Four members of the Sinclair family were held in captivity: Douglas who was a Tin Miner / Dredgeman with the Malayan Tin Dredging company of Batu Gajah in Perak and who died on 16.4.45  at Belalau. His wife Alice (Tower) Sinclair, aged 39 in 1942, and their children: Joan E. aged 17 & Ian aged 8 in 1942.
The following recollection by Joan of what happened to the Sinclair family on their escape from Malaya and Singapore and subsequent capture by the Japanese appeared in the Australian Women’s Weekly, 12th November, 1969.
Girlhood in a Prisoner-of-War Camp.
Joan Sinclair was 17 when she fled with her parents and brother, Ian, from their home in Malaya, leaving behind most of their possessions, It was 1941, and Japanese soldiers were coming closer.
It was the start of four years of terror, near-starvation, and sadness for the pretty, young English girl and her family. Today, Joan Sinclair is Mrs. Bruce McIntyre, housewife and mother, living in Ashfield, a Perth suburb. Here she tells of the years of privation when she was a prisoner of war.
We lived in the big white house at the top of the hill, in a small town in Malaya, 380 miles from Singapore. It was December, 1941, and the Japanese were marching closer every minute.
Most of our neighbors had evacuated. But we remained, blacking our windows and during the Jap raids crouching in the rubber estate which was the bottom half of our garden.
On December 21, my uncle came to see if we had left. He told us the Japs were only 25 miles away and advised us to leave at once and go to Singapore.
We started to pack a few things into our car. It was hard to decide what were the most important things to take. We realised we might never see our home again (indeed, we never did – natives came in after we had left and looted everything)
It was now 4 a.m. At last we were ready. We knelt and my parents prayed that God would take us safely to Singapore. We could hear the hear planes flying across the sky and the bombs being dropped on some nearby town.
With a last tearful glance around our home we got into the car and drove down the driveway. At the time, my brother Ian, was seven years old and I was 17. We had spent happy times in that dear old house, its big rambling garden, its fruit trees, beds of bright colored flowers so careful tended by Sarmy, the gardener.
We drove slowly at first, taking long looks back, then faster into the inky blackness of the early hours before dawn. Several times on our journey we had to pull into rubber estates by the road-sides to get out of view from the Jap planes that were flying low and keeping a lookout for cars.
At noon we stopped to eat our lunch under a shady tree, washing our faces and hands in a sparkling bubbling brook. We started off again on the long road to Singapore. The sun was beginning to go down when we arrived, hot and dusty, at Kuala Lumpur.
We stayed the night and left the next morning after breakfast. Arriving in Singapore at 5 p.m., we went straight to some friends of ours. They wouldn’t hear of our leaving and made us most comfortable during our two month stay in Singapore. They were wonderful Gospel folk and we spent many happy hours singing choruses in the air-raid shelter. The bombs crashed all around us, guns fired across us, but mercifully we were not harmed.
It was now February 10, and as the bombing was getting worse and boats and ships were sailing daily we decided to leave Singapore. We said goodbye to our friends and moved into a hotel in town, so as to be nearer the docks.
Every few minutes drones of planes would fly over and drop their bombs. Dust and rubble was everywhere. People lay either dead or dying in the streets; lost children were crying. Some were pulling away at the rubble under which a loved one or some precious possession lay.
We had just eaten a snack for lunch when the siren wailed again, and everyone ran for shelter, some throwing themselves down on the floor.
We squeezed into a tiny shelter under the stairs of the hotel. Bombs were dropping all around,, and the building shook. At last the all clear sounded. There was fighting in the streets – the Japs were only a few streets away.
We managed to get a lift to the docks in a military truck. On the way there was another air-raid; we pulled into a lane and took shelter. When we reached the docks we stood in the long queue waiting to embark on one of the ships.
The Vyner Brook was taking in her passengers and we watched the people throng up the gangway. We held back. (The Vyner Brook sailed out, only to burst into flames the next night.)
We wondered when our turn would come. We were way down the queue. The next boat filled. Still we stood and waited. (She, too, went down, we heard later.) At last a launch pulled alongside the docks and it was our turn to go aboard and be taken out to the Giang Bee. Before we could reach the ship Jap planes flew over us and dropped a load of bombs. None touched us, and we reached our ship safely. My father knew the ship well, for he had once worked aboard her as chief engineer.
It was getting dark as the Giang Bee slid out of the harbor. The city was ablaze with fires and bombs were still falling. The heat was great and we spent a restless night. The ship was packed with about 350 people. Dawn was breaking and we began to feel the pinch of hunger. The last meal we had was the snack lunch at the hotel.
There were about six tiny cabins which opened out on to the dining saloon. Some folk slept, or tried to, on the long dining table, curled up in the chairs, or lay about on the deck using their lifebelts for pillows. Planes had been flying over all night and we could still hear the bombings in the distance.
No milk for crying babies
Babies were crying and there was no milk for them. Their poor, distracted mothers tried in vain to quieten them. The sun was shining now and people began to stir. At about 9 am. we were raided by Jap planes which tried in vain to get us. Our captain zigzagged in and out, of course.
During one of the raids three people were killed, including a young lad, who only a few minutes past had gaily chatted with me. He was a pleasant lad of about 19 years. He spoke of his home in England, and how his family had sent Christmas letters. He seemed so young to be taking part in this dreadful war. His fair hair glinted in the sun, his blue eyes sparkled with fun, and he was to die so soon.
All day we were bombed at intervals. At noon the native crew, too scared to carry on their various jobs, stopped working. Volunteers were asked for. Several of the men among the passengers volunteered, including my father.
The planes still kept coming. All the cabins had bullet – holes through the metal walls except ours, which was quite untouched. We knelt by our bunks and thanked God for protecting us.
Many people were praying. Some were crying and in between it all children played. To them it was a great adventure, for in their little minds they could not conjure up the awfulness of it all.
At 3 p.m. we were given some dry ship biscuits and slices of corned beef. At dusk the Giang Bee was signalled to stop by a battleship. We were soon surrounded by seven battleships, which circled us slowly for what seemed hours. We signalled that there were women and children aboard and that if spared we would proceed under orders.
Order came to abandon ship
The Japs agreed. A lifeboat was lowered from one of the battleships. It had almost reached us when two Dutch bombers appeared. They attacked the battle ships but missed. The lifeboat returned to the ship. Soon came the signal giving us 30 minutes to abandon ship.
The men prepared the lifeboats for lowering and the order was “Women and children only.” We kissed Dad goodbye and he said he would follow on one of the rafts. My mother, brother, and I stood in a long queue of women and children waiting our turn to get into a lifeboat.
We watched others, mostly children, get into a boat beside us. As it was being lowered, the davit-rope broke and the stern end of the boat dropped, sending all the little ones into the dark angry ocean.
We held on tightly and so were not separated as many families were, never to see each other again.
People shoved and push all around us. Babies and children were crying. Someone in the darkness bit my arm and pulled my hair. We held grimly on, arms locked around each other’s waists.
At last it was our turn to get into the lifeboat. In our boat, much to our surprise, were several men. We shouted to Dad, who was looking over the ship’s side, and he slid down the rope and joined us – just in time, too, for the Jap battleships turned their searchlights full on us.
We had 22 more aboard than we should have had. I shall never forget the cries of the children in the dark waters around us, the tension and awfulness of those dreadful moments as the men took up the oars and slowly pulled away from the ship’s side. The searchlights were still on us. Would we, in the next few moments, be fired on?
But the sounds of the night were broken only by women and children as they swept past us, carried by the currents, trying to find some small piece of wreckage to cling to. The searchlights continued to sweep over us, lighting up the pitiful faces bobbing in the black waters of that deep ocean. We were powerless to help, as even now water was coming in over the sides of our boat. Several men clung on to the sides.
