CHAPTER I - A CALL TO ARMS
It was 3rd September 1939 and Ian and I were in the cinema at St Kilda in Victoria watching a World War I film. The old kites were zooming and roaring about the sky, shooting each other up. Suddenly there was a break in the film and an announcement was made that Britain was at war with Germany. This caused a lot of murmuring and outbursts in the audience.
We watched a bit more of the film then I reckoned that we ought to go and join up, so we left in the dark and went off up St Kilda Road to Albert Park Barracks. There was a mob already there trying to open the doors which were firmly bolted. No officialdom around when they are needed! There were a great number of beer bottles being raised to lips and a great deal of boisterous talk! We went to see if we could get a pub to open; it was 6 pm closing in those days. We went to my digs at Ma Hartnet's and we opened up bottles and told Ma all about it.
Next morning, Sunday, I went to the barracks again, this time there were mates shouting at the poor sentry that had arrived and much beer being drunk in the street. A policeman arrived to quieten the rowdy element, but failed. We were told to come back on the Monday morning. I wandered around to the pub down the road where my old mate Potter was living and was let in to see him. He produced grog by the dozen and we got stuck into it! Potter, that is Pot, was an old digger from the last war and was full of information and advice. He was going to join up with me!
When I got back to the digs old Ma was getting worried so I opened a beer for her, she was a great girl for a pot! I said I'd be going soon, didn't know when, nor did I realise how long it took to get in the forces.
On Monday morning I was out really early to find a line waiting their turn to enlist which extended over the Bridge and under the clocks. I just had to wait in line. On arriving at the desk I was asked to sign a form with umpteen particulars and that was all. They told me to go home and wait for my call up.
My call up came early in December, I told them at work I had been called up by my old regiment the Third Kings Own Hussars in Blighty and was obliged to go. The employment officer said something about reserved occupation but as I had been called up in the United Kingdom, he wasn't sure, so off I went.
Every man and his dog were milling around the trucks to take us to Laverton. The stories and escapades being told were really worth hearing. Every man jack of them had large sheep stations, way out back or had been swaggies on the track for years, (most were city lads of 18 or under), no one admitted to being a city dweller! Off we went to Laverton on old army trucks, standing at the back and waving to all and sundry, making a lot of noise. There was excitement and adventure in the air, we would be in battle before the week was out, and some were already talking of Returned Service Medals. Oh well, we soon learned!
When we disembarked at Laverton Barracks there was already a huge mob milling around and talk was loud and boisterous. At last we got into some form of a line and started to filter through slowly. A bloke a little in front of me was rejected for tinea in the toes. I broke ranks and dived for the toilet. I scrubbed between my toes thoroughly and scraped the skin away. There was some sort of powdery looking stuff in a tin under the toilet so I sprinkled some on and nearly sprung through the roof, bloody hell, that stuff burned, but my feet looked really good.
Back in line again and the bloke behind me started giving me the drill straight away, Hughie was his name, a short stocky lad with black short hair which stuck straight up from his head, a good job it was very short or he wouldn't have been able to wear a cap. No one else could get a word in whilst Hughie was in action.
The line got a bit ragged, undisciplined and noisy. A young Corporal raced in and started shouting at us with a certain amount of unkind words and a bit too much authority. I got jostled about a bit and I wasn't used to that sort of treatment, I told this two striper that if he wanted to get mangled he could keep it up, if not he could piss off! He was very upset and pointed to the stripes on his arm, I pointed out that I hadn't yet signed up and had plenty of time to accommodate him and then move on to another recruiting depot. I didn't see him again. Hughie thought this was very funny and started his act all over again.
It was a funny day; an officer asked us one at a time "Can you rough it?" I looked up the line and asked politely, "Have that lot said yes to this question?" He nodded, "Well I guess I can too". He wrote something down and looked very serious and called "Next".
Six years later when I came back from the blue, I passed the same officer, marching majestically down the street from the same office, I was thinking about hailing him and saying "Yes, I really can rough it!" I bet he had been in the same job throughout the war, still asking "Can you rough it?"
After all the bull, we went for our first meal at long tables and the usual long benches. Two very important looking blokes opposite were talking high finance, all very la-di-dah, when one reached over to the butter dish and took nearly half the butter and put it on his plate, leaving very little for all the rest. I had taken mine but I thought some of the others would complain, but he got away with it. On him leaving most of the butter was still on his plate untouched. Makes you think about upper class folk, I have seen similar acts by similar people often through my life.
There were stacks of cheese and marmalade on the table, no one seemed very interested. I made a big sandwich of cheese and marmalade, it was really tasty, and to this day I like cheese and marmalade sandwiches. Hughie stuck to me like a leach, getting some uniforms and signing up. He was issued one number higher than mine, I got 5378 and he got 5379. Over the years I have always called him a rookie. Then we drew bedding and got sent to some very long new tin huts with wood floors. The beds were three planks on cradles, quite comfy with straw palliasses. The blankets were unnecessary as it was mid summer and very hot, we couldn't stay in the huts when the sun got up.
There was nothing else to do that day, so we started to settle in and get to know one another. There were about twenty four of us in the hut. On nightfall the fun started, some putting their wooden beds together and others pinching the planks while someone was not looking and putting them outside against the wall. When the bloke came back to look for his bed it wasn't visible in the dark outside. Others upset beds whilst passing and pulled the bedding off while the bloke in it was trying to settle down. This sort of thing went on past lights out until a guard read out the riot act. I didn't get much sleep that night, it was hilarious.
Next day it was drill parade, the new hats didn't seem to stay on heads, and boots brought up blisters, just teething troubles. After a day or two of this all our faces were a dangerous bright red, with a defined white stripe from each ear to under the chin from the chin strap. It looked really funny, patches of white cream in peculiar faces.
This went on for about six weeks; we were carefully taught how to march in fours with all its peculiar movements, and all sorts of ceremonial drills etc. No one thought of teaching fighting skills, or bayonet practice, just plain bull, before we finished the whole thing was scrapped and orders came out to march in threes. I was rather lucky, half way through this I was diagnosed with the measles and spent a few days in hospital in a comfy bed. This overlooked the parade ground so I could make rude signs to the lads on parade. I paid for this later when I got back to the hut; still it was all very good humoured reprisals.
Getting up in the morning was the most traumatic part of the day, boots got lost, shaving gear got hidden, etc. etc. One morning it was very hot and Hughie who had his bed next to me and had had a very hard night was still asleep, stark naked on his back with his weapon standing stiff and vertical for all to admire. We tied a noose in one of his boot laces and gently lowered it on to the offending object, then let the boot drop on his belly. No one could have predicted his movements, he immediately awoke, grabbed the boot and went to hurl it at the nearest body, nearly a catastrophe, but he survived. Tough little lad was 5379.
We were supposed to be training to go to war, but there was no battle training at all, just guard duty, parade ground stuff and gas mask and drill. Every day nearly we would go behind the hanger for a gas drill lecture. The Corporal would mumble something and then say "Stay out of sight, don't get into trouble" he would then get out a book and lie on his back and read.
After six weeks we were moved to the Melbourne Show Grounds to do our trade course, I went to 17 Rigger Course in the Rosella Pavilion. I met up with a bloke I knew in civi street, Cyril called Squirrel, or Buts, or Cigs. We used to go ice skating at the rink in St Kilda. We got very matey, he and I ended up being together for the whole six years together in No 1 Squadron. He was a very strange character and could be very aggressive, but we got on extremely well together.
We got billeted down in the Poultry Pavilion, there were shelves and posters and all sorts of gimmicks to remove and tidy up the place. We were very fortunate as some were in the cow boxes and some in the pig pens, etc.
Well, on our first night there was much shoving and squirming to get a sleeping place, then lights out! Things were reasonably peaceful for a while, then someone in the dark started to cackle like a hen, a minute later a cock started to crow. A sentry raced in and shouted "Shut up or you'll be on a charge!" That did it, there were cattle mooing, dogs barking, cat and dog fights, pigs squealing, you name it, it was there. They really put on a magnificent row. The guards raced in and put the lights on and searched for any offender, there was absolute silence in the hut, every one appeared fast asleep, but all the other sheds were going full blast, I've never heard such a row. The guards would race out into the next shed, absolute silence, everyone sound asleep. This went on for about an hour.
The big chief came into camp and put all the lights on and mustered every guard he could and read the riot act, "You men think you are tough, you're not tough at all, I'll break you, every one of you" etc. Things sort of slowly quietened down, the blokes were getting tired and had sore throats, and peace reigned once more. Next morning we heard we were in the paper, "Peculiar Upset at the Show Grounds.
We started on our course and got interested and settled down to work. The showers were in a long line near the road, cold water and just a Hessian screen on the road side. The wind came up in the morning, by next day three quarters of the men reported sick with terrific colds and flu. This put most courses back a week, this was very good thinking on the part of the authorities, hospitals full and nothing being done, this was to toughen us up?
Outside the Rosella Pavilion was a high fence with a foot hold in a strategic spot for getting over the fence and on to the rail lines where they shunted the trucks with cattle at all hours. Hugo and I would use this in the dark to slip out into town nearly every night. It was a closed camp, except Friday night, we stayed in that night. One night coming back to camp we had to help a soldier who was absolutely rotten, he couldn't find the camp; let alone the secret way in.
That night the Provo had woken up to our get away and was waiting very quietly for us to return. We hoisted our lad up to the top of the fence straight into trouble. We saw the trap and disappeared among the carriages and got over the fence further down. We had to stay low for nearly two hours till things quietened down and we could creep back to our billet. The next day we noticed our friend from the night before in the guard house, we found out he didn't belong to our camp at all, and they were finding out where he came from. Such is army life, no indulgence!
The 17 Rigger Course went well for a few weeks and we all passed out as Flight Riggers and were sent to Point Cook to the base workshops. Hughie and I shared a room in the old barracks; he had an AJS motorbike and pram and knew all the best drinking spots in Melbourne. On closed camp nights we had to go out lying on the floor of the back seat of a permanent Air Force lad, who usually went home every day. Coming back was a matter for later speculation.
One night we got a lift back as far as Laverton, there was four miles to walk and being well after midnight or at least nearly dawn, the prospects weren't good. We found a couple of horses with heads lowered over a gate, this seemed to be a godsend, and we got them out of the gate and rode them back to Point Cook. The sentry at the gate challenged, being dark still we slipped off the horses and turned them around and gave them a slap. Off they went with the sentry still going through his act, while we went further down the wall and slipped over undetected.
We raced in and pulled the blankets over us to look asleep. A little later it was reveille and we turned out for parade. Well, who would have believed those horses hadn't been groomed for weeks! The entire front of our tunics which we hadn't had time to inspect was completely covered with horse hair which wouldn't brush off. Some one said life wasn't meant to be easy!
We would march down to the workshop hanger after breakfast with the band striking out in front. Snap off smartly at the doors and start the days work. I had four years apprenticeship at this sort of work and got some good jobs. The main one was to cut two Wapitis in half and join the two good halves together to make one good one. I think the numbers were A5/6 and the other A5/7. One had landed on its nose and the other, I believe, was the one which Antarctic explorer Scott had used to get to the South Pole in. It had lost too much speed in landing and smashed the rear end off. This was a job I enjoyed doing, rigging at its best. When it was done and inspected I had my first flight in it. The pilot enjoyed aerobatics and went through his tests including the Falling Leaf, it was quite a sensation.
The old Wapitis were an excellent kite except for their eighty miles per hour speed. The great eleven foot wooden prop had to be turned by hand to start, quite an experience, one had to stand on a box to reach the blade then carefully lower it until it could be easily reached from the ground. Then a lad would put a rope round my stomach and stand off while I was swinging the prop to start so as to pull me out of the way if - I said IF - it started!
Those were great days at Point Cook, with some minor upsets, I had Hughie there all the time to take me to town and lead me astray! On one occasion, a Corporal almost demanded that I loan him my bending block, which I had made and polished with great care. This block with four separate radii on it for the construction of air craft parts, was a valued piece of equipment. I had to go to him to get it back. He had put it in the vice without copper shields and hit it with a ball pean hammer and rendered it useless. Well, I lost my temper and was put on a charge for abusing a senior and threatening to flatten him. I somehow got off that and was given a new piece of steel and time to make another one.
Things were getting monotonous and I put in for overseas service. Someone pointed out that I was in the workshops for the duration. One morning the CO called me in and after complaining about me writing in every week to ask for a transfer to No 10 Squadron which was serving in England told me I had no hope of getting to Blighty, but there was a vacancy for a rigger in No 1 Squadron, if I would like to have it. The catch was that I'd have to leave Australia in thirty six hours, and there would be no pre embarkation leave. I could see myself in Point Cook Workshop for the next one hundred years, so I took it. I was to be shipped with five others on the Bratt Dahl (a Norwegian ship) to look after spare kites which were tied down on the deck and other equipment for the squadron. It was Singapore here we come!
