Donald Frederick Pratt was born in 1908. He left England for Malaya in 1927. He was Assistant Planter, on Rengam Estate, Johore. During the 1930s he was a member of the Johore Volunteer Engineers. He also played Rugby for Johore.
He married Mary Eva Rice-Oxley on 11 April 1936 at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Singapore.
Before the Japanese invasion of Singapore took place, Mary was safely evacuated from Singapore with son Anthony on Orion, arriving in Freemantle, Western Australia, on 6 January 1942.
Donald was evacuated from Singapore aboard the Mata Hari but was later captured along with all the other passengers and crew of that ship. He thus became a civilian internee at Palembang and Muntok.
Donald was master of ceremonies/compere for various internment camp entertainment productions. He also became one of the camp’s barbers thereby earning an income and bettering his life somewhat. He is mentioned occasionally by William McDougall in his diary published as ‘If I Come out Alive’.
Donald died in captivity on 1 May 1945 aged 37 at Muntok. His grave is E15 on the Graves page and a photograph of it appears at the end of this page.
[Donald was the nephew of the English actor William Henry Pratt who was better known by his Hollywood name, Boris Karloff.]
Below are three letters sent to Donald’s widow Mary Pratt after the war. The first one is from D. C. Thomson, the second from Geoffrey Husband, and the third from John Drysdale. All three were interned with Pratt at Palembang and Muntok.
c/o The George Hotel,
Perth , W. A.
1st February 1946.
Dear Mrs Pratt,
As we are leaving for England in a few days time I am doing what, so far, I have hesitated to venture but, arising out of a few minutes conversation which Mr Coales had with me the other evening I am reassured that you would find a short account of things acceptable.
I was so surprised that Husband had only given the scantiest details because he was, as you can imagine, closest to your husband throughout the period and, as I will describe stood by him in the most admirable fashion.
Donald left Singapore in company of Husband on, I believe, the “Mata Hari” about the 13 Feb ‘ 42. As it was undamaged and was the only ship to arrive at Muntok, Banka Island, capable of being sailed away, subsequently, by the Japs all the passengers left the ship in orderly fashion with their luggage – which was unique in most of the cases landed there.
Some 800 survivors were housed in a group of buildings at Muntok – women, men and children of civilian and services alike, and for the first few weeks there we remained. About the middle of March everybody was transferred to Palembang, Sumatra where civilians and services were separated and a group of about 165 British civilians spent a month doing forced work at Pladjoe near the oil-refineries. I can remember Donald had a slight recurrence of his kidney trouble then but it was the only, as far as I can remember, sickness he had during the next 18 months. We were then transferred to Palembang Gaol where we shared a crowded building with about 260 Dutch internees.
Donald shared quarters with a “Kongsi” :- Bob Meldrum (Johore Mach Inspector), McGuffin (Surveyor of Ships S’pore), Hugh Sym, Maurice Kirke and David Matheson (F.M.S. Police) and Husband. Donald and Bob Meldrum were operating early as camp barbers, a job which they continued right through whilst fit enough.
After spending some months in the Gaol we were moved to a new camp on the outskirts of the town in January 1943 where our conditions were quite good and it was still possible to buy extra food at reasonable prices. The camp organisation was quite good and a communal fund operated to the benefit of all including the most penurious Britisher.
As Block-leader of the group which contained the “Kongsi” referred to I can vouch for the fact that they were as happy – outstandingly so – as people could be in those conditions.
We remained there until September 1943 when we were suddenly all sent back to Muntok where we were painfully overcrowded in the Gaol there. Some features of food were new and pleasant for a few weeks,particularly the advent of fresh fish, but as absolutely nothing could be bought the shortage of food began to really make itself felt. At the beginning of 1944 the rations were deplorable and a few weeks dietary of a glutinous mess concocted with tapioca flour was the foundation of deficiency diseases.
Malaria was rife and although of a mild type was , nevertheless, a very grave cause of extensive death. Young and old, delicate and strong were alike affected and the “Kongsi” was without one exception in sufferers. There was an absolutely inadequate supply of quinine given and the doctors – Dr G.F. West and a Dutch Dr Boerma – unable to get anything satisfactory despite continual representations to the Japs.
Malaria, as you know,will give the victim respite at at frequent intervals so that camp duties were still carried on uninterruptedly. Donald and Bob Meldrum were camp “personalities” and your husband was associated with some variety entertainments as well. He and H. Hammett (M.C.S.) put on a “Western Brothers” show on two occasions. Hammett incidentally, was our elected British Representative who kept the records. Husband knows him intimately.
When funds became short individual camp members resorted to all kinds of ingenious ways of raising money. As a certain amount of extra food could be bought in pitifully small quantities this show of initiative was worth while. Husband was admired by many for the way he went about this problem and amazed many of us by his “grit”.
