Keith William (Bill) YOUNG
ONCE UPON A TIME IN KUCHING
Commencing below is an article written by Bill Young titled ‘Once Upon a Time in Kuching’. Bill has in the past written a book, Return to a Dark Age, on his years as a POW at Singapore, Sandakan, Kuching and at Outram Road Prison and another article called Long Ago in Borneo. His trip in 2004 to Kuching in Sarawak brought back many memories, particularly when he visited the Hero’s Grave. The five brave local men listed at the bottom of this grave were sentenced to death whilst handcuffed to Bill and his seven Australian mates who all received prison terms. Bill dedicates this article to the memory of these five brave men; Soh Kim Seng, Amigo Sik Bassan, Kassim Bin Jumadi, P.C. Kasiu and Sidik Bin Simeon. All drawings are by Bill Young. Some drawings have been enhanced by converting to 'sepia' colour effect. Our thanks go to Bill for allowing us to share his memories.
To think that it’s over sixty years since the eight of us had sat chained together aboard the ex-Sultan of Sarawak’s yacht. If I remember right, it was around noon, on about the 22nd. Of March 1943, when we’d steamed out of Sandakan bay, on the first leg of our journey down to a Japanese Military Prison in Kuching.
The fact that we were in chains; like a regular chain-gang, wasn’t such a big deal, not until someone wanted to go to the toilet, that is; then that caused a bit of juggling about. In the end, the guards decided it was too much of a hassle for them, so they took the chains off; but only between ports of call, and not before giving us dire warnings of us being thrown overboard, if we tried anything.
Other than the uncertainty of what lay ahead, the trip; especially after the interrogations we’d just come through, proved to be a bonus. It was as if Time Out had been called. Giving us some breathing space in order to recover; time to recuperate on deck, while quietly watching the interplay of colours between the islands, the mountains and the sea.
If only they’d fed us on something other than those rotten fish balls, the trip would have been well worth the telling. Every day a ball of rice in aged, fish paste; they were dreadful things. Of course we ate them, we’d have eaten anything; certainly we were hungry enough.
The ship was on one of its regular journeys, visiting the various ports around the Island of Borneo. On our leg of the trip, we stayed overnight at the Island of Bangi Bangi, then we spent a few days in the clink at Jesselton, a night on Labuan Island, and a day in Brunei Bay. All up it had been a week of pleasant memories; finishing on up the Sarawak River where the Kempei Tai had a prison cell waiting us.
Seven of us were recaptured escapees, the other one had hit a guard; Alan Minty, Bill Fairy, Bruce McWilliams, Norm Morris and Fred New, had eluded the Japs for over five months before being recaptured; while sailing a Sampan back to Australia. Jimmy Brown and I didn’t get far at all, as for Jimmy Darlington, he'd hit a guard while defending our old cook, and was so badly beaten he almost died on us.
We’d no sooner tied up at the Kuching Wharf than they bundled us into a truck and took us to what, at first glance looked to be an old warehouse. We soon found out over the next four months, that looks can deceive; it was a jail alright– very much a warehouse to beware of.
Inside looked more like an aviary, than a jail. Cyclone Wire wrapped around supporting columns, divided the floor space into a number of cell/cages; inside of which, prisoners sat perched up on platforms, so creating an impression of an aviary; one full of jailbirds; all of them with their wings clipped, and with not a cackle to be heard.
Whenever I see chooks perched in a hen house, I’m reminded of the time we spent in that foul prison, sitting perched, birdlike, waiting out the months. Waiting for those nippy people from out of Nippon to get a move on, and try us for whatever it was they were on about.
The first few weeks were the pits; not knowing what was what, or when was when. Wondering what on earth was going on in the rest of the world. Impatient with having patience thrust upon us; having the time but not having the inclination. Not only does it take patience, you needed to have the capacity for patience; plus room enough to move. In this place, time hung heavy all around.
Day after day of sitting hunched over, staring straight ahead, and still feeling somewhat bruised and battered from having had the stuffing knocked out of us up at Sandakan. While the sea voyage had helped mend the wounds, the mending had slowed, in keeping with time; in here, time was an unmoving lump.
Besides, westerners aren’t shaped for sitting, backs straight, legs crossed, hands on knees, for forever and a day. Not being able to talk, that too was a bit thick; so over the years we developed a gift of the gab per, Morse Code, Semaphore, and the Deaf and Dumb finger language. It was enough to make walls talk, so much so, they became the prisons internet; Morse Coded Emails came scratching at our cell walls.