There was a bit of a panic, I had to pack my bags at Ma's (my landlady) and get my new equipment. I had sold my two old cars a bit earlier and had a party or two but I still had four hundred pounds in my pocket. Hughie's dad said he could build me a nice little house for five hundred pounds, he was a local builder. He would put in the extra hundred pounds and let it for me, when I came back home I would have a house paid for. Well, being a very intelligent lad at that time, I said what the hell would I need a house for?
The office advised me to put it in the Point Cook Bank, it would be safe, and so I did that. When I returned home after six years, I went to this bank and asked for the money I had deposited six years before, they wanted the book etc, after six years in the jungle!!! Eventually they did find my account and gave me exactly four hundred pounds. I asked what had happened to the interest and was told I hadn't put it in an interest bearing account. Banks are so friendly!!
I was told to keep things strictly secret and not tell a soul where I was going, and no one was to see me off. On arriving at the dock, the ship with all the aircraft tied down on deck was moored next to a Japanese steamer with all the Japs grinning at us and dozens of friends to see us off. Luckily Hughie was there to see me off. I had packed all my worldly belongings in a big leather case and put it under his house till my return.
We sailed off with the Japs waving us goodbye from Melbourne about March 1940. The Norwegians don't seem to eat meat, the food was all fish dishes and goats milk cheeses, I thought it was rather good, but others complained.
Duties for the six of us were to guard the kites. How you guard kites firmly lashed down to the deck I don't really know, any how that's what we did. At night patrolling the deck became extremely precarious firstly the ship thought it was an aeroplane with all those wings being exposed to the heavy winds and ploughed up and down madly. Secondly, it was impossible to see or find all the guy wires which went in every direction in the dark, no lights were allowed.
Then the rifle and bayonet (compulsory) got caught up at every turn. In fact one got very wet and flustered. A spot had to be sought, safe from the wind and the spray, and so that the orderly officer could be immediately spotted on his approach to change the guard.
One night I had wriggled into position under the overhang of the crews' quarters. There was a faint glimmer from the porthole and after a while I just had to have a look in. There was one of the engineers solemnly lowering a large tumbler of whisky down his gullet, I looked away quickly but he had seen me. After quite a while the port slowly opened and a hand emerged holding a full glass of something. I took it and nodded my thanks, bloody hell! It was neat Scotch. After recovering from the shock I wondered what to do with the empty glass when another appeared from the open porthole. I'd only just managed to dispose of this when the orderly officer came out and changed the guard. I waited till all was still and then made for my bunk. I only just made it and then passed out.
It was an uneventful voyage on the whole, and very pleasant, except no one could speak Norwegian, but we got on very well.
CHAPTER III - SINGAPORE AND KOTA BAHRU
We docked in the early morning and were whisked off immediately to Sembawang which was to become home for twelve months. I would have dearly liked to be in on the unloading of the kites, or at least watched, but that was taken over by dock officials.
When we got to Sembawang, which was about ten miles from the harbour, and only four miles from the Seleta Navy base, some of our crew were already there and settled in, they had flown over from Victoria. Everything was very new and very regimental. I still had to get to know the lads as I had only just joined the Squadron, and then there was my old mate Cyril from the Melbourne skating days, the only one I knew.
I met up with a very serious fellow, John, who was rather a brain in the engineering world. We used to have long talks in the evening. He was quite an inventor and had invented a shell timing device to explode at set altitudes. He sent it in to the Naval Base for their perusal and a few days later some naval guards came to our barracks and arrested him and took him off.
Apparently the navy had been trying something like this out, without much success, and Johnny's drawings were right on the ball. He was suspected of thieving the plans or spying or something. He was away for a few days and I can just imagine him, in his calm way, dealing with the bull of the authorities. He came back full of smiles and confidence.
I was put in C Flight as an Airframe Fitter; there wasn't much rigging on these new metal skinned kites, so I got interested in the hydraulics etc. They were quiet days, a big parade each morning to impress the Malays, and circuits and bumps after dark.
Leave in Singapore was always on, the Union Jack Club was always full of Tommies; with beer spilling on the tables and floor and spasmodic inter unit arguments, no place for a quiet life! The cafes were quite good with good cheap food; there were also plenty of cinemas with the very latest films. The Three Worlds were always packed, ten cents for a dance, but dancing wasn't really in my line. Beer (Tiger) was one dollar a bottle, and Scotch was three dollars fifty a bottle. We got used to the Tiger beer, there was a beautiful Dutch beer called Carlsberg, which had a habit of sneaking up on a man without any warning, had to be careful of this.
There were regular brawls in the Pom Section and the red caps patrol would scream up in a ute, bash a few over the head, throw them in the back of the ute and scream off again. There were no "beg pardons" then!
I soon got tired of Singapore, it was alright for a while and I had managed to get an extra Vickers Gunnery Course in also as I was hopeless at DiDa, and I took a navigation course with Lt Dobby. We were then transferred to Kota Bahru.
Kota Bahru was at the North Eastern tip of Malaya, an absolutely beautiful place situated right on the river and two and a half miles from the sea. This was my kind of posting. The little village was very old and the shops were sort of markets with goods in open dishes on the padded ground.
It was a real gem for the photographer. Our canteen was on the river bank and life was peaceful, we flew out over the sea looking for signs of activity and not finding any. We were there for six months before the balloon went up. Cyril and I bought a prau, a Malay fishing boat with a little sail and two paddles, this for a while had a mystical way of turning over when boarding, however, we mastered that and could take off with a running jump off the bank. There were Trumpeter and other fish to be had there. Our Commanding Officer had a Tiger moth which I looked after as I was a Rigger by trade.
While we were there we got a troop of reinforcements from Western Australia and these replaced some of our fellows who were returned to Australia, this caused a few tussles etc. While we had been in Singapore a new lot of air gunners had arrived with new turrets (Bolton Paul) for our aircraft. Of course these men had done their course on Bolton Paul turrets so our old gunners who were trained for Vickers were displaced, this caused a bit of a stir. I was really put out! Eventually we got the old Lewis that we had started off with as a side gun, each side window. This was a death blow to the gunners' status and it spoilt my day! As time was running out we didn't have time to take a course on the new turrets which had Brownings. The trouble was I had joined up too early; I should have waited for a year and got the modern training. That's life!
Our job in Kota Bahru was as the Reconnaissance Squadron for Malaya, it was the most northerly drome and our job was to report any activity and investigate. We were sort of the eyes of the north on the Siam border. After a few months of ideal conditions and weather, the sky was showing signs of the monsoon arriving. The drome got boggy and take off was difficult when the rains started. On 5th December one of our planes picked up a Jap convoy which seemed to be heading our way, many ships obviously heavily loaded and supported by cruisers and gun ships. Singapore was radioed with the news. The response from Singapore was to leave them alone as we weren't at war with Japan.
If our reports had been acted upon many lives would have been saved and many Jap ships sunk before they were close enough to attack. Also the prisoners en masse that resulted from their non action, if they had been properly alerted most would not have been taken prisoner at all. No one seems to have been responsible for these orders!!! Now, after fifty years, our story is being told, not even apologetically.
It was very boisterous in the Naffi on the night of 7th December, there was a feeling something was going to happen and soon. We lost sight of the ships at one stage and then picked them up again the next day. I packed a few special things like photos and letters into a box and filled my kit bag with necessities. I had hardly got to bed when at 1.40 am on 8th December life exploded with shell fire and gunfire. The camp was a hive of activity before you could say "Jack Robinson".
Jap ships a couple of miles off the coast were pounding our native troops on the beach only two miles from our drome. We were behind the 2/10 Baluchi Regiment and 3/17th Dogras with some 2/12 Frontier Rifles and Indian state troops under General Billy Keys of the 8th Indian Brigade. The fighting was very savage and the Indian Army fought bravely. We had a Sikh gunnery crew of about one hundred men and four guns; I'll swear those guns were from the Crimean War, the first bomber they brought down sent the Sikhs into amazed delight. After that they would have fought the rest of the war on their own. At the end of the day only four Sikhs were alive and got away with us that night.
Our men were racing to their positions within five to ten minutes, our bombers were airborne and on the way, slipping away into the night, a few minutes later we heard the bombs dropping on the ships. They had to make big circles around to get a shot. Everything was too close. Fifteen minutes later they were landing for more bombs, I had never seen so much violent activity and this was our baptism of fire.
My kite developed hydraulic trouble and came in for repairs; I got stuck into the job with everything I had. This entailed me lying at 30° with my backside facing up the nose of the kite and my head and shoulders under the pilot's seat trying to hold a torch and undo gear above my head with a four inch King Dick and a few other useless spanners. We never had the right equipment; I think it had been on order for about eighteen months. The noise outside was deafening, it took three minutes to wriggle out of the nose each time I needed something and the job took three hours.
The Sergeant outside shouted for me to get out in a hurry, I wangled my way out and unhooked my Lewis and two one hundred round pans and made my way to the exit. As I hurried away with the load, I heard a terrifying explosion and looking back my kite was wrapped in flames, no more kite! I still can't fathom out what happened.
The cookhouse had a feed on for any one who could find time to eat, so I went to our equipment shed to pick up my eating utensils. I had put a nearly full bottle of tomato sauce behind the door on a ledge, out of sight of the mob; would you believe it, a bullet had come in through the wall and shattered it. A large splatter of red everywhere, it looked like congealed blood.
There were repairs to do on almost every kite that came in. In between I'd look up and take a burst at the diving Zeros, I never saw even one flicker, very disappointing, but maybe they crashed later, then I would get back to getting the other kites in the air.
It was a very long and tiring day, Big Lothar (I forget his real name) had been loading one hundred pounders on his back instead of using the slow winches, and he was exhausted but still as humorous as ever. I was told that we dropped about nine hundred and forty bombs that day then the bomb dump went up with a mighty bang but there weren't many left in it. The number of kites was down to seven of which only three could fly a mission.
Everything was on fire and the Orderly Room was burning well, and there were some pleased faces to see all the paper work in flames. Activity was slowing down, the sky got really black, it was getting dark anyway, and down the rain came in bucketfuls. At least we got a good drink by turning our tin hats over. The Zeros that had been spraying us all day went home and it got fairly quiet.
Cyril and I sat in a trench resting; he was watching his shed where his oxy welding equipment was, waiting for the flames to engulf them and for them to blow!
The battle on the beaches was getting much nearer and starting to spill onto the drome. The Indians fought with all the savagery they could muster, but the flow of Jap troops rolled relentlessly on into the night, we had to move out.
The remaining aircraft that could still fly were packed with men and flew off for Singapore. Indian Army trucks arrived in the pouring rain to take the remaining airmen out and I scrambled on a truck with high sides and got in the corner to set up my Lewis against the corner posts for support. The truck went under a tree and a branch got bent back when it swished back again it caught me in the lower back pitching me over the trail board, Lewis pans and all into the mud. The truck behind couldn't see anything in the rain and ran over my hand sinking my arm deep in the slime. I couldn't move and Cyril jumped out and pulled me to a safer placer, while everything moved out. I was told later the driver was dead, that's how we got under the tree.
The last trucks were moving out and I told Cyril to jump on it, that I'd catch him up later, I was alright, only winded and he should piss off while the going was good, but the idiot wouldn't go unless I went too. I couldn't move, I'd really hurt my back and hand. He settled me down in a trench full of water, I don't know how long we were there, and then a lone truck loomed out of the pouring rain. Cyril jumped up and waved it down, he and the driver and two others got me over the back, I yelled for my Lewis, they threw it over to me and we moved off. The end of the drome was a hive of action as the Japs had advanced that far.
It seems like many hours later and after being held up umpteen times for inspections along the way we got to Krai, there was a train ready to move off. I was put up in the luggage rack to dry and I slept a long time, woke up nearly dry and we were at Kuala Lumpur. This was our first day of war!
Later it was said that in the first day's battle for Kelantan the Japs lost more men and material than in the whole of the rest of the war in Malaya, according to Mike Wrigglesworth's book 'History of the Malayan Campaign'.
The next morning I woke up still in the luggage rack in the train. I got down carefully and took stock of my injuries. Not much at all, my wrist was sore but nothing broken and my back was welded straight, as long as I didn't bend down it was usable and I was bone dry, both my clothes and me.
Everyone was milling around, our main body of men had gone to Singapore in a train, I found a useful sort of shop and bought finger tucker and two bottles of Tiger beer and had breakfast on the side of the road opposite a huge and magnificent building, this turned out to be the railway station, most majestic. The rest of the town didn't look much, that beer did wonders and I felt fit again, Cyril gave a grunt of approval, a funny man!
An officer mustered what was left and we commandeered a truck and started off for Quantum where 8 Squadron was stationed. After hours of travelling we were very near our destination when we met some airmen coming from Quantum. They looked very battered and told us the drome had been evacuated and all the kites gone back to Singapore, there were only a few men left to evacuate anything valuable to be salvaged. We turned around and went back to Kuala Lumpur. That was a full day of doing nothing. We went around looking for any stray lads and slowly got back to Singapore, I can't remember what we used and in what sequence but we made it.