We could not sacrifice the lives of any aboard, especially as we had several children, including a baby of three months, and a badly wounded lady who had shrapnel wounds in her back. The men hanging on pleaded with us to pull them aboard. “Not a chance,” someone shouted. “We can’t take any more.” First one man relinquished his hold and was soon carried away, never to be seen again. All but one followed. He clung on and repeatedly begged us to take pity on him. He said that he could no longer hold on, his strength had gone. At last one of the men bent down and hauled the old man aboard. Some folk took off their jackets and wrapped them around him. It was bitterly cold, and there was a fierce wind coming up and the sea was getting rougher every moment.
We slipped past the battleships into the darkness of the night. We sang some well known hymns, and everyone joined in. The little boat pitched and tossed in the open sea, and it was not long before we all felt violently seasick. As I was sitting on the bottom of the boat, I was soon covered in vomit, but I was too numb and frozen to care.
Dawn came, and we were all pale faced, cold, and sick. The young mother of the tiny baby sat huddled, clutching her baby to her for warmth. It was crying feebly. The only sanitary arrangement was a fire bucket, which was passed around. The men kindly looked away. They could not even turn around, as we were packed like sardines.
We had a barrel of water aboard and as we did not know how long we were to be at sea it had to be rationed. An old lady sitting beside me had a small jar of face cream in her handbag. She washed it out in sea water and this jar, dipped into our water tank, was to be our daily ration, three times a day. The wounds of the injured lady had to be dressed. Dad took off his white shirt and tore it into strips to be used as bandages. She lay motionless, groaning quietly.
We were in our lifeboat for two days and two nights. On our second night at sea we saw the blinking lights of a lighthouse in the far distance and tried to make for it. We had no compass. The big waves carried us out and far away from the lighthouse and we could no longer see its beam. We could now hear heavy naval guns in the distance and the sky was lit up. We could see the outline of another ship burning. Praise God we weren’t on that ship.
Morning came. The tropical sun burned downward on us and soon we resembled lobsters. We longed for a cool drink. Jap planes flew low and we prayed that they would not see us. At last we sighted land and by noon landed on a strip of sandy beach. The men pulled the boat up the beach and hid it under the bushes.
Our party of 56 split up and some went to investigate and look for water. There was no fresh water, only a little pond covered with slimy green moss. We threw ourselves down and each took a long drink, pushing away the moss and weeds. A fire was lit on the beach and we had our first meal. It consisted of two tins of condensed milk (so old it had to be dug out with a penknife), dry ship biscuits, and water, cooked to a wonderful mash. While it was cooking we collected coconut shells and large seashells to be used as spoons and plates.
I admit when I look back and think of that meal I shudder. But then it was a feast – wood smoke and all. That night we slept on the long soft grass. We were still too weak and sunburned to talk much and were soon asleep, gently fanned by a warm sea breeze. The men slept in a circle around the women and children.
Morning – and hunger pangs
Dawn came. We awoke, stiff from lying on the hard ground, and the keen, salty morning air brought on pangs of hunger. Once again, the fire was lit and the kerosene tin was filled with milk, water, and biscuits. We spent the day gathering twigs and exploring. We walked out on to the sandbanks at low tide to look for fish that might have been left behind by the last tide. Had we a net the men could have gone fishing, although, probably, they would not have dared risk being seen by the Jap planes that frequently flew over the island.
All night we could hear the muffled sound of naval guns not too far away. We wondered how long it would be before we would be discovered by the Japs, and we discussed various possible routes we could take to get away from the island. The men were afraid of being spotted and this, with our already dwindling food supply and water, which would not last should we be at sea for a number of days, kept the people from venturing out in the boat again. Night came at last, and it was a tired little party that curled up to sleep under the stars.
This time we slept on the beach under the coconut palms. Some who had got over the worst of their sun-burn lay on their backs, arms under heads, and gazed up at the velvet sky, studded with stars, no doubt dreaming of home, a comfortable bed, and, above all, a good square meal.
On our third morning on the island a group of natives, all armed with parangs (a long knife 1½ to 3ft. long, with a wooden handle) came upon us. They asked a lot of questions in Malay, then drew aside and spoke among themselves.
How fierce they looked, their brown, shining bodies glistening in the sun. They wore brightly colored sarongs and head-cloths. At last they returned with beaming faces. Their plan was that we should go with them across to the other side of the island to a tiny fishing village. There we could get another boat and men etc guide us upstream – a journey that would take us about six hours-to a village where we could get food and shelter.
Stretcher for wounded lady
The offer sounded good and we agreed to go with them. (Later we heard that two lifeboats of men and women had landed on the beach that we had slept on and the Japs shot and killed all of them.)
Our menfolk made stretcher out of the lifeboat sail to carry the wounded lady and off we started. Most of us had lost our shoes in the scramble on the ships and stones and thorns hurt our feet. We each carried something from the lifeboat.
Led by our native guides who were accustomed to walking barefoot, we almost ran up hill and down dale, over rocks and rotting tree stumps. The walk was long and hot, and it took us through dense jungle. How our feet ached!
After what seemed hours we reached the tiny village. The headman was there to greet us, and he made us sit while he sent a lad pick coconuts.
With one swift chop the old man cut the top, off the coconuts and handed one to each of us. He told us that we would have to wait a day or two till he could arrange a boat and guides
The women and children of our party were given a bamboo hut to sleep in, while our men had to sleep in another hut some distance away. Our hut, quite a large one, stood on four poles about 10ft. off the ground. The floor was made of beaten bamboo and while lying on it you could see the ground below through the cracks. We had a dip in a little river (with all our clothes on) to freshen up.
The natives gave us tapioca, coconut, and vegetables, and the ladies soon cooked it. We were not very comfortable in this little village. The young men carrying little oil lamps would walk through the hut in the middle of the night just to have a look at the strangers. We saw very few women. It seemed to be a man’s village.
On our second morning there, we were told that a boat would be ready the following day at dawn. That night we slept on the beach. At last dawn came. We got up and stamped around to keep warm. All we had on were light cottons. Dad had no shirt.
In the dimly lit dawn, the splashing of oars could be heard as our lifeboat and two native fishing boats came into view. We piled in and started off.
It was getting brighter now and we were able to look at our surroundings. The guide boats kept ahead, slowly, steadily guiding us around the many bends of the river. There was dense jungle on either side. The air was cool and fresh, but as the day wore on it grew hot and sticky.
Deeper, deeper we went, each bend taking us away from civilisation. We reached our destination about 1 p.m. It was a tiny village on the banks of the river called Djbous.
[The ‘tiny village’ that Joan refers to in her article is Djeboes which is now known as Jebus.]
The whole population was on the banks to greet us – from grandpapa to babies in their mothers’ arms or slung across the hips of tiny girls.
Frightened of white people
Some of the children ran screaming – for they hadn’t seen white people before, and we must have looked sights with our faces burnt bright scarlet. Our one-time fresh clothing hung on us like limp rags.
We scrambled on to the small wooden landing stage. Fresh guides were to lead us on our long walk. We started off followed by barking mongrel dogs, quacking ducks, mangy cats, naked children, and several young men who made every excuse to brush against us.
All along the stony road little houses were dotted, housing the Chinese population. They were most kind to us, bringing out cakes for the children and cool water for us.
Footsore and weary we at last arrived and were shown to a low stone bungalow with a roof made of palm leaves. There was not a stick of furniture in it.
Pooled our watches, rings
The headman proudly handed us knives, forks, and spoons. The elders gathered together and had a meeting, and as we had no money suitable we pooled our watches, rings, fountain pens, etc.
These we traded with the natives for rice, salted fish, pineapples, bananas, and coconut, and soon a meal was cooking in the crude open kitchen.
The only bathroom was a small wall round a deep well. The toilet was a small room with a deep hole dug into the ground around which flies swarmed day and night. We had our first meal – fried rice with fish and eggs, – and it tasted good. After, some of the folk went down to the river for a dip. We stayed in and had a bath by the well. The Chinese people brought us soap, clothes, and wooden clogs for our sore, aching feet.
