When I was at the church being christened, it turned out that my baptism wasn't the only important news of the day.
But I should take a step back a few years before I say what the other was ...
In 1941, my Uncle Barney was taken as a prisoner of war in the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese. For the next three years, nobody really knew whether he was alive or dead, so when I was born in August 1944, it was decided that I would be named Bernard (Barney) as well as my father's and grandfather's main name of James. And that I'd be called Barney in honour of the missing civilian volunteer soldier.
Fast forward again, and the priest has just poured the freezing baptismal water on my brow and I'm complaining loudly in the only way babies can. But the job is done, and I'm named. James Bernard Byrne.
And on the same day, word comes through. "Barney's alive. He's a POW in Japan."
Various aunts get worried. It's what aunts do.
"We can't call him Barney, so."
"No, and we can't call him Jim, either, there're two of them already. Senior and Junior."
A silence in the chatter and then somebody came up with a solution. "We'll call him Brian."
Nobody knew why, but it was a solution and a quick one, so that's how I became a Brian. Even though it took me twenty-five years to actually get 'Brian' put on my passport, and thus solve an awful lot of technical identity problems.
Anyway, since I first heard that story I've always felt an affinity with Barney. Not least because, when he came home in the early fifties for the first time since his release from Sendai 2 POW camp in 1946, he brought me a pedal car Jeep with a US Army star on the bonnet.
My favourite uncle died back in Hong Kong of a heart attack some fifty years ago, dying young like many of his POW compatriots who survived with him.
But now to the reason for this piece.
For a long time I've had a copy of a letter which Barney began writing the day they got the word in Sendai 2 that the Armstice in Japan had been signed and they would soon be released.
He wrote it on all sorts of scraps of paper (which I've only recently found are still extant), to the aunts in Kilcullen who had been his closest family after the death of his own father changed his circumstance as a child. Itself a story for another time.
Anyway, 'released soon' wasn't quite as soon as they expected, and so the letter went on and on, and in it Barney described how he came to be a POW, what happened subsequently, and then how he and a pal finally made their own way to freedom from the 'free' camp.
It is an amazing chronicle, one which I resurrected recently and began to tidy up in minor ways. And I did some further research, finding out more about the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps, and also which camp Barney had actually been in (it was never said in the letter).
To me he was an indirect uncle in relationship terms (don't ask), but, as I've said, I've always felt close to him. And reading his letter again, I've been struck at how well he could write and how good were his powers of description.
An edited version of the letter was published in the 'Carlow Nationalist' newspaper in the same year that it was received in Kilcullen. But perhaps it is now time that the entire letter was put in the public domain, in the sixtieth year after it was first written.
It may be that there are things in it that we might prefer to forget at this distance. But the thing is, we're still making wars today. As if we've forgotten the sufferings old wars have caused in their time.
So, I hope, by reminding, we might yet learn. At least a little.
Anyway, here's to Barney Byrne, late of Kilgowan near Kilcullen, and Hong Kong. And Sendai 2.
Camp in Japan,
17th August, 1945.
At last more or less free. Am writing this two days after we were informed of the Armistice and we ceased our work in slavery, as it might have been called.
Firstly, let me introduce the bearer or poster of this letter, Chief Petty Officer Terry Ashcroft of Minane Bridge, Cork, a fellow-inmate of this Camp. Terry was captured when his ship, the Repulse, was torpedoed. His wife and family live in Cork, so he will be posting home full steam ahead, being also time-ex in the Navy — and he may be able to call at Kilcullen in person.
Right, now for me! At present I am as well and fit as ever I have been; unwounded, unmaimed and free from disease. Extraordinarily lucky, thank God, as I've seen friends killed and die from every known cause, while self kept on going. I'd best first give you a short sketch of the past forty-two months in chronological order.
Outbreak of war found me in bath with sad hangover after a hectic birthday weekend coinciding with the preliminaries of War. Birthday party — big Ball for the China Red Cross in Hong Kong's biggest Hotel, interrupted hourly by loudspeaker announcements calling men back to action stations, ships crews to report on board immediately. Hectic scenes of parting, two Jazz bands champagne on tick — money no object — the Eve of Waterloo all over again. And I woke up next morning with a bad hangover and am suffering in the bath when the Japs start dive bombing and machine gunning the airport half a mile down the road. Out of bath — into uniform and I was sitting behind my machine gun within two hours.
In the first twelve days our sector was cushy, just the odd shell or so, aeroplanes now and then, but cushy, then, the next six days your nephew ate not, neither did he sleep, but unlike sixty percent of our company, he kept his hide intact. The general surrender found Barney back to the last bit of coastline and a few more hours of resistance would have spelt finish for me.
Then the Prison Camp horror began and starvation began. I've now been hungry for forty-three months and truly and literally, I and the others have not had a decent meal or a full belly all that time. I and most others quickly developed beri-beri in the Hong Kong camp. I, after three months from the unvaried diet of plain boiled rice and a spoonful of green vegetable water three times a day. We lost a lot of men in that Hong Kong Camp, around 500 poor devils pegged out from malnutrition diseases of one type or another. I'd both beri-beri and pellagra several times, but managed to shake them off but the weaker constitutions of others couldn't stand it. I also managed to get rid of one go of malaria — bad — knocked me back for months down to a hundred thirty five pounds weight, both bacillary dysentery and amoebic dysentery, and jaundice.
I and many others owe our lives to the Red Cross, who managed to get supplies of tinned meat, Indian meal, cocoa, dried fruit and three parcels per man to Hong Kong. These few extras saved thousands of lives, for by the time they arrived we had all gone terribly low and in our camp the bugle was blowing Last Post seven or eight times a day. You have no idea of the improvement that took place in the men when we started getting a bit of meat per day. Three or four ounces a day did the trick.
We were left very much alone in Hong Kong by the Japs, who gave the internal running of the camp to our own officers who had to supply so many men for working parties per day. But apart from about a hellish burst of slavery on the clearing of a new airport for about four months, the two and a half years in Hong Kong were not unduly tough, apart from the dirt, hunger and disease.
I was getting ahead. I must mention what I owe to my pal Komorsky (the White Russian lad I shared a flat with in peace-time) and his noble mother Zenia. He was also in the camp with me and his mother was free, and she managed (how, I still don't know) to send us a small parcel of food every week. Two, three tins of meat or fish and some fruit and little cookies. Poor woman, she must have been beggared by the war also, and how she was able to keep up this supply I still don't know. Anyway, Komo shared everything with me — and eventually, when in October 1943, I, by bamboo post, induced a French merchant in Hong Kong to stake me to two food parcels per month and Yen 25, this transaction also, though deadly dangerous in view of the illicit postal channels used, was very much facilitated by Madame Komorsky's aid. I owe those two Russians, mother and son, more than even I could forget to repay. Anyway, these extra parcels and money kept coming from October '43 to May '44 and really tided me over a bad period of hunger and illness. In May '44, I, with two hundred others were drafted to Japan and luckily for us we got through without swimming, and from what I subsequently learned from that time onwards the blockade of Japan by US subs. became deadly. Again I seem to have escaped by a very close margin.
I could write a book on that voyage, nevertheless. Two hundred men crowded into a dirty, filthy, stinking hold of a small two hundred ton tramp steamer. When they herded us in at Hong Kong they would give us no chance to clean the place first, and the place was thick with indescribable filth. We slept on tiers around the bulkheads, head to toe, no room to turn at night — the only latrine was on deck and twenty-five percent of us, me included, had dysentery within a week. They turned the hose on once a day for a short while. If you were quick enough you might get a wash. They fed us twice a day, not badly as we knew bad feeding, but after fourteen days in that hold, we were damn glad to see Japan. Afterwards, I found out that it was a pleasure cruise compared to some of the hell voyages other prisoners suffered.
Arriving in Japan at Moigi-Shemonizeki we entrained in luxury, soft seats and three meals per day, and arrived in Tokyo thirty six hours later, changed trains at Tokyo and at the end of a further eight hours arrived at this camp, and our hearts sank as we got our first view of the top works of a coal mine.
