An Idyll Too Far - Part 17

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Chapter Seventeen - Losing Hope

With fifty squads of prisoners, one might have thought it would be difficult for the Japanese to find work for them all, but that would have been a mistake. One squad had the permanent task of ferrying supplies of food and fuel up to the gunners on the mountain-top, filling their bath with water and heating it up for each of the dozen men up there to bath daily.

Another group performed odd jobs, like carrying seawater to the men's cookhouse to use for cooking in lieu of salt, and digging fresh latrines as the old ones filled. Keeping the runway swept free of the sand that was constantly being blown over it from the desert and generally looking after the aerodrome occupied more; doing the drudgery jobs in the Japanese cookhouse and generally looking after the camp kept a fourth lot busy.

Another squad worked at the oil wells and in the refinery, which was now manned by Japanese engineers, who were increasing production. The main work (and the heaviest), however, was carried out by all the remaining squads; they laboured on the mountain in conjunction with those on a five-mile-long new hard roadway that their captors had decided to construct from the refinery to the aerodrome. Access until now had been across the open desert sands. Two squads of them worked in
the biggest cave, high up the mountain, enlarging and deepening it by drilling holes in the limestone with heavy hammers and long star chisels and then tamping them full of explosive for the Japanese sappers to finish off with detonators and fuses before blasting. As soon as the dust began to settle, the spoil had to be removed and dumped outside, ready for other squads to cope with. The men optimistically hoped that the main purpose of this exercise was as shelter from anticipated Allied air raids. Three more squads were equipped with fourteen-pound sledgehammers, and they searched the mountainside for suitable rocks and broke them up. Another ten squads (three hundred men) had shallow oval baskets, which they filled with the broken rocks and formed a chain, passing them down the mountainside to be emptied into the waiting trucks in a never-ending stream. All this activity produced signs of great
distress in a goatherd, who had to go to great lengths to conduct his goats over rough terrain round to the other side of the mountain, where there was much less pasture.

All the remaining squads, comprising about eight hundred men, worked on the five miles of roadway itself. They broke up the rocks into smaller pieces with club hammers and put each bit in place by hand while others rammed them in. As each hundred-metre section of that stage was completed, more men heated bitumen, a by-product of the refinery, and poured it on. Finally, a last squad sifted pea shingle from the surrounding sand, and scattered it over the bitumen before it set. Those handling the bitumen with no solvents, or even soap, to remove it with were at all times easily distinguishable!

The men on the mountain worked through the day with an hour's midday break, when they ate cold cooked rice that they brought out with them first thing from the cookhouse. Those working on the road were trucked back to camp at midday to eat their rice and returned at four o'clock to work through until darkness fell.

Looking down from the mountain-top at this time must have been rather like observing the activity in a disturbed ants' nest. With the vitamin deficiency in their diet combined with hard labour in the shadeless hot sun, it was not long before one squad had to be subtracted to act the permanent role of burial party.

The captors allocated all the prisoners' work into measured ten-day tasks; if these did not look to be completed in time, the men were forced to work late until they were. If they were able to complete their
task in nine days, they were allowed a day off to wash and de-louse their clothing. Thus, they soon lost track of their normal seven-day week, which was replaced by the Japanese ten-day one.

The water supply to the area of the aerodrome was insufficient to cope with the demands of both the Japanese troops and the prisoners, so the men's ablutions block had been closed and the water supply cut off. They had to make do with four stand pipes, one of which was often in use by the cookhouse staff. With a need to wait, sometimes for over an hour, in a queue for water, the temptation to forego washing of both self and clothing was therefore great and many succumbed. Others arose before dawn to wash themselves down. One of the two warehouses in the camp area was used for the Japanese food reserves and kept securely locked. The other remained in use for the hospital, but the Japanese had the prisoners build a wall across the middle and used the other end for their own purposes.

The prisoners down in the docks fared similarly, and were allowed no contact with the main body of men. Their main work was in the repair — or patching-up, rather — of ships that came limping in after being attacked by Allied aircraft. They acted as labourers to the Japanese engineers, who did all the skilled work. They also worked on the supply ships that called erratically, unloading foodstuffs (mainly rice) and loading barrels of oil. All men in both places were searched daily on returning to their compounds before being dismissed to their tents, and at least twice a week, without warning, the Japanese would undertake a search of the tents and all the captives' belongings.

On the occasion of one of these searches, a prisoner's diary was discovered and read by one of the educated Japanese officers. It was found to contain scurrilous remarks about his captors, so the writer was committed to the cooler for a week, after being beaten up in front of the rest of the men. He was fortunate in suffering no worse. But as a consequence of this discovery, all writing materials were confiscated and the order promulgated that no men should write anything down; anyone caught keeping any kind of diary would be executed.

