MY CRUISE TO THE ORIENT
A.J. (Dick) Fowden
We (all the troops going out) were assembled at West Kirby and for the short time we were there we had to endure the bombing of Liverpool. It was a tented camp and many nights during our time there, the enemy came over and our Ack-Ack replied but all the jagged pieces of metal coming down bounced on the canvas tents (fortunately) and at daylight went around picking them up, and passing remarks about what would have happened to anyone being hit by them.
Quite a large convoy left the Mersey, I was happy with our ship and the comfort of it. The "Athlone Castle". We headed north meeting a convoy from Scotland off the north coast of Ireland. It was a very impressive sight. We were very happy with the naval ships to look after us, there were so many of them. However when the morning dawned most of those naval ships had gone and we felt very exposed, however we trundled along in the north Atlantic swell, many of the men being sick, yes sick of the sea, so soon.
We had a Sparks unit aboard the "Athlone" who informed us the troop ship "Anselm" sent a message, something was wrong with her engine and she could not keep up with her convoy, the message sent back was for her to cut the comer by turning South, to try and get her engines working properly and to pick up the convoy near the Azores.
Before we arrived at the Azores, we were again informed by "Sparks”the enemy had found the "Anselm" first and sunk her with the loss of over four hundred lives. We were sorry to hear this news but glad it wasn't us, as we had no choice as to which vessel we travelled on, (which was again to be in my favourlater).
The convoy trundled on back across the Atlantic to Freetown north west Africa, lining up in the Roads off the coast, but as darkness fell, fairly close to our own ship was an American boat illuminated like “Blackpool illuminations" making all our ships look very vulnerable, it was easy to see the British had been here a plenty as all the Bum-Boats owners spoke filthy British language.
I awoke the first morning at Freetown on my 28th birthday, a lot had happened in that first year from receiving my call up papers on my 27th birthday. We were soon away making our way south. The swimming pool on the stern of the ship was ready for use and a full ceremony of crossing the line was carried out with the Captain being one of the last to be treated to a ducking. The sea and the sky in the south Atlantic was a beautiful purple colour.
One night getting well down towards the Cape, the "Athlone" made a terrific turn to starboard causing a heavy roll to port, the crashing of the crockery in the bowels of the ship and other items was unbelievable, some men were thrown out of their bunks, fortunately things soon got to order. It appears the escort had lost the "Athlone" during the darkness and had come to look for her; she did the same manoeuvre helping to cause our troubles.
Our next excitement was going round the Cape; these big ships disappeared in the troughs of the waves even the masts could not be seen. Part of the convoy went into Capetown. We went to Durban and what a wonderful time we had. The people were on the quay to greet us at such an early hour with newspapers and oranges a plenty. After we the Med. Sorry to say she was only back in the Med a few days when she was torpedoed and sunk with heavy loss of life, over 400 I was told. We had only one night in Durban and left early next morning with the rest of the convoy rom Capetown.
It was a long haul up the Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Aden where all the ships left us, escorts as well. We were really had moved in the Battle Cruiser "Barham”came out, she looked beautiful and had been in for repairs after action in on our own now, however “Sparks” came up with a message, we were
to proceed to the east and would be picked up by armed merchantman "Hecta", which turned out to be correct and she escorted us to Bombay. (Regretfully planes off Ceylon attacked the ‘Hecta’ after the Japs had entered the war and she was sunk). In Bombay we were loading potatoes into the lower part of the ship, when "Sparks,” told us the naval ship in the harbour was the "Exeter” and a message had been flashed - Stop. Loading immediately and make readyfor sea - and she escorted us to Singapore.
We had to go around the headland before arriving in Singapore and another ship with time expired men aboard were shouting and making rude gestures and telling us we were going the wrong way. They did not realise we were just as excited arriving in the Orient as they were to be leaving it! Sorry to have to say the "Exeter" was sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea the following year.
After our arrival in Singapore we were taken to a "'Transit Camp" on the left side of Bukitimor Road on the way to the R.A.F. Base at Seletar. Here we were taught, (not intentionally) what living rough really meant especially after the UK and the "Athlone Castle" treatment. Our residence consisted of straw on palm leaves and wood or bamboo framed huts.