Yeah, I've been in the mines and what a Fred Karno mine. But later I had amoebic dysentery from the boat voyage — the luckiest disease I ever got. It kept me out of that mine for nine months and it's not a very severe type of illness, but, luckily exertion causes acute outbursts. Eventually, on 19th December I was sent to Tokyo POW so-called hospital. I am one of the few people who got cured there before they starved to death. The Japs gave the patients short rations and the doctors — RAMC and American — and the orderlies, also of both nationalities, made this worse by allowing the most corrupt organization I have ever witnessed to function unmolested. Those doctors and staff, robbed their patients to an incredible extent, of the meagre rations allowed by the Japs. There must be an enquiry into the running of that joint after the war. But they did have US Red Cross supplies of medicine and a drug called Carbosil cured me, and I was discharged after three months and arrived back in this camp on March 12th this year. Incidentally, during my stay in Tokyo, the Yankee B29s were knocking blazes out of that city, making my third residence in a capital city under bombing.
From the 20th March to 16th August I have been working in this mine without a day's illness or any injury serious enough to earn me a day's excused duty. Nine working days per shift, one day's rest. Day shift went to work at six am. returned at about four pm. Night shift went down four-thirty pm. and usually didn't get back until four am. rarely back at two-thirty am. Often since the air raids started we stayed down until six am. and changed over with the day shift going down. Some hours, and most of the work in badly ventilated shafts where you worked stark naked because of the heat. And I'm fit and hard as nails as I've never been before. No fat, of course, ten stones and four pounds to-day.
The food here has been miserable for the work we did. Today's meals typical breakfast, a bowl of grain rice, twenty percent, beans (soya) twenty per cent, and a rough grain called Korin, sixty percent, and a bean soup for breakfast. Mid-day — grain ditto and two spoonfuls of curried beans. Evening — grain ditto and seaweed soup. Tomorrow we have some fresh vegetable cucumber and carrot thinnings — all tops and no carrot. Tops of carrots go into soup and have a bloody bad flavour. Meat one per shift, a spoonful per man, if you're lucky. Fish we used to get about twice a week, but since the Yanks moved into the sea round here, fish disappeared from the menu.
My good condition I attribute to the Soya beans, we have been fed. Yes, this Soya bean is the answer. It seems to be a complete diet in itself as before they introduced it into our diet, our fellows here went down very badly, and since its introduction everybody has improved enormously. You know this bean perhaps as Heinz Pork and Beans in tins at home — but don't ever sneer at 'em.
The Sendai #2 Camp, located around Iwaki coal mine.
Seven of the original two hundred have died here, six more or less from causes attributable to malnutrition and one killed in the mine by a collapse. How more weren't killed down there, nobody knows. Providence I guess, and also, as the mine was so obviously dangerous, crazily dangerous, everybody developed a sixth sense of awakeness to danger. The damn shafts collapsed daily — no exaggeration. The Japs have no idea of doing a job well, and only patch up where we would demand a thorough repair job. However, It's over now, thank the Lord.
We lived here in a wooden stockaded camp in two huts, a hundred men each hut, sleeping in two tiers of tatami boarding, Jap style, of course. You sleep on the boards, roll up your blankets during the day and eat and sit around on the bed space.
We have been relatively free here from positive ill-treatment, beating ups etc. being few and far between. During the last few months, we have been under the rule of one of the few really civilized Japanese NCOs I have ever met. The first one we had here for eight months was an ignorant savage who made life a misery for us by his fantastic ideas and plans. Instance — many men had badly swollen legs and feet (beri-beri) and he insisted that the poor devils take off their shoes after parade at four-thirty am and walk so many times round the yard barefooted. He really believed this was good for beri-beri. That sort of thing damn near drove some of us mad. His mad ideas actually resulted in the deaths of a couple of men here. Some of the Jap underlings here and the foremen in the mines were also bastards of the first water, as, irrespective of what you have heard, the Jap is still what we regard as an uncivilised person.
The officer class have a veneer of civilization, but the poorer class as a whole are still hundreds of years behind. Unfortunately our immediate contacts were with the uncivilised majority and, until we got to understand their mentality a little, we suffered accordingly.
At present we are just lounging about anxiously awaiting some Yank or British troops to walk in, bringing some real food and a few smokes. We still have Jap army guards, but now so solicitous for our safety that they won't even allow us outside camp to the local village to draw rations for fear of trouble.
Incidentally, we all have plenty of money, but it is quite useless and has been as long as we have been in this country. Nobody sells anything for money, but a woollen pullover or socks or a shirt will always produce a few fags or eggs or fruit or salt. Naturally, we haven't much left of that nature at present, though your nephew has been trying to flog his winter pullover, overcoat, three razor blades and a bar of US Red Cross soap all day without much success as the market is flooded by the boys unloading everything at once on to the impoverished guards. Damn it all, I can't even get three eggs, forty cigarettes and a handful of garlic for my overcoat, and I'm so annoyed with the little yellow b who insists that he can't get eggs, that I won't give him the coat at his price, which substitutes four peaches for the eggs.
The coat incidentally, is a really good British Naval Duffle coat, camel hair, with hood and the poor little Jap wants it like hell, but, like them all, he has nothing to give for it. They are! in the same boat here, and poverty such as you at home cannot realise is the common lot. Any of these villagers could be transported to Kilcullen and keep himself and a large family well fed on what we normally throw away.
This letter is getting out of hand. When I can get hold of a pretty stenographer somewhere, I'll hire her for a few hours to take down a letter, telling everything, and have it typed out properly. My hand is not as good with a pen nowadays, being more accustomed to a pneumatic drill.
As regards mail. I have written to you about twelve or fourteen times altogether, twice to J.J. Jun. I have received four letters from you and one postcard the other day, apparently posted last January. As you said nearly the whole family had written the months previously, presumably Xmas, eight months to come. To-day, to my joy, comes a cable from J.J. Senr. giving news of Tom's marriage. That one shook me, I'll say, but attaboy Tom: and all the luck in the world lad. My regards to Mrs. Tom. God, it's hard to believe: Thanks to Uncle Jim for the cable. He'll never know what it means to get something like that in this dump.
That's all the mail I've got in the time I've been a prisoner. Up to now, of course, I've always been limited to so many words or letters per line per letter so this, my first free letter, is just running away with me. At this point they turned out the lights, so I retired to the fleas.
Reveille five-thirty am. Daylight, an hour later than our accustomed hour of arising: Breakfast six am. Carrot top soup: boiled carrot tops and a little salt flavouring. Never could go carrot tops — they're foul, so just eat my bowl of cereals and beans. Our main cereal called here Korin is, we think, millet and uncooked; it looks exactly like the very small purple bird seeds which I remember on sale at home in penny packets.
Incidentally, this country has a glorious climate and this morning is a beauty: sunny, warm and still fresh. I wouldn't object to living in Japan under good conditions and a nice income.
No news of any births or deaths in the family. Thank God for the latter. What does J.J. Senr. in his cablegram mean by Kilgowan unchanged? Paddy Boland to Rita Hughes, Dan Boland to Kitty Fitzpatrick, Andy O'Connell to ? Jack Dardis to Julia, that's about everything I know about home. Aunt Mary wasn't too well? But nothing else, and God, I want to know everything. How did Byrne business boom during the war period? Everything I want to know. Do what I intend to do, hire a stenographer for a few hours and start dictating to her and air mail result.
As to my intentions in the future. I'll be going back to Hong Kong, I presume, for a while — short while, I hope, before I start making tracks for the old country. It'll be a hard choice for me to make, as I'm more homesick now than ever I was as a small boy first term in College. But there IS a ground floor in that new Hong Kong and China that's about to arise, and there must be room there for Bar. So I'm going back post haste to grab a niche or a slab while the grabbing's good. Tell J.J. and family in general to await developments, as there's bound to be a lot of stuff floating around which might be saleable at home, and I hope to get some of that said stuff home post haste.
