An Idyll Too Far - Chapter Sixteen

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Chapter Sixteen - Summary Injustice

There seemed to be only four Japanese officers, and they were now all walking awkwardly, having attached their long ceremonial swords to their sides. They moved over to the warehouse where the officer prisoners had been confined, to confront their British counterparts and officially accept the Allied CO's unconditional surrender of the island. After parading them and making them stand to attention with head bowed, the Japanese captain Hamashi Hajimoto at length made a speech; or rather, harangued them.

He began by informing them (as if they did not already know), that the British officers were now prisoners of His Imperial Nippon Majesty and that they would be treated fairly as prisoners of war. They did not deserve this, however, as they were all cowards; the brave Nippon soldiers never surrendered, but fought to the last man, with the wounded killing themselves rather than be taken alive.

The officers would, though, have the privilege of receiving a weekly cash allowance, which would be claimed back from the British Government after the Allies had been defeated. (This proved to be crudely printed Japanese paper money; it was worthless, as the local population would not accept it.) One young officer attempted to ask a question, but was promptly smacked across the mouth by the nearest private soldier for his trouble; they would soon learn.

The other ranks were called out on parade at eleven o'clock and counted again. They also were then given an address, similar to that given to the officers, by a Japanese lieutenant. The main difference was that he told the men that those who worked would be paid 10 cents (equivalent then to one British penny) per day and a ration of food. Those who did not work, for whatever reason, would receive neither pay nor rations.

The cooks were then sent back to their work preparing the men's meal, as none of the prisoners had as yet received any breakfast. The other men were then separated out into working parties of thirty, each group under the ægis of one Japanese soldier and including one British NCO. They were all given an individual label, written in English and Japanese, with a numeral for the individual and letters for the party he had been allocated to. These were written in Indian ink on small squares of white cotton cloth. The men were now dismissed, after having been told to return to their tents and sew these numbers on their shirts' left breasts; they were ordered to be on parade once more at 12 noon.

Chalky White's work party, which happened to include Taffy Thomas, was designated 2B and his own number 2B1, and so on through the group to 2B30. Thus the Japs would be able to identify instantly any miscreant without needing to know his name. On parade in the now-hot sun, their Jap explained to Chalky, mostly by signs, that one of them who could drive was now to be detailed to collect a truck from where they had been left in the transport park, and then they were all to proceed to collect up the dead prisoners and take them out about a kilometre into the desert to bury them. They could collect digging instruments from the Pioneers' store.

As there were fifty-eight bodies, too many for a single one-ton truck to carry, Chalky persuaded the Jap to let him split the party into two, by illustrating his remarks with drawing in the sand with a stick. As a consequence of that, he was allowed to collect the two trucks and sets of tools. There were several drivers among his squad, so he detailed a couple of them for the job and quietly told one of them to call at the officers' warehouse and ask the padre to come along with the burial party. Their Japanese officer raised no objections when he saw them return with an officer wearing a clerical collar.

Amid much shouting from their guard, the bodies had to be stacked irreverently on top of one another in the two small army trucks, leaving no room for the rest of the party to ride. The men were informed before they set out that they must either wear or carry their shirts with them at all times, as a means of identification. The trucks moved off across the sand and the men had to follow on foot, together with the Japanese soldier at their head, who was constantly shouting 'Speedo speedo!' and 'More speedo!' over his shoulder.

Before they were halfway to where the trucks had halted, one of the marchers was having difficulty in keeping up with the others. He had a flesh wound in the buttocks and had lost a lot of blood. He was also in pain, so the man was, understandably, soon having to fall behind the others. With a groan, he at last collapsed in the heat and lay there unconscious in the hot sand; one of the men ran back to help, but when the others drew the Japanese man's attention to the situation, he rushed back from his position at the head of the column, lashed out at the helper with an elbow and then commenced kicking the prone figure lying there on the ground. Suddenly, the guard himself keeled over; the Japanese were no more used to this heat than were the Europeans.

Realising what would happen out there, shadeless in that blistering noonday heat, Chalky roared at the top of his voice to attract the attention of the two truck drivers, who had by now finished unloading their grisly cargo. Thankfully, they heard and looked round and the sergeant placed one hand on his head, which in the army is the signal for 'come here!' By the time the trucks had collected them and carried them all back to the camp entrance to report at the Japanese guardroom and (after a long wait) eventually been allowed to drive in to the camp hospital, eight men plus their Japanese commander were suffering from heatstroke.

Captain Hamashi Hajimoto, who had been notified of the arrival back in camp by the guard commander on his telephone, came striding over, ranting, to investigate the cause of their return. He was, with the aid of the English officer interpreter, eventually made to understand why they had needed to come back from the desert early, with their work clearly unfinished. When he realised exactly what had happened, he was hardly able to blame the prisoners, with his own man suffering in a similar fashion.

