"...Oh! I cannot just describe that rice!... "
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Youth in Dublin
Civilian life in Singapore
Prisoner of War
A New Life
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The Changi peninsula was the site of British Army barracks and housing, a village, a civilian gaol and long stretches of sandy beach. For my grandfather, the name Changi conjured happy associations of family picnics, boating, and days out at the seaside. On the day he embarked on the 16 mile trek all that changed.

The exhausted column of dusty men arrived at the edge of the sea on that first day of captivity, foot sore and heart sore after the long march. Within minutes of arrival all gear lay scattered in heaps along the sand as the men floated in the clear cool water, feeling new life seep in as the grime of the campaign melted away.

chapter 2

"February to April 1942"
 Chapter 1:
 Chapter 2:
 Chapter 3:
 Chapter 4:
 Chapter 5:
 Chapter 6:
 Chapter 7:
 Chapter 8:
 Chapter 9:
 Chapter 10:

Still with the Royal Corps of Signals, J.B. Dunne was amongst the 400 men billeted in an area smaller than the garden of his late home. Attap huts that had until recently been used as offices by the Bomb Disposal Squad offered some sort of shelter. He fell into a dreamless sleep that evening on the wooden floor of a hut that was missing one and a half sides and most of the roof.

Over the course of the following weeks some sort of order was attempted. The prisoners were instructed to erect a barbed wire fence, closing them in toward the sea, which they continued to bathe in freely until orders changed at the end of the first week of March. Much to their dismay they were moved to the other side of the wire, blocked off from the scintillating waters that had offered some form of refreshment in an increasingly uncomfortable situation.

Singapore became Syonan-to, Light of the South, and local time was adjusted to reflect Tokyo time which was an hour and a half ahead. With not even a candle for illumination the longer evenings were a small boon.

My grandfather estimated there to be at least 65,000 prisoners concentrated in the Changi area. Daily rations dwindled alarmingly and the lack of sufficient sanitary arrangements to accommodate such numbers became a serious concern. Dysentery broke out and with no real facilities for washing life was, as my grandfather put it, “pretty grim”.

On March 11th his Unit was moved to ‘N’ Block, a British Other Ranks married quarters building containing six two-storey flats. Each flat, originally designed to house a couple with perhaps a child or two, was packed to bursting with anywhere from 65-80 prisoners in each.

The barracks area, which had seen a garrison driven out, the enemy pass through and had suffered further at the hands of the looter, was in an appalling state. Miles of telegraph and electric wires covered the roads in tangled heaps, wrecked lorries and cars lay scattered about, scores of fallen trees mingled with the debris left behind by the swathe of destruction. Almost every building had been hit by bombs, machine gun fire or shells and there were countless bomb craters all over the ground.

It was heavy going cleaning up the area without adequate tools, but in time the craters were filled in, the wire was rolled up, buildings were repaired and the fallen trees went to the cookhouse fires.
Food rations were distributed by the Royal Army Service Corps according to the strength of each Unit, but there was never enough to satisfy the constant hunger that was part of this new, unreal existence for the men.

J.B. Dunne found a measure of comfort in a faith that was rekindled by his present unhappy circumstances. By mid-March he had attended his fourth Mass at Changi – the first occasion was an open air ceremony with a turned up packing case used as the altar, the second was celebrated in the ticket office of the cinema at Changi Village and the Mass of March 15th was celebrated under the porch of the original Catholic Church in Changi – all that remained of the building! The celebration of March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, was officiated over by Father Gerard Bourke of the Redemptorist Mission, and the mass ended with the singing of ‘Hail Glorious St. Patrick’ as dawn broke over the ravaged Changi landscape.

By April the food situation was dire. Breakfast and lunch consisted of plain boiled rice and watery tea - the only difference in the evening meal was the addition of a small piece of bread. In an attempt to introduce much needed vitamins to the diet unripe papayas and hibiscus leaves were boiled, the water added as a “gravy” to the rice. My grandfather couldn’t bear the acid taste of the hibiscus and preferred to eat his rice plain.

Sickness was rife throughout the Camp. Hundreds were hospitalized with many dying daily through lack of food and drugs. Beri-beri began to appear, swelling the limbs and organs of the poor unfortunates who fell victim to the disease. During those steamy April days my grandfather’s legs grew weary under the increasingly lead-like weight of his boots and his hair came out in handfuls when he combed it. But in spite of being physically at such a low ebb he was ‘gameball’ and determined to see it through.

April 16th marked his 35th birthday. He attended a Requiem Mass for Fallen Comrades and ate his rice meals with little enthusiasm. As he drifted off to sleep that night images of his previous birthday swirled through his mind – lunch at Raffles with a friend, and later that evening dinner and dancing there with his beloved wife. His dreams were filled with images of himself and Eilish in the ‘Golden Age’ of their courtship and when he awoke the following morning the stark reality of his POW existence seemed more cruel than ever.

April 20th 1942 was another day of sadness for my grandfather. His thoughts turned yet again to his dear wife, for it was her birthday. Once more he reflected on his changed circumstances and hoped and prayed that her day would be a happy one, wherever she was.

His friend Tom Black died that day.

Tom, a chartered accountant with the firm Gattey & Bateman, and a fellow member of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force, lost his fight a few days after being hospitalized, never knowing if his family had made it to safety or not. My grandfather’s resolve to return to his loved ones became even stronger.

The Japanese, finding themselves with a huge pool of labour, began to send work parties into town to do all sorts of odd jobs – driving lorries, loading ships, clearing the streets and anything else that might be required. This was a golden opportunity for the prisoners on these work parties to smuggle food and cigarettes into the Camp at the end of their day’s work and a roaring trade on the ‘black market’ ensued. After weeks of boiled rice, burnt rice, rice with worms, half cooked rice, and very little else, the appearance of tins of jam and bully beef, sardines, coffee, condensed milk, and real bread was most welcome or frustrating, depending on the personal ‘wealth’ of the prisoners. J.B. Dunne had $33 in his pocket when he was captured so could not afford the going rate of $27 for a 24oz. pot of jam.

A ‘University’ was established, with classes on every subject under the sun on offer. Many of the lecturers had been professors at the various colleges and schools in Singapore and Malaya. J.B. Dunne put his name down for Japanese lessons but the teacher was taken away to be an interpreter before the class ever got off the ground! For a short while he attended an advanced class in Malay offered exclusively to the Volunteers.

A library was established, with friend Francis Thomas, also SSVF, in charge. Their days of rowing together at the Yacht Club seemed very far in the past.

The establishment of the Concert Parties was a great morale booster. They became a regular and very welcome feature of Camp life, offering a range of variety shows, plays, music and all manner of entertainments. As time went by the sets and costumes became more elaborate, delighting the audiences who not only hungered for food, but also for joy.


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