We spent a few days in this stone house, natives coming and going all day long. They came to stare, walking in and out of the rooms. Some of our folk ventured out into the open village to look at the tiny shops. Then one morning it happened. The thought that had lurked at the back of our minds day and night became reality. A military truck drove up, and out stepped two stocky Japanese officials, the first we had seen.
Human beings are hard put to find the right reaction when strength is being tested. Some laugh, some sob, some become angry. We were numbed by the appearance of these sons of Nippon, and just stood still and prayed. But soon we were being shouted at in very broken English to stand in a row to be counted.
The officer said he would send a truck the next morning to take us to “Plison.” He got back into the truck and in a cloud of dust had gone as quickly as he had come. Next day we were up at the crack of dawn and cooked a meal of rice and salted fish. Mid-morning an old battered bus chugged to a standstill, churning up the red dust as it did so. Out stepped a tiny bearded Japanese soldier with bow-legs. He counted us, looked at his little book, and seemed satisfied. He told us to get in.
All the natives gathered around to bid us farewell, telling us that the Japs usually killed their prisoners or chopped off their fingers. (They did chop off fingers, but as far as we knew the unlucky ones were natives who were caught stealing.) The old bus started off with a splutter and a shudder. Off we tore down the dusty lane, scattering hens and dogs in all directions. When we got bogged in some mud, we all had to get out and push. Squelch went our feet as we trod in the mud. The driver was getting madder and madder. He raised his hands heaven-ward and screamed at us in Japanese.
“Same to you, mate!”
“Same to you, mate!” “Same to you, mate,” said the only Australian of our party under his breath. The driver screamed on, threatening to shoot us.
At last the old bus moved. We got in and started off. After what seemed like hours, the jungle thinned out on either side of the lane and houses began to appear.
White stone bungalows that once must have housed the Dutch population now stood empty and desolate.
Presently we passed through a little town. Cars began to overtake us. Now and again an army truck passed packed to overflowing with sons of Nippon, their heads shaved, their faces covered with stubbly growth, their uniforms covered with mud and dried blood from recent battles.
We stopped at the cross-roads and a young Jap soldier riding a bicycle took from his pocket a tin of rolled oats and handed it through the window to my mother. On we went, finally pulling up outside a large building. This was the Muntock Jail. Once again we were lined up and counted.
The servicemen in our party went in first to another part of the building. The rest of us were led through the big door.
We were taken to a large room where at a long table sat four Japanese officers of to Nippon Army, bristling with medals, bald heads, and long swords. We were told to stand to attention, and a guard searched us, going through pockets and handbags, and pulling off wedding rings and watches.
He stepped back and looked at us with disgust, then bowed to the officers clicked his heels, and told us to follow him. We walked down a corridor. At the end of it were bars, and pressed against them we could see a sea of faces. The guard unlocked the gates. We were surprised to see many of our friends who had left Singapore before we did.
The guard led us down some stone steps into a large hall where there were about 750 British, Dutch, and Chinese men, women, and children. They crowded around, showering us with questions. The dormitories-separate ones for the men and women – were long narrow rooms with an aisle down the centre, and sloping slab-like platforms on either side.
Women lay shoulder to shoulder, feet toward the aisle in a sloping position. Thank God there was no space for us. We didn’t fancy sleeping all night in that position. We went back to the big open hall which had only a roof and no walls and found a vacant space. Mum, Dad, my brother, and I sat together.
Men, women, and children were spread out all over the floor and we all slept like sardines that night. The bathrooms consisted of a small room containing a large water tank into which you dipped a can and poured the water over you.
There were no doors on the bathroom or the toilets, which were little cubicles built over a long shallow drain that was flushed at intervals.
The soldiers thought it good fun to stand and watch the women taking their baths, but we soon stopped that by setting up a watch party and hopping in quickly for a bath when the guard had done his rounds. We had neither soap nor towels.
Meals were served twice in the large open hall. In the early morning a man would carry in a bucket of very weak tea with no sugar or milk. The women would swarm around him to get a mugful of this awful tea that smelled of wood smoke. If you were able to get near enough you got your mugful, if not, you went without a drink.
At noon, a huge can of boiled water would be placed in the center of the hall so that drinking-water bottles could be filled. We had an old army tin bottle, that served as a pillow and later a hot-water bottle when we were ill.
We had nothing to do all day but sit and talk. It was here in this hall that I met Margaret [Van Geyzel], later to become my best friend. She was a slim slip of a girl. Her husband was somewhere in Malaya and she had three little girls and a baby on the way. My heart went out to her, yet she managed her little brood wonderfully.
Daily at noon the kitchen workers would bring in large pans of boiled rice and place them on the two long wooden forms at the end of the hall. One table was for the women and children, and the other for the men. As soon as the whistle was blown we would form two very long queues and wait our turn to receive one small bowl of plain boiled rice. With it you could have one teaspoon of sugar or a sprinkle of salt and pepper. The rice was the un- polished red kind that we used to feed our chickens back home. It was full of husks and abounded in weevils.
One day two Jap guards carried in a huge basket of greens that the Chinese folk outside had sent for a gift. We cheered ourselves hoarse. The guards were not pleased with our cheering and carried away the greens. We never saw them again.
Another day. Nothing to do but sit and talk or walk up and down, though it was a bit too crowded for this. A sailor died. Dad, who had no shoes, was given the dead man’s boots and they fitted him.
The guards, on the whole, were kind to the children, who had no fear of them. Toward us, they seemed to possess the personality of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They could be beasts or gentlemen with equal naturalness. Sewing-needles were in great demand and the owners lent them out. Many a garment was fashioned out of sailors’ trousers or sarongs. Some tried their hands at making wide-brimmed hats our of their sleeping mats (if they were lucky enough to have one). Thread for sewing was drawn from odd pieces of doth brought in by the Dutch women prisoners.
One morning we were told that all the men were going to be sent to a camp for men. The wives asked to be allowed to go with their husbands. After a lot of talking the Japanese agreed to move the married women, children, and old folk, but said they had not a boat large enough and that the men would have to go first. After our evening meal all the men left, each taking with him two cups of boiled rice and a container of water. We did not know where they were going, only that they were going by ship.
Wives sobbed as they kissed their husbands goodbye. The great door was opened and the men marched out. . We rushed to the bars and peered through. Soon they were all gone; the great door was clanged shut.
We were alone now – women, children, and old folk. What was going to happen? We settled down for the night, and the guards, as usual, clomped in, shining their torches on our faces.
We settled down for the night. The guards as usual clumped in and out, dodging the sleeping children and women spread all over the floor, shining their torches on someone who had turned over in her sleep. At about 4 a.m. the great doors clanged open and the lights were turned on. We were surprised to see British, Dutch, and Australian servicemen being marched in. There must have been well over 100. We were not able to speak to them for long, as we were told to collect our rice ration and drinking water and be ready to leave at 6 a.m.
Soon the great gates swung open and the guards were leading us out. All the single women were left behind. I was lucky. I was able to go with my mother because I was only 17. Girls with no relatives had to stay behind. Later we heard of the terrible time the “left behinds” had. We followed the guard through the building and down the front steps into the yard. Here we were told to stand in a double row to be counted. Then off we started, following our guard out on to the main road.
In the pale grey dawn, we walked through sleeping villages, past bombed buildings where debris lay scattered all around, and across the road, up and down hills we trudged to the docks. The morning air was cold. This time we had wooden clogs on our feet, for which we were thankful. The road turned sharply and we could see the docks and the dim outline of shadowy figures of the sailors running to and fro on the deck of a ship.
The sun came shining through the sky as the last of our party went aboard. Before long the anchor was pulled up and slowly we chugged away on our 54-mile journey up the crocodile infested Moesi River to Palembang, in Sumatra.
