"...it was death to step out on the road... "
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Youth in Dublin
Civilian life in Singapore
Prisoner of War
A New Life
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Food, or lack thereof, continued to be an ever increasing worry. The daily rations were posted from the published scale at the Rations Depot for all to see, but the figures were scanty and disheartening. Joe splurged on three tins of sardines and a tin of marmalade purchased through a friend for $3, well below the Black Market rate but a serious dent in his precious savings. They made a welcome addition to his rice.

One clear night at the beginning of May a comet tore across the sky in a blaze of fiery light. My grandfather’s eyes watched with longing as the trail faded into the darkness, moving steadily away from the misery below.

chapter 3

"May to September 1942"
 Chapter 1:
 Chapter 2:
 Chapter 3:
 Chapter 4:
 Chapter 5:
 Chapter 6:
 Chapter 7:
 Chapter 8:
 Chapter 9:
 Chapter 10:

During his waking hours Joe mentally replayed events from the Past, reliving over and again moments that could never be changed or recaptured. There was so much he missed, so much he regretted, so much he longed for. When not dwelling on his lost life his thoughts would turn in a more positive way to plans for the future. Everything revolved around Eilish, Unie and Dermot. He would survive; they would have a second chance.

A welcome change came the day he was chosen to join a work party in the city. The group of men clambered into a bus, and as they made their way past familiar sights and landmarks Joe felt an excitement stirring within in him as he moved beyond the barbed wire for the first time in two months. The men were split into groups – some were sent to the Alexandra Brickworks to load broken bricks and rubble into lorries, others were sent to lay the bricks through the sports grounds of the Pasir Panjang English School. The novelty gave Joe a boost and he felt quite cheerful on his return to Camp that evening.

Larger, more ‘permanent’ work parties were established at this time. Some 2000 men, including 250 SSVF were sent to camps in River Valley Road and Havelock Road. By the end of the month a further 200 Volunteers had been sent off to various locations including the Turf Club. Joe worried that he would be separated indefinitely from his peers and put in a request to be reassigned to the SSVF.

Disease continued to sweep through the camp, and by the end of May dengue fever was added to the list which already included beri-beri, malaria, and dysentery. At one point Joe was the only man left in his hut, the others were all hospitalized with one or multiple illnesses. He was grateful for his good health and became even more determined to keep as fit as possible.

A wild rumour began to make its way round the Camp – it seemed that the prisoners would be allowed to send a postcard to relatives sometime soon, but the days passed with no further development, dashing hopes just as they were raised.

In mid-June, much to their surprise, the prisoners received a payment of $3 each representing payment for 30 days work at 10 cents a day. Feeling rich, Joe rushed to the Canteen that had been established the previous month only to find several thousand already queuing before him!

On June 14th Joe attended the funeral of Lt. Charles Harvey of the R.C.O.S. With sadness he reflected that only four days earlier he had been on stretcher duty bringing his friend in to hospital - and now he was gone.

June 20th brought hope and excitement. The rumoured postcards were handed out with strict instructions as to length and content, and Joe wrote, and rewrote, and wrote again the words of his message, anxious that as much news would be conveyed without interference from the Censor. His heart felt lighter than it had for a long time at the thought of making contact with his loved ones. Not even the merciless nippings of fleas or the news of cholera in Singapore could bring him down.

But the days did drag on! Time seemed to crawl as my grandfather went about his daily round, and the War news that trickled in to Changi was full of Allied defeats and Japanese victories, making it all seem so hopeless. Large parties of prisoners continued to be transferred throughout Singapore and ‘Upcountry’ and it was difficult to keep track of friends as they came and went.

An Arts and Crafts Exhibition provided distraction with exhibits which included a perfect model of a wind-jammer in full sail, elaborate embroidery work, drawings, paintings, poetry, and tantalizingly, vegetables grown in Camp. Bobby Green won first prize for his tomatoes.

When the exhibition was cleared away a typed list of internees in Changi Gaol was posted. Joe read the 20 or so pages closely, recognizing countless names of friends and acquaintances and as he took in the names of the women and children he thanked God once more that his beloved family was far away safe from harm.

At long last, on August 10th, my grandfather was reassigned to the Singapore Volunteer Corps. Bundling up his few belongings he moved over to “B” block, happy to be reunited with people he knew from ‘Civvy Street”. He tackled his new work of digging out tree stumps with enthusiasm and felt that time was moving more quickly than it had in the preceding months of captivity.

On August 22nd Joe’s thoughts flew toward his little girl in Sydney – it was Unie’s 9th birthday.

The month ended on a threatening note. The Japanese insisted that all prisoners sign a Parole Bond, pledging their word of honour not to attempt escape. Not one man agreed to it and the wrath of the Imperial Japanese Army descended on Changi.

On September 2nd 17,000 men complete with kit, equipment, hand trucks and food supplies were squeezed into the Selerang Barracks, former home to the Gordon Highlanders. The seven barracks buildings, designed to accommodate roughly 1000 men, literally crawled with people as they moved about in search of a few inches to call their own. Those who couldn’t find space inside slept on the rooftops or in the barracks square.

For three days this mass of humanity lived cheek by jowl. The urgent need for sanitary arrangements kept hundreds busy digging in the barrack square from the moment of arrival right through the night in total darkness. The evening meal, so sorely needed after the grueling day, consisted of plain rice and tea. Armed guards stood ready to shoot any man who stepped from the confines of the Barracks.

In spite of the dreadful situation morale remained at an absolute high. Concerts and sing-songs reflected the good spirits of the prisoners, and on the second evening the haunting sounds of the pipes played by the solitary figure of a Gordon Highlander on a roof top wafted over the thousands of men listening below, a nostalgic reminder of the old days.

But the situation could not last. Reluctantly the parole was signed by all, with an affidavit sworn amongst the senior officers that it was only done so under duress. The ‘Selerang Incident’ came to an end and the prisoners returned to their various camps.

But Joe had little time to settle back in to his hut before the order to pack up was issued. Once more he bundled his precious items into his kit bag and moved with his Unit to a group of four shop houses in Changi Village. That first night he slept on the footpath outside the police station, but after Selerang the discomfort seemed minimal.

For eighteen days my grandfather lived a relatively quiet existence. He found the duties of gardening and fetching rations easy going and used the afternoons to nap or read. The evenings were spent on personal chores such as repairing of boots, sewing and washing. Time moved slowly and the long days gave him ample time to reflect upon the news he had heard from a batch of prisoners who had arrived from Java the day before his recent move. Another friend was dead – Basil Drakeford, and it seemed others had made successful escapes by sea. He would only learn the full truth years down the road.


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