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Youth in Dublin
Civilian life in Singapore
Prisoner of War
A New Life
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The first day of 1943 dawned bright and clear in Changi. A holiday was declared in Camp but that made little difference to Joe as he rested on his cupboard in the hospital.

On January 3rd he was released from ‘W’ Block and returned to his Unit just in time to pack up his few belongings for the move to “U’ Block, another Married Quarters building. He was lucky enough to get a bed by the window, and, placing his possessions in his corner, complete with little table, he considered it to be as comfortable a set up as the Turf Club.

chapter 5

"January to May 1943"
 Chapter 1:
 Chapter 2:
 Chapter 3:
 Chapter 4:
 Chapter 5:
 Chapter 6:
 Chapter 7:
 Chapter 8:
 Chapter 9:
 Chapter 10:

Joe was pleased to see the improvements that had been made to the nearby church while he was away at the Singapore camps - there were new benches and the roof had been extended, offering shelter from sun and rain alike.

Some of the prisoners were receiving wireless messages from the outside world with news of their families’ welfare. Joe limped over to the Enquiry Bureau in the hopes of finding word of his own dear ones, but he was disappointed to find nothing as he waded through the long list of messages from wives, parents and firms.

All traces of the North East Monsoon disappeared and the days were hot and dry. The meals were a monotonous round of rice and tea, with very little available at the Canteen to add to the dreary repasts. The lack of protein and vitamins were taking a heavy toll on Joe’s eyesight – it deteriorated at an alarming rate, causing him first to see in double vision and gradually to be barely able to see at all. Reading, such a welcome way to mentally escape, was impossible.

In the evenings he and his friend Alan Mathieson would go for a stroll around their area of the Camp, building strength in his recovering foot and passing the time he might otherwise have spent immersed in a book.

Large drafts of prisoners were constantly on the move and my grandfather anticipated a long distance trip for his own Unit in the near future. He had already said goodbye to so many people he knew over the months as they went off to unknown destinations, many never to return.

Towards the end of the month Joe received injections against typhoid and dysentery. He was no longer on the Sick List which meant a return to daily chores such as grinding rice, sawing and chopping wood, drawing rations and other equally unstimulating activities. He imagined his children growing bigger and stronger in the Australian sunshine and planned their futures in his mind as he went about his tasks behind barbed wire.

The beginning of February brought great news – the prisoners were going to be allowed to send a short wireless message to relatives in Australia! Joe handed in his carefully worded message and prayed it would reach Eilish. It was a full year since there had been any word from her.

On February 10th Joe was admitted to the darkened eye ward of the hospital. Rice polishings (the husks removed in the milling process), so rich in Vitamin B, were added to his diet in an effort to improve his sight. They tasted like sawdust and were full of weevils and maggots, but Joe stoically took his ‘prescription’ knowing that it was his only hope of saving his eyes.

The days seemed endless. Joe was trapped indoors, unable to read or write – there was so much time for thinking he could hardly think clearly at all. He looked forward to the daily visiting hour between 4:00pm to 5:30pm – David Ball, a friend from the Gestetner office, was particularly faithful in his visits, and Joe was very appreciative of his kindness.

A second postcard to relatives was allowed, cheering Joe greatly and the excitement at the news of 45 bags of mail waiting to be sorted at Changi Gaol was palpable throughout the Camp. But day after day went by and poor Joe watched with envy and anticipation as his friends received as many as 5 letters at a time. He was pleased for them but longed for one himself.

News of Eilish and the children reached him through the letters written to his friends and he was overjoyed to know that they were well. But where was his letter?

March crawled by. Joe languished in the eye ward, gleaning snippets of news from his daily visitors and daydreaming endlessly of a time when he would be reunited with his dear family, trying to picture their current life in the country side outside Sydney.

And then the miracle happened – a letter from Eilish arrived at the end of March! My grandfather was overjoyed. He read it over and over again, straining his recovering eyes to take in every precious word, his heart going out to Eilish in her lonliness in Mossvale and reveling in the news that the children were thriving. He felt as if ten years had fallen away and the fact that he was now in the Dysentery Ward seemed less depressing than it had earlier. He took to heart the urgings of his wife to look after himself and return safely to her, feeling a fresh hope surging within.

At the beginning of April he was back in the Eye Ward. David Ball had been sent with a large party of POWs to Kuching and Joe missed their daily chats. The letter from Eilish was well creased - he couldn’t resist unfolding it a dozen times a day to reread the words that were by now committed to memory.

On April 5th, after a stay of nearly two months, Joe was released from the hospital. He returned to a very different scene – only 60 men remained in his billet, the rest had been sent on Overseas and Upcountry work parties. There was plenty of room and work was undemanding. His eyes, after all that time, still continued to be a bother, but there was little to be done but continue with the ghastly rice polishings three times a day.

He celebrated his second birthday in captivity on the 16th; receiving three cigars and many good wishes to mark the day.

Twenty bags of mail from the British Isles were being sorted at Changi Gaol and Joe desperately hoped that he might hear from his dear widowed mother in Dublin. He worried so much about her. By the end of the month all the letters had been distributed and Joe’s disappointment at ‘drawing blank’ was great.

There was much activity in the second part of April as large groups of POWs were sent north to Siam in waves. Joe was on a detail to load the mountains of gear into lorries and trains, working through the nights until he and what remained of his Unit were instructed to pack their own kit for a move to Selerang Barracks.

On May 1st , after much hard work, Joe found himself once more at the former home of the Gordon Highlanders. Conditions were crowded but nothing like his last memory of the place. His name appeared on a draft for “Upcountry” but he was pulled off the list because of his eyes. Alan Mathieson, his companion of the evening walks, was hospitalized for his own deteriorating eyesight and they saw no more of each other until after the war.

A new list was posted. Joe was one 36 Volunteers whose names were included amongst the 900 destined to sail for Japan on May 15th. With a sinking heart he realized that this meant, no matter what, he would be ‘in it for the duration’. Once more the kitbag was packed with the ever dwindling number of belongings, and after hours spent baking in the hot sun at the dockside being counted and recounted over and again, the prisoners boarded the ship that would carry them to an uncertain future in an unknown land.


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