Our trip upriver took ten hours. We had no seats, but sat on the deck side by side like sardines. There was only one toilet on board, used by the officers, guards, ship crew, and prisoners. The queue outside its door was endless. Noon came. We ate our rice ration. On the Captain’s deck overlooking us sat some Jap officers surrounded by baskets of fruit and bottles of drink.
Occasionally they would throw down a cake or banana to some child, just as one would on a visit to the zoo. Little troupes of native children came to the water’s edge to gaze at us. Some waved.
We arrived that evening, our legs stiff from sitting down – there was no room to walk about. Slowly we walked down the gangplank on to the quayside, where we were lined up and counted.
The little guard, his peaked cap pushed to the back of his head with pencil in hand, checked and re-checked. The officers exchanged greetings with more officers who had arrived to meet our boat.
Suddenly, one of the guards pointed excitedly, and there, around the bend, came a boat like ours and, much to our surprise, all the men who had left before us were aboard. We did not get a chance to speak to Dad. We were told to sit and wait. As we sat there, a guard came from one of the sheds carrying a large tin. He threw out handfuls of broken biscuits on to the ground, as one would when feeding chickens, and every- one dived to get some.
Several large Army trucks drew up and we were told to get in. As we drove away we caught a glimpse of our men standing to attention. It was getting dark as we drove along empty streets, past deserted marketplaces. At last we stopped outside a low stone building. It looked like it might have been a school. We were sorted out. Women with children in one room and women without children and old folk in the other. In the courtyard a kitchen was set up, and Dutch Army men wearing their green uniforms were cooking a meal for us.
A guard yelled at us to stand in a double line to receive our meal. When we had handed in our bowls and spoons, the guard told us to go to our rooms. We heard the rumble of heavy trucks pull up outside and in came our men. We were so glad to see Dad fit and well. We went to sleep on the cold concrete floor. It was cold that night and the mosquitoes buzzed around us. We had no pillows or covering.
Morning came at last. The guard told us to come out and collect our meal – a cup of sugarless and milk less tea and two dry biscuits. We were then marched out to the waiting trucks and driven through the town and deserted villages. We turned up a lane and stopped. Bungalows had been looted Here were several bungalows not long vacated by their Dutch owners and stripped of everything by looters. We were divided into these.
My father was the only man in our bungalow. The four of us had a tiny room next to the garage. A truck drove up loaded with rice in sacks, salt fish biscuits, and soap. A garage was turned into a store. Someone from each house had to go and collect the ration for the household each morning. The midday meal was soon underway in our house. The rice was cooked in a slow pail. We had no stove, but we made a fire between two bricks and balanced the pail on top. The salted fish was toasted on the embers,
We had some missionaries in our house. They were very sweet and we had morning and evening prayers together.
Each morning at seven we had to stand to attention outside in the garden while the guard counted us. We were not allowed to wander far and there were barriers and guards everywhere across the roads.
One day an officer came around saying that they were going to start a club for the Jap officers and that they wanted all the young girls to entertain them in the evenings.
My dad heard of this before the officer reached our house and rushed in and told me to lie down and look ill. The officer came and looked at me. I managed to look really ill and coughed continuously. He seemed convinced and strutted out muttering, “Sick-Ka.”
The women were asked to go into town to mend and sew for the troops. Each morning a truck would stop outside and the women who went returned in the evening, sometimes with small delicacies such as bread and bananas.
Early one morning we had just been counted and were filing into our house for breakfast (boiled rice sprinkled with sugar) when two Jap officers came and told us to leave everything and go down to the big field a little distance from the bungalows and beyond the barrier and wait.
Hurriedly we ate our rice and tied our scanty belongings into a small bundle. By now I had a sailor’s blouse and a skirt made from the trousers, Mum had an old dressing-gown, Dad a shirt, and my small brother an extra pair of pants. We also had one cooking pot that had been an oil container for a stove.
We waited for two hours. The sun streamed down. There were about 180 of us standing, waiting, and wondering what was going to happen. Someone said we were going to be machine gunned.
The children were beginning to get fidgety. All the while the Jap guards walked around and around, their rifles pointing at us. At last an order came. The men were told to stand in line and follow the guard. They called out, “See you later.” Soon they were around the corner and out of sight. Little did we know that for many of them this would be their last goodbye. These men were put in the local prison, where many died of beriberi and dysentery.
A car drew up beside the green, two officers got out and exchanged bows with the officers in charge of us. They spoke in low monosyllables. The officer clicked his heels and drove away in his gleaming car with its red-and white flag fluttering in the wind. Our guard motioned us to follow him. Our new homes were only a few streets away, so it was not a long walk Again we were to stay in bungalows. This time we had no men with us, but a lot of Dutch people were added to our number as well as Australian nurses. The guard walked up to the first bungalow and said, “In.” When he thought enough people had gone in he moved on to the next.
There were 13 bungalows. I got separated from Mum and my brother, but we were able to swap places. The three of us got a tiny room at the back of the bungalow, 7ft. long by 7ft. wide, but at least we were together – if a little cramped. By now it was afternoon and we had had no food since the morning bowl of rice. We approached the guard for some. He promised to see about it straight away. At dusk, a truck arrived with sacks of rice and dried salted fish. We soon collected our ration of rice and fish and looked around for some flat stones to build a fire- place. Using our pot for the rice, we soon had a meal underway. Fires were springing up all around us in the garden as people were able to collect twigs and stones. We were really hungry and the rice and fish tasted good. There were two tiles missing from the roof of our little room, and the moon-light streamed down on us. We had no bedding and the cement floor felt damp, but we were tired and were soon asleep.
It was cold that night and all the nights to follow. Sometimes it rained and we had to huddle in the comer to keep dry, our rice-pot catching the rain. Each morning we stood in line and bowed low when the guard arrived to count us. We were counted again at 5 p.m., after which babies would be washed, given a meal of boiled rice and any titbits their mothers could make out of rice and sugar, then put to bed on the hard floor. The mums would then take a stroll along the short strips of road that ran in front of the bungalows, exchanging recipes for making rice cakes. Up and down the people walked, watched by the two sentries at the barrier. Everyone had to be off the road and indoors by 9 p.m. We were glad to get to sleep after a tiring day. As I lay on the cold cement floor and gazed up through the hole in the roof to the inky sky dotted with winking stars, I longed for my home. I wanted to smell the fragrance of a rose, to stretch out and pick armfuls of flowers. I’d dream of lovely gardens It was not surprising with these thoughts so much in mind I would dream of beautiful gardens with streams and long shady paths – only to be awakened by the sound of the heavy boots of the guards as they crunched by, up and down the gravel paths.
Each morning, rations were delivered by lorry and dumped on the road. Each bungalow sent someone to fetch its rations (we all took turns with this). On the road would be marks with chalk, Nos. 1-13, and beside the number the appropriate number of green leaves or salted fish and rice. Sometimes there were a few eggs – one for each bungalow. It was an expectant little group that gathered around the pack of cards to draw the highest card, which would mean the egg. Sometimes we got the much-prized egg, which was boiled and divided into three. We ate it slowly, letting it linger on the tongue as long as possible.
An example of the rations we got for 500 people, apart from salted fish and rice, was two pumpkins, 12 small gourds, two baskets of rotten cucumbers, and one basket of spinach. The rice was full of weevils. On this diet of salted fish and rice, we all began to break out in little sores that got bigger and bigger as the days went by. Any little cut would soon tum into a sore. My legs and arms were covered with these. One of the garages was turned into a clinic, and a cunning Scots lady doctor tried in vain to get enough medical supplies. [Perhaps either Margaret Henderson Thompson or Jean M. McDowell. Both were Medical Officers in Selangor before the war].
Each morning there would be a long line of women and children hoping to be able to get something to heal their sores. After a long while those who had malaria or beri- beri were taken by open truck and sometimes by ambulance to the old Charitas Hospital, which was run by the Dutch Sisters of Charity.
