We were marched to Tanjong Priok where we were imprisoned in what had been a native encampment and farm. The smell was awful. I spent six months there building roads and laying drains to carry away the Monsoon rain. During this time as a bonus to encourage us to complete the work more quickly, the Japs agreed to us building a chapel in the camp area. We were able to finish it before we were again on the move. It was a fitting memorial to those who died in the service of their country.
We embarked on a very old ship called the “Singapore Maru”, a real rust bucket. About one thousand of us down below, the only toilets up on deck. These consisted of wooden structures which jutted out over the side of the ship. If you did not make it from below, and we frequently did not, you lived in your own filth.
The only food consisted of mouldy, weevily rice and a fish stew made from the fish heads, tails and entrails left over from the Jap guards’ meals. They were billeted on the upper decks.
Our first stop was Singapore where we disembarked and lined up on the dockside with trousers down to enable the Japs to push a long glass rod up our backsides, to test for dysentery, they said. I think they gave us dysentery because shortly after we again set sail on the same boat, the whole ship was rotten with dysentery and similar diseases. Running into a hurricane that was so fierce that the toilets were washed away, in fact the deck was swept clean of anything that was not bolted down.
During the journey to Japan, which turned out to be our next destination, over three hundred died either on the journey or as a result of it.
We were not allowed to give our mates a decent burial. They were weighted down with clinker from the ship’s boilers and dropped overboard while the Japanese captain, standing on the bridge with several Geisha girls seemed to treat the whole thing as a huge joke. We were followed by several sharks throughout the whole journey and the captain frequently turned up every morning to enjoy the spectacle, holding up a handful of drugs used for the disease and throwing them overboard after the bodies.
We stopped at Taiwan where some of the troops were disembarked to work in the copper mines. We then journeyed to Kobe in Japan. There we disembarked and were kept sitting on the dockside in a biting cold wind for thirty six hours. Many more died that night. We were only dressed in tropical shorts and shirts.
We were finally taken aboard smaller coastal boats and sent to various coal mines around the Hiroshima area Fukuoka district.
The mine we were destined to work was a drift mine under the island seas and was subject to flooding. There was a constant six to nine inches of water at all coal faces. We worked for twelve hours at the coal face for twenty-eight days and then we had one day off followed by twenty-eight nights. It took about an hour or more to journey to the face down very low sub mains with often less than three feet of headroom which was very tiring after a twelve hour shift and resulted in blows across the buttocks with long test hammers, which all mine officials carried, because we were too slow for them.
These special hammers were used to test the roof of the face in order to predict a fall, it used to sound hollow, but it only worked sometimes. We suffered many broken backs from such falls and the only treatment we could give to the injured was to hang bricks on their legs to keep the spine stretched. Some of them lived for some time like this, the longest, gunner Hakin, lived for nine months. The big problem were bed sores which, in time, exposed the bones. The only treatment we had for this was to bind fly maggots in the sore. They only eat rotten flesh and thus helped clean up the wound.
The village we were in was a very poor one by any standards. Everyone worked at the mine and were dependant upon the mine authorities for everything, the mine controlled the only shop in the area. The women worked on the surface making bricks to line the main shaft as the mine advanced further under the sea. Some of the younger women worked on the coal face, there were about four faces in operation at the same time and our captors worked one in conjunction with the Japanese village workers.
We were fed mainly on poor quality rice and Soya bean husk. This is the residue after the oil has been extracted from the bean and is used in this country as bulk in cattle food. It caused a lot of stomach upset. The rule was if you worked, you ate. Anyone sick was only allowed half rations.
Near death experience
I had been down the mine about eighteen months when I suffered my first serious setback. I reported to the Jap guardroom with a temperature of 104 degrees, to hopefully be excused working. I was slapped about and made to work. I came out unconscious and was taken to the head doctor who apparently decided that I was dying with pneumonia and I was put outside to die. Fortunately, the ration party found me the next day and took me back to camp on the truck covered with rice sacks. However the camp commandant discovered me and ordered that our medical orderly carry out an experiment recommended by the doctor. This was to keep my body covered with wet towels to lower the temperature. I had been in a coma for six days when an American naval doctor joined our camp as a Prisoner of War. The Japs had taken all his medical supplies except for a bottle of Sulpha Piridine tablets which was then the treatment for my complaint.