Wicker's squad worked up in the cave, drilling rock. Considerably thinner, their Christian guard returned to them when he came out of the cooler. As there were two Japanese engineers working with them who were responsible for the actual blasting, Suzuki remained silent for most of the time. However, on odd occasions when the men were having their yasume break while the engineers were working inside the cave out of hearing, from his haversack he would produce odd tidbits from his
own rations and pass them round to the prisoners.

Chalky's team were working on the roadway, breaking up and placing rocks. Their guard, Khano by name and a tiny man beside the big Englishman, was a natural bully. He never let go of his bamboo rod,
which he was delighted to use on any he caught, as he thought, slacking. Like many of the others, he soon learned a few words of English; during their breaks he would give them his version of the latest news, such as 'Engrando — oru women, oru chirdo, go Canada! Oru India now Nippon sorja, yosh! Oru Africa, oru Europu, oru Scotlando, now Germany.'

Thankfully, no-one believed these comforting words. On the contrary, rumours were constantly passing round the camp, allegedly coming from non-existent secret radios or equally unlikely friendly Arabs of wonderful Allied victories. Hope springs eternal in the human breast, as someone so aptly put it.

As the days passed and a routine became established, with the aforementioned poor diet, unaccustomed heat and heavy work combined with an unsanitary lifestyle, health gradually declined all round. Whereas the Japanese had deliveries by sea of wooden barrels of a fermented,
vitamin-enriched preparation made from yeast and soya beans in addition to their rice, fresh fish and coconut products, which they obtained from local sources, plus cheese and some venison from the goatherd on the mountainside, they dished out none of this to the prisoners. It seemed at times as if it was their wish that the prisoners should not survive. The unsanitary conditions in which they were forced to live encouraged vermin. Lice and bed-bugs seemed to materialise from nowhere and soon all were infested. In spite of many spending a good deal of their rare spare minutes of daylight in seeking them and their eggs out from the seams of clothing and from their bedding, they seemed to breed faster than they could be destroyed.

It was true that during those first few months two Red Cross ships flying the Swiss flag and carrying parcels for the prisoners had arrived and been unloaded in the docks, but the Japanese troops had kept these goodies for themselves, and in consequence they were often seen (and smelled) smoking American Lucky Strike cigarettes as they shouted their 'Speedo speedo!'

Beriberi and pelagra, both vitamin deficiency diseases, began to be commonplace; nearly everybody had recurring spells of dysentery, both amœbic and bacillary, the former being incurable unless treated with specialist medicines such as emetine. There was soon not to be found a prisoner who had not lost at least a fifth of his normal body weight.

Medicines ran out in the hospital and numbers of sick increased to such an extent that the medics were unable to cope with them all. Consequently, all but the worst cases had to remain in their stifling
tents all day and were looked after by their mates when they returned from work. Since rations were only issued for fit workers, the more sick there were, the smaller each ration worked out. Things hardly improved when their cooks started incorporating small quantities of the hitherto untried weevil-infested dried fish and spinach into the rice, as the resulting mess was so unpalatable.

Men worked until they dropped, in consequence of the meagre rice rations that were only issued according to the number parading for work each morning. Before many weeks had passed deaths were averaging six a day and the desert cemetery grew ever larger. Soon the slightest scratch from a rock was likely to become an irreversible ulcer, with the body's reserves unable to supply the wherewithal to repair broken flesh. Consequently, the MO and hospital doctor, neither of whom was an orthopædic surgeon, were carrying out the regular amputation of limbs without anaesthetics.

By now, men had begun to show their true colours, since it is difficult to put on a false front when death is knocking at the door. Many of those who had in other circumstances been the glamorous ones,
the big talkers, the boasters of past exploits, were caught stealing from their mates or sucking up to the Japanese for cushy jobs, cigarettes or left-over food at meal breaks. Many of the less ostentatious devoted all their spare time to caring for their sick comrades. Some of the NCOs that had done all the shouting before now removed their stripes. Standing up for the men against the Japanese soldiers' impossible orders usually merited, or rather received, blows or worse.

The native Arabs also fared badly, as imports of flour ceased entirely. With the Japanese impounding much of their home-grown produce, they were not far from starving either. One or two were caught purloining food from the docks and they were summarily executed by beheading on the spot, as an example to others.

During the first month of their captivity, six-foot Wicker lost two stone in weight and went down to twelve stone.