Regarding finance, I think I'm going to be pretty well off as previous to the outbreak of war, Hong Kong Government legislated for the payment of salaries to employees during any period of service with colours. £2,400 for Barney now may give me a fair start in a field where all starters will be maidens. But with modern air services functioning, I think I may make a trip home at a pretty early date.
*Cheerio for the present, Peg dear, and my love to Norah, Nan and Dais, though the letter as usual is superscribed "Dear Peg", I intend to know that for the last 25 years or so, all four ladies are included under the name "Peg" except that the onus of answering is thrown on the shoulders most ready and willing to answer. I cannot imagine writing to Nan, for instance, and putting same lady under burden of composing a reply.
Regards to all the family, Mary, Aunt K.A., Boss, Mrs. J.J. Jun. Mrs. Jun. Maur? Tom, Mrs. Tom — the Lawlers of Dunlavin, P.S., PS., PS., (I'd a letter from Aunt Leo.) Waters family, Uncle Tim and family. I guess I’ll have to write to everyone sometime but wait till, as I say, I catch me a stenographer.
Regards to the Boys. Jim Brennan and Nick Bardon — Peter Franci~ ? — Tresa. Forget Nick's wife's name, know her well. Congrats to all three couples (God, this makes six wedding presents.) No — seven, eight.
*Attempt to end letter failed again.
I want the weekly Irish paper from the December 1941 issue up to August 1945 sent to me, please. The amount of reading and catching up I'm going to have to do, appalls me.
(I nearly forgot — please pass my kindest regards to Seamas and John Woods — two gentlemen whom I hope to meet again. Looking back, they treated me very nicely). Also Harry O'Gara of the same office. Please mention to the latter that in Prison Camp HK I met a former crony of his RUC or HRC days, W B Willwood, now a WOI in the REs, a charming rogue if ever I met one.
Peg, the letter must end somewhere. I could write for days. But every little thing I remember just runs into a host of other things — look at the last paragraph and I've forgotten to pass greetings to people like Nick and Katie Lawler, Pat L, Willie. It would take a book.
All my love, Peg.
Maybe I might be able to Air Mail this.
P.S. Dear Dais, What couldn't I do with a sweet cake just now if I didn't get killed in the rush as I opened it. B.
19th — Two days later.
Still hanging round the camp, or more strictly speaking, very much inside the camp, as the Japs are still guarding us assiduously, actually they seem kinda loath to allow any of us out even for rations. We think the people outside are a little unsettled. However, they are really making an attempt to feed us for the first time since our capture and I'm reasonably full in the tummy at present.
None of our troops have appeared yet to take over, nor have we been allowed to communicate with Tokyo and we're all damned impatient. Doing nothing all day is beginning to pall already, and when you've been locked up this long every extra wasted hour of Rip Van Winkledom is grudged. I feel very much inclined to take French leave and start the journey on foot with French leave.
The Church of England fellows are holding a dreary hYmn service outside the window just now, and their soporific keening is getting on my nerves. Haven't they a desolate idea of God? Incidentally, my religious feelings have appreciably strengthened since getting into this mess (it may ease you to know) though the call to the priesthood is still unheard, I intend to amend my previous rather laissez faire policy towards the question and do a spot of reforming. A couple of times during the actual fighting I was glad to have a God to appeal to, and I don't intend to forget that.
Next Morning, still waiting.
Yeah, still waiting and not even a rumour of a move. I'm getting stronger on this free walk to the capital city — pronto.
I remember back in Hong Kong all our useless planning of escapes that never materialized. We talked it over day after day, but never could find a reasonably probable or possible way out through our electrified fence and over forty miles of enemy-held territory before striking the No Man's Land of the Chinese bandits and guerillas. But dreaming and scheming of how and when to do it kept a lot of us going. About six or eight men did get away the first year, but we never succeeded in getting any news of their fate. Here, of course, it's different and a quick dash and a lucky hop on the rods of a train might land you in an American encampment with six hours, and the temptation is terrific and the urge to get a little bit of excitement as an extra inducement.
It's going to be very hard to ever settle down after living these last few years as a private soldier amongst the types of men who populated HK. POW camp and this one. Men of every nationality and colour and half-tone, and invariably, the foot-loose type predominated. Nobody in this crowd except a very very few, ever held a steady job of any sort, and very many laugh loud and long at the idea of working for anybody else except under dire stress of hunger. To hear the China coast old hands talking in this strain was no surprise to me, as I had begun to catch on to their outlook in pre-war days in HK.
For the first few months in that Colony I had lived in the pure atmospheric circles of the Senior Government Servant, but approaching the outbreak of war, I had been gradually sinking down to the level of the humbler ranks of the Colony's Europeans who made more money, spent more money, and were alive even above the neck. Also gradually began to realise that the Senior Government Officer, the Old School tie type was still ninety percent honest and nearly incorruptible, secure in his highly salaried position; whereas the lower ranks recruited from every possible source just looked upon their salaries as something to save up for a rainy day while they lived well (and at a far higher standard sometimes than their superiors) by their spare time racketeering, squeezing and speculating.
They nearly all at some time or another (the older ones) had made and lost fortunes on the Coast and the yarns they spun just held me spellbound many an hour. It surprised me, however, to find the same spirit of individualism in the Canadian and Australian, both of whom seem to have the same ideas. Only work for someone else and for just so long as you have to and as soon as possible start working for yourself.
It has struck me forcibly on many an occasion that a lot of stick-in-the-mud conservatism in the British Isles must be due to pensions, superannuation schemes etc. which bind the young people to small jobs at an age when they should be urged to break out and do something off their own initiative.
Incidentally, in many conversations with the Americans, Canadians, Aussies etc. I have been led to conclude that our (homeside) impressions of the great Depression of the thirties were to a large extent false. These boys all have the same story, regular employment was at times hard to get, but the great proportion of the unemployed were unemployable, and mostly just wouldn't work, and the "guy" who couldn't make enough to keep himself going comfortably (meaning plus auto) was no damn good anyway.
I come back to this letter at all sorts of odd times with odd ideas and naturally every thing is disjointed. I guess its no longer a letter with an ending, so I give up trying to end it. It strikes me the family may like to hear something of my impressions of the country — what little live seen of it.
The people live mentioned before as uncivilised according to our standards. They are a cruel race, primarily. They are cruel to animals and to man. live seen them here torture the unfortunate dogs and cats day after day, until our fellows couldn't stand the sight any longer and just took the poor beasts round the corner afterwards and killed them to prevent more torturings next day. The Japs think this great sport and just laugh at us for our aversion to cruelty. They are even cruel towards their own people and the boss Jap kicks and beats his underlings at will without fear of a comeback.
The methods of their police we can guess at from the unholy terror they inspire into the people by a mere gesture. During the war, of course, the Jap only took prisoners when forced to do so by circumstances, and many of our fellows who surrendered in outposts were dispatched forthwith usually by the slowest and most messy method. Many others (more fortunately) escaped with a terrific hammering for no reason except the sportive instinct of the captors. I myself saw the Jap soldiers in Hong Kong being incredibly brutal to the Chinese on little or no provocation, and they just used their rifles with as little compunction as we at home would use a shotgun on rabbits. They just seem to take a different view of the value of human life to us.
Personally, the Jap is perhaps more clean than his Irish counterpart in that you never see one dirty as regards his person. He always looked well cleaned and washed. Yet his habits and sanitary customs shock us. WCs are rare round here anyway, and their instincts do not include that of privacy in certain matters, and where the call comes, that's the spot. Human manure is invariably used on the farms and gardens and the garden is one yard from the front door. Still, in order to be hygienically perfect the Jap goes round a hospital area with a little piece of gauze or cotton strapped over his nose and mouth. A ridiculous and useless precaution against infection, but he thinks he's being up to date and modern in his anti-disease precautions.