The Squadron was operational again in Sembawang and we were late. On parade next morning we were questioned and they immediately took my Lewis off me, much to my disgust, they said they were short of guns. I had to surrender it, they asked where my rifle was, I said I gave it to a mate, he didn't have one and I couldn't carry the lot. I was almost treated as if I'd done something wrong. They didn't supply me with a rifle, they said I wouldn't need one at that juncture, but I still had my Claymore that I had made myself out of the parang from the cross country kit. Our crew divided the cross country kit among ourselves, I got the parang, an aluminium dixie and lid that was a real treasure, funnily enough I had it with me for four and a half years, and I've still got it. I'm going to give it to the War Museum in Canberra one day.
Singapore was a shambles, we had no gear to speak of, the kites went out every day but the Japs had the real air power. The Commanding Officer said to send someone to Tengah airfield to see if we could scrounge any parts that could be used on our planes, so off I went. It was a pommy drome and hadn't been badly hit yet, and the orderly room was very officious, objected to my claymore, I was allowed to keep it as I wasn't trained in bayonet drill, that was Okayed. Next question asked was whether my rifle was loaded at all times; this went to the Commanding officer. Eventually it was alright, but I was not to have one up in the spout. These blokes didn't like me I'm sure, but I won, I wasn't in their Squadron.
They then acknowledged I was there to look for possible spares and took me to the store, an immense place and how I was going to find anything there I didn't know and everyone went off and left me on my own. Being late in the day I found the canteen and had a feed. I asked where I was to sleep and the Sergeant in charge said I could take some gear and sleep in the store as then needed someone to keep watch there. A blanket, mozzie net and a pillow were put there for me but no bed. It was getting dark and I found a shelf that was pretty empty and made up my bunk, but there were no walls near just an immense roofed space, I didn't like this much. It was a long night and I was really glad when the huge door was slid open, the sun came in and men arrived for work. No one said "good day", or kiss my arse or anything. I went and found the canteen and there found some friendly faces. We had a real pow wow and I agreed to meet them that evening in the canteen and they said they would fix me up with a bed. I scrounged around all day but couldn't find anything that would fit our Hudsons.
We had a really good night, it started with two air attacks which made a few holes here and there and took off half the canteen roof. We spent quite a few hours drinking and yarning with the rain pouring in on us.
I went back to Sembawang and said there was nothing much we could make us of. We weren't much use as we were so we started packing up the useful bits to move out. Then there was a big air raid on Sembawang, it really was big, we were having lunch in the canteen when the siren started to scream and we got into the trenches. They were all small trenches for about four men, but a lot of them were three feet deep, if you sat in them the top was about six inches above your head. I was last out with some tucker to survive etc. Twenty seven bombers in perfect formation came over majestically, almost slowly; starting at the far end of the drome they laid ten bombs each and just ran out past my end. Out of the two hundred and seventy bombs dropped in about a minute or two only three bombs actually missed the target.
I had picked a small trench right near the canteen which no one seemed to want and was on my own and a bit nervous I must admit. I felt as if I was being lifted out of the trench, a queer feeling as I couldn't hear the one that came near me. There was a real stench of cordite and I thought I was being gassed so I put my gas mask on. Everything went very quiet so I made to get out of the trench, as I grabbed the side to lift myself up the whole side of the trench slowly oozed away in one piece and slid into a huge hole that was fast filling with wet mud. It really was a big hole, I would say fifteen feet deep in the middle, steadily filling with ooze and at a guess twenty five feet across, a five hundred pounder make a hole that big in wet soil.
The other side of the trench was flat and the ten or fifteen feet all around the hole was heaped with mud, I had to manoeuvre over this to get back to the canteen. I got back first as I was the nearest. The boys seemed to be talking wildly without making a sound and I thought they were having me on, you know a bit of a joke, but no, I couldn't hear, not a thing!
They were pointing to a far hanger and telling me something then I twigged. The Dutch Hanger was on fire and I had a Glen Martin just inside the doors, we were racing down the slope to pull it out of the hanger or the fire would get to it. We had only gone half way when the plane exploded in the hanger and it had a full load of bombs on board, what a blast, we all got blown down flat and all sorts of things flew over us to implant themselves in the buildings. No one seemed to be really hurt but we were all a bit jittery. That was a close shave!
The whole drome was a mess we got orders to move out; the Dutch had a drome ready for us in Palembang, in the centre of Sumatra and up the river. Another squadron of fighters arrived and settled in. The holes were filled in on the drome but everything being so wet it was impossible to harden it up, not for heavy bombers anyway.
The next raid came when they were settled in with each small plane in a walled area of mud to itself. You wouldn't believe it each bomb seemed to fall in the opening of each bay, it wasn't such a big raid but it did enormous damage. That day during the bombing I got my hearing back a little. I could hear quite a bit in the right ear, the left one was still no good, it's still pretty useless.
What kites we had left went to Palembang and those of us with no kites went on by ship. Taking what equipment we could muster. Palembang is just off Malacca, not far at all and we went up the river, it was quite wide in places but a narrow mouth that is navigable for ships. The little ships of Sumatra are a sailors dream, all sorts of shapes and sizes that I'd never imagined, real museum pieces.
We unloaded at Palembang but didn't stay even for half a day, we were whisked away in trucks for a drome called P2, and two hours drive away. P2 was on the crest of a hill roughly graded so as not to make it too conspicuous. There was a cement slab with a part of a cookhouse and the start of some barracks. At this stage only two had walls and several cement slabs with the rest left to the imagination. There was quite a remarkable bomb dump, all Dutch bombs in kilograms not pounds, and a line of petrol tins right out in the open. I'd say it was about eight tins wide and six tins high and a hundred yards long. At least we had petrol and bombs.
We were trying to bed down somewhere; the cement was just too hard with only blankets, most of us just made a dent in the sand. A big officer from a Wildebeest Squadron came round to inspect, I said to him that with a few lads I could make some beds in no time, he said for me to make one and he would inspect it in an hour's time. I still had my parang so I cut a couple of springy stakes, there were millions of them about, put two rice bags through and spreaders, found a sturdier tree and set up a basic hammock.
The big bloke came back, I found out he was a Squadron Leader and the lads called him "Rhino", and he looked like it too! He sprang on to my bed with all his weight as hard as he could; the saplings being green took it easily and bounced him back. He was amazed and said to get a party started. "Rhino" had five Navy O's to his credit flying a Wildebeest. On asking him HOW, he said he just flew in a straight line until they were right near his tail then he gave her full rudder and by the time he made eighteen hundred or so they passed straight in front of his guns.
We had another team digging a swimming pool, the ground was soft and sandy it was not trouble to dig and we waited for the rain. It rained nearly every afternoon from about 3 to 4 pm and it filled our pool in no time. Everyone plunged in for a swim, it wasn't really big enough for swimming but we all had a good bath and washed our clothes, hanging them out on the grass they dried in half an hour. By about 6 pm the pool was empty. It filled up like that every day while we were there.
Sleeping on the ground was very pleasant, the climate really suited camping. Every day after servicing our aircraft we got fresh foliage to camouflage it again. Only one fighter went out each morning to reconnoitre the river, every one laid low and kept out of sight.
The monkeys came out every day to inspect us and try to pinch something; they were very amusing but a bloody nuisance, pinching spares and things. One was caught, he squealed and made a terrible fuss and gangs of monkeys moved in closer threateningly, someone painted the monkey yellow and let him go. Well, you've never seen monkeys vanish so fast and him trying to catch up, I reckon they are still on the run!
Aircraft kept arriving, most were from the Middle East where Rommel had been defeated, and they were pretty knocked about and full of sand but flyable. Eighteen British Hurricanes arrived one morning; nearly all of them smashed their wooden propellers on landing. The drome was only a bald hill top, reasonably flat for bombers, but too rough for the Hurricanes.
Then it was on! The recce plane came back with the news that about twenty two ships were sailing up the river, we waited till the last one was in the heads, and then every plane available was up and away with a full bomb load. The last ship still in the Heads was sunk, so no one could back out, and all the ships were bottled up in the river, with no where to go but down to the bottom. This was accomplished with much slaughter, the river ran red. The funny thing was the number of horses they had brought with them, there seemed to be hundreds of them.
By the next day or two they had cleared the mouth of the river and about twenty or more ships were at the mouth. We had lost almost a hundred planes that day, the few that were left headed for Java.
While we were awaiting orders we were told the second shipment of Japs had landed and were heading this way and were expected to get to a bridge near us by the next day. We stood to at 3 am waiting for the promised rifles, we had left ours back on Singapore for the others. A truck rushed in with rifles and ammo. I got one and a belt of ammo, it was in a sort of cloth bandolier so you could tear off five at a time, I had never seen that before. A dry run to get the ammo into the rifle seemed troublesome in the dark, they turned out to be Ross rifles from Canada and no one could get them loaded.
In the morning light we got moving again and took up positions along the road just short of the bridge in groups of four to await the Japs coming across. There were hundreds of civvies coming over with little carts, goats and children crying, etc. Nothing much happened that day, a delivery of bully beef and biscuits came flashing past, jettisoning the tucker at each bunch as he passed, one tin of bully beef and two packets of biscuits, no water, we had to find our own apparently.
There was not much to do lying doggo in the scrub and the tucker bought the ants around. I got fascinated with their antics (pardon the pun) and tried to cut their columns but they regrouped and joined forces very quickly. Then I scraped a big gap in their ranks and put sticks along for a bridge. They caught on immediately and used my bridge to the empty beef tin. When they were going at full stream I removed about two foot of bridge, this had them buggered for a long while.
We were getting thirsty and evening was coming on, so I told the other three to keep a keen eye open for me while I snuck off to get something. I had spied a small building a half mile or so back in the scrub while we were marching up to our post. I took off with some money and a haversack and found this hut, it seemed to be deserted and completely empty, then in the back I saw an old man sitting on a box. I asked him if there was any tucker about. He knew what I was after but shook his head violently. I searched around and was just about to leave when I got curious about the wooden box he was sitting on, I wanted to see in but he resisted violently so I lifted him off as gently as I could and he really performed. He was sitting on a case of Dutch beer. I left him two bottles and gave him heaps of guilders and went to move off with the beer but it was too heavy to get on my shoulder. I solved the problem by drinking three or four bottles and it got lighter but outside was getting darker! Anyway I found camp at last. One of the lads had the cheek to say I shouldn't have drunk so much. We knocked that lot off just in time to be nearly knocked over by morning rations flying over our heads. We were rounded up again and started marching south. The Japs never came over that bridge, not then anyway.
Our blokes got about four or five kites off and we started on foot for East Haven, the lowest port in Sumatra with what possessions we could carry. We got to the rail line and found a train doing nothing in particular so we borrowed it, stacked it with fire wood and set off down the line. All the way down there were fires where our engineers were setting fire to the oil wells while we were in full retreat.
On arrival at East Haven there was a ship full of refugees just about to take off. It was stopped for us and we went through a warehouse stocked with food and things. We were told to take as much food as we could carry and embark. You won't believe this but quite a number of men grabbed huge cartons of cigarettes under each arm and got on. As a lot of stuff had been ignited some boxes were hot, I got one box of bully beef and a burnt box of something. When we opened it later it contained two dozen tins of grapes, anyhow it was tucker. All the refugees went down in the holds and we camped on deck. The poor buggers were very afraid, with many little children; the stink of hundreds of them was terrible. We were on our way to Tanjong Priok, Port of Batavia.
We moved out towards Java in the dark, we had to stop engines once or twice when ships were sighted to find out if they were friend or foe. We arrived at Tjilitjap, a port on the south west coast. (Here I am getting a bit muddled as to what happened and in what sequence, so please excuse any faults in my yarn).
We went north in a train to Wanaraja and found a Dutch drome waiting for us. There were many British Airmen there already and our kites had landed well before us. We started operations at once; it was a bit difficult to fit Dutch bombs which came in Kilo weights, when we were set up for bombs in pounds.
This was a wonderful place, restful, out of the way, and beautiful. There were large parks with herds of deer and a nice little village with a fine pub run by a huge man called Father Christmas because he had a bushy white beard. It was the Hotel Plankintine and we had smorgasbord a few times, little dishes of fruit, fish and meat, all sorts of vegies and a monstrous pile of rice in the middle of the table, we just helped ourselves. Those were a few good day that we had.
We were sent out in convoy of every man and truck they could muster and we would drive through the middle of the town, slowly with everyone waving us on, then circle a couple of miles around and come back through town again. This was to impress the locals with the idea that we had many troops. Some of the girls would wait till we came round again and wave madly, it wasn't kidding anyone, but it was a pleasant way of passing the time. We were waiting for kites to be sent to us from the desert like they were in Sumatra, but none came.
We divided our Squadron into two, Air Crew and Armourers and a few essential bods, and the staff, etc, about half and half. They were sent down to Tjilitjap and got back to Australia. We waited on hoping for aircraft to arrive, but none came, so we went up to Bandoeng, a large city further north and joined the Dutch who still had an aerodrome in operation.