This life served some of us in good stead, as we were to live in similar but much worse conditions when the Japs took over. We were told to reside at this
camp until sent for from Seletar. However men kept disappearing from the site. I therefore decided to make my way up to Seletar (the Base) to see what was going on; here I met Sgt. Davies the NCO in charge of Station Sick Quarters. He enquired where I had come from? After certain formalities he told me to ring the Base the next morning and ask for transport to pick up myself and gear. Those duties were carried out and I arrived at S.S. Quarters with all my belongings I was helped with this operation as all my 'Blue" had to go into 'cold Storage' until I need it again, I did not realise it would be "NEVER". I was also given a billet on the second floor of a three-storey barrack block of brick and concrete construction, which overlooked the S.S. Quarters. The block was named after a place in the Middle East. I had not had such luxury before except for a short time at Shawbury near Shrewsbury.
At Seletar I was always glad of the showers the atmosphere was always so sticky, a comfortable clean bed and matching mosquito net were very welcome,day or night, another plus was having an 'Indian Boy' who brought char (tea) round every afternoon. He would enquire if I would be going out that evening,if the answer were yes! He would get my suit out and a clean shirt and clean my shoes ready.
The food at Seletar was wonderful; bowls of fruit were always on the tables as also were bowls of onions (the blue type) all for helping oneself. On Sunday men not on duty appeared to always go out for tea, I know not why as chicken was usually put on for Sunday tea in the camp.
The first job I was given was to take the 'Sick Parade' at 0700 hours each morning. Here I had to enquire from patients what they were complaining of and this I had to write on a slip of paper and give it to them to hand to the Medical Officer on duty, when the patient's time arrived, this method appeared to save time for the Medical Officer. Those whom I knew would have to go into hospital I sent back to their Barracks for them to return with their "Small Kit", this again saved time as a bus came each morning for this purpose.
Most of the men had a 'Tailor' made suit to wear when going into the city so of course I had to have the same, the Indian tailor did not spare the cloth and I paid him thirty English shillings for his trouble and I was highly delighted. A new Medical Officer arrived at S.S.Q whom I immediately recognised as a
Scotsman I had met at Yatesbury Hospital. (F/Lt Forbes.) This Officer was immediately put on Sick Parade, which made me think all newcomers to Seletar were put on sick Parades. I regret to say Dr. Forbes did not have much time in his native Scotland after his return as he died within a few years.
As a change I was sent out on the pinnace into the South China Sea where the old vildebeest planes were having a dive- bombing practice on Torpedo
dropping. Although the Torpedoes had dummy heads on, showing a red light in the nose and a smoke signal, they were not easy to see especially if there
was a bit of a lop (so one got lost occasionally). A slower and wider boat than the pinnace picked these up. When the old vildebeest dived to deliver, their
wings appeared to flop like a great bird. I had awful misgivings, as those old planes would be shot out of the sky before they were able to do damage to the enemy. I used to enjoy the day out in the beautiful sunshine, I picked up my rations from the cookhouse before going aboard and then handed them in as soon as I got on board. The pinnace had three 'Merlin' engines but only two were normally used. The larger boat had a small hold which was used when picking up the spent Torpedoes which were not easily seen, it was a pleasant day out on her and very good experience. Not being anchored it was difficult to keep ones eyes on the Torpedoes for picking up. On return to Base I had nothing to do but return to my barrack and bunk.
When the war did start in the Far East those brave Air Crew took those old planes out against an enemy with fighterplane capable of 300 miles per hour or more. A few of our Air Crew got away with just metal splinters in the buttocks and for others far more serious. Before the Far East War actually started I was sent on the Pinnace with a Medical Officer to bring a sick man from asmall camp down the straits, we got him aboard and on our return a marker light was out and the skipper kept trying to get a fix but no one would reply to his call on shore. It turned out to be an Air Raid Precaution night and those ashore thought it was part of the practice and would not reply. Another job I was given one evening was to be at the Seaplane Base for the return of a Sunderland flying boat which I found most interesting, it surprised me how quickly the flying boat lost speed after hitting the water. Just before the plane was due to in there was a wind shift, which meant the flare path had to be relayed quickly, and I was able to help the young man in his duties of relaying the flare path. We had Catalina and Sunderland flying boats; the latter were the favourites amongst the men.