They all have a terrific inferiority complex and we suffered in his efforts to bolster his ego. He has a mania for saluting and parading and bowing and we saluted, paraded and bowed at all possible occasions. The only method we had of getting anything out of them was to soft-soap some little runt and after a while he's eating out of your hand.
He has no sense of doing things in a quietly rational manner and when anything unplanned occurs he just goes haywire, and is useless. It has been said that one Jap by himself can do nothing, but ten together can move a mountain. True, the ten Japs would move that mountain by sheer dogged persistence and bull-headedness, in about the same time as two white men would do same. They drive their cars like mad and their mechanics all use the hammer and chisel and never dream of repairing anything until it breaks down completely. As long as it goes it needs no repairs.
They are crazy about their children and treat their women folk as household utensils. The women we have come in contact with, incidentally, are invariably nice, courteous and very kind. We've had very little to do with them, unfortunately, as they are kept very much in the background.
The countryside, as much as live seen so far on train journeys and around the camp, is really lovely. Small rolling hills, always with mountains seemingly in the background. Unlike home, the whole country is well wooded and, barring in winter, luxuriant as to colour and foliage. It probably looked particularly good to one more accustomed to the barrenness of Wicklow or the desolation of the western part of old Ireland. On the slopes of the hills round here all the farmers on their small holdings seem to have an acre or two of cherry, peach or pear or apple orchards, and round April and May when all these seem to be in bloom, the place looks like a stylized picture postcard of peace and plenty.
The farms are in the lower slopes of the hills and in all the valleys, and every inch of land is used — every inch. All the little patches of rice paddy laid out in mathematical exactness with just a one foot wide path between holdings. And every hundred yards or so there seems to be a Jap farmer's home.
Apparently they take two crops per annum off their land, year after year — they haul in their barley harvest first, flood immediately and the new rice plants are transplanted to the ex-barley field within a matter of days. (We've lived here for months on end, on a diet of cereals, fifty percent ordinary barley, dynamite to the tummy).
Their vegetables are everything we have at home grown to a larger size plus the sweet potato (good) taro root (punk) Squash (OK as soup base) tomatoes in the open and many others essentially Japanese, for which I know no English name. They seem to get an amazing return from their land, due, I suppose, to the constant use of relatively large quantities of human manure used, together with the natural richness of their soil. But I've often thought what a lesson they could give our people in intensive cultivation.
To mention in passing, there's hardly any livestock, and live yet to see a field of grazing land quite true so far, and live sat in a train for 36 hours going all the time — no grazing. They use horses and oxen in their ploughs, but what they feed them on I don't know. l've eaten both since coming here (horse-meat's not bad, if you get it — we usually get the entrails and eat them on those rare occasions thankfully).
Mention — have also eaten whalemeat, sharkmeat, octopus or squid, bones, intestines, blood, dog, seaweed — most common fish they gave us was the mackerel dried, fresh, salted, smoked, preserved in soya sauce and often delicious — when I used to think of the hundreds thrown away each year at home as not fit to eat smoked and preserved in soya and then grilled they make as tasty eating as any fish live ever tried.
Back to farming — I've never seen or eaten the sheep here, where the pigs are kept I don't know, but at present anyway, meat in this country is just a dim and delicious memory to both native and prisoner. For the last few months, no fish (either due to US air naval activities). l'd always heard that Japan produced a lot of tea, but I've never seen it growing, and we had great difficulty in obtaining very small quantities on rare occasions. (You get very tired of drinking hot water with your meals. You used to do it quite a lot, Peg — why, for God's sake?)
The Japanese city, village, or town is just what you might expect from book description. Hundreds of small wooden houses, paper windows, and all jammed tightly together in little narrow streets and just swarming with people. Uncle Sam's incendiary bombs must have worked havoc there. I saw the results of such weapons while in the Tokyo Hospital substitute, and I'd seen Silvertown on fire from the distance of Leicester Square and that was small compared to one memorable night when they lit up Yokohama across the bay from the site of one Hospital in Tokyo.
No HE was used, yet they admitted a known death-roll of thirty thousand in that one fire. These wooden city blocks must have been death traps when once a fire got going. I've, of course, seen the few Jap cities and towns at a period when all or ninety-five percent of the shops were closed down and boarded up — nothing to sell — so what they really look like in normal times I can only guess; but lately, they have looked like ghost towns and everywhere needed a coat of paint sadly. So far, of course, I've mostly seen only railway stations in Tokyo — vast solid buildings mainly remarkable for the incredible number of people who were crammed, jammed and queued at every barrier and platform. I've been in Tokyo railway stations six times, and each time they looked more like a foot-ball stadium at home on the day of a big match.
Next Morning, 21st.
Still another morning without any news. Just finished my morning fatigue, cleaning up the area — that was the cat's lick it got this morning. But sure sign that the war is over — we've just been issued with ten apples per man — I danged five straight and by a big effort of will power, put the others aside.
This starts me on the food question, the great all-important topic of food — for the whole period of imprisonment, half of of all conversations have been about food, natural enough to men who've been hungry all day, every day for years. We've lived on grain of course all the time, rice, barley, Korin or millet, Indian atta meal and beans plus vegetables in fair quantities, and occasional little spoonfuls of meat and fish.
Polished white rice formed the main grain issue in Hong Kong. For two months there in the beginning, we lived, incredible to say, on rice alone, the vegetable issue being almost negligible. This period was the killer, of course, as white polished rice contains almost no nourishment and malnutrition moved in with its attendant diseases. Beri-beri and Pellagra principally. Beri-beri is really kidney failure and starts by constant urination forty, fifty times per day — then the water-works break down and fail to eliminate the water from the system. Your legs first swell up with the water and gradually but in a very short period failing treatment, two-three days — the water level and swelling spreads upwards until it reaches the heart and lungs — curtains.
The treatment is a drug known as Thiamine, injected usually, which stops the rot maybe. Pellagra is the more dangerous, but less acute. It starts with red patches appearing on your legs and face, later ulcers. Much later the victim starts chronic diarrhoea, very difficult to arrest at this stage, your eyes begin to fail, your mouth and tongue become red and raw and so sore and tender that you cannot eat or even smoke. Next step craziness, and shortly after that the funeral.
The course of this disease runs over a period of months and the worst of it is that when you get it the victim quickly becomes so weakened that at any time during the course of his illness, he is easy meat for any other disease germ floating about, dysentery, pneumonia, diphtheria, malaria and catching these when you've already got pellagra is finis, usually. I don't think medicine can do much for pellagra — nicotinic acid helped a hell of a lot, but a strong constitution and plenty of fighting spirit saved most men. The real cure for both of these diseases would be plenty of eggs, milk and meat. We might as well have asked for crushed pearls!
These two diseases are the direct result of trying to live on boiled rice and veg with maybe two ounces of meat or fish per week, perhaps vegetable oil goes a little way in preventing the onset of such maladies, but even it — peanut oil or coconut oil at the bad period in Hong Kong were not issued (peanut oil is such a good cooking oil especially for deep frying that it has often struck me why we won't make more use of it at home.)
At the end of 1942 when most of the harm had been done, the Red Cross succeeded in getting supplies to us. Bully beef, tins of meat and veg. stew, dried fruit, sugar, cocoa, Indian atta meal and three food parcels per man. The bulk stuff, Bully etc. we spun out until I left on draft for Japan, to give you some idea of the quantity.
They started by issuing a tin of Bully per day for four men, and a little cocoa, sugar, meal and fruit. When I left, only the bully remained and was issued at one tin to twenty men per day! Twelve-tenths of an ounce per day! But these supplies had given us the little extra vitamins we needed, and within three months of their receipt you wouldn't recognise the men they improved so amazingly.
When these supplies arrived, our unpredictable hosts also decided to increase rations and gave us fair quantities of oil and flour and better vegetables and a regular (more or less) issue of fish, about twice a week. I forgot to mention the receipt from the Red Cross of what most people considered the most valuable food of all — Indian Ghee — goat grease in tins. Quite palatable as a frying oil and useable as a bread spread in lieu of butter. We got quite a large quantity of this stuff and many consider that this stuff was mainly responsible for our rapid return to health.
