Richard L Sharp, Prisoner of War

Capitulation – so this was what we had come for. This was the end of out two years of training, of 13 weeks on board ship, to spend a few days in miserable fighting, and give in. Of course, we’d known it had to come. That or death. As we came down the gangplank we were told “We’re evacuating the mainland today” and we said “Christ, have you never heard of Crete out here?” and stepped ashore. But you shoved that out of your mind – you had to. You were no good to anyone except the enemy if you went into a fight, knowing it was useless. And now it was all over and no miracle had happened. It was Sunday, the 15th, and in the garden there was warmth, and a stillness in the air.

“What about getting away?” said Whiskers, and I looked at him, thinking we could do with him. “Sandy and I are trying this evening; care to come?” “Sorry” he said, “I can’t go, but it’s worth your trying”. And Hutch said, “I don’t think you’ll find a boat, but good luck”. He was right, for we found no boat that we could move, and we came back, crestfallen, in an awful anti-climax of failure, frustration and bitter disappointment, mainly in ourselves.

The “Stay where you are” order came with the “Cease fire”, and till the morning of the 17th we stayed where we were, dully awaiting sentence. Then “Pack your kits, move to Changi”. Newcomers, we looked at the map, and found Changi in the N.E. corner of the Island. We were now on the west side of town. “March”. In to the town, through the streets, deserted by natives as by Japanese, draped mournfully with the desolate tram cables, here and there and overturned tram car, past the sullen-faced houses, at which there already hung the miserable insurance of a Jap flag, red blot upon a white field, and out on to Serangoon road. Fork right, down Tampines road, straight and smooth across the swamps and through the trees. And from here to the road’s end there was nothing but troops, troops and more troops, marching to captivity. In step, out of step, columns, heaving, swaying, khaki as far as the eye can see. Where have all these sprung from? How were we defeated, and these still fit? And past them all, lorries career by, in defiance of Jap orders, carrying stores, provisions and anything they can think will come in handy.

Here and there, Malays, still friendly, bring out a coconut and water, and men fall out of line to get them – and we could still think of discipline. Three more miles to go – we can’t make it. H.Q. personnel never marched in their life till now. “Alright, sleep by the roadside”. More coconuts, lumpy slope, no rain, wake stiff, half slept. Quill and I go on ahead to warn Stevie. Luckily pick up an A.I.F. Lorry and reach our quarters.


Hungry, tired, dispirited. Later in the morning have to dig our own latrines, the troops are too exhausted. Archie B. digging, talking, “We are no more in prison now than we have been for the last two years”.

Every building overcrowded, except A Mess and ours and they bad enough. Soon more buildings taken away to make Robert’s hospital. Tents go up on the Padang and on the edge of the swamp, impromptu huts go up in the coconut grove. Fine accommodation and later when they started a piggery they stipulated concrete floors. Was our sense of proportion wrong?

It was the 25th before the Nip administration was able to give us any food. Some units had stocks enough to last out, others hadn’t. The R.A.S.C. tried to organise something, withdrawing from the one to give to the other and build up reserves. But self-forgetfulness was rare and few trusted the R.A.S.C.; after all, everyone feels the same about food when they are hungry, and the R.A.S.C. was not famed for slipping up on its opportunities. Somehow, everyone got some food.

When the rations arrived they were rice. Bags, and bags of it, and we looked dumbly at each other and said “now what[?]”. For the next few months rice was the main topic, all the jokes (not many) were about rice and when they weren’t they were about that other complaint – the “trots” …

But rice it had to be. Some said they were allergic to rice, and some were, and they tried to do without it; they either learned better, or died. Twice a week we got frozen met from the cold storage, and on the third day it was usually rice – bus, as the troops said. Then if they weren’t ill, they were hungry, and if they were ill, well, they were hungrier still when they became better.

Loss of self respect

We had lost a part of our self-respect with the capitulation. The feeling that British Arms had failed again, the disappointment, all the reaction to the surrender, possibly deep down, the feeling of disgrace, brought about a break down of discipline and a collapse of morale. Men, who had let down themselves, their officers and their regiment, felt themselves let down, and were contrarily self-assertive. Hunger added wings to a self-discipline already in flight, and thieving of money and of food, became wide spread. Disobedience was common, and mutiny not unknown.