A few days before the war started in the Far East our Senior Medical Officer: - F/Lt Hudson came to S.S Quarters to tell me I was to go with himself to the
General Hospital in Jahore and the General Hospital in Singapore as he wanted to find out what capacity they each had for the injured in the event of war
breaking out? (Had he received a new message)
On Sunday nights if not on duty I used to go to the club on the Camp where I met Cpl Taylor, he lived at No 2 site which meant he had to pass the door of my Barrack Block on his way home so we usually walked that far together. On Sunday night 7th December 1941 it was such a beautiful warm and clear night we stood talking until 1.00 a.m. 8th December. The moon was Full and a book could easily have been read by its light. Cpl. Taylor was due on the boat that very morning and we said our good-byes, he enquired if I had anything I wished to send home to my wife the answer was no - we write to each other regularly, so after that and shaking hands a couple of times he was off to his billet at No 2 site. I mounted the stairs to my Barrack room, shortly after 2.00 a.m. the Tannoy woke everyone up to state 'BLACK OUT" comes into force immediately, this did not stop us falling asleep again almost at once. The next notification that all was not well was exploding bombs on the ground between us and S.S. Quarters, causing smoke. I quickly dressed to report for duty and had to pass the toilet section on our floor, to my surprise there were long queues of men waiting to use the toilets. Had it not been so serious it would have been laughable, as all the men appeared to be naked except for having a 'Gas Mask' on their chests and a steel helmet on their heads. There did not seem to be much fight in any of them.
When I got out of the building an Indian Gun Crew were sending up tracer shells from a Bofors Gun towards the enemy planes, the shells having only about half the ceiling of the planes which were bunched together and going in a north westerly direction, I counted 53 or 54. I continued across to Station Sick Quarters but not a soul was about. The whole Sick Quarters, the whole “Show Case” was a wreck, all the glass show cases and shelves had been shattered,whilst they looked very lovely in peace time they were obviously most unsuited in any kind of conflict. Walking into the building one felt to be walking on Cockleshells. It made me realise had the 'Tannoy' gone ‘off’ as it should have done I would have been an early casualty and so would many others. I remained outside Station Sick Quarters for a few hours, first to come along was a small vehicle from No.2 Site, the two service men got out and one of them told me they had two casualties which would have to go in the 'Morgue' would I help to carry them, of course I would! The first one had his head blown completely off level with his shoulders, we put him under cover and the second one wasn't as badly injured, probably more internally, having done this duty,
I had to get the details of the two men, the first one without a head was Cpl. Taylor, the man I had spent my Sunday evening with in the club and we had
only parted company a few hours ago. What a terrible tragedy as his people would have been expecting him home shortly. No supporting staff had arrived by the time we should have been opening up, except a young officer. He shouted at me and said, “Get this place cleaned up orderly, look at the state it is in”. I did not know him but he appeared to be just out from the UK. I was feeling shattered myself by then and told the officer he had probably had his breakfast by now, I hadn't even had a drink of tea, but I had had an awful experience putting a friend in the morgue so if he wanted it cleaning up he had better get on with it. Looking back I should not have spoken so severely to him. My attention was drawn to the two Battle ships sailing down the "Straits of Jahore" making for the South China Sea. That would be the last time we would see their majestic silhouettes as without Air Cover they did not have any chance of survival and there were no planes in the Far Fast to put up any sort of fight. Both ships were sunk, a very sad episode (Repulse and Prince of Wales).
Another sad affair unfolded in the Far East. On the Athlone Castle (when I travelled out) a doctor posted to the Far East made friends with two orderlies also going out to the Far East. On arrival in Singapore the Medical Officer was posted to Burma and knowing these two orderlies so well he invited them to go with him, which they gladly accepted. However the first bombing of the war dropped one into the trench in which they were sheltering and all three were killed.
It was rather hard going for Airmen going into the "Union Jack Club" or some of the 'Bars' as the navy men blamed the Air Force for the loss of their ships and men, and those ashore were prepared to fight it out with any of the Air Force men, they could get involved with. One evening two Vildebeest biplanes
attempted to take off from the flying field at Seletar in the dark, they collided and one bomb exploded, both planes burst into fire and its heat started the
small arms ammunition to explode. The two Pilots were rescued and taken to two garages, which now became Emergency Station Sick Quarters. These men were both badly burnt. F/LT. Hudson worked on one of the pilots and Sgt. Davies worked on the other. They did ask for their wives to be brought to them but first things came first, I had seen badly burnt patients before and sadly I never heard what happened to these men as I was posted from Seletar the next day. An RAF man rang me to pass on this information: - Both Pilots died as I expected. The Airman I brought back on the pinnace from South Johore (just before the war started in the Far East) was suffering from malaria, is still alive, again an ex RAF person rang me with this information.