Adding to the dead weight of unleavened time, the building was lousy with bed bugs. The whole place teemed with millions of rotten little Vampires. Every crack was filled with bugs, and there were millions of cracks, and all of them were overflowing with the hungry bloodsuckers.
The whole rotten stinking jail was overrun with the blood seeking little mongrels, and to make matters worse, the bugs loved nothing better than feeding off tender young skin; so I became the flavour of the month, providing them with their own private Blood Bank; Blood on Tap.
Every night, never miss, out they'd come, teeth gnashing, in open attack formation, just thirsting for blood. We’d put up a desperate fight, as into the valley of death we’d go, squish- squashing away, our shirts and shorts stained red with their blood; come to think it, it was our own bloody blood that we’d been squish-squashing away with.
We were in a no win situation, with the bugs rushing upon us with kamikahzi zeal, biting left, right and centre, up until daylight called a halt. Then, with their tanks full, they’d retire from the field of battle, well satisfied with their effort, and ready for a nap. On the other hand, we’d sit out the day, with our legs crossed; literally buggered.
Bleary eyed, tired out and worn, we pleaded with the guards for the use of some of their bug killer; disinfectant was distilled here by the truckloads. We kept at them until finally our persistence paid off, and the guards relented, and gave us some of the magical potent.
Oh how happy and glorious was the day we proved that those who sprayed together, stayed together, and more to the point, we got to sleep peacefully together. With sleep descending upon the cell, harmony came back to stay within the ranks. We had sprayed with gusto, with might and main, and for all the pain, our work was not to be in vain.
On the first night of spraying, we produced four heaped shovel fills of the rotten little bities; such a fantastic amount, was almost unbelievable. Even the guards had stopped and gaped at the heaps and heaps of bugged bugs. So with their encouragement, we sprayed on, day after day, until we knew for certainty that at least our cell was no longer bugged, and we could stretch out on the boards and roll into the deep blue sea of glorious unconsciousness.
Our victory over the Bugs went deep into memory; for not only had we won back our precious sleep, we had also reduced the conscious side of our sentence by at least a third. Thus, the vanquishing of the evil vampires had served two purposes; dreaming our dreams while whiling away our time.
In the meantime, there were the guards to worry about, and there was no spraying them, and their sneaking ways; the little sneaks. Always on the lookout for evildoers, those who were not sitting up properly; or heavens to Betsey, those found talking. Between us and them, there developed a battle of wits.
We had to stay alert, forever vigilant, as there was always the chance of a guard suddenly popping his head around the corner, and pouncing on some unwary victim. The efforts they went to, in order to catch some poor devil out. It went way beyond belief.
I have this memory illustrating this point. It is of a courageous young Sarawak man; the guard had shoved him into our cage with more rancour than usual, saying that like us, this nasty fellow was also an escapee, and although he couldn’t speak English, he was to stay in our cell until he was tried in the same court, and at the same time as we were going to be.
The guard’s assertion hadn’t fooled any of us, for he was such a bad actor. It was obvious that the new prisoner was a “plant” for the story didn’t hold water. So it was that over the next hour or so, we’d remained mute, not wanting to allow this new man into our confidence.
Our uninvited guest on his own initiative decided to speak, and in plain English, he told us that the Japanese had put him in the cell with the promise of setting him free, that is if he informed on us. He was expected to tell them everything we did that was against the jail’s many regulations. He smiled at that, saying, “While freedom was a nice thing to have, it wasn’t worth paying such a high price, as that".
He turned out to be a nice bloke, and we became good friends. How he laughed when we showed him the little spy hole we had made in the screen; he even took turns at standing watch, thinking it was such a lovely joke on the kempei tai guards.
I have often wondered over the years, how he’d got on, and if he’d survived his time in prison. I can only hope that fate has dealt kindly with him, and that he has lived well and long, at least long enough to have participated in the rebuilding of his fine Country.
The above story brings with it the need for me to relate just how we came to get the screen erected, and how we came to put a spy hole in it. –Our cage being the first in line, faced the passageway that led into the guardroom, so enabling us to see into their inner sanctum.
Naturally, it bothered the guards, us being able to spy on all their nocturnal practices. For like soldiers the world over, they’d go off to the guard room for a smoko, whenever their officer in charge, left the building for any length of time.