According to him, he gave me an overdose because my heart had stopped. This and massage brought me round.
According to my chum, Bernard, suddenly realised that my cross was missing. He found it and placed it alongside my head and I immediately opened my eyes.
My own recollection of this event is that I was floating high up under a vaulted dome. I was drifting feet first towards a most glorious light. Words cannot explain the feelings that I had towards this light that seemed to express peace and purity beyond description. I could feel fingers trying to pull me back to earth but I tried to resist. The light promised peace and tranquillity beyond my wildest dreams.
Back down the mine
Within a month, I had been forced down the mine again and probably because I was not alert at the coal face, I was buried under a fall from the roof. Although my back, neck and left leg were all paralysed, I got back all feeling after a few weeks. My mates who dug me out said that two timbers had fallen across my body which probably saved me from a broken back. We timbered up the roof as we advanced into the coal face and I must have been slack in my timbering.
By this time many deaths in the camp were causing an acute shortage of labour for the mine, the doctor was the only person allowed to exempt anyone from the mine, the sick had to carry out surface duties.
The labour shortage worried the mine officials so much that they asked what they could do to improve our health. They were told that we required meat to build us up.
For the next two weeks we were given dog meat as rations. All the local dogs just vanished. We had eaten much worse than this and the meat was welcome even if it did make us feel like cannibals. Speaking of meat, snake steaks are very good when you can catch them. I had not better mention other delicacies we sometimes had.
And so I soon found myself back down the mine on what was called ‘light duty’. This was on the huge electric motors that drove the endless belts bringing coal from the coal face to the main shaft. The job was to keep the motors clear of coal which fell from the belts. I could not bend my back which meant that I did not clear the motors and this landed me in a lot of trouble with the Japs.
A challenge to god
It was after one of these beatings that I felt desperate and neglected by my God. I dared to challenge him. “If you are there”, I said, “take over. I am done”. I do not know what happened after that. Did I fall asleep and dream or did I have a vision? I know from experience that it is possible to dream standing up. Whatever, I found myself at the foot of a steep hill covered in brambles and barbed wire and at the top, I could see people who seemed to beckon me. A voice came into my mind that said, “Once you have climbed this hill, you will never want again”.
After tremendous effort, I did climb to the top and there found my wife and three daughters waiting for me and as we went down the other side together, I saw that we were in a beautiful land of plenty. Despite redundancy and other problems of this life, I have never wanted again. Whenever a door closed another opened to me.
The final months
I was in a pretty poor state of health by now as were all my companions. I was below six stone and I felt that I was nearly finished. It was a few months before the end of the war, as we were in Japan, the authorities seemed to realise that they were losing and one day may have to account for the Prisoners of War in their care. This sounds strange to me because a few weeks before this we had been busy preparing a gas chamber for ourselves, to Jap instructions. We were to be herded into this chamber as soon as the Americans invaded Japan and they even made us carry out rehearsals to occupy it, helped on by sword and bayonet.
To continue with the sudden care for us, we were visited by an English speaking Japanese doctor who excused some from the mine. Myself and Bill Farmer were sent to the local hospital for x-rays which ultimately confirmed his opinion that we both had T.B. We were both isolated for this and I think this saved both our lives. We were put into a small room in the camp and there we stayed until the war ended.
A few months before, one of my friends had broken down mentally, his ambition was to kill everyone in the camp to save us all and he tried to do this on several occasions. When he got his hands on your throat, it took five or six to overcome him. He seemed to fascinate the camp commandant and he had a small cage built in the corner of our room.
My friend was stark naked most of the time, frequently drinking his own urine and doing his best to tear the cage down. The camp commandant used to organise parties of Jap men and women to watch him perform. His antics were unbelievable. Every night before we settled down to sleep, I would be reassured that he would get me in the end and so save me. We brought him back to Southampton and let the doctors take charge.