After a period of caring for each other it was necessary to admit Donald to the camp hospital which was run by ourselves and predominantly British. That, I think was in September and after a few weeks he recovered and was back at camp duties again but only to return again after a week or two.
It will be no surprise to you, but I must mention that for sheer “guts” Donald was outstanding and we all had the greatest admiration for his courage in those grim days. Camp life, where an undercurrent of desperation showed up the individual qualities , placed most value on those who could “take it”. Circumstances had pitched us into what was one of the worst camps for mortality, due, primarily, to under-nourishment and we had every opportunity of “weighing’” each other.
Bob Meldrum joined Donald in the hospital and he also was a courageous soul.
Husband throughout, struggled to raise the food level for your husband and succeeded phenomenally but, of course, inadequately low as the ration was. There was always a group of individuals who were willing to sell part of theirs at ”black market” prices which, of course, was quite suicidal. I mention this as you will be puzzled as to the source of purchasable food.
Meldrum died and by this time one or two of the “Kongsi” had gone but there was always hope that Donald, though in low health, would get through.
On the 12 March the camp was transferred to a camp in the interior of Sumatra near Bencoelen but about 20 hospital patients considered too ill to move were left at Muntok along with sufficient of our own staff and a very good Eurasion (Dutch) doctor and Donald was one of those who remained.
He is buried in the Dutch cemetery along with about 260 of his camp fellows after a regulation burial conducted by those who remained behind.
Husband did as much as was possible nd that, I can assure you , cannot be underestimated. He himself only just managed to survive after a very serious illness and although he is not a person with whom I could find much in common, his conduct in the later and grimmer days has my greatest admiration.
Well Mrs Pratt, I do hope i haven’t wearied you with this rambling effort of mine but it has been my sad task to contact the other widows and I felt that any gaps in your own knowledge of the events subsequent to Feb ‘ 42 might be usefully filled by me
Please do not feel yourself incumbent to acknowledge this and Allie and myself offer our sympathy and best wishes for the future in a concluding note
D. C. Thomson.
Letter to Mary Pratt from Geoffrey Husband
My Dear Mary
I met in Johore last week and had a long talk with him. He told me you were now on your way home, so I am writing to you c/o Gillian .I must explain that I always was going to write to you when I was in England, but each time I met anyone, they always told me you were just about to sail for England and so I waited to see you. I am terribly sorry I missed you as I could have conveyed so much to you in a long talk, whereas it is all so difficult to write. So I hope you will forgive me for not writing before. Unfortunately I got rocketed out of England at very short notice and I had no time to say goodbye to anyone.
Now that I have missed you I want to put you in touch with two fellows who were great friends of Donald’s in the camp at Palembang and they have both promised me they will go and see you and tell you all they can.
The first is:
J.A. Barton Esq
Should he have left there and you get no reply, write again to him
c/o Harrisons and Crossfield
Great Town Street
and ask them to forward your letter. He is a very nice fellow, a planter from Wherib (?) near port Dickson and he travelled out with Donald on the same ship when they were both coming out here for the first time.
He has had a terrible time and when he left the Camp was paralysed from the waist down, the Doctors thought he would never walk again. He was however well on the road to recovery when I last saw him and I hope he will be fit enough by December to return here.
The other is Maurice Kirke of the F.M.S. Police who has also had a bad time in South Africa, but is on the road to recovery now and should be leaving for England shortly. I have written to him, and when I get his reply, and know his address I will let you have it. I am writing to Barton by next Air Mail.
When I went to say good-bye to Donald, before I was taken away to another Camp and he was left behind, being too sick to travel, he said:
“I am going to do everything I can to recover and to live through to get back to Mary and Anthony”. He had some snaps of you at this time. But he continued – “Should I not live through and I realise that I have not much more than a 50 – 50 chance, tell Mary and Anthony that I shall be thinking of them at the last”. I tried to cheer him up and convince him that he would pull through,and so naturally we never discussed the matter further. I could see that he hated talking to me like that, and being Donald, thought I might think he was giving in! Hence I tried to reassure him and we dropped the subject.
He however asked me to look after you and see that you got what you should from Yule Cattos. I had therefore hoped I should be in England when you went to see them! Now I can only suggest that if you are not satisfied with what they offer, you let me know and I will thrash the matter out both with you and for you.
You will have heard of the wonderful fight Donald put up from the day of his capture up to his last moments. He was very popular with the Britishers and especially with the Dutch, whereas 90% of the Britishers weren’t! He was always cheerful and worked too hard, was a fine example to everyone and finally sacrificed himself through over-working.