And naturally, we took advantage, playing them at their own game. Whatever they did, our eyes clung to them like leeches on a blood filled leg. Eight pairs of eyes followed every move they made. When they ate, we drooled over every mouthful they chewed. They couldn't even fart, without us hearing.
It wasn’t long before our little war of nerves paid off, perseverance had overcome adversity. Carpenters arrived and erected a light timber screen, between us and the archway, and it wasn’t long before we managed to poke a small pin hole through a join in their screen; one just big enough to show whenever the light was broken, by whoever passed along that little passageway.
The difference that pin hole made to our way of life was way beyond measure. Now we too could enjoy little siesta's, and go for a walk around in the cage. We drew up a roster, and took turns at keeping nit at the peep hole; the fun we had watching as one sneaky guard after another, would come along on tippy toe, just busting to catch us up to no good. The creepy crawlies.
Our joy came in the anticipation; watching a guard creeping along, then popping out, only to find us models of straight backed, cross legged propriety. The obvious disappointment on their faces was enough to bring joy to our hearts; when you have so little, it takes so little to make your day.
The satisfaction we gained, never diminished, and for that a Jolly Hoo-ray! They never did tumbled to our little peep hole, and they never ever thought to put the guard room light out, before coming towards us– Even so, we'd have known something was wrong, by the fact of the light going out; for as they say- Let there be light.
During all the time we were guests of the kempei-tai, they search us thoroughly before allowing us to re-enter our cells. We'd strip off, bend over, let them take a look up the Kyber Pass, then carefully pick up our shorts and shirt, shake them vigorously, while jumping up and down with our arms outstretched, until the guard’s yell of yummy (stop) signaled us to scamper back into our cells. Wherein, once safely locked up, we’d drool over whatever it was we’d managed to scrounge while being outside.
Those searches were thorough, absolute, spot on, except for the one small detail, they never ever looked in our hands; never ever. If the guard dropped a cigarette butt, great, into the hand it would go. A piece of wire or a fish bone, whatever was handy (that’s a bit of a pun, I see).
My most prized find was the small stub of pencil; I came across that in the Kuching jail yard, and managed to keep it right up until the end of the war. The things that we collected over the years would amaze you. Whatever it was we saw lying about, if it was useful, and providing it was small enough to grab, then go for it; grab it, it’s yours. We developed large hand spans during those days.
Once inside your cell, you were home free, and whatever was of no immediate use, would go into one of the many cracks in the walls; our Wall Safes, a benefit arising from our old, and crumbling jail.
Cigarette butts we kept for desert, I’ve always enjoyed pudding after a meal. Chewing away on a juicy butt; with care, you could make it last- and last. It was much like chewing on a stick of gum, and as for the flavour, caviar's OK, but, there is nothing like a good butt to chew on when your hungry.
The stub of pencil I carried in between my toe, from Borneo to Singapore. With the pencil and a page out of a careless guard’s notebook, I made myself a tiny pack of cards. Many a game of patience's I played with the cards enclosed within my crossed legs, and many a guard on looking through the peep hole, hadn’t realized I was in the middle of a game- fortunately.
Being locked up provided the time and desire to plan, devise many a match stick or memory game; I Spy an insect, or read the pictures on the walls, the graffiti, the poems, or when the coast was clear, send Morse Code messages through the walls.
Dogs can hear what we cannot hear, so it was that we developed a sense of knowing where the guards were, and by the sounds they made, just who they were. Putting it over suspicious guards, was the biggest game of all.
The pencil and paper I put to many uses; a Kiwi fighter pilot by the name of Hatfield (he was executed by the kempei tai three days after the war had ended) having been shot down over Sumatra; he became a neighbour for a short while, and was able to write about D Day, and the sinking of the German battleship Von Terpitze, among other things. That was over in Outram Rd Jail.
The treat of treats was when they let us outside. Down some wooden steps we’d go, to an exercise yard. They were red letter days; an hour of breathing fresh air, taking in the sheds and buildings, the barb-wire fences, and above all, people other than our kempei tai guards; fantastic moments.
To walk on the little grassy patch, imagining for a brief moment that you were free. Free, to be free, with the sun shining down, feeling the grass growing under your feet, was really something else. The trees and the birds, free as the breeze, the birds going wherever they please.