It wasn't long before we got bombed out of this drome. The Dutch seemed to have assumed they were defeated and had just packed it in. We didn't think much of Bandoeng; a few of us went into the city to get a feed and were turned away from the only restaurant open that night. It was full of richly dressed people, very formal; they didn't want us mere soldiers in their party. We found a China man with a shop that was open and he gave us a good feed. The next day everything seemed deserted, we went into a wine shop, there was rubbish all over the floor and nothing left. In the rubbish we found one bottle of bubbly.
I forget where we went from there; I feel I have muddled some of the names up as we weren't at any place long. Anyway eventually the Dutch had no other option but to capitulate, we gathered up some trucks and foraged all the cars we could find for petrol, no one seemed to own anything. We had the choice of hundreds of trucks and just helped ourselves with no opposition. We drove south heading to the southern port of Tjilitjap. It was beautiful country and looked very fruitful and ready for harvest, one day we came to a very steep hill, I was in a ten ton Thorncroft of old vintage, it was full of bodies half asleep, we had been on the road for days and every one was asleep. The truck started to gather speed down the hill, the three men in front woke and the driver tried to change down and missed the gears, the sound of gears being meshed at speed was frightening. He didn't make it and the truck out of gear picked up speed at an amazing rate. The boys in the back pulled open the tarps and some were going to jump out but it was going too fast by then. We went through a little village at about eighty miles per hour, the people, kids, chooks, everything, all took off just in time and as the truck went up the other side it slowed down and the driver managed to get it in gear again. It was quite a shake up.
We stopped up the other side of the hill and got out. All very stiff, we were at a cemetery, so we all picked out a nice flat stone to sleep on and flaked out for the night. Eventually we arrived at Tjilitjap and found the place to be a complete wreck, every boat was sunk and the town was on fire, it was no use stopping there so we turned and went into territory which was forbidden to the Dutch. The people there were very unfriendly but we were still armed so we went where we wanted.
On the way west we came to a steel bridge a fair length and in good order, we thought the Japs would soon catch up with us in our old trucks so we drove them all over, one at a time as it was only a small bridge. Then we went back, dismantled the main ties and threw them into the river which was a long way below. Then, feeling safer, we got down to a lovely sandy beach with coconut palms for shade and a small pond for water. Everything we wanted and we built ourselves a shelter, this was called Kampong Australia, and settled down to plan the next move.
I can't remember what happened next, Cyril and I scraped a comfortable placed under a truck, we could see out a fair distance to either side and could evacuate in a hurry if need be and slumped into a long sleep. We had been on the run for a long time and needed sleep more than food; everyone else seemed to be out to it.
Next was a survey of our surroundings, a count of our numbers and a list of our missing, organising a kitchen and toilets; detailing men for various duties, finding a cook and a butcher. Cyril and I got a handout of guilders for shopping and went out with two others to find a beast, cow or goat, or whatever there was to be had. We were warned of the local hostility and went prepared for anything, the local village was two miles away and the villagers were definitely unfriendly, we showed them money and haggled for a cow, they let us have one it was a miserable beast but it was meat, I was to be the slaughter man.
The kitchen on our return was going well and ready for our cow, we were all required to contribute everything we had in the food line to the cookhouse to be distributed equally all round. This caused much argument and bad feelings as some had carefully kept stuff for emergencies and others had wasted the lot. My mate Ted had a very small tin of strawberry jam which he valued highly, he said it was only a ration for one, and it really upset him when they insisted he handed it in. Poor old Ted he was the one who dived into a concrete shelter in Seleta Naval Base while it was being bombed, he had no shirt on and when he came out the shelter had taken a direct hit and his back and torso was covered in small red pimples and scratches. The doctor said it was nothing to worry about but he complained it was splinters of concrete that had penetrated his skin. No one believed him but they got worse and two years later he just died in his sleep in prison camp with no apparent reason. I think he was right in the first place, he was a very generous man and very romantic, he would go on four hours telling us about the girls he tried to catch!
One day in prison camp I was belted up for having two rice bags for a bed, the Japs took them and left me with nothing, immediately Ted, who owned an old tarp off a ute, his only possession to keep warm, immediately tore it in half and gave me half of it. This is a good example of mateship in the jungle.
Back to getting a feed going, we got a couple of bags of rice, some vegies of some sort and had a real fair dinkum feed at last. Our wireless operator set up a transmitter from the Hudson and got in touch with Broome. The message we received was quite clear, the batteries were fully charged, we told Broome we had a hundred or so air crew mostly holed up on the beach with no Japs for miles and we needed to be picked up. They had Catalinas there in operation and we reckoned three Catalinas might do in a pinch.
Broome acknowledged the message and said they would get back to us. About three weeks passed and our batteries were failing, we could receive but not transmit. There was still no message and no kites available; we were just left for dead.
Eventually our Commanding Officer paraded us and said that we were out of food and medicine and no chance of getting any help. He proposed to march us out and give ourselves up to the enemy, anyone wanting to take any other course would be given money and any help needed. One of our lads, Mad Musica and five others, one was Blondie, had found a boat of sorts and fixed it up; it had some oars and a cask for water. The six of them and as many coconuts as they could fit in set off on the eighteen hundred mile journey to Australia. They had no canopy to shield them from the sun, they rowed or paddled out in the surf and we watched them for a couple hours. By then they were very far out and their boat overturned. I met Mad Musica many years later in Hervey Bay, he didn't know if any of the others survived.
An old Irish mate Jack and I decided we might try our luck in the bush, but when the time came we both joined in the slow procession of trucks going north, to what, we didn't know.
For days we travelled with deadened hearts and a numb feeling that this was it. The country was beautiful with its lush canopy of trees and everything seemed exaggerated in beauty as if I hadn't seen it before, I took in every detail along the road and stored it in my memory for future use. No one had anything to say. A weird feeling of dread came over me and I shivered in the heat. We came to the bridge we had dismantled and some one had salvaged the spars from the water and had roughly repaired it, but we couldn't risk taking any of the trucks over. I don't remember much of that part of the journey, my whole mind and body was blank, life had no further interest for me at all, I had given up.
We had come to a very hilly part and were told to throw all our rifles and weapons down the gorge. There were some pommy troops there destroying their Bren guns by putting one round in the breach and ramming a round down the muzzle.
I found a little puppy whimpering in a bit of bush where the kids from the village were trying to poke its eyes out with sticks and laughing when it squealed. I had it with me but didn't know what to do with it, until I met these English lads, so I asked a kind looking bloke if he would like it, he brightened up and took it gladly, trust the poms!
We stopped at a tea plantation in the hills to rest, they were a bit wary but let us make camp there and gave us some tucker. There was a large pool of clear water where we could bathe. I still had my parang with me much to the disapproval of all the lads, so I buried it in the mud. We had nearly two petrol tins of Dutch money, guilders and other sizes of coin and we paid the locals well for all we received. On leaving we all had a box of tea in each truck, we had tea every few hours, and it's amazing how a cup of tea would cheer us up.
On this journey we had received many kindnesses from some of the villages we had passed through on the way up. We would ask for provisions for which we paid, but water for bathing was in short supply. One place had a lovely garden with a well and watering place. I felt awful as all our men charged in and made a terrific mess of their garden and well. They couldn't stop it. Another village had a swimming pond and a lot of big fish. One unfortunate fish was bright red and "big" Lothar one of our armourers was a terrific swimmer and he swam after this fish till he caught it, he let it go but every few minutes he would demonstrate to all and sundry how he could catch it. The fish just gave up, it was completely worn out!
I am sure my memory is failing and I am missing a lot here, please forgive this, the times were traumatic. We got to Lelis (I think this is what it was called) and passed long huts along the side of the road, crammed with our AIF mates, behind wire. No one said much, we just moved on.
Then we arrived in the Jap camp, they weren't at all interested in us, just ordered us to camp in a big field and stay there until we were wanted. We weren't searched or anything, it was just as if we were a nuisance for turning up. The boys behind the wire had been there quite a long time and had settled in quietly.
Cyril and I and a few others made ourselves comfortable, we found a tarp and an old truck and made a lean to that was quite good. We went into the village and found an old bucket and bought some tins of stuff to eat and filled the bucket with fruit. We got four bananas and two custard apples and a large papaya and a tin of Libbys condensed milk. That evening all this was cut up in the bucket and the milk mixed up all over it; it was the best fruit salad ever! We had this quite a few times.
We must have been left there for a couple of weeks or more, and then we were marched off to the station and caught a train which took us to Bicycle Camp in Batavia. It was a slow trip, many stops for no apparent reason, this was the first time we had contact with Jap guards, and they just herded us into carriages, said nothing and sat outside smoking, taking no interest in us at all. Everyone was keyed up and wondering what was to happen next.
The country side was fields and gardens and fruit trees and at night we passed through a large area of quinine bushes covered in fire flies, they looked like lit up Christmas trees, there were millions of these insects glowing in the dark. The morning came and we passed through some big towns, at one place many natives were line up along the platform, watching us and giving us the thumbs down signal, but one very old man at the back of the crowd, smiled and gave us the thumbs up.
Early next morning we arrived at Batavia and were lined up and counted four or five times, and after much shouting and screaming by the Jap guards we were marched off to Bicycle Camp. Here the old ticker looses a beat or two! Approaching the guard house we were ordered by our own officers to march to attention, I don't know how but we made a very gallant and soldierly entry, halted, turned left and stood well to attention for counting. Prisoner of War life had started, and it started with a vengeance, little did we know, this was going to be the really easy part.
We were allotted a big building which was a Dutch Barracks, there was plenty of room at the time and we settled in as the Air Force Contingent. The tenkos (parades) started immediately and we had to learn to count in Japanese for a start and I think we had about six or eight tenkos a day. Then the rice queues were organised, we were broken into Kumis (fifty men), the ration was one basket of rice and one bucket of some sort of slops, something like a very thin stew with bits of vegies and sometimes pork squares in it. We were all very hungry from then on.
There was nothing to do for a few days then work parties were organised, each Kumi went on a job in the town, clearing up rubbish and clearing building rubble. The best job was on the aerodrome moving thousands of petrol drums from one end to the other. Here we could sometimes get a bit of tucker off the people as some of us still had some money, some of the Dutch smuggled a tin of milk or bully beef over the fence to us. Life wasn't too bad, but the guards were very alert to any fraternising with the natives and belted us and the offenders up.
One thing the Japanese did really intrigued me. Six fighter planes screamed onto the drome in perfect formation a very impressive exercise, the pilots and gunners jumped out and scrambling around a small tent on the edge of the runway stood there in a semi circle at attention. A sharp order was given and they waited like the guards outside Buckingham Palace. Half an hour later a big fat slob of a Jap officer came out of the tent and looked at our line of men rolling drums past, he grinned at us and then turned to the plane crews. He screamed something at them then he went up to each man who was stiffly at attention and waiting his order to knock off. He deliberately smashed his fist over the one cheek and then the other, the crews didn't flinch, and then he went back into his tent and left them standing for an hour, before sauntering out to dismiss them. He was very happy for all the prisoners to watch him show his superiority over his men, you would have had to have seen this to believe it.
Most of the barracks was taken up by Dutch troops who had a terrifically good military band and all the instruments. Some evenings they were allowed to give a concert, or band recital, it was great, one had a violin he was reputed to have been the number six player in all Europe in past years.
We had three meals a day, all the same, except the evening meal was only rice, one mug of boiled rice, and that was it. One day at line up there was a big square of pig skin in the bucket and not much else, it was about four or five inches square. When the ladle came up this was balanced on it, some lucky? bloke got it, but no one knew what to do with it, it was far too tough to cut up as we had no knives, I forget how it ended up, probably soled someone's boot.
The Japs often got a pig for their cookhouse and would give the skin or offal to our cookhouse, but the soup it made was really weak, hardly any taste at all but quite greasy, this was divided up among the twenty odd Kumis in the camp.
One morning a new contingent of troops arrived at the gate and were brought in to swell our ranks, they were the crews of the HMAS Perth with the men from the American Cruiser Houston, about five or six hundred men. Room had to be made for them in the huts; this really made a tight squeeze. These poor lads were in a deplorable state, never seen anything so bad, they had been rounded up as they swam ashore with no equipment or boots and hardly any clothes. Some of them were badly wounded, some had no blankets or mess tins, and in fact they had nothing.
They had been held in a cinema for weeks with no toilet facilities and not waster to wash and no way of laying down to rest. Their heads and chins were a matted mess of fuel oil which had gone soggy and hard. Some were only just alive. We whipped around and found something for everyone, and we had very little ourselves. This really shook us up, we hadn't experienced this before.
I was the only mug in camp with a pair of hair clippers; I was cutting hair for nine hours a day and not doing too bad a job considering I had no experience. The Yanks hair was really tough like the wire on Welsh sheep backs. It was just a case of first from the front over the top to the back and then working down each side. One good thing was that the clippers never needed oiling, most men as I finished said "I owe you a beer mate when we get home" over the years I have had three beers!
These quiet days in Bicycle Camp soon came to an end for most of us; any fit men were marched down to the wharf and put on two ships bound for Singapore. The old freighters were fitted with decks of wood about four feet above each other, and we were really crammed in by guards using rifle butts to discourage any complaints. We could only sit cross legged and so crowded that only a few could be lying down at a time. One front hold was for Jap guards.
