December of 1941, found us aboard the “SS Oronsay,” a huge ship of some 35,000 tons. The crew was not very encouraging, telling us that this was the ship’s first voyage since Nazi shells blew her superstructure away. We sailed from Bristol, then to Canada, the British West Indies, South Africa, and India. Our final destination was Singapore, where we disembarked amid a hail of shells and bullets.
Singapore Harbor is reckoned to be one of the largest natural harbors in the world. The city was the hallmark of Imperial colonization -- rich, extravagant, pompous. Alas, the ravages of war could clearly be seen on its proud profile.
It was January 29, 1942, when our unit, the 196 Field Ambulance, landed on the beleaguered Island. There was no time to get acquainted with the people and the customs. The Japanese were closing in for the kill, every effort had to be made to bring our positions to a state of readiness. Our Field Ambulance was attached to the 18th Division, highly trained for war in Europe or the Middle East but inexperienced in jungle warfare. Furthermore, we were unseasoned troops never having had our baptism of real warfare.
The picture of the war in Southeast Asia at this time was dismal. The few antiquated planes, which we possessed, had been blasted from the skies. The long trails of black smoke and flames ending in ear-splitting explosions told the story of death and destruction. Two of the greatest ships of the Royal Navy lay at the bottom of the ocean, the victims of Japanese suicide bombing. Day and night, the indomitable Nipponese forces advanced down Malaya scattering all resistance and annihilating all opposition. It was just a matter of time before we would be involved in a hopeless struggle.
The Japanese, intoxicated by the wine of victory, reached the Straits of Johore opposite Singapore Island. Victory in sight, they quickly aligned their artillery and mortars at vantage points. Soon the heavens were split with the thunder of the guns, and the earth shook with convulsions as the shells exploded in clouds of acrid smoke and debris.
Although this was what we had trained for, the shock and impact of such barbaric and inhuman conduct cut into and across all my Christian principles. But here was no time for contemplation; there was work to do.
A staff car hurriedly drew up to headquarters. The officers had been recalled from the front to receive some vital information; they hurried into the building. Moments later as the driver was making a hasty egress from the car, there was a shattering explosion nearby and the unfortunate man fell to the ground in a crumpled heap. A small piece of shrapnel no larger than a pea had entered into the left side of his chest, penetrating his heart. He died instantly.
We brought him in unmarked, apart from the small wound in his chest. This was our first casualty; it hardly seemed possible that the man was dead. It came as a tremendous shock to me that such a little thing could “loose the silver cord, and break the golden bowl” (Ecclesiastes 12:6).
When the fighting raged at its fiercest, I worked most of the day and night. I sweated in the sultry heat and prayed silently for the men around me. My heart bled for the long columns of bloody and weary men that came to the field hospital for treatment. I found myself looking at them through the eyes of my blessed Savior. Calvary love swept over my bewildered being, driving me to the very limits of endurance in an effort to relieve their bodily suffering and to supply their spiritual needs. One of the tragedies that has been indelibly imprinted on my mind was the sight of one of the chaplains going up and down the line glancing at identification tags then ministering only to those who belonged to his particular faith, completely and coldly ignoring the others. This seemed so unchristian and so diabolically opposed to everything that I had been taught, that I was sad and sick at heart. Surely this man, who would allow denominational barriers to preclude his love for his fellow man in times of calamity, knew nothing of the compassion of Christ.
The next day when things were really tough -- bombs were dropping with sickening regularity and accuracy, and shells thundering overhead carrying death and destruction -- I was placed in charge of an ambulance to take some seriously wounded men to the hospital in Singapore. Four men had to be rushed to the Singapore General Hospital for emergency care. The way to the city was comparatively quiet until we reached the sprawling suburbs. Then we encountered extremely heavy shelling and bombing. It looked like suicide to attempt breaking through this holocaust but these were precious lives, which I held in my hand. So with complete abandon we took up the gauntlet. Moving along, sometimes at a crawl, sometimes at sixty miles an hour, through abandoned streets, past flaming buildings, we ultimately reached our destination, shaken but gratified to deliver our precious cargo.
The return journey was a nightmare. The Japanese gunners were concentrating on blockading the main road, landing shells on the highway with pinpoint accuracy. Very few vehicles dared to attempt the hazardous journey, but duty called. Slowly the driver nosed the ambulance through the maze of shell holes. We were rocked frequently as bombs burst with a sickening crunch all around. I never prayed so earnestly in all my life. Slowly we crept on -- although instinctively we wanted to flee for dear life. Suddenly the ambulance nearly turned over, a mortar shell tore a huge hole in the roof and side but miraculously did not explode. When I recovered from the shock, I bowed my head in deep gratitude and thanked the Lord for His preserving care. Eventually we arrived back at our unit, badly shaken but unscathed. This experience increased my confidence in the Lord’s preserving grace, and it seemed to me that He had further work for me to do.