The real thing which caused his breakdown was his Nephritis. Early on, hr overworked in the oil fields and had a breakdown.
Luckily I was running the Camp Hospital as we had no Doctors then, and I took him in with a temp of 104. I thought he might have dysentery and got him an ingestion of E———fine, and then bought him round with Barley Water, Kinji. Quaker Oat, Eggs and Milk. He made a quick recovery and I refused to let him go back to work and gave him a job in my Hospital.
He then became Camp Barber with the one and only pair of hair Clippers, and he cut thousands of heads of hair.I don’t mind telling you that he cut mine better than anyone has since! Those clippers I handed to Mr Pratt for you. I am afraid it was one of the only mementos he had left at the end.
He was very well indeed right through till Sept 1944, but from then on, due to strain, his nephritis returned, bringing Cura line(?) Beri – Beri with it. He then got Malaria which he could not shake off. But he fought so well that he kept getting better, only to relapse again. We had no proper medicines But the Vitamin B injections which he needed. I was able to buy at Black Market prices and —– — pulled him round. Then I had to leave him. He rallied for a short time after I left, but after again getting malaria, black -water fever, and dysentry, he finally died of the latter, quite peacefully in his sleep at 2.a.m on May 1st 1945.
He was a wonderful friend to me and I hope I was to him. I missed him terribly also. He took to religion in the Camp and sometimes read the lessons in Church. He also longed to be confirmed.
You and Anthony will now be missing a husband and a very proud father, and with you I mourn the best friend I ever had. He was a marvellous companion and a true friend, and one who certainly should have been spared to come through as we could ill afford to spare him.
You will appreciate therefore how real my sympathy is both for you and Anthony and I hope you will never hesitate to seek my help whenever you may wish. Olivia also sends her love to you both.
Yours very sincerely,
Letter to Mary Pratt from John Drysdale:
Mrs D. Pratt 36 Park Road
8,Gefroy Flat Bowral
Outram St N. S. W
14th Feb. 46
Dear Mrs Pratt,
I met Mr Coales in Sydney the other day, he told me you hadn’t had much news of your husband who was interned with me in Sumatra, and asked me to drop you a line. Your husband’s closest friend in camp was a Mr Husband and I believe he undertook to look after your husband’s affairs and to communicate with you, which I understand he has done.
I will now tell you what I recollect about your husband, but if there is anything further you would like to know, please write and ask me and I shall let you know if I can.
I did not know your husband in Malaya and i met him first in the internment camp in Muntok, Banka Island, in February 1942. I cannot recollect on what ship he came on from Singapore or how he fared on the journey. Many of us had very unpleasant experiences during that trip. We were all interned in a native immigration camp in Muntok for one month after capture and our food and quarters were very poor. At the middle of March 42,we were transferred to Pladjoe, the site of the oil refineries at Palembang jail where we remained until Jan.43. W e did very little work there, other than the usual camp duties which comprised everything from cooking to washing. Fortunately, we had some books to read that helped us to pass our time. In Jan 43.we were taken to an attap camp about three miles outside Palembang, built specially for us, and there we remained until Sept 43. That was the best camp we had, and we didn’t do too badly there. From there we were taken back to Muntok and took up our abode in the jail there, and your husband died in the camp hospital early in May 1945.I cannot recollect the actual date, as I was not there at the time, most of us having been transferred to a camp at Belaloe, Loebock Linggau beyond Lahat Sumatra, in March that year. I visited your husband several times in Hospital and he maintained a wonderful spirit during his illness, Beri-Beri was his trouble. He kept remarkably fit for a long time, but like many others succumbed to Beri-Beri in the long run. When we made our move to Belaloe in March ’45, the worst of the sick were left in Muntok hospital in the care of one of our best doctors and his hospital staff; the idea being that they would follow us when fit to travel.
Some of them did not recover and unfortunately your husband was one of them. Everything possible was done for him and near his end he was given the two blood transfusions, but without avail. He was buried in the cemetery at Muntok and his grave is marked with a cross bearing his name and date of birth. He was well liked in camp and took part in several of the concerts and cabarets we got up for our amusement.
Like the rest of us he received no letters until Sept. 1944 and then he received several again in Nov. and Dec. letters arrived. The last lot we received was in Feb or March 1945. We were allowed to write postcards on three occasions, but from what I have learned only one was delivered and that about Dec.43.
I do not think there is much more that I can tell you, but as I have already said, please write me if you have anything in mind you think i could tell you.
In Malaya I lived in Kuala Lumpur and my wife and family came here in Jan 42. I joined them here in October last year and travelled down from Singapore with Mr Coales.
- As a matter of interest 58% of the Britishers in our camp died; only 42% came through and many of those were very sick. JD