The working parties that began to leave Changi in greater and greater force, saw more, much more of them [the Japanese]; but normally they had certain counterbalancing advantages; they had for instance more food, and more opportunities to buy goods in the town. At Changi things were improving slowly. The days of hibiscus leaves (foully bitter) and of snails faded, as vegetables began to come in on the ration, as stores became available for the canteen, and as messing officers learned more and more ways of dealing with rice – tho’ they were hard put to it when there arrived “Vitamin food” in the shape of vegetable fertiliser, and we were told to eat that. Gradually in fact we were becoming used to the food, to the surroundings and the natural urge to self adaptation was forcing its way through the standardised veneer of normal life.

Corporate spirit

The G.O.C., Major General M. Beckwith Smith, was doing his utmost to keep alive and spread a corporate spirit within the Divisional Area, by encouragement of good administration, of games, education and entertainment. He insisted we were still part of the army, and that everything should be done army wise. I.e. that the unit was responsible for the administration of its troops, but that the Brigade and Division had definite responsibilities towards there sub units: that the services should be employed as such, the R.A.S.C. dealing with rations, and, when facilities were afforded, with canteen and local produce. While the R.E. looked after the water supply, and the provision of construction works like disinfectors, rice grinders and washing accommodation. R.A.O.C. ran the lighting (and the wireless) the workshops, which helped in the educational scheme, and the clothes and boots repairing service.

But the army and army life were not everything; and he forced education and outside interests down the throats of Commanding Officers who thought they had no value. A Secondary School and a University were opened, and encouragement given to all who wanted to attend. Libraries popped up all over the place. The concert party that had started through the keenness of few entertainers was given every encouragement. “The New Windmill Theatre” was opened for stage shows, and the play “Dover Road” set the ball rolling on “Becky’s” birthday.

He’d go round the hospital, encouraging the sick, seeing that they were not neglected by either the Hospital or their own units; take a look in at the University, listen to the lectures that were being given, and on his way past St George’s Church, have a word with the padre about the services. Watch any games that were being played, and sometimes play himself – one of the pitches for hockey or soccer, St George’s Church and the main lecture rooms of the University all lay cheek by jowl. When he paid an official visit to a unit, it was usually not so much of a bugbear as most General Inspections are to the troops themselves, for though they still had a bit of polishing up to do, the inspection was always in the early morning, before breakfast, and he’d stay to see what sort of food they were getting. So, of course, the Q.M. had to dig into whatever reserves he held, to put up a good show. And that the troops loved, naturally. Due to him it was recognised that the morale and discipline within the Division were better than elsewhere.

We had lost our security, and had seen the fangs of the beast … the Commanding Officers in Changi were ordered to watch at the outset of Selarang – 4 British Soldiers had broken through the wire, and tried to escape. Recaptured, they were beaten up, and put in prison. On this day, they were brought out, their hands tied, and were blind-folded. The Senior Officers from each area in Changi were paraded as spectators. Protests were unavailable. Sikh riflemen, who had joined the Indian National Army, were lined up with their rifles. They were ordered by the Japanese to shoot the four white prisoners under the eyes of white officers – a pleasing symbol of the coming of the Greater East – and were disconcerted. Their aim upset, one volley rang out, then another, and then sporadic shots, till all four lay stretched in the sand before them. The moral was complete.

Get better or die

Shallow latrines at Prai, with maggots seething, boiling, crawling here, there, everywhere. Trainloads of men with the “trots” excreting on the grassy verge of a trim railway station – any railway station. Public? What did the public matter in the face of necessity? Bampong, 5th day, journey’s immediate end. Rain, mud, mud, nothing but. Camp administration nil. Each party had to dig its own latrines (public? Of course). Cookhouse swarming with flies. Hospital, bamboo and attap, beds on raised bamboo slats, place flooded, water up to bed level, floors swimming in excrement from flooded latrines. And the patients? They either get better or die. Life is as simple as that.

Next day, the officers were ordered out to work on the railway.

Rumours had come up from Chungkai that this would happen, and there had been lots of argument, about whether to obey or not. But most people were convinced that if a direct order were given, the Japs would have no hesitation in seeing it carried out. So after Swinton had established that a direct order was given, the officers marched out to work. As they were leaving the parade ground on the way to the railway, the special intimidation squad from Chungkai arrived on the scene, thought there was a refusal to obey orders, and fired a warning volley over the heads of the officers.