As for the colours, after the black and white of inside, they took your breath away. The landscape full of colour; the brush work of the Gods, a veritable Garden of Eden, wherever you looked there was life. Being outside sure beat sitting inside, rotting in the cage.
If the guards happened to be in a good mood, they'd turn on the hose, and we’d shower away a week’s grime; attend to our old wounds; wash our filthy bandages. They’d lasted all the way from Sandakan. We’d washed and wrapped them so many times; they looked more like pieces of string, now.
My arm had been broken up at Sandakan; a kind Japanese Orderly had placed my arm in the sling; Jimmy had marked it out as a chessboard. Now it was worn out, and full of holes. The chess pieces were held inside of it, and were threatening to fall through the holes, and bring about our downfall. So we decided the time had come to put our little armies out of their misery; the little bits and pieces were sprinkled onto the ground. The ragged battlefield of a cloth, we dispatched with full military honours, into the rubbish bin.
It was a sad occasion for our little gang of eight, slinging the sling, pawning the pawns; the Kings and Queens reverting back to shirt buttons. The Royal Court, with its Knights, and Bishops had helped us royally, throughout the bad times, and now like old soldiers the world over, they’ve simply faded away.
Many a game, many a tussle we’d enjoyed, and under the strangest of circumstances. While chess is not meant to be a game of chance, yet the way we played it, it was. Time and time again we’d risked getting caught while in the middle of a ding dong battle. With us, it was always a game of chance.
I remember once, I was keeping watch at our spy hole, when a guard came charging on down the passageway, he almost caught me out. I just managed to jumped back into my regular position, before he popped around the screen; I think at first, he thought he’d caught us out.
With the disappointment showing, he’d paced back and forth along the front of our cage, sensing something, but what! Making a deliberate study of each of us in turn, he passed me with my arm hanging free, before pausing in front of Allen Minty, whose arm was in my sling. Looking long and hard; for a moment there we thought he’d twigged. In the finish he gave a shrug of his shoulder, and went off to bother the prisoners in the cages at the back of us.
From this distance it may seem an insignificant encounter, but believe me, it wasn’t. It could well have been the straw that broke, either the camels back, or ours. Losing out on your food for a day, may in itself seem a small thing to swallow; but believe me, it wasn’t. Not when your looking through the magnifying glass of perpetual hunger.
Then there was the black day they brought in the group of Dyaks. I couldn’t help but think at the time, how miserable those poor fellows must have felt, and how down in the dumps they looked. For these once proud warriors of Borneo, were now to be introduced to “civilization” at its cruelest. Having come from the freedom of the forest; to be trapped within this wire encased hellhole. How in the world would they manage to cope? They were like fish out of the water, having no comprehension of prison, or of being closed in; locked up.
Back in their own environment, they were mighty people. Kings of all that they surveyed. The original “Wild men of Borneo” - Lords of the rain forests. What a pitiful thing it was to witness; to see them being dragged down into the slime of this lime pit of a prison. To be crammed in among these cages, nothing could have been more hideous or terrifying for them.
Sometimes we’d see them as they passed on down through the side door, on their way down the stairs to the exercise yard. Their lithe tattooed bodies; their head and shoulders cloaked by masses of long black hair. Crouching and stumbling in their effort to deal with what to us, seemed like simple procedures, and which to them, were strange and alien things; and how the guards took delight at hitting and kicking out at them, whenever they happened to stumble, and fall.
Throughout the coming weeks, we could but listen as with despair of this awful place, a sickness took over them, and their will to live seemed to crumble. On the long hot nights, their cries would sound out across the cage tops, leaving us to wonder at how it would end. This world of ours, with its great wars, had passed them by; it was now going to leave them to rot in this place without space. The main worry for this particular group of warriors was - who would be there to protect their families, living back in the longhouse.
Degradation oversees degeneration. Slowly and surely it strips away at honour and decency, leaving its victims depleted, deformed, and deranged. Just as the gardener prunes away at the Oak tree, until all that is left is a stunted scrub. An Oak tree treated in this way, may think of it’s self as a mighty tree, yet it does so, not ever realizing that it has lost its true potential. Our caged existence was beginning to prune away at us, shaping us into something less; the will to escape was diminishing. Thoughts of home, and of Australia, no longer lay central to our mind. As of now, getting back to a PoW camp would have been enough of a blessing. To think any further was fast becoming an impossible dream.