There were two hospitals, the old Charitas and the new Charitas. The Japs took over the new hospital and gave the nuns a few hours to go back to their old hospital, which had been turned into a school, and they started a hospital there for prisoners. The nuns had been told that they must not take any equipment except beds. Doctors, any patients who could get about, and the nuns carried the things across. They even managed to get an operating – table past the guard. The old hospital was now to be used only for the men and women prisoners, who made full use of it for about 18 months. The nuns were able to smuggle in some drugs and surgical instruments. Servicemen, too, used the hospital and we were able to get news from the men’s camp. Mum and I spent several weeks at Charitas, having contracted the dreaded beri- beri.
There were two wards for the women. The men’s wards were some distance away, up a flight of stairs, but we shared the toilets and showers. We were not supposed to speak or even look at our men, but many a conversation went on between the wall of the toilets, which were only six feet high. Sometimes messages were sung out in some sort of popular tune. Later, guards were posted at the main entrance to the washroom and toilets along the passages, so the passing of messages became almost impossible but not quite. Notes written by the men to their wives or girlfriends in our camp were pushed through the cracks in the toilet walls. The Japs soon heard about this and we all had to be searched on leaving the hospital. The tiny notes were well hidden, sewn into the hems of ladies’ dresses and other places, and were never found.
Margaret was brought in to have her baby. She was put in our ward. I was thrilled to see her. She had a dear little baby girl. We had some great times sitting on each other’s beds and chatting of old times. A native lad used to sneak into our ward, when the guard was not looking, to collect orders for rice cakes and fried rice made by his mother. We often bought things from him. We didn’t know at the time, but Dad was brought into the hospital on the day we left. We stood to attention while the guard searched us for letters. He didn’t find them. When we returned to camp we found that others had moved into our tiny room, not expecting to see us again. We were able to get a space in a bedroom in one of the other bungalows.
At the bottom of the tin of sugar was a tiny folded note – it was a message from Dad There were several of us sharing the room, all lying side by side on the wooden floor. We were given jobs by the house captain, who saw that nobody was idle . . . rooms to be swept out, drains flushed, bathroom and toilet cleaned, rubbish collected and emptied, rations and wood to be collected for the cooking fires. Our kitchen for the three of us consisted of two bricks laid side by side. Outside in the strip of garden beside our bedroom we built a small table and seat from an old box. All around the garden, people had built little kitchens.
Our Scots doctor lived in a garage, which was also the clinic, in our garden. She had heard of my father being admitted to the hospital on the day we had left, so she managed to get Mum into the hospital again telling the Jap doctor that Mum’s eyes were needing attention. That afternoon Mum went in the truck to the hospital. He had to wait for the doctor to examine her eyes, and, as soon as the guard had gone on his march round the wards, she slipped into Dad’s ward for a couple of minutes, said a few words, and was out again just before the guard returned. Had she been caught, I hate to think what they would have done to her.
Months slipped by, Natives used to hide in the bushes behind the bungalows and sell or exchange for clothing, eggs, bananas, brown sugar, and cakes. We had no money and nothing to exchange and so weren’t able to get anything. Someone told the guard about this trading and he would walk round more often. One day an old native hid behind the trees trying to sell a few eggs. The guard saw him, made a dash at him, hitting him with his rifle butt and kicking him several times. He then ripped a length of barbed wire from the fence and tied it around the old man’s neck and marched him down to the guard-box. There, he drove a piece of wood into the ground, made the man kneel and, tying his hands behind his back and the wire around his neck to the stake, left him there in a kneeling position. We were made to stand and watch and take note. The guard then said if any of us were ever caught buying we would receive the same treatment. The poor old man was left staked to the post in that kneeling position all day. He was a ghastly sight Each time the guards were changed he was hit. His tongue was hanging right out and his eyes were bulging. The next morning he was not there. I don’t know what happened to him. I can only hope the end was quick.
It was now the middle of July and the days were getting hotter. July 27 was Mum’s 25th wedding anniversary, so we decided to have a little party. We had been putting little things aside for weeks, and doing odd jobs like chopping wood, etc., for people in exchange for a teaspoon of butter, a little sugar, or a few peanuts. We washed the rice a little uncooked rice saved from our ration-and put it out to dry on a tray in the sun, then with a bottle rolled it into rice flour. This was cooked into a thick porridge and placed into another tin and steamed. We made several of these kinds of puddings adding different flavorings – sliced banana (black-market gift) or powdered red beans. The puddings when cooled were taken out of their tins, sliced, and laid out on leaves, which substituted for dishes. At 6 p.m. our guests began to arrive, each bringing a coconut shell to drink the sugarless and milk-less tea from.
Mum received some strange gifts-two spoonfuls of butter in a tiny bottle, a small bunch of chilies, a tiny piece of soap, a spoon of powdered milk, a reel of cotton, a root of ginger, and several other gifts. We all sat around our tiny room leaning back on the wall. The food was laid out on large leaves on the floor. The main topics were food and the Americans, who we felt sure were coming up the river to rescue us. Before the war I had begun training to become a ladies’ hairdresser, but had never cut boys’ hair, so I made up my mind to try it. I advertised that I would cut hair for 25 cents (about sixpence). My first customer was Eddy, a little Dutch boy, aged about ten. I got quite a few hair-cutting jobs, and with the money I saved I was able to buy brown sugar and a few bananas now and again from the native behind the fence. The bananas had to be eaten in secret and the skins buried deep, as no one could be trusted.
There was great joy one morning when the ration lorry arrived as usual, but this time bringing gifts from the men’s camp. We gathered around our Camp Commander, a charming lady from Milwaukee (she had been with us on the lifeboat) and waited expectantly. [Gertrude Hinch]. Yes, there it was-a round Quaker Oats tin, our name printed on a piece of cloth tied to it. We were very thrilled and tears flooded our eyes. Those who did not have relatives or friends in the men’s camp looked on while the packages were opened and the joy was shared. Our little package was not opened yet but taken back to our little room. Joy, oh, joy! When we opened the tin we found it contained sugar. Mum tipped it into our cooking pot and there, right at the bottom of the tin, was a tiny folded note. The writing was small, but it told us Dad was well and that the war rumors were in our favor. Of course, we kept our news secret as we knew of the spies who were ready to report any letter received from the men’s camp. We were not allowed at any time to write or receive letters.
That evening the camp was buzzing with lots of bits and pieces of news and everyone seemed happy. The guards could not understand why we were so cheerful. After that we got other notes smuggled in. The men sent us vegetables they had grown. Notes were hidden in cabbages and sweet corn. We, in turn, sent small rice puddings and cakes baked in homemade ovens. We enclosed tiny notes in slits made in each cake. This way news was exchanged right under the ever-watchful eyes of the guard.
Ito San was one of the few good guards, and sometimes he would smuggle in a few bananas under his tunic. He spoke very little English and was very quiet and timid. He liked English songs and was often heard softly humming as he passed up and down. One day, quite suddenly, the Sons of Nippon decided to let an Indian cloth merchant come to the barrier. He brought with him samples and a price list. Soon gay summer frocks were to be seen everywhere. Children had bright new rompers and frocks. Mums looked different. All at once the whole camp took on a brighter look.
Various classes were started to help pass away the time. There were French classes, country dancing, etc. A teenage club that met twice a week at different bungalows was formed. There were plays, sing-songs, a Sunday service, and a school for the little ones.
The dry season set in and there were flies everywhere. They were so big and fat that no matter how hard you shoved them off they were relentless as ever. Most people were covered in sores. Our doctor asked for fruit, but none came. Several people had to have their heads shaved. The children never grumbled, for they could not remember any other way of life. Mothers, in their spare time, made dolls out of old garments and much-laddered stockings. My skirt made from a sailor’s trousers was getting very threadbare, and I had to sew on patch after patch of different cloth. For thread we pulled thread out of odd bits of cloth.