There followed a precipitate withdrawal by the Korean guards, and the Officer’s party, back to the parade ground. Then the trinity of pariahs arrived, the engineer officers, Taramato, Kidiama and Takizawa, to see how things were going. Meanwhile the crowds of sick, wondering what was up had dashed to the edge of the square, and were standing there, rubber necking. But Kidiama turned round, saw them, and shouted “What the hell! Is that why we’re not getting enough workers?” (or words to that effect!), and ordered all the sick on parade. Frantic palavar, because the numbers did not tally with the figures. Then the Japs raged up and down the lines of sick, beat three out of four, because they said, they were fit to work, and just being idle: stormed at Swinton, the British Commander, and the doctors, beat them all up for allowing such things, and left the camp. Party over.

One trouble was that sometimes the Japs were honest with their tasks, and if they gave one task to be completed in 5 days, and it was completed in 4, the men got the 5th day as a holiday: but not always, so there could be no trust, and the officers had to arrange the work so that, if possible, the men would get a few hours off on the last day. But inevitably the tasks were made harder.

“Four fusiliers are going to make a break for it”. It’s impossible – tell them not to be silly. It was no good, they made their break. Swinton managed to give them a good 12 hours start, and that, in the absence of communications was enough for the mere getaway. We reported it to Kokubo, who sent his guards scurrying here and there, uselessly, gave us a cup of tea and biscuits, grinned amiably, bowed politely, and, “We shall have to shoot them; and if they are not caught, we shall have to shoot the commander of their Bn.”

They managed to get 100 miles away, but were then caught, brought back to Chungkai and shot.

Wampo – Heat, and the beginning of Speedo. We arrived on the 9th March. The railway trace here heads straight for the river bank and is stopped by a limestone cliff-face that rises almost sheerly out of the water, to tower 400 feet above. Across this face the track has to be laid, by cutting and by viaduct: and it has to be completed by the 15th April. Impossible, we muttered, as we looked at the rock, that seems unscarred, although a IV Group Camp has been here, working, for four months.

There are 2000 men in our camp, British and Dutch, part living on the other side, in huts – and they have to be ferried across each day in barges – and part on this side, in tents upon the shingle. Within a few days, 1,500 more arrive, fresh from Singapore, and another bridge making battalion, 200 strong. The work is divided into three parts: a cutting through earth and rock, at the south side, a cutting through the bulging cliff face on the north, and in between, under the overhanging face, a viaduct has to be raised. And the tools? Hammers and sharp steel rods for the rock, picks, chunkels, and baskets for the rest, and for the timber, a few saws and borers.

On the railway

Here the perpetual fetch and carry of the earth and rubble-filled baskets as the men dig down into the cutting, and strew the waste rolling down the slope. There the constant clink of steel on stone, as the pairs of hammermen (one holding, one hitting) chisel out there metre-deep holes ready to take the blast charges. And on both sides of the river, timbers are prepared for the viaduct; on this the officers party bore the holes, and carry the huge beams to their assembly point, while on the other, Chinese coolies trim the logs with adzes, bore them, and have elephants to drag them down the water’s edge, from where they are floated – so heavy that they half sink – across to the bridge side. There is no let up in the work. To a Jap, none was working so hard that he could not work harder, and “Speedo – hurriupoo” was their unchanging yell, so that a whole period of especially hard work became known as a Speedo.

Work by day, work by night. Day shifts, night shifts, no shifts at all. When they tried to bring in the shift system, 3 shifts of 8 hours was suggested, approved, and lasted 2 days. 8 hours was not enough work for a man. Then 2 12 hour shifts, and then the system broke down and things became a scramble. But on the 16th April, the viaduct was completed; and in the end, in the heat that was poured off the rock face, the troops were set to metalling the South cutting. Starting at the foot, they picked up a stone out of the heaps that had earlier been sent tumbling down, slambered up the 15ft. slope, dumped their load and came down, to go round and up again in a continuous ant like motion.