Dr. Conlon searched me out the next morning and told me I was to travel with him and that I was to get all my gear to the station gate as soon as possible, there would 69 others there also but I had not to get mixed up with them. We would all be travelling together for part of the journey then I would be travelling with him for the last part of the journey. These instructions were carried out and I finished up sitting on a hatch cover of a Dutch River Boat
with many other men, one of whom was a Sergeant from up country in Malaya and Jack Plant with whom I had struck up a friendship although we had not seen much a each other up to now.
The boat made its way south (in the dark) along the East Coast of Sumatra, Sgt. Russell (now deceased) lit a cigarette, the Dutchmen aboard created and I would not have been surprised if they had thrown our Sgt over the side for endangering the boat and all the men on her, however he was able to make good his apologies.
After a long sail down the coast of Sumatra we pulled in behind what I thought was a big' rock, we were not hiding from the enemy just waiting for the tide to rise so that we could navigate up the River Musi to Palembang, the rock was in fact the island of 'Bangka'. We proceeded up the River Musi during the night to Palembang arriving in the morning. Here I was instructed by Dr. Conlon to find a school or some suitable place to leave my two kibags, as we would be back within a few days to pick them up. Also I had to catch the train going south the next day to 'Lahat". I scrounged a trip across the river and made my way to the railhead. The train had bare boards to sit upon each side of the carriage and one plank down the middle of the carriage. On our way we had to pass over many creeks with water rushing down them, the bridges were all wired ready for demolition and I hoped nobody would activate the fuse whilst I was on the train.
We duly arrived at the small town of Lahat; I had to fend for myself here so moved into a typical large Dutch barracks although I had nothing to lose except what I stood up in. Jack Plant and Norman Graham arrived in Lahat and for the few days we were there we met each evening and had a little walk and chat about the events taking place, although rain was a problem because it was a typical rain forest area, starting every night at about the same time 1900.
When Doctor Conlon saw me the next day he enquired if I had a place ready. I told him no! As there were no Senior NCOs in the town and this was a job for them, as I did not want to get at loggerheads with any of them. Dr. Conlon immediately said: -"This is what I have brought you here to do, I am now
instructing you to do what I have asked you to do I did not need telling again, I went into the little town and ordered what I wanted and had it all delivered and I signed for it as the Doctor had instructed me to do. The goods were delivered that afternoon and I notified the Doctor all was ready. I know as an ordinary rank I could not do this so I came to the conclusion I had been promoted, which turned out to be correct. Lahat was well known by name as Frances Chichester landed on the flying field in 1934 with his amphibious plane 'Gypsy Moth' on his solo flight to Australia. He preferred to settle on the land because of the ingress of water into his floats, therefore using much more fuel to get up off the water. His next stop was the Timor Sea. He was "Knighted"after this successful trip and became "Sir Francis".
The little town of Lahat had had the usual strong Dutch Barracks, the bar sold strong beer called "Anchor Donka" which our senior NCOs were fond of, one of them took a sword from one of the Dutch soldiers and frightened many of them by dancing around the room pretending to attack them. One other point about Lahat, I chose a bungalow opposite a native Army Barracks thinking I would have some help if found necessary during the night as I had to sleep there the following night on my own. However the night before, one of the native troops went berserk and sprayed his sleeping comrades from his automatic rifle killing eleven and injuring many more. The next day two 'Hudson's' arrived from the Middle East and had to be fuelled, this was done from the dump near by.
The method: - A line of men was formed fairly close together and a full four gallon can was placed in front of each man, then from the dump the chain
started passing cans but without bending backs, still very tiring. Those near the planes had to pass the cans up which was a much harder job, however the job was done and the planes got away. The next day we were off again, we were told to make our way to the Rail Head and get aboard the waiting train.
Lorries were picking up men on the way, unfortunately for each straggler picked up, somebody's kit bag was thrown off the lorry. It did not worry me but I was sorry for Jack Plant whose kit had gone before we boarded the train.
The train was the same as the previous one bare boards etc, the ravines were more numerous and deeper with much water gushing through, the wooden
bridges were all wired up for demolition as were the previous ones. We waited hours for the train driver to appear and then we were told he had run away. Two of our officers then asked if anyone could drive a train and fortunately we had four or more volunteers, it was very much later than intended when we moved off which made it very late for our arrival at Oosthaven (South East Sumatra) at this little port there were scores of vehicles where people had driven down in their attempts to get away from the Japs, many were large American cars just dumped at the side of the road. One British Army Officer went along the line of vehicles and with his revolver shot through many of the tyres and in some cases made damage under the bonnets. We duly boarded a small cargo boat, most of the people were in the hold which was nearly at deck level, all types of military were on the floor or leaning and sleeping on the sides.