The mind as well as the body was fast drying up; becoming like a grape left on the vine. We were in drought, drying up, becoming shriveled, as we sat perched in our cage, slowly fossilizing.
Then when it came, it was without warning; this was our day of reckoning; and it had come upon us, as if it was just another day. New guards came and took us out of our cage, and drove us off to a seat of Japanese Justice; there to be weighed and measured on a set of Japanese judicial scales. Scales and they were to be weighed against us. We were handcuffed together, reaching in line abreast, across the face of the courtroom; a hall that had originally belonged to St. Theresa’s School; the Japs having commandeered it, in order to turn it into a military courthouse. The building had been diverted from, saving life, into taking it away.
At the over end from where we stood, amid an arrangement of tiers, sat the court officials; chained as it were, to their dogma, while facing us, who stood, chained to their Eastern travesty of justice. In all this, the Judge, his head showing just below the leadlight windows, at the topmost level, sat ready. An army Colonel, he was to preside over the court, with all the grave authority of a man whose disposition, and requirement, was to send over men to their grave.
Two other officers sat at a lower level, where they overlooked a row of court scribes, whose job seemed to be one of, scribbling away; at recording the day’s proceeding on pieces of paper. From our point of view, seeing as how everything was conducted in Japanese, we stood in lingual darkness, covered in a cloak of judicial ignorance; listening in our ignorance, and wondering in our curiosity. The advent of the interpreter and with his reading aloud of the courts findings, in English, was to wipe all traces of our ignorance, on the trials proceedings, completely from off our minds.
Such was the turn around; from being blindfolded with a band of judicial ignorance, to this sudden enlightenment of our way ahead. With it came the realization that in their underhand way of handing out justice, we’d been done like a dinner. Becoming victims of an Oriental version of a Kangaroo Court, with no chance of hopping out of it. Caught in the glare of the prosecutions spot light, Kangaroos all; there were thirteen of us now, to share the light. Five local men had been added to our line, giving it a more respectable length, for any chain-gang. Bigger and better we had hoped; safety in numbers we had assumed. For we needed something to go by, as bearers of an unlucky number, we had something to think on.
Such an unwashed pack of desperadoes, if looks had counted, we would have been strung up on sight; no two ways about it. As for the five local men, they took the major prize, their cuts and bruises, and battered appearance; looking as if they’d recently been knocked around. Enough to give them top credit on any, ‘Most Wanted” list.
Down and out after months in the hands of the kempei tai, we all went with the job, as would be expected; we were par for the course, with the local gang of five, contributed much; and how they must have been hurting. It showed in the way they limped, and in the way their hair hung all matted and bloody. They’d been put through the mill. The day had edged on up into the afternoon, with our moment of reckoning hanging suspended above our heads; waiting for the slightest breeze, for it to fall, with us waiting in the wings, as it were. Waiting for our curtain call; having top billing, yet here we were, in the last act of the play, with still no speaking parts; not a one. We could but mime a few lines in rebuttal, as we waited for the critics call--
Anyone without experience of Japanese military court procedures, would have been surprised with this trial. It had floored us, for it was no longer a common stage show, it had moved on up and was playing between high drama; Gilbert and Sullivan came to mind– A performance of The Mikado, featuring his Lord High Executioner.
The show was run on a professional basis, for in their own way, they took their undemocratic ways seriously. Procedures were followed to the letter; what the letters made up into was anyone's guess. At least the judge appeared to be strong on procedures, and he certainly looked stern enough, while sitting up there; a hanging judge for sure.
The Orient was very much in evidence, very Eastern, as would be expected; very Japanese. With their sharp head bow, their inhaling and exhaling of air, when ending sentences, followed by ah-so, deska. Above it all, came the paper shuffling. Forests of papers, either going up or coming down; papers all around.
The trial became a veritable paper chase; ending with an assortment of air intakes, ah-so’s and desk'a, which to my untrained ears, seemed as if the sentences finished with an assertion that they were a pack of arseholes; again, perhaps if I’d known the language, I may have been able to fit things together. At least enough to paper over any misunderstanding.
The trial ended in a conference of heads, and a conglomeration of words; to be followed by a flurry of papers, all of which brought the show to its climatic ending. The moment when our benign understanding was to be made malignant, with the pronouncements of the death sentences. The interpreter’s certain Public School English, had destroyed any good opinion we may have had in Japanese law.