In all we were in these conditions for twenty six days and nights without being able to move. A few at a time made it up the ladders to the toilets, which were a beam strung out over the side and a rope to hold on to. Cyril and I were on the top deck, above us was the ships main deck of steel, and the rice boilers were directly above, so every time they lit the fires under the rice the heat came through the iron deck which six inches above our heads if we sat up, the heat was stifling and the stink worse.
To get our meal each man passed his dixie on down the line and waited for it to go the rounds and come back again with rice in it. It's amazing that every time the dixie came back, but it would be up to half an hour later and of course it was cold by then.
One day I was on deck for relief of the bowels and waiting in turn, just at the head of the Jap galley, I always had my dixie on my belt in case. I saw a Jap sailor (not a guard) come along the passage, he opened a fridge and got himself a pannikin of iced water, I must have been drooling at the mouth as I watched him slowly drink. He looked at me and saw our plight, he came over and held his hand out for my dixie, I didn't know what to do, and if I should trust him, I gave him the dixie and he filled it the brim with iced water and brought it back. I made thankyou signs and he smiled and went off, this was about the only time I had kindness shown from a Nip. I was in a quandary, how was I going to get this down the ladder to share it with Cyril and some mates. I drank what I considered a fair share and made the perilous journey back without spilling a bit, Cyril and a couple of others got fair swags, this was the big occasion for the whole journey.
We were unloaded in Singapore and marched to Changi Gaol, this looked better, there were barracks with water flowing and taps etc. We could wash off some of the dirt we had collected in the ship and we got a little of a parcel from the Red Cross. We were thinking of settling in when after two days we were put on a ship again, the conditions on the ship were the same and we went to Burma, Rangoon I think it was. Then we were sent on small ships to Moulmein and ended up in Moulmein Gaol for a few days.
We had been at sea for twenty six days, hiding by day and sailing at night to escape the American bombers. The middle ship of our convoy was sunk and stories of the sinking were going around when we got ashore. They said the bombs fell in the front hold with all the Japs in and not many of them survived. Our men had time to get into the water before she went down, most of them anyway. We couldn't see anything down in the hold. There were some strange stories about the Japs and the prisoners trying to swim to safety, but they wouldn't go down well here, some things are best not to be written about.
The gaol we were in was fairly spacious and we could move around a bit and ease our cramped legs. The Japs put their cars in with us and locked the door. The next morning each car had huge holes in almost every panel where we had cut out the shape of a plate or a small frying pan. All the caps of the wheels were missing and several other things of use, also the wooden morgue had been dismantled and fires were going all over the prison with the blokes boiling water or cooking something they had picked up. All I could find was the rose garden, and I ate all the rose petals I could get, then others twigged they were edible.
We made a hole in the dirt from our wall to outside where hands would appear with things for sale or swap, and notes with how much etc. I put my clippers through and got four rupees back for it. This was good and I was really glad to get rid of those blasted clippers, I couldn't get a moment's peace with them.
When the gates opened in the morning the Japs were really shaken with the amount of damage we had done to their cars and the building. They rushed us down to the wharf and shipped us over to a point where we set off for our work area. During the journey we crossed the Irriwaddi River, a tug pulling our floating platforms across, that's all they were, large floating flat bottomed barges with men packed on them, standing so hardly any movement was possible, the sides were only eighteen inches high so it was easy to get shoved over the side, three of these were roped in line, a tug with full steam up pulling away.
We left the bank slowly and the river took over and pulled us down stream while the tug was pulling us upstream, the cable from the tug broke and the three barges stacked with men made off down river at a great old rate of knots. We couldn't do anything and just hoped the current would take us out to sea and perhaps to Australia, you can always hope you know. It took what seemed like hours for the tug to catch up with us. This was quite an exciting day in our dreary lives.
We were marched off to our new camp Thanbyuzayat. On the way the Burmese people tried to give us some food or a smoke but the Japs belted them up and moved them away from our line of forlorn men with very little gear, no food and practically no clothes or boots. One little cart passed with fruit on it and several little urchins following in case anything fell from the cart, a mango dropped and a lad picked it up, looked at the bruised fruit and threw it away, it landed near me and I grabbed it, cleaned off the mess and ate it. It tasted terrific and best piece of tucker I had had for months. I can still taste that mango today, it brightened my life up.
We got into base camp; there were thousands of our lads standing in queues and groups. A Jap officer came out after a while and sat on a chair which was on an old wooden table, right in the middle of the paddock where we were all lined up and he gave us a speech in English. It went on for hours, the gist of it was that we were to work for the Emperor till we died and we should be very happy to do so, it was an honour he bestowed on us to work till we died for him. When he finished there was a short silence and then our brighter sparks started to clap him and make very humorous remarks, the Japs couldn't understand this and didn't do anything.
We were given some rice and got our water bottles filled and moved out into the jungle. We passed camps of our lads, working with picks and shovels and passed a few remarks and queries, but the guards rushed us past. After a few days we got to the 40 Kilo Camp, this was where we had to start working to build the railway.
CHAPTER VII - 40 KILO CAMP
It was a reasonably heavy jungle area with a clearing for the huts which were a fair bit off the ground, long thin affairs with one side open for access. They were made entirely of bamboo lashed together with bamboo straps and covered on top and one side with attap, which was made from the fronds of the nipper palm and kept most of the rain out. The race started to get good spots and save a space for your mate etc. It was pretty crowded but not too bad.
The water supply was a sort of lake come puddle in a clearing a few hundred yards away. This, we found, was also used to wash the elephants every evening, we had about forty elephants to start with and they used to lie in the water and get scrubbed by their mahouts with a brick. They also considered that this particular pool was the place to relieve their bowels! This was our only source of drinking and cooking water. They were beautiful beasts with a quiet and submitting way and very intelligent eyes.
The Japs proceeded to work them all daylight hours and then chain their front legs together so they would only hobble about, and let them roam about at night to get their own food, which comprised bamboo shoots if they could find any. Of course, before two or three months had passed they had all died. This was a typical example of Jap intelligence from the top down. If there is anything I really hate, its cruelty and cruelty to animals is, to me, the worst form of sadism.
Our usual working day began with a bugle call half an hour before dawn, and then we had to line up for tenko (counting the men), we had to learn to count in Nippon as they couldn't count in English, this could take quite a few counts to get the correct number.
We had no water to wash and a hundred yards to go to the hole in the ground which was our toilet. For water we could maybe spare a mouthful from our bottle to rinse our mouths, but we could only fill the water bottle once each day, there was very little hope of getting any more. We would have a long hard day on picks, shovels and axes during which the sun and sweat would dehydrate us. For tucker we would get one basket of rice and one bucket of some sort of soup with things floating in it, this was the ration for a Kumi, which has fifty men, this ration if we were working, was received three times a day with no alterations.
The duty man who fetched the tucker for the day had to take extraordinary care to serve the fifty waiting men so that there was enough left for the last few in line. Tempers would flare up very easily which would lead to fights, it was a good job to get the distribution right. The duty man would always make sure that there was some over and that once they then took their share the rest would be given out as leggies (second serve) in very strict rotation by numbers, so that every few meals you would be due for a leggie.
This sort of thing in camp had to be handled with extreme care; it could be touchy with three thousand men in one confined space, almost touching shoulders at night when we were resting, it took a lot of patience and tolerance.
After another tenko we would be marched off to work, as each man passed he was given a tool, they were all blunt or had broken handles, and the axes wouldn't have any edge. On arrival at the site, our work would be marked out for each Kumi, one cubic metre of soil to be moved per man. The axe men were sent out to clear all the timber for a width of around fifty metres, the bamboo clumps gave the most rouble, they were huge. Everything had to be removed and burned so the pick and shovel men could advance in a line. I used to try for the axe work.
At mid morning we were allowed to down tools for fifteen minutes smoko, but few had any baccy, maybe we would have a few mouthfuls of precious water from our pannikin, remembering that it had to last all day until it could be refilled at night.
At mid day or so a basket of rice and a bucket of slops would arrive. This didn't take long to eat, we had to keep our dixies and spoons tied to our belts or it could have got lost and that would have been a tragedy as there were no replacements in the jungle, not even a rubbish dump that could be sorted over.
Then it would be back to work and the time would come to check the amount of overburden removed, in the early days we would often get back to camp in daylight and have a bit of time for a cleanup.
This went on every day, no Sunday reprieve, and we got used to the routine. One day we were walking to work and we were beside a line of elephants, the Japs would bash them on the head with an iron spike every time they thought the elephant wasn't working hard enough. One female elephant suddenly turned hard left and bolted straight through a fierce line of jungle trees and disappeared leaving its mahout and the Jap guard stuck in a mass of trees unable to drag themselves out. I don't know whether they found it again and I really hope they didn't, it was so sudden and she had picked a really thick patch of jungle which just closed up after her.
Another day we were working near the cutting on the side of a hill and an elephant with a very young calf was pulling heavy logs out. The calf tried vainly to follow mum but kept getting in the way, a large log she was pulling slipped the chain and rolled down the hill, right over the calf and killing it. The mother turned around to tend to her dead calf and the Japs kept belting at her head with the iron spike until they had made a really sore hole in her head just above her eye, the blood was oozing out of the hole and going into her eye. They forced her to continue on pulling logs; she was in a powerless state but kept on. As I mentioned before they were sadistic bastards.
The water shortage got really bad so we were marched back about twenty miles or so to the 26 Kilo Camp, where there was still water about. This camp was on much better ground and seemed to have had some paddy fields operating at some time. The huts were about the same but much lower to the ground, about knee height, so you could sit on the bamboo floor and touch the ground with your feet, this was much more comfortable.
There was a funny smell when we arrived. The people who had been moved to let us have their huts had had a cholera plague pass though and had buried many of their dead under the huts. On inspection we found odd hands and legs sticking out of the ground, hence the stink. We had to dig them out and burn them away from the camp.
To our great dismay we found we had aroused an army of bugs they had also left behind, this was our first introduction to this menace and also to lice. There were four kinds of lice and each had to be caught and dealt with in a different way. There were little round ones, the only way to kill them if you could catch them was to get them between your thumb nails and squeeze really hard, and they would explode with the pressure. Bugs and lice would infest anything or any crevice, like small seams in clothes, they would dig in so tight that it was hard to see them, let alone get them out.
This was our first really great inconvenience and health hazard. They wouldn't let us sleep, when the mosquitoes went away, they would start up. The bamboo slats we slept on were haven to them, they only had to get underneath in the day and we couldn't find them. Many infections and ulcers started with the uncontrollable scratching of these mites all night drawing blood.
The water was better in this camp, but not much. Sometimes coming home from work we came across little streams where with patience one could fill the canteen and sometime catch little fish about an inch long, we threaded these on a wire and passed it over a flame and ate the burned remains with relish, anything to get some vitamins.
The work load wasn't too bad at this camp but the discipline and the bashings were bad. We could light little fires at night to keep the mossies off and boil a billy, we had nothing to put in except we sometimes got some burned rice from the cras (rice cookers) that the rice had been cooked in. In scraping this off the cras it made coffee, well it almost looked like coffee, we had to imagine the taste. Still with that and perhaps half of a bung sigar, which sometimes arrived from the village, we sort of felt more human. Sometimes we got to have a sort of sponge bath in a bit of a stream on the way back from work. It was really soul destroying to lie in filth all night.
The rumour started to spread that there was going to be a troop landing just North West of us, I can't remember the name of the place, but it was just off the Andamans. I sneaked over to the Indian camp at night to ask as I was the only one who knew a little Hindustani. The Brahmins there were quite agog with the news, but it must have just been a furphy (rumour).
I got a map of Burma from one of the officers and collected paper and pencil from various blokes and drew twenty nine maps of our area and where the possible attack may come form, then I got some NCOs who were willing to each try to get twenty men to cooperate and get some sort of weapon or anything useful in case we could break out and join the attackers if they came. I got open hostility in some quarters, especially among the officers; they said we were going to endanger everyone's lives. I still went ahead and one of them, Brontie Edwards, (who, I think had won a Victoria Cross), was right in it. After a few months of hope it frizzled out.
We had managed to get a small pistol and had got some Jap ammo which I whittled down with a blade to fit the pistol, I had to push it down the pisaphone in an emergency raid. The Japs used to put on raids at the most difficult times. Everyone had to stop still wherever they were and not move while they raided our huts and searched every man individually for weapons.
We had no elephants now and not enough timber to fell, the fields were flat and we had to get the filling for the rail road from each side of the track forming trenches which would fill with water if it rained. The terrain all around was flat with huge mountains of rock in lines on both sides, the walls were almost vertical from the flat ground with no way of getting up them, they were huge going up hundreds of feet. It was most peculiar country, no kind of vegetation or plants to eat and very hot all day.
The work carried on endlessly and we got thinner and thinner. Quite a number of our lads were turning their toes up now, mainly through lack of food or medical supplies. The food was doled out with a small mug for rice and two ounce tobacco tin for slops, the bigger blokes got the same as the small men, some were very small and thin, they seemed to survive much better. When the big men lost weight it was so much more visible and they would look like skeletons with skin stretched over their large frames. It was a terribly depressing way to live and to try and survive.