In fact, the Japanese man and one of the prisoners died that same day; heatstroke acquired at 150°F in the sun is very often fatal, as the brain heats up and irreversible damage is caused. Everyone anticipated that their captors would have learned their lesson from this episode; or at least, so they all hoped. They were to be disillusioned, only too soon.

The regimental bugler blew up 'cookhouse' at two o'clock, and as the men made their way over to the mess tent for their first meal as prisoners of war, a Japanese private ran across and smacked the bugler across the face, before snatching his instrument away from him. The men then had what was for them a normal meal.

A Japanese officer came over to see what it was they were eating; he evidently thought the bully beef and vegetable stew with boiled potatoes looked better than the food he was used to being given himself; he went away to fetch an aluminium kidney-shaped mess tin and demanded a helping.

The remaining men went out again to make another attempt at burying the corpses at five o'clock that afternoon, but under a different guard, of course, and with seven replacements for those that had succumbed to the heat earlier on. The survivors from that attack were lying in the hospital with temperatures of 107° and more. This new Japanese officer seemed much more human and even understood a few words of English. As the trucks were now empty, they all rode out to where the corpses and tools had been left in a hurry. The former were already black with flies.

After the unpleasant task of collecting all their comrades' identity discs, they then began work by trying to dig the first hole — a very difficult operation, as they soon found out, with the dry sand running back in as fast as they dug it out. They partially succeeded in the end by shovelling the spoil into the two trucks and dumping it a few feet away. What they finally achieved was considerably less than the customary seven feet deep, but it had to suffice.

With dusk falling, they had to decide to bury all the men in one grave, under the umbrella of one service conducted by the padre. While they had been back in camp, one of the men had fashioned a cross from odd pieces of timber and written the names of the dead on it in pencil; their last action before the padre took over was to drive that in at the head of the mass grave.

During the burial service, their new guard behaved like one of the British soldiers. Before they returned to camp, he approached the padre, and whispered, 'I, Suzuki, I Christian - no speaku! Nippon sorja Christian dammi dammi!' He put a finger to his lips in further explanation that he did not want his fellow countrymen to know.

There had been a Jewish lad among the dead, one Abraham Cohen; after the service the padre muttered to Chalky, 'I don't know what the Chief Rabbi is going to say when he hears, but I've given Abe a Christian burial with the others. I reckon that it was better than burying him unsung!'

Taffy, who happened to be listening, was heard to remark, 'In his Father's house are many mansions.'

Concurrently with the burial of the Allied prisoners, a party of Japanese built a funeral pyre and held some sort of service while their own comrade burned. Afterwards, some of the ashes were gathered in a stiff cardboard twelve-inch cubic box, which was covered with white paper and decorated with Japanese calligraphy on each of its six sides. This, in theory at least, would be sent home in honour to the grieving relatives. In fact, prisoners in other spheres claimed these boxes were destroyed in the hundreds before reaching a port.

At nightfall, and again at dawn, the prisoners saw their captors line up facing eastwards and together repeat some sort of prayer, with each stanza ending in a bow and the shouting of 'Yosh!' (a Japanese affirmative).

Little sleep was enjoyed by the prisoners that night, and before they were called to breakfast at dawn the following morning (at about six o'clock), the rumour passed round the camp that overnight the Japanese had raided the cookhouse and food store and only left them with tea, rice, dried spinach, and dried fish. There wasn't even any salt or sugar remaining. The cooks, on examining the fish and spinach, found they had been infested with weevil grubs for so long that the fish had mostly been reduced to coarse powder and bones, while the spinach had deteriorated into dust and strings. So the men were faced with just plain cooked rice for their breakfast.

Thankfully, in those early days most of the men had their own reserves of supplements for their army grub, bought in the NAAFI, and so they had a dusting of sugar to help the stuff down. Those who had spent their entire pay on booze and smokes went hungry, as they could not face what they were given. This was partly because, to make matters worse, the army cooks had never been taught how to boil rice, so the centres of the grains were hard. Their tea was milkless; although their captors had left them their tea (evidently not to their taste), they had taken all the tinned milk, together with all the other tinned stuff.