3000 men milling around on a 300 yard stretch of line, and the Japs still asking for more. “Why are there so many men still in the camp?” asked the Engineer one day of the Korean in charge of the north camp. And he, to justify himself, called everybody still in the camp on parade, and because there were more than he had expected (he had not looked at the sick figures, nor at the figures for those working in camp) thought he had lost face, and lost with that, his temper. As the men came hurrying out of the tents – to a Jap, a thing had to be done, had to be done hurriedly, – he laid into them, left, right, left, right, great swinging blows, and was the more pleased that these tents were in the officers’ lines. Then he chanced with one blow to fell a man to his knees, and his anger evaporated, satisfied, so that the play was over. The novelty of beatings up had not at that stage worn off, and I well remember the passion of cold rage that seethed within me, and the feeling of helpless degradation, at a mere cuff. But here too we were to change, and by and by, a beating became part of the day’s work. Avoid it, of course, if you could: but if you couldn’t, well get it over and done with. Better that way than the tortured waiting for something to happen that the Jap liked, cat-like, to inflict.


Rumours filtered through from Tak-a-nun of Cholera. And even then the men were weary, anaemic, and dejected. On the other side of the river the monkeys hooted up – and down – endlessly, and they said the day would be fine. The work was putting a cutting through the rock face, and building several bridges and culverts, and they had elephants to help remove the larger rocks, and bring the felled trees to a convenient dump – how wonderful the elephants were, can only be realised by those, on occasion, to understudy them. (The scale was, one elephant, or ten other ranks, or 6 officers). And the rice grew short, and the Japs said the sick could only have 1/3 of the rice the fit men got, and the fit men didn’t get much. It didn’t help the sick man get better, although the cookhouse tried to equalise as much as they could.

Then came the first cholera case. The Japs cleared out of the camp at once, built themselves another camp, and would not come into our camp, except to the guardroom at the gate. They allotted a new area as the Cholera Area, split the old area into 3 – the fit area, the malaria and sores area, and the dysentery area. They put all the fit men in the dirty areas in which the cholera had started, and were surprised when the cholera spread. In that first wave, never very fast, it began by ones and twos, mounted slowly, and then within the month, subsided again…

The dead were burnt now, outside the camp, in the jungle, and a small, friendless service held over their ashes, confined for their short eternity in a bamboo casket. Lonely, without comfort of human kindness, five to a shallow grave – where was the labour to dig any customly honoured grave in that earth which so soon after we had passed would show no traces of our eternity – seeming transience? When we came by that way again, not many months thereafter, there was naught that we could recognise, nor was there how we might distinguish what had before been camp, and what the grasping jungle.

On the 12th July, our working figures were again cut, and I became a member of the Officers’ working party, which on high days totalled about 20. I did only 3 days work on the railway, on the cutting. The hours were long, merely because we had to be there for about 12 hours a day, but the work done was not terrific, we could have done it in half the time, were it not for the deadening fact of clock time … The last day was the nearest to a physical hell of helplessness, that I have ever been; clearing up the work site, where work was now ended. Ordered here, kura’d there, carrying ropes, hawsers, tools and then 12 men to carry 2 great donkey winches a distance of about a mile over rough ground and track. I felt such a draining of muscular energy, that, no matter what came, not one further ounce of power could I exert. And in the end of the day, we had to sweep and clean up round the Jap privates’ quarters.

Not allowed to be sick

“You are soldiers” shouted Fumimoto at them one morning. “You must die at your posts”. Useless to tell him, “if they are sick, they work badly: if you let them get better they will work more”. He was not allowed to think that. His orders were “you are a fit party; there will be no sick”, and he had to carry his orders out – blindly, unreasoningly. That was discipline in the Jap army. If an officer told him to do the impossible, he had to do it. No argument, obedience was his pride, and death in his obedience was his glory. So he said. You could forgive that; but what you could not forget was his lack of humanity. He insisted on the sick working on their staying out at the work during a Malarial rigor, even though the Engineers in charge of the job allowed them to come in to rest. He was ruthless. He set a maximum to the number of sick we might have – 5 out of 120. No more. There was never any question of less.

Breakfast, pap rice, a thin rice soup; tiffin, dry boiled rice, with a morsel of fish, and the fish water poured over; supper, dry boiled rice, with a stew of potatoes, and a shred of pumpkin, and of meat if you were unlucky. Every third day, a fried rissole, flavoured with fish or sugar.

Yet one thing we were spared – cholera. That would have been the end. But how we avoided it, I do not know. For now the coolies had started to arrive, to pass through us towards Concrita, and with the collies went cholera. Tamils, Malays, Chinese, a jumble of miserable humanity, journeying with their goods upon their heads, upon their shoulders, oftentimes with their wives and their small children, going they knew not where at the command of the dominant race, whom they did not like, but dared not defy. Defy their masters, and they were starved into submission. Be submissive, and they were driven like cattle to work, cursed, beaten, cudjelled, and in the end, were tumbled into the common pit that was dug for them. It was small wonder they lived without hope, and hopelessly laid themselves down to die. “Master” said one, “May I come into your tent, so that I may die?” Out of every four that went up the river, only one came back.