As first receivers, the five local men, had stood remarkably firm, against this deadly machine gun like assault; coming in five bursts, of three deadly words, To Be Executed. How they had blasted at the eardrums. Executed, it is such an awful word, and to have it penetrate your mind in this personal way. Like that of a high powered bullet. The very finality of the word, struck home with such penetrating force.
Yet for all that, these five men seemed remarkably unfazed, quiet fearless, standing straight of back, without a quiver. It was the bravest of fronts, and they carried it off with such a show of character.
I remember thinking, they’d left us with a worthy example, one to take note of; as standing in line, so close to the hand of death. Near enough for its passing touch to bring with it the feeling of cold fear, that fear brings when danger appears to be inescapable. Such was the shock wave from those five deadly sentences; I also remember wondering, “How will I go, if I too receive a like sentence” .
None of us had been prepared for this sort of drama, and the fact of it, was to hit Jimmy first, for he was the next to be sentenced, and from there it transmitted on down the line, on to effect us all. Moments stretched on seeming to last for hours, while we tensed, waiting the sentences, and knowing only too well, of the possibility of extinction. It sure sets the mind and thoughts fly the coup.
The proximity of death, acts as I imagine a designer drug would act. Every sound came clear as a bell, every movement was burnt onto memory. Every thought was registered within a heightened awareness.
The fear of death does that to all who come close enough to its embrace, and who have not yet been aged enough in life, to be reconciled to the inevitability of its ever hovering presence.
Clearly, had the interpreter’s voice come. "Miles Pierce Brown” and how sharply we had listened- “you have been found guilty of escaping from a Japanese Prison Camp, and your sentence is- (I remember the waiting, and of how tensed, and fearful we had been) to serve eight years -Oh, happy, happy days The relief we felt was instantaneous - oh - what a nice man he was -hard labour in, Outram Road Jail, Singapore" -The relief was instantaneous; pressure had been removed; joy to the world; we were to live-.
Our part of the line relaxed, after having stood firm for so long, and through such a period of time. The relief came and triggered a reaction of awful release; like a flash flood, from out of nowhere; bringing with it the knowledge that we weren’t going to die; at least not yet.
The desire for life, is our strongest force; made known, more so, when death is hovering close by your side, and it is beckoning…..“William Young, because of your youth, the court in its mercy has decided to reduce your sentence, from eight years to four years, hard labour in Outram Road. Jail, Singapore". What a nice man he was, and with such compassion. The sentencing went on- N. F. Fairy, five years- F.J. New, four years- B. McWilliams, five years- A.R. Minty, five years- N.S. Morris, five years and J. Darlington, for hitting a guard, six months. No allowance being made for the time we’d spent in their various prisons.
My youth had been instrumental in causing the court to be lenient, and in its own light, perhaps it was. At least I had my life, and in having it, I could not help but be impressed by the brave exit, that these five men of Sarawak had shown to us. As they are unable to come back and take their bow at this curtain call, then I most willing make up an audience; even if it is only one, and I clap and I cheer for them now– Well done, Bravo, Bravo, Bravo.
My friend Jimmy was good at languages and from what he could make out of the proceedings, the condemned men appeared to have been mixed up with one of the underground groups that had been secretly at work , undermining the Japanese occupiers. I believe the town of Jesselton had been mentioned during the indictment. Apparently they were doing much the same kind of work as Captain Matthew’s and his men. So there you go, you can never tell. Five ordinary looking men, in the cloak and dagger business ; Hero’s all.
-Again, through the benefit of her research, Lynette Silver, was able to give me the date of our trial, as being, the 26th. of July 1943. - It gives one an eerie feeling to think that, in those grim days of heartbreak and trial are recorded among the many files that belong to, and that record some of the events, from those long ago days in Borneo. - Court files at their best are but cold hard words, records without emotions; they don’t tell of the thoughts and fears that lay in the hearts and minds of the people they record. The files from the Japanese military court at Kuching, if they were obtainable, would tell of five men who the court had sentenced to be executed, whereas in fact, those five men had been denied even this respect, as their lives were cruelly “taken” by their captors even before this decision could be carried out.
In the darkness of death we reach out for the white light of life, and seek the colours from off its palette; in life, there is no other acceptable alternative, to life. No matter how dull we may have painted it.