One day your mate who was normally strong and sinewy would suddenly just die overnight and the morning ritual of burial with the Last Post blown for every one gave a very sad and nerve wracking work day ahead and a feeling of despair and hatred.
We finished that section and were moved forward past other camps to 75 Kilo. This was a long march and took over two days. On the second day we were stopped by a Jap party with a white tent and medical men waiting to inoculate each man. First they moved us slowly one at a time through this tent with some sort of gas in it, and then they gave us a needle. We then had to produce a sample of shit on a piece of waxed paper that they supplied. This caused some problems as they had to write our prison number on each piece and we had problems to produce the required sample, there was much interchange and borrowing of other blokes specimens because ours didn't look too good.
We were starting to straggle a lot on the march; my mate Cyril had a great big bamboo section for a water bottle because his bottle had burst. He also carried a lump of iron he used for making billies and other bits and pieces he didn't really need. I said to ditch the useless stuff or he would never make the trip alive, but as usual he was stubborn and refused any advice he was always pig headed like that, but always a good and loyal mate. I had to make it somehow, so I forged ahead to the front line and laid down in the dust and went to sleep immediately, I had been practicing this for months and I guess it was a big part of my survival, by the time the two to three thousand men had stagged past, the guards at the back would shout at me and give me a kick or a nudge with their rifle and I would get up immediately refreshed from my sleep and move on the head of the column again, lie down and sleep again. It was amazing how much a few minutes rest would put new life into me.
I got to the new camp early and won a good new possie for Cyril and me, you had to be early to get the good places. Cyril didn't arrive until four or more hours after me, he was in a shocking state, nearly out of his mind, but he still had that load of junk with him. I got his stuff pushed under the slats and got him to lie down and sleep, he was just buggered and almost unconscious.
They had us out early next morning and on the job. This camp was in the mountains, and would have been a good spot, but we were on a river, not a big one, but big enough so swim around a bit. The catch was a mile or so away upriver was an Indian camp with men dying of cholera; they were chucking their bodies into the river to float away with all the other rubbish and dirt down past our only water supply. Still, we couldn't have everything and the water was a real blessing, shit in it or not.
We were back on the axes again, clearing and burning, I preferred that to the pick and shovel. This was fairly heavy jungle country with many hills and valleys to contend with, so bridge building started and the Japs must have had hurry up orders from Tokyo as the days working hours were extended longer and longer, no more easy days or smokos. The penalties for not achieving the allotted tasks got much more severe. Then the rains came with a vengeance and it was far more difficult to complete a set task, with the rain belting down all day and night. Some nights we would knock off well after dark and would be stood to attention for an hour, sometimes more with the tools for digging out etc in both hands lifted high over our heads, our arms ached and shook with the strain but if we lowered them much the guards who were moving up and down the lines of men would jab a rifle butt into our backs viciously. I got one quite unexpectedly one night and it hit low down in my spine where I had been hurt falling out of the truck in the first battle of the war two years earlier in Kota Bahru and my machine gun fell on top of me. The pain was staggering but I could not lower my arms.
The rain had been pouring down for a couple of weeks with no let up. The cookhouse boys had a terrifically impossible task to keep our evening rice hot and we were two hours late already, by the time we were dismissed the rice was cold and burned, then there was the prospect of a very wet blanket to cover us at night.
Life was getting unbearable and the lads were getting despondent, some tried to commit suicide and others just passed away in their sleep, hope of being rescued had gone many months previously.
Cyril and I, SOS and one or two others used to bring back some fire wood and get a little fire going in the hut to try and dry things and put the billy on, but there was little burned rice left these days to make coffee.
Still we would tell yarns and I always loved to cheer them up and myself too, of course, with my Stan Holloway poems of Sam and His musket etc. There was no possibility of getting dry even for a short while. One blessing was that we were not short of water and a good bath.
These were bad times for us, a couple of months or so later the rain stopped just as if someone had turned a tap off and it didn't come back for nine months, by which time we were moved to 105 kilo camp.
In the drier weather our death toll fell some what but the work load increased with the bashings and sending men who could hardly walk out to work. Some who couldn't make it were sent to a quarry to sit down and break up boulders into small rocks with a hammer. The ulcers were at their worst this season, nearly every man had ulcers big and small all over their legs where the bamboo spikes cut into their flesh going through the bush at dusk.
The pain of pulsating rotting flesh was almost unbearable and we had nothing to put on them to keep the flies off. There were no more clothes or cloth of any description left in the camp, we just had to find leaves soft enough to put them on the wound and try to bind them on somehow. The stench of these ulcers was always with us. The doctors didn't know where to turn; they were treating one man after another by scraping the puss off and putting on new leaves. There was no medical equipment at all, life was at very low ebb and I don't know how we got through it, but for our mates and their undying work to keep everyone alive.
The ulcers on my legs got much worse and I was lined up one day with about ten others to go to 55 Kilo Camp, which was now the Hospital Camp, every one called it the Death Camp and reckoned very few came out of the 55 alive.
We set off on a very slow trip back through other camps, every one limping and on sticks for support. We were given rice most times and places to rest over night. I can't remember this trip very well; it's sort of blank in my mind. I'd left Cyril and all the squadron and other friends and the pain in my legs was bad.
It's really bad to be taken away from the men you have known some four years or so, this was in our third year of prison life and it was getting harder and harder to stay alive and reasonably sane, but losing mates made it worse.
We eventually arrived and were just taken in, counted once instead of ten times as was usual and the Japs left us and disappeared.
Our orderlies sorted us out in the type of complaint we came with. Each hut had certain complaints. I went to the Ulcer Ward and the people moved up a bit to make room for another, when it was crowded already. They were all new faces to me; many too sick to smile a greeting. It was a ghastly sight. Men moaning in pain, their eyes looked vacant, a not interested in living any more kind of look. I really felt I had had my luck and no more in sight, then the rice arrived and every one was on the move, a most important part of living!
The 55 K was a very long open camp with officialdom at the far end from us, the cook house and camp staff at one end and two long lines of huts facing each other and well apart. It was on the side of a hill and the top four huts that held about one hundred men each were for the BIOKIE men (very sick) and the opposite four huts about thirty yards away were for the convalescent men. The toilets, if that's what they could be called, were at the other end, a fair distance away. I was in the furthest hut nearest the toilets and that was a blessing indeed, as most of us had dysentery as well as ulcers.
The general discussions were about the size of ulcers and the hope was that if you got rid of them and were then sent to the lower four huts for convalescence there was a reasonable hope you'd make it. There was the constant reminder of corpses being carried out every day for burial, and the Last Post played for every one. The query always was "Which poor sod bought it this time?"
In the long huts the men were shoulder to shoulder - no room to move around much and at their feet there was a row of men longways, so that everyone going to the toilet had to work his way over the others to get out.
The bamboo platform which formed the resting place was full of bugs and lice, which thrived by getting a feed then disappearing under the slats. The slats were covered with sharp notches in the bamboo where the builders had only cut the twigs off at an angle and left these protruding to make life uncomfortable. As knives or any sort of tool was taboo, there was no way of cutting them off.
I got friendly with my next to skin (just a joke as we were shoulder to shoulder with no room to move), almost immediately and the yarns started to circulate and even jokes got going to cheer the place up a bit. I do like people around me to try to be cheerful and humorous at times. In fact I worked on them till a grin started to come on their pain torn faces, it made me cheerful and I didn't often fail.
This is where I first met the Colonel, a very celebrated and loved Doctor Albert Coates from the Ballarat School of Surgeons. On the quiet he was known as 'Ballarat Bertie' but never while he was about. He was a very military man of two world wars and would stand no nonsense from any one; even the Japs were a bit scared of him. He was the greatest doctor ever.
On the morning tour of inspection the Colonel, who was the Ulcer Ward doctor, would start at the far end from me, every one was nervous as to what they were going to get today. As he got closer the grunts and yells drifted down towards us. Then it would be my turn, orderly took a firm hold as the Colonel scraped the pus out with a spoon, this really hurt, but I felt that he would fix it, he gave you that look of compassion as if he was hurting too, for you. I felt every confidence in his hands and sort of knew from our first meeting that I would make it.
One day he said to me "This isn't coming good - if it gets any worse by next week I'll have to take your leg off. Do your best to keep that pus down." His manner, and the way he sort of weighed everything up gave me a real feeling of admiration for him.
Well, we got five cents a day and there was not much to buy, except eggs occasionally at twenty five cents each for a tiny egg, or shindagar, this is sugar squeezed our of palm trees formed into a packet of palm sugar in slabs, very sweet, like solid treacle, and wrapped up in leaves tied with thin bamboo strips. It also contained many mummified bees and ants which really gave us a bit of vitamins, or so I've been told. Any how everything went into the rice which was already vitimanised with plenty of weevils and rat shit. You may think I am being funny, but we really saw this as extras to help us survive, and I firmly think it did.
Well, I asked around and managed to get a little rock salt. I ground this up in a pannikin and got some blokes to hold me down and apply it in the wound. They stuffed an old piece of towel in my mouth and held me so I couldn't move then plastered it all into the cleared hole in my leg and held it there with leaves so that none would spill out. I did not move, I just couldn't, nor did I shout - I had a mouth full of towel, these blokes took me at my word (thank goodness) and held on, I don't know how long for. I was drenched with sweat and felt weak as a kitten. The pain slowly eased, and they slowly let their grip go, ready to re apply it if I upset their patch of salt works.
When the Colonel came round the next day he fairly beamed at me and said he would fix this for good. He made two small slits above and below the offending opening and put his finger in the hole and hooked the muscle out whole - it was eight inches long and the centre was eaten away. The Colonel looked in carefully after the orderlies had cleaned me up and said the infection has not gone past this muscle and your leg is now clean of infection. The salt had done its work and my leg was healing, it looked a bit flat, as it was a big muscle in the calf. The Colonel said it wouldn't grow again but I would walk alright, just one leg was much thinner than the other. This was the least of my worries. Incidentally I don't know why it happened, but now both legs are the same size.
Shortly afterwards I was moved into the lower huts to recover. This was a great day for me, I knew I would be going home one day (little did I know what the next eighteen months had in store for me). There were really bad times ahead, but for now I had made it. However, this was a new chapter in my life, and I felt a new man with new faces all around me again, except one ulcer case who joined me soon after; we had been mates from the other side. We had a bit more room on this side and no more visits from the doctor, the orderlies would move round and inquire if anyone needed attention, but we all denied having any ailments. No one wanted to go back to the top row and the stench of rotting and festering flesh all around, all day and night, especially at night, it was sickening.
The low side was backed by a pretty thick wooded area and we could get softer leaves for toilet needs which were a real plus as many, including myself, still had dysentery trouble.
I immediately started to pal up with my hut mates, and we formed four man mateships in no time at all. Having no work to go to at that stage there was all day to get to know them. We got to hear everyone's complete life story and even their names. In camps you very rarely knew any ones real name every one had a nickname, either by habit or one forced on them by general consent, and no way could you shrug it off. I already had a nickname (Jock) which every one accepted. I managed to get that on the ship coming from England to Australia a few years before. I was trimming the fires down in the stoke hold. It sounds bad, but it's a really good job. I learned a lot about it and it was much warmer down there.
The four musketeers were three from the 2/29 Regiment and myself from No 1 Squadron RAAF. We were, Neil McPhail McKinnon, a farmer from Victoria, William St Andrew Westacott, a farmer from South Australia, Benjamin Mapleback, a cobbler from Albany, and myself, John Hexter Bingham, a turner, from all over; and a frequent addition to our group was Pop Henderson, he was over many times to see us and help our.
These men I met again back in Australia many years later. We got together in Melbourne and had a reunion of our own, they were mighty good friends.
Then the monsoon broke, in Burma this is really something to be wondered at, it rained non stop for three months, then one day it just stopped almost like turning a tap on and off. Boy, could it rain! Our huts weren't built for this sort of thing, we seemed to be soaked day and night, and luckily we had almost no clothes to get wet.
Boots were my big trouble, my feet have always been soft and without footwear I am stuffed. My feet would bleed for nothing, and get tenderer every day. My mates said I was the original Tenderfoot from way back. It really wasn't funny; some of them ran about without any trouble at all without footwear. My hands got hard and calloused with work without any trouble but the feet just got worse. I managed to get an old pair of Indian Army boots a size or so too big, but I couldn't fit them on as they are nearly flat and I have a high instep. Any way I cut down either side of the tongues and tied them on with some wire from the bridge, and they weren't too bad!
Then I got Pellagra, a very painful disease and difficult to get rid of. I have never imagined more agonising days of pain; it's caused, they said, by deficiency of some vitamins. Well if the vitamins aren't found in rice, what hope did we have of not catching it?
It starts with the lips peeling and then the mouth and tongue, the whole thick layer of skin comes off in shreds, if it is swallowed it could choke you. Then the entire alimentary canal strips off its skin like a snake shedding its skin, and its any ones guess as to where that all comes out leaving your ring so tender you have to lie on your stomach for days. Believe me its no joke!