In the wider world, 1 July saw Sebastopol, the great Russian port and fortress on the Black Sea, fall to the Germans after a siege lasting nine months. By the 6th, General Claude Auchinleck had at last halted Rommel's 300-mile advance over the Libyan desert, stopping him before the famous El Alamein. On 10 July, convoy PQ-17, comprising 33 merchant ships laden with vital supplies bound for Archangel, was ordered to scatter by a stupid mistaken order from the Admiralty, enabling the German fleet to pick them off one by one, leaving only four surviving ships. The 14th saw the Germans murder 700 Yugoslavs in revenge for the death of a Gestapo chief. In August, there was both good and bad news. 'Monty' had taken over the 8th Army on 6 August and was to lead it to victory. There was good news on the 7th, when the Americans made a successful landing on the Solomon Islands. But the Allies had heavy
casualties in a nine-hour raid on Dieppe on the 19th. On 6 September, while the Germans were taking the major naval Black Sea naval base of Novorossiisk, the IRA carried on their work of helping the enemy by shooting two policemen dead in Belfast. 23 October, 1942 saw Monty preparing to commence his great offensive along the El Alamein coast, and the attack opened with a thousand artillery pieces thundering into action on the 30th.

Unfortunately, none of this news leaked through to the prisoners on Ambouna. Chalky, who had weighed fourteen stone when they were captured, by November turned barely five, and was hardly able to rise from his bed-space. Wicker spent every minute when he was not working at Chalky's side, massaging his scrawny limbs, cleaning up his incontinence and irrigating his ulcers with sea-water, saline being the only medication left in the camp. At last, when his own massive frame only weighed
seven stone, he came to realise that Chalky would soon die if things carried on as they were. He contacted the sergeant of the squad whose odd jobs included work in the Japanese cookhouse and learned from him the layout inside the marquee where their cooking was carried out. He needed to know exactly; since he would have no torch for what he proposed doing, he would need to be able to move around in the dark.

After keeping watch all night on that small marquee three hundred yards or so away from his tent opening, he noted that it was in total darkness from about midnight until what he guessed to be about four o'clock in the morning; it must be remembered that their watches had been taken away. At dawn, he excavated a hole under his bed, scattered the spoil outside and replaced the top spit.

As near as he could guess it to be 1 o'clock on the morning of the fifteenth of November, as Daniel Barenboim was born, and while church bells rang out all over Britain for the first time in two years in
celebration of the victory at El Alamein, Wicker was creeping out of his tent with two empty mess tins (they had been salvaged from dead comrades), tied round his waist; in pitch darkness he made for the
triple dannert barbed wire that surrounded the prisoners. The ground all round was completely flat, with no cover anywhere. Even though it made movement uncertain, he was thankful for the dark night, especially as he successfully neared the wire.

He stopped and lay there silent, as he heard a Japanese patrol pass by on the outside. Then he quickly made his way to the wire, found a place midway between two of the pickets that held it down, lifted the nearest coil with one hand between the spikes and dragged his thin body underneath with the other. Then the same thing with the second coil, careful not to dislodge the third, which rested on top of the other two.

It had been as much as his poor emaciated body could manage, so that by the time he was through he was needing to lie there gasping for breath for a few moments. Before he had fully recovered his strength he heard footsteps; it was the patrol returning and he must needs move. He managed to find the energy to crawl a few yards away from the perimeter and to lie still there, hoping they would not switch on their torches, as they often did when they passed him by. As they approached, one of them did switch on his beam of light, but thankfully he only panned it through the wire to look into the camp. Wicker would have had it, he realised, had the Japanese guard done that on his last circuit.

He could now see the roofs of the hangars in the distance and close by the Japanese tents, all silhouetted against the stars, which gave him his bearings. Fortunately he had not far to crawl to the marquee and there was plenty of time now, or so he thought. As he anticipated when he reached his destination and lifted up the canvas skirt to peer inside, without even the starlight it was literally too dark to see one's own hand in there. He crawled under and proceeded along the right-hand edge of the cookhouse until he encountered the row of wooden boxes he had been told to expect. Making his way along the front of these until he came to the anticipated gap a few yards along, he knew that somewhere behind there should be found those tubs of Japanese soya bean and vitamin mixture that he had come for.

He slipped through the gap and began his search in the surrounding gloom, not daring to move too far from the row of boxes that would indicate his position when he wanted to leave. For what he guessed
was about an hour, he made short forays into the blackness, seeking the strong yeasty odour that would identify his target for tonight. Surely he would not have to give up after getting this far. He had no idea of
the time, but guessed it must by now be at the very least three o'clock and he had to be back in their tent within the hour.

Suddenly he froze, as he heard voices; then, his heart filled with terror and hammering away in his chest, he realised they were getting closer; and now a ray of light brightened the canvas by the entrance
on the furthest side of the marquee. It gave just sufficient light for him to get to his feet and run across to hide, lying on his belly behind some large sacks two or three yards away, which he guessed were filled
with rice.