Forty two years after our day in a Japanese court, and while walking up Spring St. during a reunion in Melbourne, a tall Chinese Chap stopped me and asked for directions. On seeing as how, curiously enough, we were heading for the same place, I invited him to come along with our group.
From this coincidence of two strangers meeting, from among almost three million people, I learnt that the gentleman's name was, Funk, Johnny Funk, and that he was a brother of one of the eight men who had been tried and executed with Captain Matthew’s, and that both he and another brother, had also been sentenced in that same court. They had spent the rest of the war in a Kuching gaol . The whole family had been involved in one way or another with the underground movement, fighting against the Japanese. Such brave people, they had given of themselves, to the utmost, and certainly, they too, of all people, deserve to be remembered and honoured, for ever and a day .
With our trial over, they bundled us off to the wharf where we were placed inside, of all things, a horse box, it still had a mixture of straw and horse manure covering the floor. Our first thought was that it would make a first class cabin, an impression soon put to rest, as the sun’s burning rays turned it into a steaming hot box, then when the doors were closed, it became a pressure cooker.
Claustrophobia never even had a chance to get a toehold inside that box; there just wasn’t enough room for it. You take eight blokes, put them in side a well used horse box, with the doors closed tight, let it simmer in the burning, hot tropical sun for a few hours, and without question you will have some half baked people to deal with.
That sure was a session and a half, sitting in the pitch black, stifling heat, with the “horsh” smelling shittier, the air becoming thicker, and us getting sicker by the minute , it just wasn’t a pretty sight.
--Eric (Mo) Davis, had been sent down from Sandakan to Kuching, and happened to be working on the Kuching wharf, on that day. Years later, he told me how their Jap guards had made them all face the other way, while the truck drove on past.
Towards evening our box started spinning around , first one way and then an other, all in time with our hallucinations. It was like trying to ride a bucking horse blindfolded, with a Burr under the saddle. When the spinning finally stopped, we still kept going down, and fast, ending with a thump and a bump. Wherever it was, we were there. The "Chooks" had landed, and for a change, we weren’t cackling, for we lay, a consortium of bodies; a tangled assortment of parts, trying to come to terms. Extracting our various parts from among the entanglement of arms and legs. Making sure nothing of vital importance was missing. With that over and done with, we set about rediscovering ourselves.
Marooned inside the stinking box, black on black, and inside the hold of a Jap ship. Crawling around, trying to find one another, "Is that you Jimmy" yes, "Is that you Allen". "That you Normie, old son", until eventually, we were all present and correct . With that we waited, glad to be alive, even if only just, while inside a box - a paradox.
The hum from hundreds of voices came through at us while the ship made it's way down the river, and out to sea. Hours later the top half of the doors swung open letting in the light allowing us to see just what it was that had aroused our curiosity. What a sight, it made our eyes pop, for the hold was full of Japanese soldiers. We were in a troop ship full of enemy troops, packed in like sardines. Presenting an unusual and unfriendly sight; most of them were dressed in lap-laps, with only a few of them laying down, trying to get some sleep, the others were talking and arguing, and, judging by the glances and gestures that came our way, their discussions seemed to be centered on us.
We decided on our part, to let sleeping dogs lie, seeing as how we weren’t on good speaking terms. So we kept ourselves to ourselves; and peace be upon us all; hopefully for the duration of the voyage.
As it turned out we ate well, on great heaps of rice; we got all the Nips left overs, and happy we were for that. We gorged on the scraps; for much the same reason as the Polar bears gorge before hibernating for the winter; for we too were moving into a winter.
The memories from that trip, with all the food, its freedom from the kempei-tai, shined like a beacon through out the lean years ahead. For they were long, mean, lean, and ugly years, those years that we spent locked up in the cells of Outram Road Gaol.
The moving finger writ, and having writ, passed on; as it did for us, and Borneo. Our time had finished there, all that it had held for us was over. We were into the first page of a new chapter, one that we could not begin to realize or, fortunately for us, see ahead. From being enclosed inside a horsebox, to being enclosed in a much darker place.
Our box was swayed up and out of the hold and then down to good old "Terra Firma and Coy". The Chooks had landed once again, and having come from an aviary, we were going into a foul house.
--Again thanks to Lynette’s research-- It was on the 3rd, of August, 1943 that we were taken to Outram Road Gaol.--
We stayed all night beside the sea, you se-e
Dedicated to the memory of five brave men
SOH KIM SENG
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