After they had eaten (or not), Chalky's squad were all paraded again by a more senior Jap, with their own guard standing by. They had been ordered this time to fall in in the numerical order of their new cloth badges. After he had given them an incomprehensible gabble in what he thought might be English, they at last realised he was going to make them number in Japanese. Approaching the first man on their right, which was Chalky, he poked him in the chest and yelled, 'You ichi! Ichi speaku!' Luckily Chalky, who was quick on the uptake, stood to attention and called out his number. Along the ranks the guard went, one by one enumerating: nee, san, see, gaw, roco, sichi, hachi, coo, jew, jew-ichi, jew-nee, and so on up to san-jew, for thirty. That took about half an hour, with the Jap trying to improve the men's pronunciation. Then came the shouted order, 'Oru men tenko!' No one moved, it not having occurred to the fellow that he hadn't explained the meaning of the word. He strutted up to Chalky, smacked his face, and yelled, 'Tenko! Ichi, nee, san, see.... You, wakaroo?' Chalky did 'wakaroo' (understand) all right, and their tormentor returned out the front and once more yelled his 'tenko!'.

He walked along the ranks as the men called out their numbers; about half of them had either forgotten or mispronounced the appropriate word, and received a smacked face each time he got it wrong. Again the whole process was repeated until each man had got the drill approximately right. This tenko, or roll call, was to be repeated morning and evening for all the prisoners while they remained on the island; they soon learned to count in Nippon-go!

By now it was nearly nine o'clock, and their British guard took over. First he sent them to their tents to collect their water bottles, then marched them to the food store, while one of the drivers was sent for a truck. After loading it with boxes of what had only yesterday been the men's own rations and a galvanised steel bath, all thirty-one of them crowded on the small truck, with some hanging onto the bonnet and running boards, and the rest piled over the stores and cab roof. They were then driven over to the mountain as far up it as the truck could proceed and were given the opportunity to fill their bottles at the adjacent mountain stream.

After that came the difficult part; the sun was getting high in the sky as the men were each given about twenty-five pounds of stores to carry up to the gun-post on the mountain top. They struggled up the rough spiral path for twenty minutes or so with their loads in boxes and carried on shoulders, heads or in arms, but were making such slow progress that the guard called a halt and wrote a note for the driver to take back to camp and hand to the Japanese quartermaster. It was an hour later before he returned with a load of backpacks that he had been ordered to collect from the men's tents.

Things were considerably easier now, with the tinned stuff and other rations carried in haversacks on the men's backs. The most awkward thing was the bath, with a man at each end struggling up the steep slopes with it. By midday the squad had scarcely progressed a quarter of the way when their guard called, 'Oru men yasume (pronounced more like 'yasmy'),' which he indicated by signs meant 'rest'. Those who had something to smoke did so; the others sipped from their water bottles and rested, with the perspiration now streaming from their faces and bodies. They had been given no haversack rations to take with them, so were to remain hungry all day.

The men had been resting, thankfully, for seven or eight minutes when they were aroused by a scream of 'Kiotsky!'(sounding more like 'kski'). They looked up to see a Japanese gunzo, followed by two of his private soldiers, approaching. The sergeant was wearing a captured British officer's Sam Brown with an army-issue revolver in the holster and binoculars strung round his neck; he was clearly furious. Seeing their guard spring to attention, Chalky shouted to his squad to follow suit.

Striding up to Suzuki, the sergeant let forth a scream of invective and then knocked him to the ground and kicked him on the head and chest. As the poor fellow was at length allowed to scramble to his feet again, the NCO turned to the prisoners and shouted, 'Engerisoo sorja dameda, yasume nay, oru men workardo!' By this time the sweat was running off his own face and soaking through his shirt, blackly, under the arms. He strode up to Chalky and gave him a back-hander also, and signalled that the men pick up their loads and proceed up the hill.

Suzuki made as if to lead them again, but he was brusquely ordered back and one of the newly-arrived soldiers, carrying a pick helve, was ordered to replace him. The sergeant waited until the laden party had disappeared from sight up the mountain, accompanied by constant shouts of 'speedo speedo!' from their new guard, before returning to the truck that had brought them.

The men heard later that Suzuki was confined to the 'cooler' for a week; this was a standard form of Japanese punishment for both their own troops and prisoners, consisting of a wooden slatted box just big enough to hold a man, but only three feet high and too short for most Europeans to lie down stretched out, so that the unfortunate person entombed inside could not stand up or lie down. This instrument of torture was left outside night and day, subject to blistering midday sun and cold night air. Many of the prisoners were to experience the prolonged agony of the cooler for themselves, before they were released or, like many, succumbed to the conditions.

To cut the account of that miserable and tragic mountain interlude short, by six o'clock that evening, just as it was getting dusk, three of the men had reached the gun-post on the mountain top with their loads; they included Taffy, the smallest man in his regiment, and Chalky. The remainder of the thirty men that had set out were dotted here and there on the mountain side, either unconscious because of blows from their guard, or from heatstroke and exhaustion — or in many cases both. Their bath was still only halfway up, because no punishment that the Japanese guard ladled out could achieve the impossible.