Old Bill came to the rescue, he found an old gerry (under the bed potty) in among some junk and cleaned it up. It still looked a horrible brown and totally unfit for putting rice in, but he assured me it was really clean. He used it to get my rice issue and would grind the cooked rice to a liquid, no lumps and test it for temperature, not hot or cold, blood warm. This he would spoon down my mouth a tiny bit at a time; it took an hour to get it down. The pain of even trying to drink water was terrible. The entire lining of my throat and all the way through was full of long ribbons of skin being discharged in a most ungentlemanly way, most embarrassing too. Bill stuck to this job for at least two weeks till I could turn over and feed myself. This was my worst torment ever.
When the new skin started to harden and life was getting a bit more liveable I was given two raw eggs a day for two days, this gave me some lining. I still don't know where the four eggs came from, so I couldn't thank them. Bill should have a medal.
I started to get really well again thanks to my mates and I went to the top hut to do some looking after others. One young mate, a big fellow who was obviously of some importance in 'civvy' life was in real trouble and going down fast. He had had a leg off above the knee then the other off below the knee. He had malaria and dysentery and of course couldn't go to the toilet one hundred yards away. He was wasted away to a skeleton and said he would give anything for some salt to put on his rice. I managed to buy a small tobacco tin full of salt, rock salt, and the rocks didn't allow a full measure in the tin which was very rusty and had coloured the salt a dark red. I had to pay fifty cents, ten days pay for this. I gave it to my mate but he was so badly gone that I don't know if he used it. We buried him a week later. Never seen a man in so much trouble and misery, he was a god fearing man, but he died with a curse on his lips. This shook me up a bit.
I started helping the Colonel on his rounds, whatever was needed in the way of labouring jobs. For a while four of us had to carry him round in a stretcher which we made from two bamboo poles and two rice bags as he was very ill himself. He never gave up doing his rounds; he had four hundred men to visit almost every day, a mighty man indeed.
One day any men who could walk and were not too crook were called out on a special emergency job to salvage men and rice left out in the rain. They had been there for a day and a half, we only realised this when one of them crawled into camp from two or more miles away. The train that was bringing some BIOKIE (sick) men and our rice ration to us had missed the marker to where the camp was a couple of hundred yards from the rail. They had dumped them and the rice out in the rain and gone off. It was pretty dark and the rain wouldn't let up and we took as many men as we could muster along the rail track from sleeper to sleeper as there was a miniature river flowing on each side of the rail.
The men were lying by the rail in the usual bag stretchers, unable to move, they were in rally bad nick. They had been on the journey two days and lying on the side of the track since early morning. The rice was sodden and half the bags burst open.
Well we got the boys moving first, I got on a stretcher with a long whinging bloke I hadn't seen before, he got the lead with the bloke's feet and I followed with his head end. It was very dark and hard to see the sleepers but we went by keeping the right step, slowly pacing the track. The big bloke in front never left up whinging about having to come out in the dark. I was wishing he would shut up when he suddenly disappeared out of sight and the bottom end of the stretcher bumped down on the ground. I had to lower my end quickly so the bloke in it wouldn't slide out, then the climax, a face covered in mud emerged from the rails and slowly it yanked a body and legs onto the rail level. It was like a ghost rising from the dead. I feel bad about this but I burst out laughing. I don't think I meant to, but it touched my warped sense of humour. He was livid, but speechless, trying to spit out a mouthful of mud. He had missed one sleeper as we were going over a culvert and there was no ground under the rail at that point. He just disappeared without a trace.
When we got our patient home the orderlies said he was dead. The big bloke never stopped telling everyone how I laughed in such tragedy. He never spoke to me again, of that at least I should be thankful. The men bringing the rice back were so weak that they could only carry a third of a bag each and had to bring it back in relays. It was a tragic night.
The Colonel used to amputate legs off in a tiny attap shed with one big wall missing and a sort of bamboo shelf on the other side, just big enough for a body to lie on. He would throw the unwanted leg out the side for further inspection when all the surgery was over for the day. Then he would call his staff around and carefully cut the leg open from the wound right to the point of amputation and explain to everyone his reason for cutting at that point. He would have cut just an inch or so above a pocket of pus which was not seen before amputation and which had to be removed. This procedure was because of arguments that would sometimes arise as to why he cut so high. The Colonel knew exactly the right place every time, of course he was one of Australia's top surgeons.
I had a lot of cords that was all that was left from my parachute and I gave them to him to tie up the veins or what ever was needed in surgery. The rest of the parachute was completely useless for anything and I had flogged it over the fence. It wouldn't cut straight, it wouldn't sew, although we only had needles we cut from strips of bamboo and the eye was only a notch which pulled the cord through one hole at a time. No good for a sheet, it was boiling hot and wouldn't wash. In fact, no good for anything, and when anything gets thrown out in those circumstances, it's really useless!
One of the greatest troubles in camps everywhere was the dunny. Where three thousand men or so in close confinement is concerned, the toilet arrangements cause great trouble and inconvenience, especially in the heavy rains of the tropical monsoon season. Trenches five foot deep were dug in slightly higher ground so that no run off water would get to it. There was absolutely no way of putting a roof over and the length of the thirty inch wide trench had to be adjusted to the strength of a length of the bamboo poles available locally.
That's what they were, just a trench with a pole longways to sit on. The chances of falling in on a night in the rain were high, no lights and the path to it slippery and often well laced with the shit that was supposed to reach the trench. The camp often had fifty percent dysentery cases, often amounting to ten to twenty trips a day for each patient. Of course, the pits were well occupied with millions of blow flies and their larva (maggots), often reached two feet down. I don't like writing about this but it just has to be written so the full extent of our tragic existence in filth, starvation and degradation can be appreciated by the general public.
We had three little boxes made for the ones who couldn't make the toilet in time, most had just had a leg off and they were put out in front and were always occupied with a queue waiting for their turn
On Sunday morning before the rice came up, the Padre would give a service, generally at the last hut (Ulcers Ward), where the most crippled men were, so that they could hear without getting up. The Padre would give us talks on religions of the world and of course emphasise the distinct advantage of Christian over the others, he was really interesting.
If I can remember rightly, it was Padre Pierce that I recall the most; he was the Padre off HMAS Perth that went down in the Sunda Straights on March 31st 1942 with the American ship Houston and fourteen or so other smaller war ships. We had all that was left of their crews with us, a fine body of sailors.
If this sad scene could possibly be drawn or painted by one of the survivors it would shock the world. There is only one man I know of who could do it, but I don't think he was in the 55K, that is an Englishman from the camps on the other end of the line called Jack Chalker. I have one of his charcoal sketches which he very kindly let me have, and it depicts the toilet scene in Kintock, to someone who has been in these circumstances the way it shows the filth, the mateship and the sorrow in his mate's face is unbelievable, all portrayed in a simple sketch. It's the most striking and soul shattering thing I've seen and would replace three books on the subject.
Also while I am at it praising our artists, there is a book out just lately by Ian Denys Peek called One Fourteenth of an Elephant. This is the very best and most accurate account of prison life in that area that I've ever read. Most accounts are only fair to middling, some; I just can't imagine where they were. This one is so well written the author must be very literate, and his way of writing is very just to both sides and he really says what he thinks. I don't think I could always do that; don't know who you could hurt.
I had three very traumatic dreams in this camp and which I described to my mates that I mentioned before. I can still remember them now (sixty years later), they really shook me.
One night I had a vivid dream of a line of tanks just ploughing through the jungle straight for our camp in the rear of our hut which backed on to thick scrub. It was unstoppable and the jungle just fell before it and let in a stream of glaring sunlight. It was making a wide path which looked as wide and clear as an airfield runway. Along with this and behind them was a huge pipe band of Scotties blowing their pipes and beating their drums, as smart a troop as you would ever see, their kilts swaying to the beat of the drums, I was crying with joy and pride, then Ian beside me was jogging my arm and I woke up to see the dark pouring rain and no gap in the jungle.
Another night I dreamed I was being hurried out of some camp by many of our men who were laughing and hooraying for the train that was to take us out to somewhere where we were to be freed. I looked back into the same bit of jungle behind our hut where we buried our dead, to wave goodbye to the boys who hadn't made it. Hundreds of them rose out of their graves to wave to us, they were smiling and cheering us on and shouting good on you Jock, don't forget to have a beer for us when you get home. I looked at them and found they all had smart army clothes on and brand new hats, very regimentally dressed down past their belts, from there on their trousers were torn and rotting and below their legs were just bones with no flesh. They were just standing in a mire of shit and swamp.
These dreams really rocked me for days after. I sort of walked round in a daze and I think I worried my mates. I think the Pellagra came on after this episode.
The last dream of that period was in some railway station in London or somewhere. Our boys were being entrained to go home to wherever we lived and all in uniform and well fed. On the journey through the beautiful countryside in England we pulled up at a bridge that was being built over a river and we all had to get out and work on building and digging up embankments etc and the people in charge were all Jap guards shouting and screaming at us in their own language. They were all dressed in white coats like a doctor's coat and we realised that Japan had conquered England and we were back to slave labour and rice. I was really glad to wake up after that one.
Often at night in the pitch black, I would hear music, sung by a girls' choir of really beautiful songs of praise and I knew the words and would follow the music in mime and feel really uplifted and happy. These songs would go on and on for what seemed hours, the same song all the time, something like Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and get louder and louder and start again and again the same song. In fact occasionally I hear them now when I feel down.
Sometimes in the wet I would go to a bit of a stream where there were lots of tiny fish and put my legs in the water. The fish would attack any rotten or pussy flesh and clean it perfectly. Our legs were always pitted with small sores threatening to become ulcers. It hurt a bit at first then you could feel the dead feeling leaving and the leg seemed to brighten up a bit.
The time came for me to be discharged from this restful camp and back to work at 105K. I got back to my old mates again; Cyril was pleased to see me and started to go crook on everything, meaning we were back to square one. The workload had increased; everything was 'speedo-speedo'. The Japs were being hammered from Tokyo and were taking it out on the prisoners and we were showing the strain. Men were thinner and getting touchy at almost nothing. They weren't many to laugh at my poor attempts to cheer them up. We often worked from dawn to well after dark, with huge log fires kept alight so we could see what we were doing.
Sometimes when we were at last taken back to camp, we had to stand in line for an hour or more holding up two working tools each high above our heads while the guards went up and down behind us and anyone not holding tools high enough for their liking got a savage thrust in the spine with their rifle butt. One guard caught me napping and drove his rifle butt right in the same place where I was badly hurt when I had fallen off a truck long ago, it hurt! Another time a guard swiped me across the face with a thin root for no reason at all and looked very pleased with himself. I had a pick raised to ready to fall on the face of the trench I was working at and his foot was straight in front of me, I brought the pick down with all my force but he moved his foot back just in time. He looked queerly at me and moved on. I was livid with rage but I had stuck the pick right to the handle in solid soil and the jar went right through my back, the same injured spot. I just couldn't move and had to be carried home that evening.
Funnily my back is pretty well alright since; only three joints have fused together not quite in line. But at ninety years young I'm still in good shape. I really must have an angel looking after me, God bless her, whoever she is, and even my doctor now calls me Happy Go lucky Jack.
The rains had passed and the line was joined at Three Pagodas Pass, or somewhere near that, and we were on the move again. This I think was the place I lost my mate Cyril and he got moved on somewhere else and I didn't catch up with him again till a reunion in Melbourne at the end of the war in 1946. The train came puffing importantly through and picked us up to go to Non Pladuk in Thailand.
Believe me we would have far rather walked; we had built that line and didn't realise that any day we would have to travel on it. The sly tricks we had used to get our quota done were now on our conscience. Never mind we got to our camp in one piece.
It was a staging camp and we stayed a few weeks. We had all along been recounted and put in different Kumis, much to my disgust. I lost a lot of mates. We ended up on the river camp of Tamakan where we were sent to recover from the rail work. It had a beautiful river by the camp and we were allowed to swim each day and wash everything properly (if only one could get some soap!).
I caught up with a lot of our mates there, survivors of three years of hell. The camp was just off the bridge which the Yanks bombed and ruined. It was later repaired to some extent by our soldiers; we had nothing to do with it. We had a big Italian sergeant with us who made good company and he was swimming away in the nude, as were we all, when he leapt out of the water in a panic and tore off to the hospital hut. A small fish had bitten a piece off his doodle the size of a threepence. It must have been very painful, but we horrible bastards laughed our heads off, thought it was funny. After that everyone found something to cover their thoughts. The leggies as we called the men who had legs amputated had made crutches for themselves and were the most active among us and were thriving. We were here for some months I think. Lots of men survived and a few died, then we had to move on again.
One mate of mine from 105 Field Transport, Ernie New, was so poorly he just lay on his back all day and gazed into the roof. He looked like a huge head stuck on a skeleton; he had bed sores and was near death.
When we moved out I thought I'll never see him again, but years later I met him in Mornington, Victoria and he was married with a dear little girl and he was as fat as a pig. My old mate David Quick faded away too and he got enormous back in Melbourne. I believe over sixty percent of the leggies survived and got home and made good. Thanks to our doctors and the remarkable skill of Colonel Coates.