During the night whilst crossing the Sunda Straits a shot was fired from a rifle amongst the dozing passengers which caused a small panic, women were trying to get from one side to the other with babies in their arms, it was sheer panic for a short time. Some clown must have left a cartridge in the breech and of course it was fired in error, he was never found, I think it would have been a watery grave for him if the naval men could have got their clutches on him. On arrival at 'Merak' Java a lovely European train was awaiting us for our move into Batavia, we stopped at two stations on the way whose Red Cross ladies were waiting to serve us with tea or coffee, sandwiches and cakes, all were most welcome as most of us had neither food or drink for the past 24 hours.
An Australian Airman was working the train he begged the use of my razor and then had the impudence to ask if he could use my toothbrush, needless to say this was declined. Doctor Conlan chatted up one of the young ladies who told him she was three months pregnant and had not been able to let her
husband know as he was working on a submarine and had not heard from him for three months and she hoped he would be all right. We were put in the Mr. Cornelius Barracks Batavia on our arrival. Next morning we had to travel to an airfield at Tjalilitan a few miles west of Batavia using a small field
ambulance for transport and it was full of young orderlies, on the way out we passed a long column of natives bringing in their wares to sell. Doctor
Kinmouth was our Medical Officer. We did a few laps of the airfield during the morning and had a chat with British soldiers manning an Anti Aircraft Battery at the side of the field. When making the next round trip two planes came into view and some of these young inexperienced orderlies said those are ours, we can tell them, within seconds there was rat-tatttat- the Anti Aircraft Battery was being shot up, we made our way to a hanger and got down on the ground. I tried so hard to get all my body under the steel helmet and I could not understand why I could not. We did not hear any reply from the Ack-Ack Battery but did a round of the airfield after the planes had left and discovered one of the Battery had received a bullet high up in his thigh but they would not allow us to attend him saying they had their own Medical Unit. The enemy only wanted to silence the A.A. Battery. On our return to Batavia that evening it was like entering a ghost town, not a soul was about, we went to the Barracks and had a little food, stayed the night and in the morning the ambulance had gone and the orderlies or most of them.
We had breakfast and received instructions to make our way to Sukabumi, south of Batavia (now Jakarta) and there found a cinema showing an American film with Javanese subtitles, which we knew, would be ideal for us, as we could understand the American language. Whilst awaiting the cinema to open a few young ladies came along with the intention of going to the pictures. One of these young ladies was the person who told Dr. Conlon about the pregnancy and that her husband was on a Dutch submarine and she had not heard from him for three months and she hoped that he would be all right. She repeated her story to me almost word for word. Then she invited us for lunch the next day at her fathers home but would have to go and confirm the arrangement, she was soon back saying everything was all right and we arranged to meet outside the cinema at noon the next day. Unfortunately we received orders that night to make our way to Purwakarta Air Field where 84 Squadron were to work from. The airfield was at Kalijati. We were sorry about this, as we could not apologise to those kindly people, not having their address. We caught a tram to the road leading to the airfield but were surprised when we got off the tram to see the native wares all on the footpath, these included dogs which had been cut up into steaks or portions but the head and tail of each dog was with the joints of dog meat so the people could see which kind of dog they would be eating. We walked the rest of the way to the airfield which was very busy, the planes were being bombed up and other men were belting up small arms ammunition, this went on well into the night. We were tired and fell asleep but when we awoke it was like a graveyard, the planes had all gone so had the men, another Ghost Drome. We had nothing to do, then a RAF Doctor arrived and told us there were seven soldiers in the small hospital across the road and he would not leave without them, he had already sent for a lorry. Next an Officer of the British Army came down the road (which lead to the north coast) and told us to clear off, as the next person coming down that road would be the enemy. We explained the circumstances of the men in the hospital, he then stood and said: - You have been warned?