When darkness fell at about 7 o'clock, the men were unable to move safely and so would need to stay where they were all night. It would not be far off freezing up there and they were only clothed in cotton shorts and shirts that were soaked with sweat.

Even the guard had not reached the top; worn out and enervated by rushing from one prisoner to another dishing out kicks and blows, he had finally collapsed in the hot afternoon sun himself, a quarter of a mile from the top.

The Japanese gunners seemed to be quite a decent lot and fed the three with some of their own food and drink. None of them spoke English, and the three seemed quite unable to make them understand what had happened to the remainder of their party. The gun crew were in constant radio touch with their headquarters in the camp below, however, and after what sounded like a lot of staccato yelling into their mike (the Japanese soldiers often sounded as if they were quarrelling to the British ear, when in fact they were only conversing), they gave our boys a blanket apiece and left them to their own devices until morning.

Throughout the night, nothing was done about the men stranded on the mountainside. Not that much could have been accomplished for them, anyway, as even with torches it would have been far too dangerous wandering about up there searching for them on the steep and craggy slopes.

At dawn, a party of thirty Japanese, led by an officer and accompanied by Wicker's 4B squad of thirty prisoners, were trucked over to the mountain, taking a dozen stretchers with them. When he saw the terrain, Wicker at once realised that stretchers would be unmanageable there and left them in the truck. After half an hour's climb, they came across their first casualty: by the evidence of past bleeding from nose and ear, it was pretty clear that the man had died from a fractured skull. The body would have to be collected later; they were seeking lives that could be saved.

The next casualty was alive, but but with a bruised chest and probably ribs broken. He was having difficulty in breathing — probably developing pneumonia, Wicker thought, as he detailed two men to take an arm each over their shoulders, fireman fashion, and to try to struggle down the mountainside with him. By midday they had located five more dead and ten walking wounded, most of these only suffering from exhaustion; he sent these men down to the trucks, escorted by one fit man each. Half a dozen trucks had been sent with the rescue party and as the patients arrived, they were ferried back to the camp hospital.

Luckily, all of Wicker's men had brought water in their bottles and a mess-tin of cold rice, which they stopped briefly to eat at midday. In the meantime, the three who had reached the mountain-top, assisted by six of the gunners, were descending the mountain, collecting up some of those that had fallen by the wayside as they came to them, including the incapacitated guard.

While the prisoners had been rescuing their own sick, the Japanese party had themselves been working frantically to get the supplies left behind by Chalky's gang delivered to the gunners. In accomplishing this, they showed more acumen than had the original team of prisoners. They formed a long chain up the mountainside and passed the goods up it as they came upon them. Continually, the men at the bottom of the chain climbed past the others and took their place at the top. When the prisoners observed how frantically the Japanese troops worked, they got some idea of the way their own people had been overrun in places like Malaya. Our people operated under neither the same sort of stick nor carrot.

By five o'clock in the afternoon, all prisoners had been accounted for and all goods delivered to the gunners. On their return to camp, the Japs told them that they would return for the bodies the next day. They discovered that while they had been away their officers had been removed from the warehouse where they had been temporarily housed and transferred into tents in one corner of the prisoners' compound.

At six o'clock, they queued up for their evening meal of plain rice again. From the ground in front of the prisoners' cookhouse, they could see the hangars on the ærodrome, three hundred yards or so away, where the Japs had established their barracks and administration; in front of that was their parade ground. The following morning, as they were queuing up for their morning asa-meshi, they saw all the Japanese soldiers on parade. They looked on in horror as they saw one of them brought forth, escorted by a comrade on each side. He was marched out in front of the parade to where his executioner was waiting, two-handed sword held ready. They saw the brief ceremony, where words were evidently said, although they were too far off to hear. The sword was lifted high and then descended swiftly. Although they could not exactly see the result, it did not take a lot of imagination to guess what it was. Suzuki told them a week later that it was their guard of the previous day who had been executed; in the Japanese army, if things went wrong, someone always had to be punished publicly.

The total toll of the previous day's excursions up the mountain was one Japanese soldier and ten prisoners dead and seventeen other British casualties; plus one Japanese man executed and one in the cooler. Surprisingly, perhaps, many of our lads felt sorry for the poor bloke that had only recently been beating them up with a pick helve. He would himself have been punished, as Suzuki was, if he had not kept the goods moving up the mountain fast enough, and he had been executed for trying his hardest to do just that. The one who should have been punished was Hamashi Hajimoto himself, for trying to make his men achieve the impossible. The Japanese army was evidently driven by fear, as well as by devotion to their Emperor God.

It was another squad the next morning who was given the task of collecting the corpses from the mountainside, and they buried them at the foot of the mountain, where there was soil instead of impossible loose sand.

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