Not long after that … we moved down 2 km to a new camp … The worst was over. The Engineers were on the whole good, as Nips go. They helped us build the camp, and the work they gave the men was never excessive …

Part of the fitness [we then attained] I put down to the feeding - a Dutch advance party came up at the end of August to build the main camp just below us. They fed with us, and supplied some cooks – and they showed us how to cook chillies, and oil and what to do with dried potatoes. A bit suspicious at first, the men soon came to like the new style, and Nazi Goreng[1] became a favourite. Had we known in the beginning what to do, I think there might have been a few more men … still fit.

Then they held their Funeral Ceremony and doubtless thought themselves sincere. Trim and flowered cemetery, and a massed parade of Prisoners, British and Dutch, of Japanese and Korean guards; the wreath, taking 2 Koreans to carry, and too big for its appointed place at the foot of the cross, so it’s set up as on an easel in a different spot – sacred to the Memory of those (Nom they don’t say it, they don’t oddly, even think it), we have killed on this railway.

The Burgomaster

I shall always remember a scene at Kreuing Krai, a fresh party of Duth were coming into camp. They had been building a road on the other side of the river. Their job finished, they were joining up with us. It was a bright sunny day when the party marched in, in the afternoon. At their head marched a little Dutch captain, with white hair, goldrimmed spectacles, pink cheeks and a white moustache that extended a good four inches on either side of his face. We smiled, when we saw him, and straight away dubbed him “The Burgomaster”. He looked the part. He had marched every step of the way, had, with a fatherly kindness and dignity, looked after his troops, most of whom were black, and none of whom he had seen before the accident of captivity and the Japs had thrown them together. And he was 63 years old.

On the musical side, there were two outstanding people. Norman Smith, whose Brusque good nature and common sense smoothed many a situation, and who had an unusual felicity for light and dance music; and Eric Cliffe, who saved the captivity for classical musicians. The orchestra had been increasing steadily, and the latest acquisition was a double bass. Mandolins and ukuleles had always been moderately easy to make; but this bass – the work of the Camp Carpenter, Sgt. Horrocks of the Suffolk Rgt. was regarded with pride and admiration. It was made out of ply wood, with a red wood neck, strut, scroll and bridge.

To make the glue strong enough for it, a dark Dutchman had to keep the cow hooves brewing for seven whole days. A slap bass, the strings were made from old signal cable, and in the playing, its notes could be heard when all the other instruments had faded in the distance, yet near at hand, it nicely added the bass to the otherwise unbalanced ensemble … The band, at its fullest, totalled 19, made up of 6 violins, 2 accordions, 2 guitars, 2 clarinets, 1 trumpet, 3 cornets, 2 drums (home made) and the Bass … All music had to be remembered or composed, arranged and written out on bits of paper – the light by Norman, the Classical by Eric. As samples of the classical – Finlandia, the 1st movement of the Unfinished Symphony, 3 of the Enigma Variations. Peer Gynt Suite, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik without the wind, the slow movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and some Handel, Purcell and others, all of which sounded tolerably like the original.

Peace today

On 15th August, the 6th party (out of 8) left the camp. It was the hospital party. They marched or were carried to the railway line, and there while awaiting the train, observed the strangle behaviour of the Thais. For the Thais, standing at a distance, kept nodding their heads eagerly up and down, and grinning widely. Then a certain Nai Pong, well-known to our people for the good he had done to all the camps on the river, cycled up the road, smiled at those he knew, and said “Peace to-day”. The camp, already alive with rumours, now seethed with them. Betting and speculation went on, on all sides. That evening we sat and talked on the parade ground. And no “lights out” was blown. Then from the first hut we heard three cheers; and from the second and so on right down the line, like an echo caught in a vista of mirrors. Then there arose the strains of “God Save the King”, slow and dignifiedly beautiful, rising out of the dark night on a thousand voices. There followed the Star Spangled Banner and the Wilhelmus. We were free.

[1] Fried rice with a few titbits, like chillies, fried peanuts, fried vegetables.

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