In the late afternoon the lorry arrived and we proceeded to load them on with their gear, climbed up on ourselves and we were off. The roads were in a bad state and every pothole we bumped over caused some of the men to groan or shriek with pain, however we arrived in 'Bandung' the capital of Java and handed our human cargo over to the nurses at a cinema which had been converted into a temporary hospital. We were told to go in the lorry to the airfield at Tasikmalaya to surrender as the Dutch had stopped the fight and the surrender was to be taken on the airfield. A fire was burning in an oil barrel for anyoneto get rid of anything they did not want the Japs to find. When the Japs did arrive at the small hospital across from the airfield at Kaligati they bayoneted all the patients in their beds also the nurses and a doctor. Only one person got away through the back door and on to a jungle path, which he knew about or we may never have known the truth. That is why the RAF Medical Officer was so keen to get those men away on the lorry. A high ranking Air Force officer addressed the men and told them there was no chance of getting away from Java but if anyone thought they had a cast- iron escape route to let him know as he was most desirous of getting out of Java himself.
A number of officers mostly doctors decided we should not give ourselves up so easily. A convoy of small army trucks together with volunteers were got
together with the intention of making for the South West Coast of Java, thinking there was a possibility of being taken off. We, my close friend Jack Plant, Norman Graham, Dr Tierney and myself joined the party and went in our big field ambulance (always a bed). The convoy trundled along and eventually stopped for the night at a small Kampong (village) where we stayed for a day or two. Dr Tierney said to his Brother Officers: - "It is time we started thinking of how we are going to feed all these men". Some of his Brother Officers said: - This is treasonable talk and later told the doctor they were going to hold a (Kangaroo) Court and charging the Doctor (Tierney) with this offence. It would be held in one of the cottages (now empty) and as a precaution he was divested of his handgun, which was planted in the middle of the table around which the other officers were sitting. However the charge went flat and the proceedings were cancelled. The handgun being duly returned to Dr Tierney.
After a day or two we had notice from the Dutch, we had to go down to the town of 'Tasikmalaya' and surrender or be bombed out. We would be allowed to take the lorries with the goods we wanted or we could destroy the vehicles and march down carrying anything we wanted with us. It was decided to take the vehicles. Next question was: - What Day?
Most of our officers were from Ireland and it was only a few days to 'Saint Patrick's Day (Wednesday 17 March 1942) that was decided to be the day. It came all too quickly. We started off in a small convoy not knowing how we would be received. Our convoy passed a number of vehicles and cycles all of which were flying the Japanese Flag, which was also displayed in most of the house windows where they were fortunate enough to have them. Many native cottages did not have windows nor did they have chimneys, the smoke from fires had to find its way out between the tiles on the roof. Some of these cottages had the inside walls papered with old American newspapers.
Halfway to Tasikmalaya we ran into a Japanese 'Road Block'. They stopped the convoy and appeared to be quite friendly; to make this more so they tossed pomelo's into our vehicles (like large coarse grapefruit), which were most refreshing. They appeared to be a happy, smiling bunch of men, why I shall never know. Unless it was because they did not have to come and fight it out with us to remove us from the hills and valleys. We were guided to an outside native market. A three-foot boundary wall on the front (to the street) and a three-foot iron railings type top of that. It had been slightly prepared for us as a trench had been dug along the whole front not far from the railings with bamboo poles for the men to sit upon as that was to be our toilet whilst encamped in this place. We just "Pigged" in where we could and whilst some of the men had a little money to spend a native market sprung up on the footpath outside the railings. I did not have any money and had not received any from before leaving Seletar until I arrived in 'Cosford' nearly four years later. Women and young girls arrived in droves every morning on the footpath outside the camp to watch all these men using the latrines; perhaps they wanted to see if the white men had anything different to their own men? We stayed in this market for ten to fourteen days and were then marched to the airfield at 'Tasikrnalaya'. On the way we had to pass scores of military vehicles, all of which was "Booty", mobile guns etc belonging to the Dutch and British, many of the guns were 'Bofors' Anti Aircraft. We marched up to the airfield from which we had departed several weeks before. A day or so later Jack Plant came looking for me to ask if I would like to join them with a party of three hundred men who were being sent to an aerodrome in east central Java without any medical help. Dr Tierney had volunteered to go with them and was in the process of recruiting orderlies, he had already got three volunteers and a Corporal but still required one more orderly, would I like to make the number up? I immediately said yes, having been assured by Jack Plant the doctor appeared to be a very nice fellow. Fortunately my promotion had not yet caught up with me having been on the move ever since. Joining the party was one of the best things I could have done. I am still here to prove it!