Reaching Base, I ate a hasty meal because I was assigned guard duty until midnight. This always presented a problem because my deep convictions prohibited me from carrying a lethal weapon of any kind. I preferred to utilize the usual Medical corps “weapon” -- a cudgel or stick. My partner carried a rifle.
Before going on duty I went back to the tent to get my steel helmet. I reached in under the mosquito net and took it from the bed but decided to leave the crowded tent before putting it on my head. There was a full moon in the sky, which flooded the area with its silvery light. As I lifted the helmet to my head I noticed what I thought was a snake curled up inside. Quickly I turned the helmet over and slammed it to the ground. Some of the regular soldiers, who had been in Malaya for some time, asked me what I was doing. They laughed outright at the assertion that a snake was trapped under the helmet. “There are no snakes in Singapore, you know that,” they said.
Eventually, after much deliberation they turned over the helmet with a long stick. A three-foot black mamba -- one of the deadliest snakes in Malaya -- slithered toward them. The deadly reptile was soon disposed of. Even to this day I shudder at the thought of that creature slithering down my neck or across my face, injecting its deadly poison in the process. This was not my first escape from death. Once again there arose in my mid the thought that I was being spared for more important things in the service of the Master.
The enemy activity in the air and on land intensified hourly. We were constantly under bombardment from land, sea, and air. Our forces retaliated feebly with small arms fire. Soon there was a shortage of ammunition and, worse still, water supplies were cut off. The main reservoirs for Singapore were on the mainland of Malaya. This made conditions, in the blazing heat of the tropical sun, almost impossible. The end seemed in sight.
On February 10, 1942, General A.P. Wavell, the hero of the Middle East Campaign, flew into Singapore to review the situation; in a couple of days he issued a Special Order of the Day.
“It is certain that our troops in Singapore Island heavily outnumber any Japanese who have crossed the Straits. We must destroy them.
“Our whole fighting reputation is at stake and the honor of the British Empire. The Americans have held out on the ‘Bataan’ Peninsula against far heavier odds; the Russians are turning back the picked strength of the Germans; the Chinese with almost complete lack of modern equipment have held the Japanese for 4 1/2 years. It will be disgraceful if we yield our boasted fortress of Singapore to inferior enemy forces.
“There must be no thought of sparing the troops or civil population and no mercy must be shown to weaken us in any shape or form. Commanders and senior officers must lead their troops and, if necessary, die with them. There must be no question or thought of surrender. Every unit must fight it out to the end and in close contact with the enemy. Please see that they bring the above to the notice of all senior officers and to the troops.
“I look to you and your men to fight to the end to prove that the fighting spirit that won our empire still exists to enable us to defend it.”
When we read this directive we knew that the writing was on the wall. It was so contradictory to the prevailing circumstances. We were short of everything -- even medical supplies were dwindling rapidly, and the Japanese were massing forces on the mainland for the final assault on the Island itself. During all this the civilian population was taking an awful slaughtering. Trucks filled with dead lying like cordwood streamed endlessly from the city and dumped their loads into huge communal graves. How long could this inhuman savagery go on?
Our worst fears were confirmed when General Wavell and his staff flew out of Singapore only a few hours after issuing his fighting challenge. The next four days were soul-destroying. My faith in man was shaken to its very core. I had never understood the doctrine of the total depravity of man but the useless slaughter of precious lives and the mutilation of physical frames was proving the doctrine to the hilt. Little did I know that all this was but preparatory to more fearful and dreadful events.
There was an endless stream of casualties; we treated them as best we could under primitive conditions. The Japanese kept up a continual bombardment with devastating results. The medical personnel were showing signs of fatigue. It was a twenty-four hour grind that had continued for several days. Hunger was gnawing at our stomachs, our throats were parched for lack of liquid, our nerves were taut -- it was as if we were slowly dying.
But there was no time for reflection; war drew on every human resource and reserve. I cried to the Lord for spiritual strength. “Help me, oh Lord, that I may be able to help others,” I earnestly prayed. Nothing seemed to matter at this point. With complete abandon I threw myself into the unequal task with the thought in mind that death would overtake us, the only alternative being that we would fall into the hands of a ruthless and barbaric enemy.
February 15, 1942, is a day ever to be remembered by the unfortunate troops trapped in Singapore Island. At 4 p.m. there descended upon the weary soldiers the shroud of death. The bombing, shelling, and the rattle of small arms fire suddenly stopped, the silence was almost unbearable, it was louder than the crunch of exploding shells. The impregnable fortress of Singapore had unconditionally surrendered to the Japanese.
Thoroughly exhausted both physically and mentally, I completely collapsed. My mind went blank, I have little recollection of the few days, which followed, but praise God, recovery came quickly and I was soon in harness again. One memory that remains with me of those critical days was the importance, which I attached to my Bible. It was my constant companion and even though I could not read it, no one could take it from me. My love for the Word was to increase as the long months merged into interminable years.