Robert (Bob) Henry Thomas was a mining engineer who worked for Gammon [Malaya] Ltd. He was aged 32 in 1942. He left Singapore on board the Mata Hari, one of the few ships to survive being bombed.
Thomas wrote of his experience as an internee at Muntok and below are some of his recollections. These can be divided into two categories: descriptions of day to day life in the camps and musings about memory, truth and forgetting.
We start with Bob writing about everyday occurrences, the first of which concerns the incident of the Chinese ‘coolie’ who lost his mind and ran up to the roof of the large hut where the Chinese laborers were housed next to Muntok jail. This incident was also recorded by William McDougall in his book By Eastern Windows.
In the early days of the game I was in the common criminal jail at Muntok on Bangka island along with a hundred and fifty others and four hundred Chinese slaves, in a jail for about a hundred. The tropical rain fell in lumps through the holes in the shattered roofs, which was just as well, as the stormwater ditch was full of Chinese shit, as indeed the yard itself was, and the water got at least some of the stuff on the move towards the exit hole in the wall.
A diseased and weakened Chow (sic) fell into this awful gutter, put out a hand to another for help and was pushed back into the porridge. Another lunatic scaled the low roof and sat aside the ridge loudly hee-hawing in Chinese to the world, so I stood on a box. the better to bawl at him to come down while his luck was in, and the I heard a shout behind me and saw a guard sighting his rifle, and as I fell off the box I heard the shot which I had been so sure what meant for me. I’m sure to this day that I could see right down the barrel, and a nasty sight it was.
I had always thought that a shot man went limp and then slowly collapsed into an inert heap, (that’s what they do on TV) but the bloke on the roof looked as though he’d been pulled off and over the ridge by a rope, and he was gone, as dead as a maggot.
In early March of 1942 the Japanese needed to repair the airfield at Muntok that the Dutch had made useless by aerial bombardment. The younger and stronger men among the internees were rounded up and taken in trucks and given shovels to repair the field. As they stood facing the bombed up site, they believed that they were about to be shot and killed. Not an unreasonable thought, as the Australian Ambassador had been taken outside the Muntok cinema on February 17, made to dig his own grave, and was then shot. Thomas writes:
… and I recall very well when I was a guest of the Emperor of Japan, that I stood on an airstrip that we had sabotaged by digging a wide ditch across it … With about sixty others, I stood on the edge with my back to it and looked down the barrels of a couple of machine guns, thinking what a right nanny I had been to have taken a job that landed me here, and suddenly realising what Kipling meant in his Recessional by ‘reeking tubes and iron shards’. I’d never really understood it before’.
The internees were kept on a near starvation diet and so it was important to try to supplement this as much as possible; including the eating of rats. Another method was to sneak out under the prison wires and hunt for Ubi or Tapioca. Thomas records one such hunting trip:
… I went out with this dumb Dutch half caste through the wire at the jail camp to pick tapioca roots. There was a Jap working party sitting down having a spell near the tapioca patch, and we didn’t know, and they must have been vastly intrigued and curious to see the seven foot stalks slowly rising vertically as we carefully pulled them up to cut off the roots, and then to observe them slowly descending as we replaced the tubercles remains in the same hole.
There was an eruption of Nips, and a couple of them poked through the crop with rifles that seemed about eight feet long. We stood not upon the order of our going but went before the fit hit the shan (sic), as they say, leaving the roots on the way and some bits of trouser on the wire.
Bob’s recollections also contained his thoughts on remembering and forgetting
‘A story should be about something, but this one is not. I record it only to remind myself of some loosely connected and unimportant events that I once lived through and which I now find I am inclined to forget. When the time comes that looking down there’s nothing to see but the tops of those same clouds you’ve seen so often before, when the mind has to feed upon itself, it is better to go back inside than to endure the undesired reality of the moment, for if you have no memories of things past to live again they may just as well never have taken place, and if you don’t remember, it didn’t happen’.
He often cautioned others to write down their own stories – ‘because if you can’t remember, it didn’t happen‘. It should also be remembered that when we read the recollections of the internees there was also a need to forget as much as wanting to remember. Bob, and many of the other internees who wrote about their experiences, consciously and selectively forced many horrors out of their minds, in – what we would glibly call today a survivor’s ‘coping strategy’. So memory was a mixed bag for Bob Thomas as it is for all survivors of mass atrocities.
From page 157: For us there is no Nirvana of forgetfulness, no empty spaces to fill with the new, the deeds long done are there for our forever, and memory leaves us immune to alteration and to change. ‘Now’ is just endurable, it is the weightsome memories of the past that burden us most, and the wrong gates open to let in the things we would rather forget. Intellectualise as I may, I still find myself employing the tactics that once long ago paid off and now no more do so. There’s no change there, and ancient antic revived and maintained because it saved and served me well, once upon a long time ago.
I interpret this as his realisation that the instinctive technique he used to block to horrors of his incarceration became so habitual, that he spent the rest of his life disabled, unable to allow new experience to touch him, unable to open up and reveal his vulnerability, unable to commit to a relationship, unable to break through the carapace he had constructed.
Many years after the war, Bob took a ship from Singapore to New Zealand and Australia, where he had originally travelled to many years before at the age of 18. He recalled his previous life on that journey: From page 199:
There was a lighthouse about three miles on the port beam, one that I did not remember, but there was no chart displayed on deck to assist us in correcting the captain’s navigation. The water shoals on the Sumatra side and the near land was flat, as I remembered it. I keep forgetting that it was all a long time ago and still wonder why nobody knows or cares about it, although it is all ancient history now.
Below, the reverse side of the paper on which Rex Spencer drew the portrait above of Bob Thomas. It is written in Chinese and may have been a contract.