We left Tasikrnalaya in convoy together with a number of Jap guards. Our first obstacle on the road to our new camp was a fast tidal river; the large iron
bridge had been blown. The Japs had organised a way of moving our convoy across, three small boats had been fastened together and a woven bamboo
platform fixed across the boats, the lorries had to drive off the banking on to the platform, then a number of natives pulled the boat up stream for quite a
stretch then on releasing it three men, one in the front of each vessel paddled quickly to get the contraption across the current and eventually opposite
where they had started from. A long tedious job but fully accomplished before nightfall, everyone including the Saps slept on or in their vehicles where they had come to rest on the road. We duly arrived at the little town of Madeun, the aerodrome was only a short distance away which comprised of a large grass flying field and a railway siding on which several trucks with American Aircraft still in them (in their packages) not even burnt.
We settled in, the men living in the Hangar, medics in the large ambulance. Dr Tierney on the front seat. The men had to tidy up the hangar, which they did by smashing everything possible, the Japs were quite happy at this until they realised what the men were doing after which it came to a Halt! Nothing had to be broken.
The place for the aerodrome was named Maespati. A native market was soon started outside the front gate and anyone with any money was allowed out but before doing so had to bow to the Jap guard who would nod his head and wave you through. Although the Japs set up houses of joy for their troops with girls dragged from Korea, it wasn't long before these men were trying out the native women after which they came creeping round to the sick bay asking for treatment, we hadn't anything to give them and they dare not report sick to their own Medical Department. Regretfully the Dutch East Indies was full of venereal diseases as was Singapore and the Malay States.
An early incident in our lives as a P.O.W. of the Japs was when one of our officers for some minor failing towards the Japs had his face slapped badly. The men were furious at this but the officer asked the men to say and do nothing about it, as he was afraid any attempted showdown with the Japs could have resulted in much worse things happening to the men. Within a few days the Japs decided to throw a party for the natives who were invited into the large hangar. Jack Helliwell who prior to the war had played in a dance band in Todmorden (Lancs), his instrument being the trumpet, which he was excellent in playing. It appeared to be a very good concert enjoyed by all the natives invited (not P.O.W’s unless taking part). A day or two later whilst working in the hangar Helliwell picked up his trumpet and played a tune but before he knew where he was the Japs arrived and slapped him up and down for playing his musical instrument without first obtaining permission. After which the instrumentalist said he would not play again and flattened one of the pipes on his trumpet with a hammer. However after some days the Japs decided to have another party for the natives. Jack Helliwell told the Jap he could not play again as his instrument had been damaged. He did however play! The Japs told him: - "You play or else?" which made it necessary for Jack Helliwell to saw the pipe through, ream out the two ends and solder these together. Fortunately for Jack Helliwell he was able to get sufficient noise from the instrument for the Japs to appreciate, which saved the instrumentalist from receiving a good bashing.
My great friend Jack Plant was taken ill at Maespati with Amoebic Dysentery and had to go to the outside Hospital at Madeun where he stayed for a short
time until we moved to a girl’s school in Soerabaya. While at Maespati Aerodrome several Airmen arrived with a very sick RAF Sgt. He was very ill, his
temperature was 106 degrees. As luck would have it there was a large metal tank close by, used for collecting rainwater from the hangar roof. Dr. Tierney ordered the men to bring a blanket, which had lain on the ground, and the patient laid onto it. Now Dr. Tierney told the four strongest men to take a comer each and lower the patient into the water. We took his temperature every two minutes, all was doing well until one of the men lost his grip and the patient’s head went under the water. The doctor was furious, he shouted out in ungentlemanly words here we were trying to save a man’s life and they were trying to drown the poor b---r. We did get his temperature down to normal and even with all he had to go through in the next three and a half years he came back to South Wales. We have spoken to each other on the phone and his dear wife Elsie, and have written to each other. Sorry to say he died after a fall on Sunday 23 July 2000. (Dai Williams ex Sgt RAF)
My wife Gwen was conceived in Wales but was born in Rochdale (many years ago) used to talk to Dai and his wife. When the work had been completed at Maespati all the men were moved to a school in Soerabaya including patients from the hospital. Jack Plant and his Amoebic Dysentery and Sgt Paddy Burns with Typhoid, there was an isolation section at this school and they were fortunate in having a very well qualified Chinese Doctor to look after them, with no after effects. Both Jack Plant and Sgt Bums had similar fair skin and auburn hair but Jack used to lose his hair if someone called him 'Ginger' although most people would have been proud to have such a head of lovely hair. However it did not matter for a long time, as we had to have our heads shaved off like the Japs. He did not however show any dislike to the Jap's when they called him 'Planto' I wonder why? I had made friends with two Japanese guards at the Aerodrome (Maespati) and we did our best to talk to each other usually by sign language. One of whom had two joints missing on the third finger of his left hand, and I asked him what had happened to cause him to lose that part of his finger to which he told me whilst about to fire his rifle during fighting in China a bullet had hit his rifle (from enemy gunfire) and taken off two joints of his third finger on his left hand, he thought he thought how lucky he had been, so did I! The other fellow was getting on fine with his English and me not too good with my Japanese. When the time came for us to move into Soerabaya he tried to tell me life would be much harder for us and explained by kicking some sand and trying to explain it was soft but where we were going we would find it hard, demonstrating by kicking a piece of rock sticking out of the ground.