The Japs, of course, stole vast quantities of these supplies and what came into camp were further depleted by fiddling and thieving by the people running the ration stores.
I might mention here, that the British Officer of the Regular Army has lost the last bit of respect which he had retained for his conduct during and after the war out East. The idol had feet of clay and completely disgusted his more robust other ranks by knuckling under weakly to the Japs — peace at any price — but please do not continue to treat us equally with the common soldiers! And what the Japs didn't give them they stole from us! Our kitchens also were rotten with thieving and selling of stores to the moneyed members of the community.
But in spite of all we managed to live (or most of us did). But the weird meals I've eaten there. Once in a very bad period I've had my share of a dog stew — a big pot, one small dog, some cabbage, onions and sweet potatoes and a little salt. It was OK and I could have eaten more; but there wasn't much for nine men interested. Whalemeat is OK, colour dark red, texture like beef, not very fishy to taste. Octopus or squid is lousy, fishy and rubbery. Try boiling up some potato tops or carrot tops to get the all-time low in a vegetable.
Another point — never boil your (white) cabbage, fry it in a little oil or fat, no comparison. Porridge boiled in Cocoa. I've gone completely native in my liking for sugary, oily curries. Garlic I'm just addicted to — love it in vast quanities. I want stacks of sugar in the meat stew! If you don't believe me, try it.
On arriving in Japan we got slightly better food and more of it (for doing ten times as much work as in HK). But again, our main food has been grain, but a mixture of rice, barley, millet and beans in varying proportions. OK, except when barley happens to predominate in the brew. All of us suffer from recurring bouts of diahorrhea, but wheen barley is uppermost in the grain mixture our natural functions tend to start working without any control being exercised. In small quantities it is apparently a good foood, containing a big Vitamin B load, and thus combating the tendency to Beri-Beri.
Beans (Soya) same as Mr Heinz's Pork & Bean cans, have been our mainstay. I've mentioned them before. Our fellows have, I think, been able to slave day after day in that mine only on the food value of their soya bean ration. To get three times a day, as much as you can pack in a pint mug, of grain (beans included) about as much veg per day as the ordinary person eats at home, boiled with soya bean extract and maybe a little flour (barley or potato flour) as thickening. We were lucky to see a ration of about 2 oz of meat per week or an issue of fish per week and only twice in 14 months have they issued cooking oil.
In Japan, though we heard that vast quantities of Red Cross supplies have been sent to prisoners, I, for instance, received three Red Cross parcels, one hair comb, one tin of polish, one safety razor, three blades and a pencil. Most fellows, and I have met a lot in Tokyo Hospital from all over, have had a similar story, so we presume that many a Jap has lived well on Red Cross supplies. Enough of food for now, but at present we're waiting impatiently as ever for our midday mugful of grain and two spoonfuls of boiled cucumber in bean sauce. Another few days and maybe we eat some white man's food. Won't some Yankee quartermaster get an education when he starts in to try feeding his first consignment of ex-prisoners.
Another aspect of food and hunger — I'm disgusted with myself that I haven't learnt a few languages, Chinese and Russian (I know bits of both) especially. Many times I've tried so many others, but constant hunger is a complete deterrent to mental concentration on any subject except how to scrounge something extra to eat. I'm sorry I wasn't able to do something in the way of increasing my education and perhaps my market value also, but I saw a lot of poor studious souls sit down to study and many of them just sat themselves into the grave. Maybe of course the scholarly type of man wasn't exactly suited to the life?
The Japs incidentally, right from the beginning, forbade any kind of study class or meeting, religious services being the only exception. They had escapes on the brain and this rule was supposed to prevent men meetingfor the purpose of planning such escapes. Naturally, the meetings the rule aimed as suppressing went on unsuspected, but all other quite innocent gatherings were immediately dispersed.
In Hong Kong, of course, we had plenty of spare time, and during the good spells played football and hockey and cricket, bowls and a little tennis. Shall I say that about 20% of os, me included, were occasionally fit enough to play such games, viz when our draft left for Japan we left 850 men only behind in Hong Kong — 400 of these were in the hospital area of the camp! But the greatest recreation and vice was Bridge, according to Culbertson & Co. I've forgotten quite a lot in the last year but at one time in the HK camp I was at the stage of quoting extracts ad lib from Clubertson's Golden Book, the Bible of Bridge, and I;d really become, I suppose, a first class player.
Naturally, I guess, as Komorsky and I partnering each other invariably played for highish stakes, and losing frequently meant no next meal — you get good very quickly when your eating often depends on your bidding! The Canadians were the worst gamblers and played craps — dice — for everything they could lay their hands on. A whole hut full sat down on the night we all got a remittance of 1/24 apiece from the Red Cross, and next morning two brothers walked into the canteen with 1/1400 in their hands!
Two days later. 24th August.
I started this letter on the 17th, a whole week has now elapsed since we got our first news of the Armistice and we're still here waiting. Today we have decorated our roof with large letters ... on instructions from some HQ or other and we are told that an aeroplane will come across today or tomorrow and drop some stuff for us.
Naturally we are all deeply interested in what this stuff is going to be. Ninety-five percent are praying for a few cigarettes and some chocolate. I'm inclined to bet on our Yankee friends doing things properly and just loading their plane with everything from soup to nuts and dropping the lot conveniently to camp.
However, you can imagine two hundred and forty-two well-trained pairs of ears listening for the first purr of an aero engine. Someone is going to get killed in the rush!
The cigarette position is chronic at present and we're still living on our grain and very small issues of vegetables. I've been playing poker and sleeping alternatively all day for the last two days. Sleep most of the day — poker all night — no strain to a veteran of the mine night shifts. Also the millions of fleas and lice here prefer to operate at night and retire during the day, thus making it more convenient for the human population to sleep during the day.
I've acquired pocket fulls of Japanese money, incidentally, at poker and of course can do nothing with it. I've known many cases of men using the paper money as lavatory paper.
I've just been outside on a fatigue party for rations and brought home our first fish issue for about three weeks, one bale of dried mackeral and two boxes of oysters. Oyster soup tonight, also two boxes of Jap army biscuit ration Cs — one sheaf of lav paper — one pair of cotton socks, one packet toothpowder, one packet postcards, and that's a Jap soldier's comfort parcel.
Next Day. 25th.
Yep, the Yanks have found us. We saw them first this morning flying around, but horrible disappointment, they failed to locate us, but at twelve pm they came back, twelve Grumman fighters, and located us and treated us to a display of aerobatics right over the camp, coming down one after another right over the roof to the wild delight of the boys here. Now we know the war is over, we're now all listening for the hum of a transport plane bringing the supplies we hope for. If you took a census of what is hoped for I think cigarettes and chocolate would represent the majority demand — just chocs and fags for two hundred and forty of the two hundred and forty-two old soldiers.
In passing, I've just heard that our Doctor OC (Yank, Sioux City, name Cmaley, pronounced Smayley — more regular fellow than medico) has negotiated for the services of a photographer, so I hope to get a few snaps to include with this letter. Some photographs of the camp and surroundings would illustrate far better than I can describe.
Next Day. 26th.
Yes, the Yanks found us yesterday, but they have forgotten to return with the much needed supplies, particularly fags. We're all nearly out of smokes, many of us (me included) haven't a butt to our name and this we regard as a great punishment and completely unfitting for the soldiers of a victorious nation, but all we can do about it is smoke leaves.
Your humble servant and his present associates are good and thoroughly well fed up with this indefinite waiting about, tempers getting pretty short all round!
