CHAPTER 6 Prisoner of War

The realization of being a prisoner of war with an inhuman enemy is very frightening. During the Malayan campaign the Japanese had shown no mercy and had executed all prisoners in cold blood. Many reports had filtered through the grapevine of the utter disregard for human life displayed by the arrogant foe. Mercifully, we were so busy attending to the wounded and sick and adjusting to our new conditions that the real impact of what could possibly happen was lessened.

Faced with a record harvest of 70,000 prisoners, the Japanese could hardly follow their iniquitous and nefarious policy of exterminating every prisoner. They must come up with something new and they certainly did, as the following chapters will clearly define.

Our brief stay on Singapore Island in comparison with later experience was less exacting. Despite the primitive and crowded conditions, our lot could have been much worse although that was hard to imagine at the time. Slowly, from all the confusion -- and everything was chaotic -- there steadily emerged a horrible spectre -- hunger.

Shortly after the surrender of Singapore the Japanese uncovered their “secret weapon.” All European food was confiscated and in its place they provided rice. It was a cupful of boiled rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One could almost feel the strength drain from his body and the flesh dissolve from off the bones. Long hours of work and improper sanitation compounded the vicious evils that attacked our gaunt frames.

To add insult to injury our captors commandeered all medical supplies, leaving only the bare necessities for hospital work. Kapok, the lining of life jackets, was substituted for cotton wool. This nonabsorbent material, designed to expel water, was to be used to clean the festering wounds. The improvisation was unbelievable, how the medical staff ever adapted to this new environment, and remarkably enough not without a good measure of success, is a mystery.

The experience of living in this prison ghetto is unforgettable. We slept head to feet, allotted eighteen inches of bed space. The stench of unwashed and sweaty bodies was almost unbearable. Water was strictly rationed. During the night no one slept peacefully, each one tossed and turned attempting subconsciously or semiconsciously to protect him form the vicious bites of myriads of lice, fleas, and bed bugs. Mosquitoes by the thousands, the noise of their wings zinging in our ears, dive-bombed our hapless forms extracting our very lifeblood, at the same time injecting deadly malarial toxin into our undernourished bodies. Malaria became one of the most feared killers during our forty-five months of incarceration.

The depravity of man’s heart became more apparent. To live in such close proximity with men from every strata of society was demoralizing to say the least. I was seeing and experiencing firsthand, things that I did not even know existed. I never would have believed what did happen when the influence of home, religion, and friends, was removed. When I saw the human heart with the lid off, I was appalled and found the Bible to be correct when it says that, “the heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked.” Men, minus the veneer and polish of modern society, acted in some cases like beasts. I soon discovered that the dreadful circumstances either brought out the very best or the worst in a man.

I was absolutely convinced that no amount of reformation could ever heal or cure the sin in men’s hearts; only the grace of God and the precious blood of the Lord Jesus could do that. How awful it was for me to hear the incessant use of the name of my precious Savior in blasphemy. Also, the general vocabulary of most of the men became rather restricted and every other word was interspersed with obscenities. This coupled with other situations almost drove me to the point of distraction. I believe adjusting to these unfamiliar conditions was my greatest challenge thus far. In all fairness one must say that despite the total breakdown of morals in some cases, there were others who rose to the heights of human sacrifice to alleviate the suffering of the more unfortunate.

During this time several Christians were meeting for prayer and Bible study. This was one of the greatest blessings in all my life. Just to meet with those of like precious faith, even for a few minutes, was a stimulus. At this time a young Jew became acquainted with this group. He was in the hospital having had his leg amputated. When opportunity afforded, we all witnessed to Dave. He developed a healthy appetite for the Word and in a short time he professed to accept Christ as his Savior. With his knowledge of the Old Testament, and the customs of the East, he was able to interpret the Scriptures in a refreshing way. His face shone and his eyes sparkled with the light of Heaven when he spoke of the Lord. He progressed rapidly in spiritual matters. I have never seen anyone so zealous and hungry for the Word as he.

Dave was released from the hospital and went back to his friends. One night he was missing from the little group, much prayer went up for him. Several days elapsed before we saw him, then we learned that the Jewish lad did not intend to return and fellowship with the group. We learned later that the acting Rabbi and friends had pressured him into a complete denial of his Christian faith and of the Lord Jesus Whom we thought he loved. This came as a tremendous shock to the group of believers. It caused a deep searching of our hearts and for most of us it strengthened our faith as we put our roots deeper into the vital truths of our Christian heritage.

There were many plots hatched to escape from the shackles of imprisonment during these pressure-packed days. Many of these schemes were never carried out -- the chance of success was almost nil -- and if one was caught, the consequences were worse than death.

The Anglo-Indians had the best chance to escape, or so they thought. Having carried out preparations for several months, and being helped with money and supplies from inside sources, they escaped through the barbed wire. Their absence was concealed at roll call that night but the following night it was discovered.

Eventually, the escapees were caught and beaten so terribly that they were returned to the hospital under guard for treatment. When the men showed a slight improvement the guards took them away. Soon after, the Colonel in charge of the hospital and a few of his senior officers were escorted by the Japanese to a distant point. To their horror they saw the men standing at the heads of graves, which they had been forced to dig. They were shot down in cold blood by a Japanese firing squad, their battered and emaciated bodies fell in crumpled heaps into the freshly dug graves.

The following day, the shocked Colonel called us together and told the gruesome story, warning us that in the future anyone caught attempting to escape was certain to meet with the same fate.

Shortly after this incident the Japanese produced a paper, which forbade anyone to try and escape under any circumstances. They insisted that every prisoner sign this. The officers and men refused.

The Nipponese were never at a loss for reprisal, and proved that they were equal to this occasion. They had countermeasures ready and quickly began to expedite them.

The 14,860 men, excluding hospital patients and staff, were marched hurriedly into a barbed wire enclosure measuring 261 feet by 165 feet. The same area had accommodated 600 men in peacetime conditions. Machine guns had been mounted at the corners of the enclosure. Searchlights blazed continuously through the hours of darkness. The conditions were terrible at best and could have deteriorated quickly into a catastrophe. The men had to eat and sleep in shifts. No one could lie down or even sit down, until it was his turn. On the fourth day dysentery broke out and spread rapidly among the troops, very soon everyone would be affected. Colonel E. B. Holmes, commanding British and Australian troops, reluctantly and under duress signed the paper not to escape. Otherwise the heartless Japanese had threatened to bring the hospital patients and staff and dump them into this inferno.

It was a motley throng that left the portals of death; a number had already died. They walked as best they could carrying their meager belongings. Though legs were swollen and eyes red for lack of sleep, they dragged their weary frames over the dusty miles. Some even sang the old battle songs -- these men were defeated but not broken.