Before going into the hard camp we found the girls school quite comfortable although it meant sleeping on the hard floors. Many of the men slept on the
verandas around the building because of the intense heat, these were raised considerably from the surrounding ground, which invariably became flooded with the heavy rain. We had few visitors; a number of monkeys came to see what it was all about. It was nice to see the colonies of monkeys on the move. Some carrying little ones, contrary to what I always believed these animals did not jump from branch to branch, what they did was to hurl themselves into the greenery and grab whatever they could and they moved around without touching the ground. What infuriated our men was the monkeys being very noisy going through the men's possessions and when they found a packet of cigarettes, they would climb up onto a low roofed building open the packet, pulls cigarette out sniff at it tear the paper off and throw it all away and would not stop until the packet was empty. When the men arrived back from a dayswork they would be glad of a smoke, cigarettes were like gold in the Camps and could he used as money to buy anything (except freedom.) Sometimes while on parade monkeys would climb up giant Poplar trees and thereby attract the men's attention much to the annoyance of the guards. The men weresearched before leaving camp and were again searched on their return in the evening. Each day they were at the Docks loading ships with armaments.
After some little time the medics and others were sent out into the city of Soerabaya to clean up the grass verges and small gardens. Not all civilian women had yet been put into the compounds and would often throw packets of cigarettes to us and then hurry away in case the guards caught up with them. We were glad of the smokes but did not want these ladies to get into trouble with these little yellow men, but soon they, the civilians were all behind barbed wire in order to keep them in place. After a number of weeks at the school we were sent on lorries to another camp at Soerabaya known as Yaarmkt or Yearly Market. Here we had room to move about. We had to parade every morning and evening to make sure no one had escaped. The Jap guards counted us on their bead counters sometimes getting it wrong and having to go through the whole process again. Here I was introduced to Bed Bugs, which I had not seen before in my lifetime. I had a mosquito net and although I had itched a lot did not suspect I had visitors. Across the walkway were some Lancashire lads who told me to look in the upper corners of my mosquito net and I would surely find some. To my horror the four corners were full of fat hugs feeding on me at night and sleeping it off during the day and getting ready for the next fill up. I soon disposed of the four colonies of bugs but had to extremely vigilant or I would have been overrun again. One of the men at Yaarmkt Camp was ex Air Crew and he insisted on making his bed on the framework (of the children's train) of supports, which was about three and a half feet above the concrete floor. All the men round about would waken with the shouting; -"Right boys jump for it now", to be followed by the crashing of a body onto the concrete floor, usually between the beds. There would be a lot of; - Have you hurt yourself "Lofty"? He appeared to have little trouble in that direction. I was sleeping on my ambulance stretcher; I had borrowed a handsaw and cut off the four handles so that it would be no further use as a stretcher. One day I had our Senior Medical Officer (Far East) Wing Commander Coffey to visit me. He said orderly here are you sleeping on that nice stretcher bed and there are officers over then sleeping on the floor. Don't you think they should have this stretcher? My reply was quick and to the point, I explained to the Wing/Co that I had carried it and what I had done to it so it was no use to the Japanese and that the only person who should sleep on that bed was myself. The Wing Commander made no bones about it and said; - "Orderly it is your bed as long as you can keep it". I thanked him sincerely; he was such an understanding person, far removed from some of the upstarts who had only arrived recently in order to help fill the POW Camps. Like the one who told me to clear the Station Sick Quarters at Seletar after the place had been bombed beyond repair.