Some of us were put on a train in Bangkok to go to Cambodia, the capital a place called Phnom Penh. The train was filled to capacity, we were in salt wagons with a high roof and a strong steel door with not much air coming in, and it was designed to keep the salt dry. There was not much room to move around and the floor had not been swept, the salt stuck in your bum, sitting on it, most uncomfortable.
The journey through thick jungle took about three days and water was non existent. I had filled my bottle really full and was using it very sparingly when, on jumping down off the high wagon, my water bottle bumped on the floor of the wagon and burst its seams and life giving water poured out on to the hungry ground, where it spread into small globules and disappeared into the cracks in the earth like mercury running on a flat surface. I was in trouble everyone was saving water very carefully I couldn't ask for some.
We pulled into a station after about three days and there was a tap on the station but trying to get to it was a major problem, as we weren't first off the train. I eventually got a drink but had no bottle to fill. Things were going to get difficult; we were told in training that the water bottle was the last thing you threw out. Then we were equipped with water bottles to go overseas that were World War I Issue, steel bottles covered in blue porcelain glaze, which had all cracked off around the bottom and would obviously not last long. The cork was rotten and the thin iron screw which retained the cork was rusted through. This was our issue to be valued in emergency, enough said, I could expand on this for hours and get really heated.
We were marched through the town and put on a river steamer to go south to Saigon. This place was very different to any place I've seen; the buildings were really oriental and all on one side of the river. The other side seemed to be dense jungle but we were raced through so fast that I didn't really see much. The boat held all of us off the train and made its way steadily down river.
Having no water bottle and strict instructions not to drink out of the river I had to wait till dark to dip my dixie over the side to get a drink, and believe me I really had a long beautiful drink. We were a few days on the boat, quite a pleasant trip, just lying about looking at the trees, animals and birds. I always have been a nature lover.
When we got to Saigon we marched to the dock area where there were proper barracks with roofs and big sleeping platforms on two levels, all very regimental. A big guard room at the gate and high walls so you couldn't have a view out. Also there were taps with water and cookhouses, possibly to hold two thousand troops. We were back in a restricted civilisation again, we were all divided up into new Kumis and I lost the last of my few mates and was left on my own.
I was put in an English Kumi with a very weird collection of Englishmen, who were not at all friendly, in fact downright hostile. The few Aussies were right down the other end of the barracks and the Yanks in between. I was in real trouble!!!
There's one great need in prison camp, which is to have a mate. I had been spoilt the last two and a half years with many mates all around to help get through any crisis that came up, now I seemed to be the pariah in the camp. This was the worst year of my life by miles. So I will not expand too much on the subject as I still feel very badly bringing the unpleasant things up and sleep badly at night as a consequence. I will just comment on a few incidences of my acute discomfort and hatred for my surrounding. There were a few good things I acquired here. One was a good friend, Ginger, who was only a boy really, he had put his age up to get in, and a few others that realising my difficulties came to my aid at any sign of real trouble. But there still was a sense of hatred and bullying in our hut that lived with me day and night and the fear in some of the quieter boys was very obvious to all. The camp was run by gangs of ruffians who would stop at nothing.
We spent our days and half our nights loading ships to go to Japan. We were right on the docks and had only to cross the street to be at work. Loading rice was the main job, the rice sacks in Saigon were one hundred kilograms, two hundred and twenty pounds and we were in bad shape after the railway work.
Four men lifted each bag up for one man to get it on his back and totter away with it to the ship, up a steep gang plank, which rocked up and down with each step and if you got out of step with the swing, the load would nearly double in weight. At the top we just tossed it into the hold and the blokes down there would stack it. This was far over the strength of many of the men; it nearly killed some of them, including me. Then on other days we hefted boxes of horse shoes which were much heavier than they looked. There was also furniture to move, what they wanted that junk for I couldn't imagine, and thousands of clothes hoists and hat stands. These took up a huge space; it seemed funny to need them in Japan!
The night shifts were the worst, after a long day we were put on the job again for three to four hours at night, all 'speedo-speedo'! At one time we had to upload petrol, forty four gallon drums, which had been under fire from our fighter planes. The barge was knee deep in petrol and we had to wade in and pass the drums up to deck height. The fumes mad us really stupid, like being well and truly drunk. Our feet suffered from this for weeks afterwards.
Another time fifty of us were put into the huge oil tanks at the oil depot, there was only two manholes to get in, one each side of the tank. We got in one at a time, ducking low to scrape in; we had a broom or a bucket and a pan to put the sludge in the bucket. It really was a bastard of a job, no air and the heat was overpowering.
Well the bloody Yank air force decided that was the day they would bomb the oil depot. The Jap guards immediately closed and locked both manholes, leaving us no ventilation and in complete darkness while the bombs dropped. The noise inside the tank was terrific. When they let us out we were absolutely flattened with fear and noise and gasping for breath. The Yanks had missed and all the bombs had fallen two hundred yards off target. The next day we were on another job miles away, the Yanks came back and blew nearly all the tanks to pieces and set the depot alight. You really can be lucky sometimes.
Back in camp the atmosphere was as black as usual, gangs huddled together planning some treachery. Their main prank was to set up spies to watch where little caches of spare clothes or anything that could be sold was hidden under our beds, and then when we were out they would steal this stuff and sell it through a hole in the fence to the Anam's outside and get money or tucker for it. They were quite blatant about this as they would eat or count money quite openly, knowing no one would dare to dob them in. There was no one in charge only the Japs to complain to!
One day a mate of mine complained he had been robbed of an old pair of shorts and a shirt, which were real riches at that time. A word was passed in my ear that this was in a bucket in the yard where the culprit was having his hair cut, sitting near and watching that no one touched it. Well, I just hated myself for this and knew it meant trouble for sure if I acted on this story. I just couldn't stop myself; I posted three sergeants at strategic positions over looking the bucket. I took the owner of the lost property up with me and overturned the bucket on the ground. The whole yard got electric this sort of thing wasn't done, not to this particularly bad bastard anyway, his gang was around him and no one moved. I asked Nugget are these your clothes and he said yes, so I said take them and disappear. He ran for his life. I really paid for this over the next months.
It got so bad at night that a dark friend of mine from India, Len and a New Foundland fisher man, Stan, a man of great strength came over and camped one on either side of me, so I got a bit of sleep. Like I said I'd rather have gone back to work on the railway. That's the worst of this story over for me.
One day we were just lining up for the docks when the air raid siren went and almost immediately the sky was buzzing with Yank Grummans which carried three bombs and stacks of machine gun fire power. We were hurried out of camp to some slit trenches just outside and were left without guards, they must have been near. This bombardment and strafing went on all day till they went home after dusk.
It was the most heart cheering day ever, we didn't get hit, but everything else did, it was magnificent the way they just played round in the air all day. There were never less than three lots of seven planes in the air at any time. Once or twice I noticed a stricken plane floating aimlessly in the air, engine probably two miles in front of it and ploughed into the deck, they looked like little falling leaves, I didn't see any parachutes floating down. What a day of relief to know we had friends coming across soon to release us.
I feel so relieved on having written this last chapter. I was afraid I would never get it written, that's what took me so long to get this finished. Now, I'm past the worst I feel much freer to write on. You won't believe it but these stories have haunted me for the last sixty years and now I have written it down I feel a heavy load has been taken off my shoulders and I can breath freely again. Someone just had to know.
At last I got a break, a team had been picked out to go to build an airfield at Phumi, south near Cape St Jacques, myself, Ginger and Harry was in it.
It took a couple of days or more to get there in a sampan along the river. It was a new camp and we settled in, work started the next day; these Japs don't like wasting time.
I had a few new mates now and was feeling happy again. There was Ginger, very young and very English and a very staunch friend. Then there was Harry who was older and more staid, he looked, acted and spoke just like Captain Mainwairing in the British show 'Dad's Army', can't imagine him in the army. Ginger had no hat so I made him one from a rice sack and latex from the rubber trees. We were camped right in a rubber plantation; I also made him a pipe, although we had no tobacco, he was really pleased with that and smoked with nothing in it all day, this was because I always smoked a pipe.
The work was breaking rock to put on a flat field so the planes could take off easily. It was very hot with no shade but we got home in the daylight every day, so we had some light to clean up and search our beds for bed bugs and lice which had followed us here. There was no night work and 'speedo-speedo' that we had become used to. The Japs were more lenient and kept out of our way if the work progressed alright.
Life went on quietly for a few months then one morning there was no work outside the camp, we had to dig trenches in the camp area and erect high bamboo walls around us. Three trenches we dug in our confined space, they were three metres deep, three metres wide by one hundred metres long. When a gun pit was built at the end of each trench we got the message, these were to be our graves, one thousand men to each one hundred metres of trench. We were even measured for them and there were just three thousand men in the camp.
They kept us digging all day and almost all night for three months till they were nearly finished. We were in such a state of tiredness we couldn't have cared what was going to happen. Men were just falling asleep in the trench with the shovel still in their hand, until a guard would poke them awake with his rifle. It was mind boggling, hardly anyone spoke, and when rice arrived some were too tired to line up for their rations.
One morning we were all lying in the bottom of the trenches when we were brought out for rice and then marched down to the river, put on sampans and taken down river to Saigon. We slept all the way down for three days or so.
In Saigon we were rushed to a French Army barracks near the city with high brick walls and wire and pits outside to stop any escape. Everyone just fell asleep where they were, lots of gear was left behind in the rush. I still had my dixie for rice, a spoon and my pipe in case any baccy turned up and the tattered remains of a pair of shorts. That comprised my entire possessions. We were given extra rice and some soup with it. No work, just lying about wondering what was next.
One evening while it was still light I climbed up the water tower to have a look around. The tank had a top on it so I stretched out well away from the edge so I wouldn't be seen and snoozed off. There was a commotion from below, a bloke had got over the wall and made a dash for safety, and the guards from three sides fanned out and brought him around to the gate which was the other side of the camp. I nearly went off to sleep again until it struck me the guards were round the front, my side was not guarded.
I don't know how I got the strength but I was down from the tank and over the wall before anyone saw anything. Then I hit the wire, which I hadn't reckoned on and fell down in the scrub. On coming too, I saw the wire above me and the guards back in position, it was dark. No one seemed to be looking my way and the tufts of grass and weeds were high enough if I crawled on my belly. It took ages to reach the Kampong and then a bloody dog came out and barked at me, but no one noticed. I quietly got to my feet and wandered off through the huts, I only had a bag tied around my waist and my pannikin and looked very dirty and black. I made a good few miles and headed right into the outskirts of Saigon, when they look for prisoners they spread out in the bush. I came along a hedge of a good looking house and there were lights on in the veranda so I popped my head up. There were tense moments before they realised I was a white man; they took me in and gave me a drink, then a hot bath with a whole cake of scented soap. Some while later shorts, shirt and sandals appeared for me and one of the men cut my hair and I had a shave. I had a feed then we sat back on the veranda to get acquainted, the old lady from next door came in with a bottle of Scotch she had been saving for a special occasion. I was a Frenchman now.
The next few weeks were very exciting, I lived with the Carlier's and Carpentier's at 26 Rue Miche in Saigon and spoke English with a French accent and got away with many escapades, including joining the remnants of the Battalion Tiraleurs Cambodie unit and hoisting the Tricolour in some barracks. The Nips were being pressed with air attacks and everything was going well.
Then the Japs armed the Anams (now Vietnamese) and they started firing on the French and things got to be a bit out of hand. This wasn't to be about the war so I thought I'd move on, I decided to try and get back home, I had no unit to find at this stage as some had been sent to Singapore and then some to Japan to work in the mines.
I got back to Saigon aerodrome and it was full of British planes and lads, no one wanted me or could help. At last I got a kite going to Bangkok that was some of the way. On Bangkok aerodrome I was sitting on a fence wondering how to get some money and tucker when my 2 CO, Ken passed and called out "Hello, Jock". He was on his way to Singapore, what a break! In Singapore I met up with many survivors from our Squadron and after about a month we were shipped to Australia on the Highland Chieftain. It was a very slow trip taking about six weeks. We stopped at Thursday Island, Brisbane and then Sydney. There was a tumultuous welcome home.
This ends my story of my war service and of my sojourn in prison camps which lasted for one thousand two hundred and fifty five days and nights, or three and a half years of hell. I don't look back often now, and the bad dreams were forgotten years ago. That may be why they call me Happy Jack.
Story typed by Mrs Andrea Jackson. A wonderful job!
Jock Bingham hopes you have found his story interesting. If you did, he asks that you consider making a donation to "Legacy" or some similar charity. That will be his reward.
From left - Jack Thorpe (Three Springs Western Australia) formerly Sgt 105 General Transport Company, Mrs Win Gherardin (Melbourne), daughter of Lt Col (Later Sir) Albert Coates, and the author J.H. (Jock) Bingham (Hervey Bay,Queensland) RAAF – Picture taken at Ballarat, Victoria 6 February 2003