Great day. Apologies for above paragraph. The Yanks came today en-masse by plane once, twice, three times, and to the wild excitement of the boys here, boxes, bales, cartons, parachuted down from plane after plane diving down to 50 feet above the camp. Too low, actually, as they (to our delight) damn near wrecked the wooden camp buildings as the parachutes failed mostly to open sufficiently and parcels and boxes just crashed at 100 mph through the roofs and walls, and it paid to keep on your toes and when you saw the bomb bays opening as the planes zoomed in on their release run.
But what they dropped — Manna from Heaven to rice, korin and bean-sated wretches here. In typical Yank fashion, when they did drop stuff they damn near dropped a whole department store. Hundreds of US Army field ration boxes, breakfast, dinner and supper packets.
Typical breakfast packet — one can ham and eggs, one compressed cereal packet, buscuits assorted, one packet patent coffee, fruit bar, chewing gum, five cigs. Lunch and dinner rations in similar packets, real treasure to us. Also rations of cigarettes, Camel, Luckies etc. A sack of ground coffee, boxes of choc bars, scented soap, shaving cream, razors, magazines (Time, Collier's), papers and letters from the individual pilots asking for answers, they'll get a fan mail. Razors, toothbrushes, toothpaste, personal packages from boys of the crew of the USS Lexington, everything in fact. The camp is in an uproar at present, seven pm, just after evening meal — for the first time since the Japanese episode you couldn't even give your rice ration away — most of us too excited and happy to eat. At present this hut is bedlam, two or three concerts in ful swing, a poker school (yen) wild, a pontoon school at least twenty-five or thirty players, these men helping to ruin the bank. Others brewing up coffee, soup powders, lemonade.
This sketch was made by Pvte C L Rozario, a member of the HKVDC who originally came from Portuguese-owned Macao.
Next morning. 28th.
Couldn't sleep last night. Went to bed at 2am, up 4am and out over the fence with a pack of clothing, old boots etc on the back and set out for the mountain farm as dawn was breaking. Caught my farmer as he was crawling out of his hut and swopped my old clothes etc for a pack full (64) large freshly picked pears and about twenty pounds of potatoes.
Some load, but got it down the mountain road and back over the camp fence before roll call, undetected. Rich man now bringing up the coffee, chocs, and cigarettes of the unenterprising citizens.
Rather disappointed that stupid farmer couldn't produce eggs. He'll have 'em tomorrow morning, blast 'im, as his good wife nearly cried when I put the three bars of soap and a wollen sweater back in my pack. I'll eat a six- or ten-egg omelette for breakfast tomorrow morning, and maybe a roast chicken for lunch.
Yanks here again, yes, two planes have just been over and dropped a letter ordering signs to be painted on the parade ground indicating our requirements. T = Food; D = Cigarettes; X = Medical supplies; M = Clothing. Ts and Ds will appear fronts. To hell with Ms and Xs, waste of valuabe aeroplane cargo space.
To resume letter, diary or story or whatever you might now call this script — our Doctor OC left at three am for our area HQ city, called Sendai, a hundred or so miles North of here, bearing telegrams from everyone, official lists etc, and a decorated chunk of parachute embellished by our local artists with the Corps badges of all the different units in this camp and autographed by everyone as an offering to the Lexington's crew. (PS, hush-hush, my pal has just reported that lunch, potatoes, popcorn, pear pie, coffee and biscuits is in the process of preparation. He works in the repair shop and clothing store and provides the purchasing capital by sleight of hand and takes over the cargo and serves meals in the privacy of his store — an old army custom.
Finish using this paper, latest parachute from Yanks even contains notepaper and envelopes — slightly crushed.
Yes, the Yanks are still coming, bless them — they'll kill us with kindness, literally. We cannot sleep because of the hordes of mosquitoes and fleas at night and every time you try to get your head down for forty winks by day, Uncle Sam Santa Claus sends over another squadron to bombard the camp with fifty-pound cases of rations, and wise men stay in the open where you can dodge (one Canadian, too lazy to get up and out today, missed death by a matter of inches). Anyway, with our present state of excitement, plenty of tobacco and strong coffee in addition to previously mentioned factors, I've had seven and a half hours sleep in the last seventy-two!
Today the US Army Air Corps took their turn in the sky. And what an act they put on. Two four-engined Flying Fortresses made their entrance with a fighter escort. And when those FFs started to provision us, the fun really started. Giant parachutes floated down with four-foot high steel oil drums filled with enough foodstuffs for a batallion and a hundred complete kits of clothing, caps to boots. Unfortunately, someone miscalculated the weights and stresses and the food drums broke free from thier parachutes and rocketted earthwards to bury themselves in the rice paddies about a mile from camp. But we salvaged what we could of the resulting mixture of milk, cocoa, chocolate, cigarettes, tinned meats, fruits and vegetables, sugar, shaving soap, and face cream, toothpaste, tinned soups etc.
But the village children got about sixty percent of the food in smashed tins with mud sauce from the paddy. The starving little children ate itt there and then with abvious relish. Some of them didn't like the taste of toothpaste and shaving soap particularly, but they tried hard to get it down.
A couple of parachutes caught in the local HT cables and then we had a nice display of fireworks!
Two hours work for everyone in the mud and slush but we don't know what to do with all the food we have. Tonight we fed half the village kids with whatt we couldn't eat (they're starved in the village and as there seems to be about five kids per adult out there when we go out now, the kids just mob us for presents of eatables).
The US Navy successfully bombed camp with two hundred and fifty breakfasts, lunches and dinners in packages, and a hundred cigarettes per man — twenty-five thousand cigarettes, two more breaches in the roof and it has started to rain (hellish sticky now, too — hot!).
I'm stuffed full of chocolate fruit, biscuits, tinned meat etc, and it never rains but it pours. Someone has thrown a scare into the Japs here and they are giving four loaves of bread per man per day and half a ton of fish just rolled in through the gates. We can't possibly use this, and we'll have to get it taken out of the camp!
The Flying Fortress — just one — appeared overhead again, and a groan went up to Heaven; but the Lord heard our prayer and the bomber didn't release anything. Letter dropped yesterday by FF said that every three days would see deliveries of rations. Even that's too much!
The magazines dropped by the Navy planes are a joy. Chaps keep coming up to you all day with news flashes gleaned from different mags. Bing Crosby is film star number one — what, that punk? Deanna Durbin is NOT dead (we'd heard she was). And who are all these new film stars? And Churchill is an American idea of a HERO? How Mussolini was killed, that great adventure of the landings in France described, the story of the Phillipines POW horror camps.
It is mostly true too, I've heard that story from many a Yank in Tokyo Hospital, and believe me they in PI camps had a holiday compared to what [happened to] the Singapore fellows who were sent to work on the construction of the Burma-Siam Railway. That's going to make one oof the most horrible stories ever written, for written it must be.
The magazines again — trials of the French traitors, meaty reading, by golly! It gives us Hong Kong men some ideas about a similar purge when we get back there. And we won't have any shortage of candidate for the rope provided the local loyal Chinese haven't forestalled us!
Wavell in Indian Dominion status or independence? Russia is still coming into Manchukuo and Korea. Why the hell don't I know more Russian? The Kuomingtang and the Communists in China still as far apart as ever. It looks as though the European freebooter will still be able to make an honest penny along the China coast. China gets Formosa returned and Formosa with half a chance is a land of milk and honey, both of which commodities are saleable for honest dough. The mountain dwellers still collect human heads as ornaments in Formosa, and I've heard that if you haven't got your nut well screwed on in Formosa, you're apt to have it screwed off.
But no mention of Eire in any of the mags, and I'm starved for news of the old country. Have we or have we not lost out by our stand on neutrality? Personally I was disappointed when we didn't come in when the US became embroiled. We could have done soo then in perfect safety and witthout any loss of face or life, maybe. But I guess I'll read all about it some day. First thing I'm going to do is order three-and-a-half years of past Time and Life mags.