Christmas was approaching and permission was asked, and given, to go under the barbed wire into the woods with a guard to cut down small trees. There were lots of little bush ones. Soon most houses had Christmas trees, decorated with old scraps of paper and tiny gifts. We each received a month ration of half a jam-jar of sugar. All the women pooled their sugar rations and made fudge for the men’s camp.
The guards allowed our camp special permission to exchange gifts via a special courier on condition only the recipient’s name was on the gifts and no letters were sent. We were able to send everyman a few squares of the fudge whether or not he had relatives in our camp. The men were building a camp on the piece of ground near the last bungalow of the camp. They used to march two abreast with guards leading and ending the long line. The guards during this period were Javanese police, and the men were able to wave to us.
The distance was too great to distinguish our loved ones, but we knew them by the color the towels or shirts they used wave to us with. The signals were worked out and arranged by smuggled letters. Dad waved a bright candy-pink towel.
We surprised them by singing carols
On Christmas Eve we had arranged, as a surprise for the men, to sing some carols to them. We knew the time they would appear, and stood in our place waiting. To attract their attention we did not wave and cheer as we usually did, but just stood still.
The men paused, puzzled, no doubt, wondering what was wrong. A Dutch nun led us into “Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night,” and finished with a carol sung in Dutch by the Dutch ladies. Presently the men moved slowly on. We went back to our various camp jobs, lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes. On Boxing Day we took our places on the hill waiting to wave to the men. To our surprise and great joy they appeared around the bend in the road, all walking more slowly than they usually did, and singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and then “Silent Night.” We were thrilled and stood and listened till they were out of sight.
I contracted some sort of tropical fever and lay on my back burning with fever for days. A Japanese doctor came to see me and agreed that I was a hospital case. He looked at me lying on the stone floor, and shaking his head said, “Very sorry, very sorry”. He gave us a small bottle of malt. We were more than surprised. Such luxuries were not given by a Nippon.
Charitas was now out of bounds to us, and so a bungalow just other side of the barrier was given to us for a hospital. It was managed by the Dutch nursing sisters and a German lady doctor. I was carried there in a rough stretcher made of sacks and two poles.
I had to stand to attention while the Jap officer screamed questions at me. I held my head high, but I was very close to tears. I don’t remember even arriving at the hospital. I awoke sometime the next and found myself lying in a bed.
There were six beds in the room. All were pushed up tight against each other along the one wall. I don’t know how long I was there. No visitors were allowed to the hospital and I slept most of the time. While in hospital, the Japs sent word that our camp was to move into the new prison camp that the men had built.
We were told that the men had left the jail where they were staying and had been shipped back to Muntok
From hospital to new camp
I was moved with the hospital in a military truck while the rest of the women walked. The camp comprised a wooden building built in the shape of a square. In the centre was just bare earth. The camp covered an area of 330ft. long and half as wide. The long windowless barracks were made of planks and bamboo with mud floors and palm-thatched roofs. A barbed – wire fence surrounded the whole area and tall sentry-boxes in each of the four corners commanded views of the outer barricade and inner yard.
A veranda ran round the outside of the dormitories. There were built-in long wooden tables and forms to sit on. Our table space for the three of us was 3ft. long.
When it rained, toads used to hop along under our sleeping platforms and huge rats ran about everywhere. On wet days the mud floor turned into a duck pond.
The bathroom was a long room with a large cement tank for water. To fill it we had to draw water from the well in the yard. We stood had to hand, chain fashion, with our buckets, and soon filled the tank with the muddy water from the well which was only a very deep hole dug into clay.
Many people dropped their buckets down the well they were lost – until the Dutch offered to pay one guilder to anyone who would go down and retrieve them.
Much to my horror, Mum volunteered and accordingly was paid for each bucket she brought up.
The hospital held about 300 beds. The floor was concrete. The food in the hospital was the same as the food in the camp except for a few bananas, lemons and eggs.
A week after we had moved into the new camp I was discharged from the hospital. My mother had taken ill and as I walked out she was carried in and put straight into my bed.
Mum had been doing washing for a lady with a young baby in exchange for black-market food. I took on the job. The lady had been brought into the new camp only recently and had loads of clothes for herself and her baby.
The next morning, I started work feeling very weak after weeks in hospital. I sat down beside the well and pulled up a bucket of water. The pile of clothes seemed unending. Nappies and small garments piled up before me like a nightmare. Before I came out of hospital, Mum had found an old charcoal iron. This was cleaned up and soon we had our own little ironing service. The Dutch women prisoners, who had not been shipwrecked like most of us, had suitcases of clothes, and always wanted something ironed.
For a very small fee of one or two cents an article, I was always kept busy with piles of ironing. Together with the washing, I managed to put away enough money to buy shoes and clothes for the three of us from the Dutch ladies. Some were cutting up toilet soap that they had brought in with them and selling tiny pieces for 50 cents. Face powder, too, they sold by the teaspoonful, and butter and sugar by the spoonful.
Hostile and easily bribed
Our guards, Japanese soldiers, were much needed for the war, and were replaced by “heihos.” These were volunteer soldiers picked from the local Javanese who were members of the Nippon – recruited “People’s Army.”
Many of them were hostile to us and nearly all were susceptible to bribery. The black market thrived as never before.
Each day we had roll call at 7 a.m. and at 5 p.m. After roll call in the morning the kitchen people would blow two blasts on the whistle and two ladies from each dormitory would take the tin bath and pail to the kitchen. The bath would be filled with boiled rice and the pail with whatever there was, either boiled vegetables, stew, curry, and sometimes fish.
These would be carried back to the tables on which would be laid out rows of bowls or coconut shells for each one in the dormitory. The hungry owners would be standing by to see that they got their full share. The ration was one tea-cupful of rice and one small scoop of whatever was in the pail. The children would gather around the rice tubs to collect the grains of rice that might have got left behind.
We had to grow our own food
As food was getting short, we were told that we would have to grow our own, and were given spades to dig up the surrounding land outside the camp.
Each morning we gathered outside the guard-room to collect our spades and march out with our guard. At his given word we would all start digging together, and had to keep going till the guard blew his whistle for us to stop and rest.
We heard that a Japanese General was visiting POW camps and there was a hurry and a bustle around the camp as we prepared for his inspection. We were given branches of all sorts to stick into the ground, so that the General, when driving past slowly in his car, would see that we were not starved and had plenty of food growing. If only the General had stopped and taken a closer look he would have seen that the things we had been given to stick in were beginning to droop in the scorching heat. He drove on, well pleased with the gardens.
No sooner had he gone than we had to clear up, and if he had returned half an hour later he would have thought the locusts had visited us. Later we were given bundles of tapioca, sweet potato cuttings, and various vegetable seeds and seedlings to plant. Every morning we had to go out carrying buckets of water for our garden. We were as brown as berries now with working in the sun all day and our muscles were developing. The black market continued to flourish and all manner of foodstuffs were coming into the camp.
One day my small brother gave a heiho 50 cents to buy some cakes for him. The Jap guards came to hear of this and though we never received the cakes we were sent for and questioned in the guardroom. Mum had to go first, then my brother and, lastly, myself. I had to stand to attention while the officer ‘screamed question after question at me. I held my head high, but I was very near to tears. I had been working hard all day, and it being almost time for our evening meal I was feeling very hungry and faint. The officer sat at his desk, feet up and cap well back on his head, smoking a cigarette in a long holder, and fanning himself with his free hand. At last, after what seemed hours, he let me go back to our quarters. Praise God we were not hit or punished as so many were. They were slapped on both sides of their faces and made to stand to attention for hours in the boiling sun.
Sometimes the Military Police would pay the camp a surprise visit. When they did we had to stand outside in the yard while they searched our scanty belongings. Mum and I had copied down several recipes on scraps of paper. Different people had given them to us and we intended trying them out after the war. The police took them from us and we never got them back.
