"...we have all accepted our present circumstances cheerfully and in good humour... "
return to home page
Youth in Dublin
Civilian life in Singapore
Prisoner of War
A New Life
Home | The Magic Carpet Ride | Contact

Fifteen months after the capitulation of Singapore my grandfather passed through the gates of Changi one last time. The lorries, tightly packed with 25 men each plus kit, moved slowly along the coast road toward the Singapore docks.

After squeezing themselves out of the tangle the men stood by as their bags were inspected. Five hours later they were still waiting to board, thirsty, hungry and worn out. Two rice balls and a sip of the liquid that passed itself off as tea only served to exacerbate the discomfort.

chapter 6

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

At long last they went aboard, were divided into groups of about 200 and directed to the various holds that would be their home for the next few weeks. Joe warily eyed the rectangle of darkness that led to Hold No.6 – it looked most uninviting. After the long hours without shade the men were all perspiring profusely and Joe’s kitbag felt as if it weighed a ton. They settled themselves in, crammed wherever they could fit - Joe found a spot beneath a winch that shrieked and creaked over his head, heating the already stifling air about him. An attempt at a sing song fizzled out as the subdued men took in their surroundings in shock and disbelief.

The Wales Maru carried the 900 souls in “J” Force on a zig zag course north to Japan. She pulled out of Singapore Harbor, laden with her human cargo, and moved out into the open waters in convoy with other ships. The air in the holds was thick and unwholesome, and Joe longed to wash away the sweat and filth of the last few days. Groups of 50 men at a time were allowed turns on deck for 20 minute ‘airings’ and Joe drank in the fresh sea breeze when ever he was ‘up top’. The day was a series of movements up and down the ladder between roll call, meal times and airings.

A few days into the journey it began to rain. The hatch covers were closed, trapping the prisoners in the dark malodorous holds. The air could be cut with a knife. But spirits were good and a rousing sing song passed the time until lights out at 10:00pm.

On the fourth morning they anchored at Cape St. Jacques in Vietnam. The Wales Maru remained there till the 24th, waiting as more ships arrived daily to add to the size of the convoy. Meals, which had started off poorly, became even less palatable than before. Frequent rain squalls meant much time spent below in the ghastly atmosphere.

The nights felt cooler as the convoy plied its way toward Formosa. Regulations were tightened up, limiting the number of men allowed on deck at one time. Small groups took turns to bathe in the sea water drawn by the bucket full over the side of the ship. Joe’s cold, which he felt starting the day they sailed from Cape St. Jacques, was one more discomfort in a host of many. He was filthy, groggy, hungry and tired, but like his fellow captives remained remarkably cheerful in spite of the shocking conditions they were subjected to.

The appearance of shimmering dragonflies flitting over the water told the prisoners that land must be near. On the 29th they arrived at Formosa. The harbor was a hive of activity as coal and provisions were brought aboard. The ship remained at anchor till June 2nd.

The final leg of the journey lasted five days. A cool breeze blew off the sea, hinting at colder climes. Cigarettes, the currency on board, were in very limited supply and an incentive was offered, in the name of hygiene, of 1 cigarette for every 10 dead flies. This brilliant scheme kept the men occupied for hours on end in their hunting and the risk of disease lessened as the fly population decreased.

The temperature continued to drop as the ship moved ever northward, pullovers and shirts were hauled out of kitbags and the men huddled for warmth against the bitter cold.

There was great excitement the morning of the 5th. At about 11:00am all those on deck were ordered below with gusto. They were under torpedo attack! The guns went into action and the sounds reverberated throughout the ship. In the silence that followed Joe continued to roll his cigarette. He had no life-belt but was ready to swim or float for as long as possible.

The danger passed but engine trouble caused the Wales Maru to lose touch with the convoy. Two days later, as the ship followed the Japanese coastline toward its final destination, a volley of gunfire broke the morning quiet - but it was a false alarm. The suspected periscope was in fact only a floating log!

On June 7th the long sea voyage finally came to an end. After three weeks of unspeakable filth and privation my grandfather set eyes for the first time on the homeland of the enemy. They drew into Moji as dawn broke and, after medical inspections for all on board, were finally allowed to disembark at 3:00pm. A further few hours passed as the POWs were sorted, counted and recounted a score of times.

At long last they were ushered into a large hall near the docks where they were served a cold meal of rice, vegetable and salmon. At 8:00pm they set off on a ten minute walk to the ferry that would take them on a half hour ride to the island of Honshu where a further walk took them to a waiting train. They boarded, 60 men each to a third class coach, and departed at 10:20pm for what would be a three day journey to the North.

After weeks of sharing a dank space no larger than the verandah of his old home with over 200 people Joe found the train journey quite pleasant. The changing landscape offered an interesting distraction and the meals offered a range of greens and fish that had hitherto been non existent in the POW diet. But the portions were miniscule and always cold.

On the first morning the train stopped at Kobe. All Australian prisoners were deposited there and the British POWs continued on with the journey, passing through Osaka and the cultivated areas beyond. The train climbed through beautifully hilly country, continuing on that evening through splendid mountain scenery with large glistening lakes below.

More breathtaking scenery followed the next day as the train moved along an endless coastal mountain range. As he observed the snow capped mountains Joe did a mental inventory of the tropical clothing that lay folded in his kit bag. He brushed aside worrying thoughts, deciding instead to enjoy the passing scenery. There were numerous villages dotted along the sea and at the base of the hills. The light rain that had been falling since the night they arrived continued as they left the mountains and traversed the great sweeping plains below. A 15 minute stop for P.T. provided opportunity for a leg stretch.

On the morning of the third day they left the train and marched through a town to a schoolhouse where hundreds of townsfolk and children were waiting to be entertained by the enforced P.T. routine of the POWs. The men maintained good spirits in spite of feeling desperately in need of a bath, clean clothes, a hot meal and a good sleep. A further march in the afternoon took them to a ferry which brought them, after a four and a half hour trip, to the island of Hokkaido.

The promise of a hot meal on arrival at the new Camp was fixed in Joe’s mind throughout the dark walk from the ferry to Hakodate Main Camp. They arrived in bitter cold at 1:00am to a disappointing meal of cold potatoes and tea. Five blankets per man were issued and by 2:00am the weary group retired to sleep, exhausted after the tedious and most trying one month journey.



This website and its content is copyright of the JBDunne.co.za - © 2008. All rights are reserved.