Our Doctor OC has still not returned from HQ, but rumour has it we leave in a few days bound for the Phillipines. Looks like ole Barney puts the pack on shoulder again — hurrah for that. You know, Peg, I've gathered no moss I guess, but I don't want moss, and gosh I love rollin'. I must admit to an awful itch to have a good look at Tokyo and Yokohama before leaving Japan. I'd also dearly love to kick a few Japs' arses — but none of them around here are worth kicking. The capital might produce a few of the old samurai class within range of my boot, and I'd erase a couple of years' bitterness and ill-treatment from my mind very quickly.
Photograps taken today — personnel only, copy included.
Navy planes over again this morning. Had us all out of bed post-haste at five-thirty am. Dropped message — 'No supplies today, landing ops in progress. Hospital ships in Tokyo Bay waiting to evacuate POWs. Have you out within a few days.' Good.
Have just read small snippet in US magazine about De Valera — 'Once again thumbs nose at Allies by calling on German Minister to sympathise with him on death of Hitler'.
I can't belive this, or has the man gone completely mad? I saw no objection to our neutrality during the war, but cannot see any necessity for a Catholic, Irish Premier to express public sympathy for the death of Hitler. I've already had a horribly bitter argument with my friend Murphy over this report (he is a fanatical West Briton), my only defence being that there must be some mistake. If there's not, I'll just have to take full advantage of my active service pay-book on which II may claim a British passport or become a naturalised Chinese subject!
Have just weighed myself, sixty-nine kilograms, a hundred and fifty-five and a half pounds, eleven stones stripped — very good for a POW.
Got tired of writing lately and skipped last six days, but we're still in camp. On the first of this month the US Army sent their B17s over and bombed us with supplies in staggering quantities. It took the whole camp about three or four hours to carry the stuff into safety and even then we only rescued about sixty percent of it from the rice paddies and the village children. Tinnes supplies of all sorts, toilet accessories and at least fifteen hundred cigs per man.
It was dearly paid for by our chaps. Many of the huge parachutes failed to hold their loads, which hurtled downwards all over the country, unchecked. Two of our men were standing on the roof trying to signal the planes with a lamp. A huge packing case crashed down on them — one a Yank, Sy Siretta by name, was killed outright. The other, Zino Gozano, a Portuguese volunteer from Hong Kong, got the edge of the case only, but had his legs broken. We sent both him and Murphy to Tokyo that day, and I believe they may be flown to the States right away. Poor old Sy we hauled out to the crematorium and his ashes were returned the next day. Two village children were also killed in the same manner, but I guess life is cheap here — no one gives more than a passing murmur of regret and then lines up for his share of the grub and cigarettes.
Discipline here has just disappeared and we wander the country at will now — we own the joint, in fact. The last three nights I've eaten chicken dinners at different farmhouses. We pay in kind — old boots, clothes, blankets, overcoats, winter uniforms, cigarettes, chocolate, and buy anything they've got, eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, milk, begetables. There's also a geisha joint running full blast in the village, where booze may be obtained for various presents. My pal from the repair shop and I succeeded in transporting the camp sewing machine therelast night and flogged it for three quarts of awful liquor. That's why I'm in camp tonight, alas, still feeling very sorry for myself. That stuff must have had a very high poison content.
We've been standing to to move off every morning since the 2nd, but we just don't seem to move. We were positively sure of moving yesterday morning and this morning, but we're still here. We're now running short of food again and the fellows rely more on their own foraging abilities for their chew, but even that should fold up soon. We've traded off nearly everything we possess — most guys have no blankets left to sleep on tonight, having swopped same for food in the village. But what the hell, nobody cares about small things like that!
The Japs have moved out of camp, leaving us rifles and bayonets, and we're now standing our own guards. Main duty of the guards is to regularly throw buckets of water over the village kids who block the exits, scrounging chocolate etc.
And now, the real reason for writing tonight. If we don't move tomorrow morning, two of us are going to look for the Yanks — we're pushing off to Tokyo under our own steam. Going by train if possible, we don't quite know how actually, but we're completely browned off by this waiting, and any damn thing for a change of air. So maybe this letter ends here, as if we make Tokyo I'll air mail this straight away.
(Continued on train bound for Tokyo, we hope)
We, self and pal (Desmond Hynes, papa Irish) left camp this morning and by brute ignorance boarded the train at local station. Money we have none, but plenty of cigs, chocolates, soap, two blankets, five pairs of boots and a whole parachute of blue nylon. We reckon this is enough wealth to see us through until we reach some US outpost tomorrow. We hope this train is going to Tokyo — it's still going southwards so we must come close to the capital if it keeps going long enough. You should have seen the ticket collector's face as we just passed through the barrier — tickets nil.
Sept 8th. Atsugi Air Field, outside Tokyo.
Things have happened at express speed, but I think I left off saying that we hoped we were on a Tokyo train. We were, all right. Arrived in Tokyo at eight pm last night after several hours in the train. Got into the main station, but couldn't find any Yank Army — and no one seemed to know where the Yankee Army occupied. This shook us somewhat, but we finally convinced a small boy porter that we had to go to a hotel anyway, US Army there or not. The small boy rather surprised us by taking an oil lamp in his hand and setting off at a smart trot.
We went out into an almost pitch dark central Tokyo where just an odd light shone here and there between ruined buildings. We walked behind our small guide for ages trying different one-time hotels, but all were closed and in darkness. Finally small guide had an earnest confab with a Jap policeman and we set off again with renewed energy.
I was getting rather nervy by this time. Not a sign of a Yank anywhere, and everywhere in darkness. I was beginning to weigh up my chances of ditching my kit and making a fast getaway if any incident should occur. Needless worry, for we finally, after about half an hour's walking, came too a lighted hostelry, and, heavily rewarding small guide with Lucky Strikes and Camels, we marched in.
"Anyone speak English here? Are there any Americans here?"
"Oh, yes, sir! Do you wish to stay here tonight?"
Bango. That shook us for a start from a Jap, but we recovered quickly enough to inform him that wild horses wouldn't get us out into the streets again. Anyway, he led us to the reception desk, where lo and behold six bepistolled Yanks are loudly demanding accommodation. Greetings, etc, all round and then we find out where we are. Tokyo's Number One Imperial Hotel, and the Yanks are McArthur's GHQ advance party just arrived to take over the hotel as Headquarters as from tomorrow. Majors, Colonels, and what have you, but all modern Yankee soldiers are very socialist and approachable, and "sure, boys, don't worry, you'll get somewhere here to sleep tonight."
They were very interested in the two dirty Rip Van Winkles and started the question and answer game. But after a short while they got back to their own business of arranging for the takeover, and we were adopted by the War Correspondents, particularly 'Life' and 'Cosmopolitan'.
My pal and 'Life' retired to bed in the latter's room quitte early, but Harry Bambridge, Assistant Editor of the 'Cosmopolitan', was made of sterner stuff and he and I started swapping yarns. He and I repaired to the room of 'Time', who produced (magician) a bottle of Johnny Walker 'Black Label', an almost incredible thing to do. And the three of us walked into that bottle courageously. When it was finished, Harry (by now 'old horse') of Cosmopolitan, who, it must be admitted, had had a pretty good start over us two, sallied forth and brought six bottles of Jap beer home alive. By three am I heard more unpublished and unpublishable news about this war than I'd hoped to learn in the next month.
Harry was bitterly lamenting the fact that US Intelligence had found out too quickly that he had hidden away 'Tokyo Rose', the Japp 'Lord Haw Haw', and made him produce her before he could persuade her to write a full exclusive story for Cosmopolitan. He hand his two other correspondents are able to keep up with the war by operating a private B17!
I retired about three am to a spring bed, sheets and white blankets, bathroom attached and I was called by the chanbermaid bringing my tea at seven am this morning. And that's how lucky you really can be justt short of miracles.
Had breakfast in the Grill Room with Des and 'Life'. Milk porridge, fried fish and fried bread and coffee was all they could provide, but it was the white tablecloth, silver and the service that really counted. To actually sit down and be served with a meal at a table!