Injections with blunt needles
The Jap doctor paid us a visit and we were all given injections for blackwater fever. The needles were blunt and our arms ached. The dentist came, but only the brave ventured to the office for treatment – there were no injections for extractions.
Soon we were told that we would have to move camp as there was no food left for us. We were to return to Muntok down the Moesi River. An advance party set off and we followed in a few days. Trucks began arriving to take us to the docks. We were packed in like sardines and started off. The long trip down the river can only be described as a nightmare. It was night when we docked in Muntok Harbor. Trucks were waiting at the jetty and we were driven away into the darkness through the deserted streets. Our truck stopped with a jerk, and we had arrived.
The camp consisted of seven very long wooden barracks and had a hall open on all sides. It was set on a hill 300ft. above sea level. There were 696 prisoners, including 160 children and 83 nuns. The long dormitories had palm-thatched roofs. The grounds were huge and surrounded by a high fence. Outside of this was another high barbed-wired fence and guards walked around between the two fences.
Lights twinkled from small oil lamps in the dormitories and the folk who had gone in the advance party came out to greet us. The gates shut behind us; and we were driven in. We were tired and hungry. They had prepared a meal of rice and fish for us and a drink of tea (no sugar or milk). Our beds were long low wooden platforms. We had about 27in. bed space for each person. There were no taps in the camp, only deep wells.
The bathhouse was a big shed with a large water tank in the centre where you dipped in a can and poured the water over you. The toilets were separate little cubicles with earth floors and a deep hole in the centre. There was a hospital and a ration shed, one large kitchen each side and several small fireplaces built waist high in long rows to do any private cooking or tea making.
We spent a restless night. Morning came – we were hungry, cold, and stiff, not having any bedding or covering of any kind. The whistle blew, we queued up for a meal – boiled rice and fish. Not long after, Mum had to go to hospital. She was very ill and badly needed fruit to keep her alive, but this was so expensive. I used to make little rice cakes with my ration and take them to her. Then one morning while I was work I fainted out in the yard Someone carried me to my bed space and when I woke there was a dear little lad stroking my head. I had got malaria.
We had three doctors in the camp, and they took turns in visiting me. One was a kind Scots lady, the other kept us in fits with her dry humor, but the third, a red head, was not popular.
They brought me quinine tablets. These tablets fetched a high price on the black market. Whenever I got the chance I would pretend to swallow my tablets, and would slip them into a tiny bottle.
As soon as I was well enough to stand up and walk, I took my little bottle over to the Dutch side of the camp and managed to sell them for 50 cents each tablet.
Mum got her fruit and started to improve. Someone told the red-headed doctor. Had it been either one of the other two I know nothing would have happened.
On very very shaky legs, I walked to the other side of the block to face our Camp Commandant and the three doctors. The “red monster” said she was going to report me to the Japs who would punish me as they chose.
She had made up her and said it did not matter what the others said. Then a dear lady with a sweet, smiling face and snow-white hair, whom everyone knew and loved, stepped in at the last moment and persuaded the doctor to change her mind. I was now not to be reported but my treatment would be stopped at once, and if in the future I should fall ill I would be left to die and never again be given tablets. (I did get malaria several times after that, and dysentery, and did not receive treatment.)
Mum was well enough to come out of hospital, so I told them to keep their tablets. I still had my scissors and carried on hair cutting. Many of our friends died at this camp. Muntok was known for the high incidence of beriberi and cerebral malaria. Almost every day there was a funeral. Days passed into weeks and weeks into months. The dry season came and we had to be careful with the drinking and cooking water. We were allowed to go down to the river for a bath. The guards sat on the banks and watched. Their guns pointed at us all the while.
Christmas came and the Dutch nuns were excited. A bishop was coming from the men’s jail to say Mass for them in the church block, which was also the school and ration shed. It was the first time we had had any contact from the men’s camp after 15 months. The Bishop arrived wearing his episcopal robes and went into the church followed by officers and guards. We watched from outside. He was not allowed to talk to the women. The nuns who sang at the Mass managed to convey some information to him.
In January, the Japs allowed a few boys under 16 to come to the camp gate to talk with their mothers for a few moments. When they were 12, all the boys in our camp had to leave and join the men. It was now April. We were told we were to move camp once again and were going back to Sumatra. We got ready and moved in two lots, and again we were in the second group to leave. We climbed into the trucks and were taken down to the docks. We got out and sat around under the shady trees waiting for a motorboat to take us out to the small steamer.
During the voyage the only toilet aboard was two planks jutting out from the lower deck on which one had to balance holding on to the ship’s rails and in view of everyone. During that awful voyage three ladies died and were wrapped in blankets and dumped over the side while their little children watched.
We arrived at Palembang in the afternoon. The sun was scorching. We got on to a waiting third-class train. Windows and doors were locked when we got in and the blinds drawn. We could not see outside or be seen. The seats were wooden and hard, the floor where I sat even harder. The train was filthy. When we were shut in it was dark and airless. We pulled slowly away, halted for some hours, then started off again. At dawn I shall never forget the groans of the women around me. I had to get out of that dreadful place of dirt and smells we stopped at a small station. I managed to read the name as we got out of the train – Lubuk Linggau.
Lubuk Linggau is a tiny town in the jungle-clad foot- hills of Sumatra’s west coast. Trucks took us along a road, past rubber estates and jungle on either side for about seven miles. Then we turned into a rubber estate and followed a winding trail through the trees, and emerged into sunshine at a clearing. There was the usual guard-room and soldiers with fixed bayonets and several houses for the officers on the hill.
Those who had gone before us came out to welcome us and help us down from the high military trucks. My legs by now were so swollen by beriberi they resembled elephant’s legs. We were taken to the kitchens for hoc rice, porridge, and a mug of milkless tea. There were no water taps at all, and water for drinking, cooking, and washing had to be taken from the dirty creek and boiled before drinking.
The lavatories of the Jap soldiers were built over the creek higher up and the stream was our only bathing facility. Our men had moved before us and were in a similar camp about three kilometres away. As in Muntok, there was no way of getting to know how they were. The roofs of our buildings were galvanised iron and during the day they were like ovens. The dormitories were vermin-ridden. At night you could smell the bugs coming and we were soon covered in red spots.
In a few weeks it was as if locusts had gone through our camp. Every edible leaf or grasses was eaten by us. Those who were strong enough planted gardens. All the main cooking was done in the kitchen, but there were small private fireplaces. We had one tucked away. We were surrounded by dense jungle and the officers at times would go out and shoot wild game – pigs, monkeys, and sometimes a deer.
I got dysentery and had to be admitted to the hospital, which was more primitive than those in the other camps. I shall never forget the groans of dying women around me. I had to get well and out of this dreadful place of dirt and smells. Word was brought to me that Mum was ill. I thought of her lying in the dormitory alone and decided to pay her a visit.
My chance came after the doctor had paid us her nightly call and she had gone back to her hut. All was quiet except for a faint moan coming from a dying woman. I slipped out and tiptoed to the door glancing around me, but the others were too ill to notice in the dim light of the tiny oil lamp. It was quite a distance to the dormitories. I darted from tree to tree, straining my ears for any tiny sound. The guards often walked along the path. Voices sounded around the bend sharp staccato Japanese voices. Two guards were having a quarrel. I lay behind some bushes and kept very still, scarcely daring to breathe.
Women were not supposed to be out at night. Now I had to pass the Dutch nuns’ block. They were sitting around their long table eating their evening meal. I stood behind a tree and watched, hardly knowing what to do and, by now, feeling very weak. Getting as far away as possible from the nuns’ block and crouching low, I made it. Now there were only a few yards to go. I could see the twinkling of the tiny oil lamps in the various blocks. I glanced behind, straining my eyes and ears. Goose pimples covered my body. Down the path I had just come were two gleaming eyes. I ran, not caring if I should bump into a guard. The eyes must have been some wild animal, probably a bear, as there were quite a few around.
