CHAPTER 17 The Atomic Bomb

The world entered abruptly into the Atomic Age on August 6, 1945. The Allies had dropped the first-ever atom bomb on Hiroshima with devastating effects. Buildings and people had completely vanished. Multitudes more were maimed and burned in the awful inferno. The shock waves that resounded throughout the world were nothing compared to the shock of the Japanese soldiers. They had never expected this, defeat was unthinkable. They had been the victims of propagandism. Slowly and reluctantly the Nipponese had stopped fighting. It was all quiet on the far-flung battlefronts of Southeast Asia. The scream of the dive-bombers, the whine of the shells, the crunch of exploding bombs, and the piercing crackle of small-arms fire were silenced. It was an eerie silence.

The Nipponese forces in the Malay Peninsula at first refused to obey their orders from Tokyo. This put the prisoners under their command in a very precarious position. There was a period lasting several hours in which our fate hung in the balance. Only by rushing a special envoy from Tokyo to Singapore was the garrison persuaded to lay down their arms. The ultimate surrender brought great relief and joy into the lives of the remaining badly crippled allied prisoners.

When the summoned Allied commanders were ushered into the presence of the Japanese general, he announced very gravely that for them the war was over, but for him it had only begun. This officer had allowed and consented to the brutal atrocities, which had been perpetrated in his command. More than once he had strutted proudly through the filthy compounds, sneering at the condition of the victims of cruelty. Now he stood humbled before those whom he had treated as animals. Pointing to a picture of his wife and son standing beside a huge German shepherd dog he asked, “What will happen to them?” If the question was asked of the Allied officers to evoke sympathy, it was unsuccessful. Taking command immediately they produced, from the most unlikely places, documents demanding, among other things, the release of all prisoners who were being held in solitary confinement, an increased food ration, and badly needed medical supplies.

Human language could not describe the pitiable condition of prisoners freed from solitary confinement. How they managed to survive is a story that probably will never be told. Slowly the men from the outlying areas began to come into a central camp. They came with light hearts but broken bodies, carrying their meager belongings and their sick buddies. Those who had been seriously injured while tunneling in the mountains were slowly being brought back to Base. The advent of these various groups in their atrophied physical conditions reminded me of the dark days in the jungles of Thailand where one particular young Englishman came under my care. This lad had had his back broken several months previously and, due to the lack of medical facilities, had developed a bedsore on his buttocks in which I could lose my fist. Mercifully he was paralyzed from the waist down and did not feel the pain. This was only one of the many human tragedies that lay around in abject misery.

We were being visited almost daily now by British planes. One of the first to fly over after the surrender dropped leaflets entitled, “To all Allied Prisoners of War: The Japanese forces have surrendered unconditionally and the war is over. We will get supplies to you as soon as is humanly possible and will make arrangements to get you out, but owing to the distances involved, it may be some time before we can achieve this. You will help yourselves and us if you act as follows: (1) Stay in your camp until you get further orders from us. (2) Start preparing nominal rolls of personnel, giving fullest particulars. (3) List your most urgent necessities. (4) If you have been starved or underfed for long periods, DO NOT eat large quantities of solid food, fruit or vegetables at first. It is dangerous for you to do so. Gifts of food from the local population should be cooked. We want to get you back home quickly, safe and sound, and we do not want to risk your chances from diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera at this last stage. (5) Local authorities and/or Allied officers will take charge of your affairs in a very short time. Be guided by their advice.” As the friendly planes flew low over the compound, daring young airmen stood at their open doors, waving and throwing out newspapers and bars of chocolate.

On the first such occasion I stood and watched the pathetic sight of bedridden men crying like children as they crawled out of the long bamboo huts to greet the friendly planes. Some who were too weak to stand, fell down, their strength inadequate for the occasion. Huge, gaunt frames shook with emotion like leaves in the wind. Men with eyes sunk back in their heads, eyes that had long since lost the sparkle of youth, now with the newfound hope vainly tried to push back the years of suffering and to transform their haggard features.

When the first burst of excitement had died down, many of those who had crawled from their bedspaces were unable to return; they just lay around, exhausted but happy. I spent the next hour helping my weaker comrades back to their beds. Those who could talk talked incessantly of the happy days ahead.