Then out with two Signal Corps Tech Sergeants to see the Victory Parade of General McArthur's official taking over of Tokyo and the hoisting of the US flag. Very disappointing show; troops were anything but guardsmen, and were very few — there was a band but we couldn't find it and we never bothered to walk as far as the US Embassy to see the flag hauled up.
Back to the hotel to rescue our kits before GHQ condemned them as antiques, and we found a Lootenant commanding a 'Duck' (monster amphibian vehicle) who was going to Yokohama where POW repatriation HQ was). Luckily the Loot and his boys wanted to see the town and we all piled in and went for a grand tour of Tokyo and finally to Yokohama. Fifty percent of both cities are completely in ruins and what damage I'd seen done to London up to November 1940 was mere child's play compared to the devastation in these two cities — miles and miles of nothing but rubble and scrap iron. Lovely sight.
Finally arrived at the quayside in Yokohama to find POW HQ located in a huge dock warehouse with three hospotal ships lying alongside. We were fed, washed, deloused, refitted, medically examined, questioned, sent cables, gave sworn statements re 'atrocities' (they're real hot on this question), and met our first white girls for three and a half years. Blone, painted, betrousered US WAACs or something, and didn't I ever enjoy talking to those gals.
But everything happened so fast. Within three hours I found myself in a lorry with about fifteen other POWs bound for Atsugi Air Port where I am at present. We're flying tomorrow by Okinawa and then oon to Manila. I actually tried to stay here in Tokyo for a few days but they railroaded me so damn quickly that I hadn't a chance to make any arrangements and I'm now about to bed down for the night in the hangar here and don't know whatt time we take off in the morning. I'm now intending to airmail this from Manilla.
On board AC 56 Transport. 9th September.
Up this morning at six am and lazed around airfield waiting for the plane to take us off. About 200 planes of all types on this field and the runway was sending them off and taking more in every minute.
Finally climbed aboard this huge four-engines plane and took off on our five-hour trip to Manilla. This is sure a luxurious method of travel. There's hardly any pitchiung or rolling — I'm writing this on my knee and smoking cigarettes. About forty of us are aboard and there's still room for another twenty or so.
We're about three hours out at present and there's nothing to see except clouds and the odd tiny ship.
Next day. 10th. Okinawa.
Arrived here last night after a six-hour trip. I guess you've seen plenty of pictures of this green and virgin island. You wouuldn't recognise it now. The US forces have moved in with everything possiblein equipment. We landed in a gigantic airfield for a start, an airfield of really staggering proportions reminding you of something from H G Wells 'Shape of Things to Come'! No exaggeration, but our plane must havve taken at least five o seven miinutes to taxi to its parking place, and there seems to be about five different runways on the field and, no kidding, there mut be a thousand airplanes parked around the field. And the famed Yankee automobile road builders jungle razers, excavators etc, all in full working order, just smashing roads in every directon.
We explaned and registered and were once more forcibly fed by the Red Cross girls. I had a cup of coffee and six doighnuts pushed into my hand before I'd time to say 'boo', but was asked to leave some room for dinner which would be served as soon as we got to the camp for POWs!
Camp is canvas tents, wooden mess-halls, wash-houses, latrines, thousands of POWs here. Radios going on all over the joint. Bulldozers digging new roads, levelling sites, planes roaring overhead all the time, motor traffic like rush hour at home (no Yank above the rank of Corporal ever walks, he rides his jeep), and above all the radio public address loudspeakers keep bellowing out the names of people to leave on the outgoing planes. At prsent ten pm, it quietens down a little, and the movies are going full blast withthe latest Hollywood super-Technicolour collossal being shown in the open air with the riding lights of a few hundred ships in the bay as a background. Only drawback is that incoming planes drown proceedings every couple of minutes. But what the heck, its our first movie and and it's free, so why beef?
We've met up with a lot of fellows who were originally with us in Hong Kong POW camp and have been busily comparing notes all day. But the story is the same all over. I'm sick of hearing it, and only I wrote it down early on in this letter, Peg, I don't think you'd even have heard such a complete or nearly complete recital as this. Every newspaper we get here is full of atrocity stories and welcome for the returning heroes and I'm already pretty sick of the rigmarole.
Best feature of the day is a successful swindle pulled by yours truly in getting a seat on a Manilla plane tomorrow morning. Maybe I'll have more to add on arrival there.
Manilla. Sept 13th.
Waited all day on the 11th in Okinawa, but bad weather prevented flying. Three am on the 12th I was hauled out of bed — no electric lights in tents, no candles, no matter — got packed and we got to the aerodrome. A six am we boarded a B24 and took off. Two hours out things really started to happen. One of our four engines began to spit oil and smoke and the child who was the rear gunner told us in a rather overdone tone of complete assurance that there was no immediate danger, but we were going back to Okinawa. However we should put our Mae Wests on, in case. Your old nephew grinned cheerfully and put on his life jacket, but indulged in an amount of private profanity at the prospect, at this late stage in the game, to swim for it. We made it back to the airport at ten thirty am and in the best movie style were chased down along the runway by about six fire engines and ambulances. The fire engines proved very necessary, as when the engine was stopped it went up in flames and the firemen went to work instantly.
Across the airport by lorry and straight into another plane, a C46 twin engined transport, and took off again at eleven thirty am. These transport planes are OK by me, B24 bombers are uncomfortable and hellish cold. I damn near froze in the B24 until the return part of the trip, when maybe it was the Mae West that kept me warm, or maybe I was too scared to feel the cold!
Anyway, at the second attempt we made Mitchell Field, Manila, without incident at five thirty pm, making ten flying hours for yours truly yesterday, and if I don't fly again for a long, long time, it'll be too soon.
A lorry pulled up alongside the plane and we loaded up. It was to transport the poor POWs at most two hundred yards across the airport to the Red Cross reception centre where we unloaded again, and were welcomed by the Yankee WAAC gals and a BAND, playing 'Happy Days are Here Again', followed by 'Roll out the Barrel'. Of course, the poor half-starved POWs much drink more coffee and eat some doughnuts and biscuits. I mustn't allow myself to write too much about the generosity of these Yanks, but I will remark that even the way they give it is nice — they make you feel glad to take all this stuff from them, it gives them such obvious pleasure to pamper you; there is no suggestion of charity about it.
Left the airport and drove in a lorry for about half an hour to this Reception Camp which appears to be on the outskirts of the city. It's a really vast camp and they impress on you the necessity of rememmbering the number of your street and tent, in case you get lost.
I've not seen much of the camp as yet; cinema, canteen, you get something foor nothing at every turn: two sets of uniform, complete from cap to boots; toilet accessories of all kinds, and a Canteen ticket which entitles you to three bottles of beer, twenty cigarettes, five cigars, two ounces of tobacco, candy, cocoa, peanuts, and Coca Cola and fruit ad lib. I've got to admit its got me licked — I can't eat or drink or smoke fast enough to keep up to the issue. I've also been issued a pay-book and five pounds in cash.
Today I've been through my medical examination. For about the twentieth time since the war started I've been vaccinated and inocculated against cholera and typhoid. Any germ connected with these malladies must turn pale with fright when it sees me coming.
I've been down in the town once to see the sights, but both the bombers and artillery had got there before me and ruined the view.
The town is just a mess, and at present it is purely a military camp. There are tents pitched right in the centre of it, and traffic is still ninety percent military transport. Night life is booming, but beer is unobtainable. Rot-gut whiskey costs about fifteen shillings a half-pint, and a meal costs a fortune.
The remnants of the Hong Kong POW camp arrived here yesterday, including my pal Komorsky, who is dead set on going to England. If that crazy Russian ever gets to Kilcullen, please give him a bed and some food. He and his mother gave me a lot of help in remaining alive. He is a most wonderful raconteur, and you're quite safe in believing twenty-five percent of his stories.
[NOTE from Brian: I've recently ascertained that Anatole Komorsky died in 1999, in Canada.]
Thursday, February 17, 2005
When I was at the church being christened, it turned out that my baptism wasn't the only important news of the day.