Mum was surprised to see me, and we whispered quietly to each other. After about an hour I knew I would have to start back, but the thought of those eyes and what monster was behind them almost kept me there. I said good night and started back.
This time a calm descended over me and I felt Jesus was walking beside me. I walked boldly down the path and into the hospital. No one had missed me. I was discharged a few days later. Once again Mum took my place. She was very ill with beriberi. There were two types of this dreadful disease – the wet, when you were filled with fluid, and the dry, which was painful. Both kinds started the same way and many died after one month’s illness. Mum had the wet type. Her face was as round as the moon, her eyes were slits, her lips shapeless. While she lay in hospital, news came through that the war had ended. The official announcement was made on August 24, 1945. We were stunned. At last we were free!
We had lost so many of our dear friends. Soon English and, perhaps, American soldiers would be coming to occupy Sumatra. At last we were free, at last we could walk outside the barbed-wire fence to collect dry twigs for our cooking fires. Oh, what a wonderful feeling it was to be FREE! No more guards to order us around. The guards became nice to us and brought us gifts of fancy toilet soap, sugar, fruit, and even dress lengths. Natives were allowed to come to the camp, bringing with them goods to sell. Sentries still walked around, but with a difference. Chickens were now quite plentiful – at a price – and it did one good just to smell them cooking. Unknown to us, Mum sold her wedding ring and bought some food and a chicken. My brother and I enjoyed it, but we wouldn’t have if we had known what it had cost Mum.
Now the men were allowed to visit us. It brought a lump into my throat to see them, for my dad was not among them. He had died four months earlier, shortly after we had arrived, and they did not tell us till two months later. I got beriberi again and had to go to hospital. I was given a space next to Mum. Medical supplies had arrived in our camp now and I was given a blood transfusion. A Dutch sister fed me with milk from a cup and spoon, and we tasted our first slice of bread, a tiny piece about an inch square.
My strength soon returned. I was able to sit up. The hospital block had come to life. Husbands were sitting about, talking to their wives. British planes showered us with parachute packages of milk, sugar, and chocolates, etc. I don’t know how long we were in hospital. We had lost all sense of time. One night we were told that we would be moved early next morning. Around 4 a.m. stretcher bearers came and gently lifted us on to the stretchers. We were carried out into the darkness. The camp was ablaze with tiny lamps. Down the long path, past our old sleeping quarters, where friends were waiting to bid us farewell, across the stream, up the mud steps that I had painfully climbed each morning with swollen ankles and feet, on and on till we reached the gateway. The crunching boots came to a halt. A little ambulance was waiting. The three of us and a Mrs. Harding were carried in and we started for the station. [Mrs. Geraldine Inez Harding Australian wife of Major Frank Leonard Harding. Aged 32 in 1942 Evacuated on Mata Hari. She died 12.8.1964].
Three awful years had come to an end. Two hundred women and children had died. Three quarters of one of the blocks was full of those suffering from cerebral malaria, dysentery, diphtheria, typhus, and beriberi. We received mail once during our stay and it was two years old. In August, 1944, we were allowed to send one postcard home, stating that we were well. We arrived at Lubuk Linggau, the station we had been at about five months before. Trains were waiting. Not the dark boarded carriages, but carriages with open windows and beds with white sheets and pillows.
The soldiers – I think they were Dutch lads – carried us into the train. Our minds went back over the past three years and all we had been through. Now we were to taste proper food again and eat to our heart’s content. At noon the train came to a halt and we had our first meal. We were carried off the train and taken by car to a building where beds were all ready waiting for us. There were six in my room, with nurses in attendance. Night came and we were given hot washes with real soap and a delicious meal. We slept like tops. After breakfast we were carried out to cars and driven to the airport. Those who were not ill travelled in open trucks. Those who had gone before us were lying in their stretchers in the shade, some were sitting on chairs. Everyone was tense and excited. The Red Cross nurses were so kind to us in this new bewildering world. We were still half-stunned.
Our plane was ready for take off. I was given the top bunk and Mummy lay in a stretcher below me. My small brother sat and gazed out of the window. The nurses handed around sweets – the first we had seen in 3 years. When we touched down at Kalang Airport, in Singapore, Red Cross workers were everywhere to greet us with smiling faces and hand out cups of “real tea,” cakes, and buns. Army trucks were lined up to transport us to Alexandra Hospital at the other end of the town. It all seemed like a dream.
At the hospital nurses were waiting and we were washed with carbolic soap, given clean pyjamas, and put into beds in a large, airy ward. Chinese boys brought in trolleys on which were plates of delicious food, fruit, and iced drinks. Our eyes nearly popped out. It was not long before we were walking around and taking stock of ourselves and our surroundings.
Best of all was that we could have a bath at any time at all and use all the soap we wanted. Doctors came and checked us from head to toe, and we were given tablets of every shape, color, and size, and injections every day. Mum had to have a transfusion. After a few days we were moved to another ward. Here the food was even better and we could eat as much as we liked. This I did very unwisely. I had 17 eggs-in one sitting! My abused “tum” began to swell. There was no more walking about for a few days.
Our Scots doctor from camp paid us a visit. She was astounded at my recovery. I had even started to put on weight. In camp I weighed three stone and had an loin, waist.
She said no one thought I would pull through. All I could say was, “The Lord brought me through.” And now home to England Soon we were to leave Singapore and go by ship to India en route to England. We wished our friends good- bye. Some of them were remaining in Singapore, others were to return to their homes in Australia and elsewhere. Ambulances took us to the docks. This time we were able to walk. No more stretchers. We walked up the gangway of the HS Karoa, the hospital ship painted all white with a huge red cross on its side. The voyage to India took six days – calm seas, good food, and a very charming crew made it unforgettable.
We were sad to leave the ship when we docked at Madras. On the dockside was a complete brass band that kept playing till everyone was off the ship. Before we went ashore Red Cross workers came aboard with clothes and toilet kits. We each received three frocks, underwear, sleeping clothes, towels, flannels, toothbrush and paste and comb.
We went by ambulance a hospital train which would take us to a hospitals Bangalore. There we spent happy weeks in the wards, among cheerful nurses and smiling-faced Indian ayahs. Prisoners of war came here to regain their strength before the voyage to England. Our next move was Poonah as a further step on our way home. This time we were separated, Mum going to one hospital, and brother and I going to “Families Hospital.” We were the only POWs at the hospital at that time and received VIP treatment.
Again it was time to move on – to Bombay. Mum was to remain in hospital a few more weeks. Ian and I went to a transit camp to await a ship when we could all go together. While we waited, life became a hectic round of picnics, parties, and visits to town to do shopping. We were given money to spend. We were given more clothes and footwear, visits to dentists and hairdressers. I now looked quite different.
Christmas came. We had permission to take the train journey back hospital where mum was. We stayed with a Red Cross worker’s family in a beautiful home for one week and were able to visit Mum each day. And then it was back to Bombay, that glittering city of seven hills.
Soon we were able to pack and get ready to leave. It was now January. We drove to the docks and were over joyed to see Mum waiting for us. And so on to the ship.
We arrived in England on February 9, 1946. I met my husband – to – be on the voyage. He had also been a POW. We were married in July that year. The following May we were blessed with a son, Michael and 13 months later he was followed by twin brothers James and Robert.
Camp seemed a long way behind. We were happy with our three bouncing boys. Michael, so like his father with his blond curls and the twins, dark-haired and. Our happiness was soon to be shattered. The twins whooping cough and Jamie went home to Jesus after being ill for one week. Only time could mend the blow and God gave grace during that time. Again we were blessed with two more sons, a daughter, Penelope and, later, little David.
Life is full of ups downs and we have had full share of the “downs” but we always look back and thank God for bringing us through and giving us such a bonny family.
Below, Mrs. Joan (Sinclair) McIntyre, centre front, with her mother, Mrs. Alice Sinclair, her husband Bruce, and three of their children. David, front left, daughter Penelope, and Andrew, back row.