BACKGROUND NOTE ON A SURVIVING POW AT BORNEO by Keith Jones
You would no doubt be interested to know that two surviving Australian POW's who were imprisoned at Kuching are living here in Perth today. I have been in touch with John Bell, who was originally from NSW. He was bought home after the war in an undernourished state and eventually married Vonda, his army nurse from WA.
Some years ago John wrote a short story about his wartime experiences (as he said, just on the lighter side of it) and he has kindly allowed us to publish it. As his story will explain John went with ‘E’ Force bound for Sandakan via Kuching ex Singapore. Through a very fortunate event enroute which he explains in his article John was required to remain at Kuching instead of travelling with all the others of “E’ Force to Sandakan. It is an excellent article about his days in Singapore and Borneo and is published in full, “warts and all”.
I was born in Sydney on the 30 th November 1920. I had a good home life – good but plain food, a loving mother and father, a few belts around the legs for minor misdemeanours – altogether a happy time which stood me in good stead during my Prisoner of War days.
I attended school until age 14, first at Haberfield Demonstration School then at Fort Street Boys’ High School in Petersham, then, as times were a bit tough, I went out to work. In 1934, I got a job as first assistant in the Despatch Department, and later in the Motor and Cycle Parts Department of Smith Sons and Rees Ltd, Sydney.
I went into National Training at age 19, came out and went back to work, then, during one lunch hour on 18 August 1941 I joined the A.I.F. (Australian Imperial Force) aged 20, with my father’s permission grudgingly given.
I went to Tamworth for training for ten months before being sent to Singapore as 4 th and 5 th Reinforcements for the 2/19 th Battalion. We sailed from Sydney in late September 1941 in the Dutch ship, the Sibajak, via Fremantle and arrived in Singapore on 5 October 1941.
Our trip around the Great Australian Bight was rather eventful for several reasons. It was the roughest trip the captain had ever made and we were in a convoy with New Zealand troops in the Johan van Olden Vanderbelt. When we sailed into Fremantle they asked us where we had been as, although only a short distance behind them, they didn’t sight us during the whole journey – we were in the ‘troughs’ more time than not. The ‘inclement’ weather affected the roll call at meals as you can well imagine, although I managed to ‘control my stomach’ and having been delegated a mess orderly for fourteen personnel, my job and that of my partner was easy. (Although the Dutch cooking didn’t help – it tasted alright but the smell left a lot to be desired).
We had twelve hours leave in Fremantle and I hoped I could visit my uncle, John Bell, in Kondinin where he had settled and had been farming. However on being told how far the wheat belt town of Kondinin was from Perth, I abandoned that idea and I never did meet him as he died sometime before I returned to Australia.
After arriving in Singapore, we ‘embussed’ to Bukit Timah over the Causeway. There we were camped in the ‘bullring’, the training ground for all new recruits. I had my 21 st birthday here and celebrated it with two mates and twelve bottles of warm Tiger beer. Unfortunately we had to take all the bottles at once and they were all opened as we received them, a terrible business!
hadn’t been there many days when I and eleven others were selected for guard duty in Kuala Lumpur, at 2 nd echelon. It was a very monotonous existence, 24 hours on and 48 hours off, but left us plenty of time to do our own thing. We went into Kuala Lumpur quite often, returning back to camp in rickshaws. Sometimes we pulled the rickshaw with the owner sitting in the seat, hoping like hell that we didn’t rock him out.
We spent eight weeks in Kuala Lumpur, then were sent back to Singapore. There I drove a brand new ‘nightcart’, carrying petrol in four gallon drums. As you can imagine, a truck carrying approximately 150 four-gallon cans of petrol had the right of way throughout Singapore. I also drove Lieutenant Colonel Kent Hughes through Singapore during a bombing raid, a trip that you might call ‘a bit hairy’. Later I found myself back with the 2/19 th Battalion on a ridge overlooking the Causeway with our own artillery behind us and the Japanese shelling us in front, we were copping it from both sides. ‘Dropshorts” was the official name for the Japanese, but we called them lots of things!
While at this ‘venue’, I was ordered to accompany a party to check on some buildings. While inside one of them I sat down and promptly went to sleep. (I hadn’t slept for 48 hours.) When I woke I was covered by bricks and rubble, but was not hurt. I made my way back to the ranks to a “where the hell have you been?” interrogation. I had apparently slept for approximately twelve hours through bombardment and they thought I’d ‘copped it’.
We moved from this situation to a hilltop where we were sitting ducks for the Japanese bombers. Here my luck held out once more as a bomb landed on one side of a tree and I was on the other. It was a fairly large tree, thank God, but I lost a good mate there as he was on the other side.
After this air raid, I took the injured down to the field hospital in a utility, then back to the hilltop where I discovered that my ‘night cart’ had been blown up with my personal gear in it, and my unit had moved, according to other soldiers in the area, to the west coast.