The flap opened and two guards walked in, one of them bearing the torch. Wicker pressed his paler face into the ground, knowing his dark hair would not show up, and lay there for what seemed like minutes, expecting every moment that the beam would come his way and identify him lying there. The two were evidently on a routine visit, looking round to ensure everything was in order and talking in their staccato fashion all the time.

Suddenly he felt a tickle in his nose; he had probably got a few grains of the omnipresent dust up it. He was going to sneeze, he knew it. Drawing on every bit of willpower he could muster, he held his
breath and squeezed his nose between finger and thumb. The urge gradually receded. At last, the intruder heard the guards turn and make for the opening, so he risked a quick glance round while the torch still provided enough background light. How he had missed them he could not think, but there was the row of tubs within three feet of him. He quickly bobbed down again, as he saw the one with the torch sweep his beam to have a final look round before they moved outside.

He relaxed at last; suddenly, taken unawares, that suppressed sneeze burst forth, sounding to him like thunder. He froze again, only a few feet away — surely they must have heard it. Trembling still
with the terror of his experience, he soon realised that he had been lucky again, as their voices faded in the distance.

His journey back through the wire and to their tent, with his two mess tins filled with the life-giving mixture attached to his belt, was scary in the extreme, but at long last he lay inside their tent, safe (at least for the present) and breathing hard.

Chalky lay there awake; his body, skin and bone that it was, gave him little rest anyway, and sleep was almost impossible on the hard ground. He had been on edge ever since he had heard Wicker leave. He'd been told nothing, but having seen his mate on lookout the previous night, he knew there was something in the wind. Lying there helpless and terrified for the last two hours, he was wondering whether his only friend was even then being tortured by the Japanese to make him confess what he was
up to. Tears of relief now ran down his cheeks as he heard the quick breathing a couple of feet away.

Soon, Wicker was quietly spooning the acidic mixture into his friend. A couple of teaspoonfuls would be enough for a start; too much all at once would only make him worse in his present state, as his digestion would be unable to cope with it. He removed the square of top spit from under his bed and stored the remainder of those precious proceeds of his night's work in their place of concealment. It was unlikely that the Japanese cooks would miss what he had taken from the already opened barrel, but there were the regular searches to contend with.

Until about this time, the men had all been sure that an attempt would soon be made to rescue them; it seemed inconceivable that the Allies would leave them stinking and starving there at the mercy of their inhuman gaolers. Now, as they saw their friends dying off day by day, many of them began to lose heart.

In fact, although the tide of war in the wider world was still ebbing here and flowing there, more good news was now coming through than bad and the Allies were probably turning the corner. 2 December, 1942 saw the Americans about to produce the world's first plutonium for their projected atomic bombs, as a team led by Enrico Fermi withdrew the control rods from their experimental uranium pile in an old squash court at Chicago University. On 19 December, troops led by Major General WL Lloyd began pushing the Japanese army back into Burma for the first time by advancing down the Mayu Peninsula (beside the Bay of Bengal) and capturing the port of Maungdaw. The birth of 1943 saw the war in Russia taking a turn for the better, as Chernevskaya, an important base established by the Germans, fell on 4 January; in that same theatre, the Soviets broke out of the Siege of Leningrad on the 18th and Stalingrad was recaptured on the 31st, with 100,000 Germans killed. Africa was well on the way to being cleared of the enemy, with the next target of the Allies likely to be Italy.

On the 31st, the 10th anniversary of the Nazi ascent to power, the flamboyant Field Marshal Herman Goring was about to address the nation with a well-advertised celebratory speech on the radio, when British Mosquitoes interrupted him by making their first daylight bombing raid on Berlin, catching the defenders napping. That same afternoon, a second raid took place just as the evil propaganda minister Josef Goebbels was making a broadcast. 9 February saw the Solomon Islands recaptured, and by the 14th the Russians were advancing on nearly all fronts.

In the camp, however, nothing was known of all this, and none of the men had even received a letter from home yet. Although the prisoners had been given pro forma post cards to fill in and hand back to their captors for sending back to the loved ones they had left behind in Blighty, none of them had arrived, and so those at home were still ignorant of their fate. Back in Britain, since the prisoners' next of
kin had only been notified that their relatives were simply 'missing in action', numbers of those friends and relatives began to lose hope. Many girlfriends found themselves new sweethearts. Human nature being what it is, many wives, deprived of the conjugal fellowship to which they had become accustomed, preferred to take it that their men were lost in justification of making fresh associations, often with girl-hungry Americans or with chivalrous, flattering, hand-kissing Czechs and Poles, whom they met at dances held to entertain the Allied troops in towns and villages all over the country.

Chalky's home was in Ely, and falling into that latter category was Chalky White's pretty young wife, who now found herself pregnant to an American sergeant-pilot, stationed on the East Anglian wartime airfield at Mildenhall, Suffolk. The pilot had left a wife and two children behind in New Jersey.

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