This exciting day drew slowly to its close. The sun had sunk in a blaze of crimson glory over the distant horizon. Darkness crept over the camp and our spirits rose in ecstasy as the truth of our liberation gripped our weary hearts. Very soon now the strains of the nightly “lights-out” would float over the camp from the tower in the jail courtyard. For almost four years the flag of the Imperial Japanese Forces had proudly and defiantly flown from the flagstaff high on the ramparts of the tower. This may have elated the Japanese and their collaborators but it depressed those of us who felt the iron heel of the oppressor. Today it had been unceremoniously hauled down -- the flagstaff was empty. On these same ramparts where the proud little Japanese bugler had sounded “lights-out” night after night, stood one of our own buglers. Soon the air was filled with sweet silvery tones -- silence descended magically upon the survivors of four years of incarceration. To all of us this was the sweetest music that we had ever heard. As the last strains died silently in the night a lump rose in my throat and I must confess that a few tears of thanksgiving trickled down my haggard cheeks. When the excitement and the thrill of the moment died down I peacefully drifted off into the most restful sleep in almost four years.

With the dawning of the new day, activity around the compound increased. Highlighting the day’s proceedings was the important event of hoisting the flag. I was honored by the hospital authorities to represent our area at the flag raising ceremony. Miraculously an old shirt was produced; shorts of a kind and an old forage cap supplemented this. These were hastily washed and in the early afternoon I walked proudly out of our camp clad in the old shirt, shorts, cap, but no boots or shoes. No one ever walked more proudly than I.

About twenty of us stood on the ramparts of the tower at the base of the flagstaffs. These were the selected representatives of various areas. The chaplain was there and to make up the group, the buglers. The ceremony began with the singing of the old hymn of the church, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope in years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.” After a brief prayer, the buglers filled the whole area with silvery blasts, no doubt inspired by the greatness and the joy of the occasion. Soon the notes of triumph were echoing and reechoing throughout the maze of jaded bamboo huts.

Slowly the flags of the three nations – British – American – and Dutch – were raised to the tops of their respective poles. Thousands of men on the ground watched breathlessly. The cord was pulled and the flags unfurled and fluttered proudly in the afternoon breeze. Thousands of voices rose in a lusty cheer, which reverberated around that tower and rose in an ever-swelling crescendo until it seemed that the very heavens would vibrate.

Great, hot tears streamed unabashedly down my cheeks as I looked at the emblems of peace and safety. This was one of my most unforgettable experiences. Now we were safe from all our enemies. How I thanked the Lord that I lived in the Western World where there was at least some semblance of honoring Him, where peace and a measure of security prevailed.

In the excitement of being freed I never forgot to thank my great God. For despite all the human incidents that precipitated the end of the war, I was convinced that He had overruled. My praise and my thanksgiving were sincere, never had I been so thankful in all my life.

“Things are rapidly changing here,” I wrote in my diary on September 5, 1945. “The men are beginning to realize that they are free. The tempo of things is increasing daily. The Navy came into Singapore yesterday, this caused a great stir in the camp.”

The Naval Officers and men looked clean and handsome in their spotless white uniforms. They were very kind; some of them had baskets over their arms filled with all sorts of luxuries. Home-baked bread -- which we ate sparingly -- tasted like cake to us. It was so good to our unaccustomed taste buds that we shunned the butter and jam that was freely offered. Powdered milk was another treat -- no mixing in water for us, just a spoonful in the mouth -- we would chew until our jaws were sore. These were great days, we appreciated the smallest favor. How my heart responded to the kindness of our liberators!

My diary records the following incident, “An Australian, in spite of the fact of having been off good food for three years, ate in one night the contents of his Red Cross parcel-eleven pounds, plus his ordinary rations from the kitchen. He was admitted to the hospital suffering from severe pain. He hovered between life and death for some time before slowly recovering.”

“Men are like children these days,” I wrote, “New clothes are the order of the day, men are parading in shirts of all colors, sizes shapes; socks, shorts, and boots. They laugh, sing, joke, and talk; everyone is on the tiptoe of expectancy. What a difference from a few weeks ago.”

With the reversed roles of the Allied and Nipponese troops, I faced many new situations. The Japanese, under the supervision of the Indian troops, now performed some of the tasks previously assigned to the Allied prisoners. I felt grieved and shamed at the action of some men who brutally assaulted the Japanese prisoners in retaliation for past behavior. I felt strongly that we who had come from lands steeped in Christianity should have set an example to our enemy. Despite long discussions on the subject I failed to convince my countrymen that we should display some of the love of God rather than the hatred of man.

The realization of freedom was working miracles among some of the beleaguered sick. The shackles of disease fell from some of the victims and miraculously some whom we had thought incurable showed definite signs of recovery. Though few remained of the original company, those of us left rejoiced at the unbelievable prospect of seeing our loved ones again.