So off I went, up and down the west coast looking for them, but ‘no can find’. During this search, a padre pulled me up and requested help to bury someone. Besides myself there were two others and the padre all taking turns with the trenching tool and, as the body had been in the open for a least two days (in Singapore’s atmosphere), it was not a very pleasant task. Whew!
I eventually found my unit. Everybody surrendered about this time (15 February 1942) and on February 17 we were marched out 25 km to the Selarang Barracks, a large two storey barracks on three sides of a square parade ground in the Changi military encampment. On the march to the barracks we passed a chap dressed as a Malay, chewing betel nut. Our sergeant sang out “Don’t spit it out now!” The ‘Malay’ swallowed and said “I’ll wait”. He was one of our chaps – I hope he got away with it – although the black army boots kind of spoilt the effect.
Also on the way to the barracks, we came across a body placed about shoulder height on a side of a drain. It had swollen to about three time normal size and orders of “Don’t touch, don’t touch” went through the ranks, but of course some idiot (we called him other names) poked it with something sharp and it burst, spraying every which way. Not a nice story but mild compared to the traumas experienced by many in the next three and a half years.
The sleeping facilities at the barrack were ‘non est.’ – cold (bloody hard) concrete. This is where I scrounged material to make the first of the eleven beds I made during the next three and a half years. My prize possession at the this time was an air Force issue blanket, one of three I ‘found’ on the west coast ‘excursion’. I gave the others to two mates and I still had mine, albeit a tattered rag, at the end.
I think it was probably a week after arrival at the barracks, at the beginning of March 1942, that work parties were organised and I went with a large number of Aussies (about 1,500) back into Singapore, where we settled into the ‘Great World’ complex. This had been an amusement park in Singapore’s heyday, and had been turned into a morgue during the fighting. On our arrival (a blocked building meant little to the troops) we found sheets, pillows, etc, and in the area I finished up in, a sharpors, an Indian bed. This was my home for the next eleven months, before returning to Changi in December 1942.
We went out every morning in parties of fifty, our main area of work being on the wharves unloading trains coming down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore. Rice was the main cargo to be unloaded and stacked in the godowns (warehouses). Handling 200lb bags of rice required some ingenuity. To facilitate matters, we had two men in the rail truck throwing the bags onto the tarmac, then four men would bend down, take a corner each, lift the bag and then a man would walk under it and carry it over to the stack, often having to walk up the stack before dropping it – not easy on a rice diet and every day gradually losing weight.
We handled various other commodities, not the least being, of all things, sewing machines. The spare pack of needles supplied with each machine was worth a fortune to the Chinese women, and a packet kept my two mates and myself in food which lasted a fortnight! Unfortunately, although there was half a godown full of machines, their value became known to many in a very short time and all machines were ‘bandicooted’ within a week.
The bashings and rough treatment we received from the Japanese were relieved somewhat by incidents which, at the time, broke the monotony. As P.O.W.s we scrounged whenever and whatever we could, and if you couldn’t eat it you could sell it and thereby eat.
Our guards were mainly Koreans with a few Japanese officers – about ten ‘Kitchies’ to every ‘ Nippon’. One guard lined us up one day behind a table on which he placed two tins of bully beef (or similar). Walking past he picked up one tin, hid it in his shirt and exclaimed “si tow Australian” – I know Australians. However as he walked past, one of our chaps followed in his footsteps, picked up the other tin and was back with the group before the guard turned round. On seeing the second tin missing, he let this sink in for a moment, shook his head and said “si tippa tow Australian” - I don’t know Australians.
We were told once that we had to work after our usual ‘knock off’ time, without any food and, as we had not had anything to eat since approximately midday, we voiced our disapproval in no uncertain terms. However we solved the problem, - P.O.W. fashion. Our guards were fascinated by photos and, as some of our chaps had managed to keep some photos of family and especially children, the work party gathered round the guards showing photos while one member of our party (Bill Lowcock) literally pulled back a sheet of iron on the godown wall far enough for a small mate to get in and bring out a tin of biscuits (a four gallon size tin) plus a box of condensed milk (24 tins). A whistle brought the troops over and round the corner and everybody was eating biscuits and sharing a tin of milk before the guards knew anything about it. Our job for the next few hours was shifting bags of rice, and as you can imagine not the best of jobs on a meal of biscuits and condensed milk. Not too many of us retained it and, one by one, we crept around the corner and ‘lost’ it.
As mentioned earlier we scrounged anything and everything. This day sugar came our way. The pockets on gas mask bags were ideal for carrying this commodity, but unfortunately this day we didn’t get away with it. A guard found some on one chap and informed the Jap officer. He dealt with it rather well. He told two of our chaps to bring out a bag of sugar, lined us up and then we were told to fill our dixies (cups). We would have been very pleased to take this bonus back to camp, but no, we had to eat it where we were! Well you can only eat so much sugar at one time – what a mess, with sugar all over us by the time the Nips got sick of it.
