: “ There is never any respite from things that bite and sting.  Some attack because it is going to rain, or because it is raining, or has rained, or won’t rain.  Some because it is dark, others because it is light.  So they succeed one another regularly in shifts and there are no interludes. (p.123)

Collecting insects in the Tropics. It is extremely important to send off specimens, particularly the insects, as soon as possible, to get them away from that climate.  When once the insects are dried and packed between layers of special wadding, in many layers in special boxes, with insecticides to keep out beetles and carbolic to keep out mould, it is better not even to open the boxes again to see whether they are alright (pp. 249-250) 

The Kranji notes

April 7, 2012

Kranji paper-1 by Brian Spittle

As my father dated very few of his notes, and as he characteristically omitted to mention the move to Kranji, it is hard to say with any precision where his Changi notes leave off and where the Kranji notes begin. In fact, he only mentions Kranji once and that is in a passing reference towards the end of his captivity.

The main clue comes from a marked change in the quality of writing paper. At Changi my father wrote entirely in notebooks which he was able to obtain easily enough from local Chinese and Malays. By May 1944 paper was apparently in shorter supply even at Changi. It was almost completely unobtainable at Kranji. He was therefore reduced to writing on any scrap he could find. As the illustration shows, this could mean the backs (or even fronts) of camp memos, the insides of book covers and odd pieces of cardboard packaging.

He did manage to find a hundred or so larger pieces of paper of varying quality and it is on these that he wrote the bulk of his notes during his final, bleak year as a POW.

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.


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

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

Feeding the ducks

October 2, 2011

There is a scene in James Clavell’s King Rat where that arch-racketeer ‘the King’ offers Philip Marlowe an egg. Malowe looks on in amazement as the King casually unlocks a box stuffed with Changi contraband — coffee, oil, gula Malacca, bananas, tobacco and heaven knows what else – and retrieves a couple of eggs.

“How you like your egg? Fried?”

Marlowe hardly knows what to say. He stands there consumed by astonishment, hunger and resentment. (The film conveys this better than the book I think.)

“What’s the matter?” the King asked abruptly.
After a pause Marlowe said, “Nothing.” He looked at the egg. He wasn’t due an egg for six days. “If you’re sure I won’t be putting you out, I’d like it fried.”

My father kept chickens at Selerang; ducks too. I don’t know whether this was something he did alone or with one or two others, or whether he simply was one of a larger group helping to look after what must have been a sizable chicken run outside the barracks. He never describes the Selerang chicken run but it features several times in his bird notes.

“What you came to understand about the Japanese,” he once told me, “was that their sense of rules was quite different from ours. If they had a rule about something you broke it at your peril. All hell would let loose. Yet this was sometimes quite arbitrary. If they didn’t have a rule for something – even if it would have been in their interest to do so – they could be absolutely oblivious. You were pretty much free to do what you liked. It took us a while to understand this but once we did it opened up all kinds of possibilities!”

One of those possibilities was rearing chickens and ducks. “The guards didn’t seem to have much more food than we did and yet they turned a blind eye to this completely. They never interfered or tried to take the eggs.”

It provided another opportunity for note-taking. Yet once again, there is little or no attempt to describe the setting or circumstances. There is not even a wry comment about the similarity of the ducklings’ diet and that of his own. As always the focus is on methodical observation.

Ducklings 4 bought on 9.ix.43 (evening). Probably 1 day old.

(1) Night:-
Rice polishings & water (mash)
(2) Morning:-
Peanut sauce (peanuts boiled with ground rice, mashed) & boiled browned rice & tea (mash)
(3) Mid morning:-
Rice polishings & condensed milk (mash)
(4) Tiffin:-
Togay soup, boiled rice & tea (mash)
(5) Mid afternoon:-
Remainder of tiffin & stale bread crumbs
(6) Late afternoon:-
Sweet potato fried in palm oil
(7) Dinner:-
Boiled rice, rice polishings & milk (mash)
(8) Evening:-
Boiled rice, togay soup, fried pasty & tea (mash)

Hand feeding was necessary; the ducks pecking small portions held between the fingers. Drink is administered in a desert spoon, the liquid being pointed at & perhaps touched with the finger to show the bird in the first instance.
It is noticed that the ducks must eat & drink alternatively, only small portions being taken of either.
Hand feeding continued to the 14th. Then a saucer containing the sloppy mush is left in the box for the duration of the meal only, Drink is administered with a spoon as usual.

Box 12” x 18” x 9” high all wood arranged as follows:-
1st hot water bottle in jacket
2nd 2 woolen dusters
3rd straw

The box is covered with a heavy covering. Kept in barrack room throughout day & night. There are no air holes in box.

On 12th no water bottle inserted during day time. And on the 13th discontinued at night as well. Otherwise kept warm as usual.

Cleaned out every other day. It was noticed however that by the 14th the straw was getting far more grimy so that soon it will need changing every day.

The essentials are:-

(1) Keep dry, especially breast (when feeding) and legs (when walking in food). Do not allow on wet ground.
(2) Protect from draught & uneven temperatures
(3) Keep out of direct sun (kills in 10 mins.)

(4) Protect from brown tree ants (8 10-day old ducklings killed in the night)

Chicks: 12 bought on 13.ix.43 (evening) probably 1 day old –

Feeds consist of

(1) Rice polishings
(2) Rice flour

These are placed in heaps in 2 shallow tin lids. 2 lids are necessary to prevent overcrowding.
Water is placed in a tin with lid with a circular hole. This prevents contamination of the water & wetting of chicks.

Green Book G, pp. 19-20

Malay for colonials

September 24, 2011

malay grammar inside cover by Brian Spittle

A nice illustration of Changi POW humour on the inside cover of Maxwell’s Manual of the Malay Language, one of the Malay primers my father brought back from Singapore. Books were widely circulated in the camp and in this case it’s clear that at least three others had taken a crack at Maxwell — there’s another name on the facing page — before passing him on.

As I surmised in the previous post, the intended readership of these language primers would have been the British colonial elite. But I’ve only just pieced together how important this must have been in Maxwell’s case. As indicated on the title page, he had been both a barrister in London and Assistant Resident in Perak, northern Malaya. Reading this I couldn’t help forming the stereotypical image of a Victorian gentleman-scholar somehow transplanted as colonial administrator. And for all I know that may have been the case. But there’s a little more to it than that. Perak was a pretty volatile place in the early 1880s when Maxwell took up his post. The previous Resident had been assassinated only a few years previously, his local unpopularity magnified by a spectacular disinterest in learning Malay. Pointedly, the resident who replaced him was fluent in Malay, as was Maxwell clearly. Presumably he represented a new breed of administrator.  If so, his book was not simply the work of an amateur linguist but part of a concerted strategy to instill the administrative class with at least a basic knowledge of Malay.

All the same, expressions such as “Bring me my hat and riding whip” and “Are you deaf? Can’t you hear what I’m saying to you?” would seem to indicate that this more enlightened approach to colonial relations still had its limits.