On this day I had scrounged some tins of tobacco and had them in my trousers where my gaiters kept them from falling out. One of the Nips knew this and tried to draw the officer’s attention to it but he was too busy laughing his head off over the sugar fiasco and told the guard to forget it – my lucky day!
A work party to the Tiger brewery was a welcome change from the wharf detail. Two trucks, with 25 men to each plus two of our own officers, set off one day (stone cold sober). Our job was to load the trucks with crates of beer, which when loaded travelled to various Jap camps, were unloaded and returned for more.
Malays ran the brewery and, between filling the bottles and the caps going on, at least six bottles were open. We all took turns to get down behind this area where the Malays would hand us a bottle. Every man managed to get there at least twice during the day. To cap it all the Nips gave us a bottle each for lunch! Even the Nip drivers had their share.
One day we were taken over the Causeway to a racecourse where many crates, cases, casks, you name it, were scattered. Our job was to sort them out. This was under the evil eye of the Kempei Tai (the equivalent to the Gestapo in Germany), who surveyed this scene from high up in the grandstand. However they missed visits made to a cask of over-proof rum, which someone in the party had found. When we lined up to come back to camp the guards found something on one of the chaps. We all received a severe belting but the only chaps that felt anything were those that had not visited the cask during the day, but there were some sore heads the next morning.
About this time, after about after eleven months in this camp, I was sent back to the Selarang Barracks hospital as my back had given up. I had been helped back from work parties for the three months prior, with one mate (6’2”) on one side and the other (5’4”) on the other (however nobody laughed). The doctors at this hospital were performing miracles. However my complaint (a slipped and very worn disc) would require an operation they were not prepared to undertake.
I was told not to go on any more work parties but somehow found myself on 29 March 1943 in the second party of Australians to go to Borneo, the ‘E’ Force with the destination of Sandakan, via Kuching, arriving on April 1. Conditions on the ship, the de Klerk, were bloody awful. Accommodation was head to toe, with three layers between decks. One turned over, everybody had to do the same. We were allowed on deck to use the toilet facilities (over the stern, hanging on to a rope).
A day out of Singapore we noticed a large wooden crate on deck (one of our chaps must have been a burglar in civvy life, as he had the lock undone within seconds) and lo and behold, inside were tins of Japanese food (baked beans), etc. Well, no sense in letting everyone in on this so we kept it among six of us. The result was diarrhea, and disembarking was quite a feat, especially with your legs crossed.
We were taken by truck up the river and into the P.O.W. camp at Lintang Barracks in Kuching, where we were paraded in the square and made the acquaintance of Major [Colonel] Suga, the Japanese camp commandant, who informed us we would have three holidays – “yesterday, today and tomorrow and then you shall work”.
However, due to the ‘foraging’ on board the ship, a number of us finished up in the camp hospital. While we were in the hospital, the rest of the party was transferred to Sandakan. The cure for diarrhea was nothing to eat for three days, then one spoonful of rice porridge. If this managed to ‘stay’ with you, you had two spoonfuls on the second day and three on the third. However any bowel movement during this time brought you back to square one and a repeat performance.
After getting over this, I went into the O/R’s camp with other Australians, Scots and English. The camp overall covered a large area and comprised of a women and children’s section, a civilian men’s section, English officers’ section, Dutch officers’ section, Australian officers’ section and a hospital, such as it was. We went out on work parties, where there were occasional beltings and punishments such as sand above the head and lunchtime food being kicked over before we were sent back to work.
After going out on work party for about three months, flattening a hill of sand and filling in a swamp, I and a few other O/R’s were ordered to up to the officers’ camp as cooks and batmen. I didn’t think I would make a very good batman so I became a cook. I finished up in charge, cooking mainly rice and 7 lbs of pork a week between 175 men. We grew kang kong and pawpaw.
There were plays and concerts – Gilbert and Sullivan, “H.M.S. Pinafore”, etc, and a choir with Claude Pickford as bandmaster and Johnny Morrison as the main singer.
Then came the great day when Major Suga got us all on parade [to announce the end of the war]: “ Hiroshima all gone, Nagasaki all gone, my wife and children all gone”. We didn’t cheer at that point. Then we were told that the war was over, although we already knew (on 15 August 1945) via a wireless in the O/R’s camp, hidden under a stove in the kitchen.
Australian officers were then placed in charge of the whole complex and distributed food that had been dropped (on August 28). It was three weeks to a month before getting out of Kuching on September 10 and sailing down the river to the sea and waiting hospital ships. We went on the H.M.A.H.S. Wanganella to Morotai. I was treated for hookworm – a terrible experience, but managed to put on a bit of weight (9 stone 3 lbs, after having weighed only seven and a half on 4 August 1945), before landing back in Sydney on 13 October 1945.
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