An Idyll Too Far - Chapter Nineteen

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Chapter Eighteen - Retribution

By June 1943, the Allies had at last got on top of the U-boat hazard. Earlier losses of 650,000 tons of shipping a month had, the May figures revealed, been reduced to 18,000. In the Mediterranean war, the battle for Italy had commenced, with the Allies capturing the island fortress of Pantellaria and Lampedusa and the Italians withdrawing from Albania. On 5 July, the Germans launched the greatest tank battle of the war on a 170-mile front around Kursk, south of Moscow, in a 'do or die' all-out attack; it was 'die' for Jerry. On the 10th, the Allies landed in Sicily. They captured Augusta and Ragusta on the 13th and Palermo, the capital, fell on the 23rd. Mussolini was removed from power and thrown into a prison cell on the 25th of July; on the 27th, Marshal Bagdolio in Rome asked the Allies for surrender terms.

31 July saw two giant Japanese submarines lying off the Ambounadi docks, waiting for darkness to emerge from the seabed. That same day, Chalky's squad had been told they were to yasume during daylight hours, because they would be working all night. At 7pm they were called out, ordered to climb onto half-a-dozen trucks and taken to the docks. Wicker was never to see his mate again or even to hear from him. Life had barely been bearable before; from now on, without a companion, it became even worse.

By the time Chalky's squad arrived at the docks and descended from their trucks, the first sub was tied up alongside the quay, with its conning tower open. The sailors were emerging from it and moving out thankfully into the comparatively fresh air on land for the first time in weeks. The trouble proved to be that these vessels were not designed to carry and discharge goods. Torpedoes were loaded in special docks and seldom unloaded again, but the hundreds of 56lb cylinders (or canisters) of gas stored in two of the torpedo rooms had to be manoeuvred along a passage deep down in the vessel, up ladders and out through the conning tower. The boxes of detonating charges for use in priming these gas bombs were handled solely by the Japanese.

The work they were given proved almost impossible for Chalky's squad to accomplish in their emaciated state, so Japanese soldiers were eventually put to work alongside them, with POWs rolling the cylinders along the level areas and the Japanese passing them up the ladders. Even so, the Japanese crews had to be changed every half-hour, as they themselves were not all that fit by this time. To make the work even more aggravating, the high temperature and stuffy atmosphere down inside the submarine were not compatible with heavy work.

It took two nights for the first submarine to be unloaded and for the cargo to be stored under cover, out of sight of recce planes in one of the dockside warehouses. The prisoners were not allowed to travel back to camp to join their fellows, but spent the daytime in the Japanese dockside sleeping quarters. The one advantage was that they received the same rations as their gaolers, but their rations were not all that good, these days.

With the empty vessel on its way back, the remaining one docked and another two nights were spent in the backbreaking work of unloading it. By the time that task was completed, both prisoners and Japanese gaolers were so exhausted that they needed a further day to recover. The men had expected to be relieved by another squad from the main camp during these operations, but that was not to be; their captors evidently wanted as few men involved, and therefore knowledgeable about the operation, as possible.

The second sub commander had brought secret written instructions for Hajimoto. He was to reopen the radio station and listen out for the enclosed password, which was the only notice he would be given that the first squadron of bombers had taken off and was on its way. He was to send a second given password back to HQ when the planes had been loaded and had left with their deadly load for India. He was informed that as they could not know in advance when the first squadron of bombers would arrive on the airfield, from now on he was also to ensure that parking spaces were available off the runway to accommodate them all while each was loaded with a hundred cylinders. (They could have carried many more, but if the odd aircraft were to be lost on the way, they did not want to lose too great a proportion of the whole consignment.) The squadron would arrive at dusk and ground staff must be available to refuel and load them all overnight, so that they could take off and be on their way before dawn. During the time that had elapsed since oil production on the island was destroyed, so few Japanese planes had landed that, luckily for them, there was still plenty of high octane fuel stored in the airfield's underground tanks.

Knowing the situation in the air, however, the Japanese CO took all this with a pinch of salt and decided that he would deal with that situation when — and more importantly, if — it arrived. Japan was a long way off, and things probably looked very different from that end. Radio communication between them had ceased long before, from the time way back when they had first realised that the Allies were intercepting everything.

After forty-eight hours' rest, the night work began once more. This time, the task was to truck the cylinders across the desert, unload them up the mountain as far up as the trucks could drive and then, by the light of acetylene flares, stack them in the numerous shallow caves in the lower slopes of the mountainside. Knowing their deadly contents, Hamashi Hajimoto wanted those cylinders as far away from his troops as possible, in case an air attack should cause leakage. The programme, as far as HQ was concerned, was for the aircraft to drop their loads on western Indian coastal cities and then carry on to land and refuel on Sumatra while a second squadron took off, leapfrogged them and landed on Ambouna the following evening. The weeks passed, however, and then became months, with no aircraft putting in an appearance on the island. Hajimoto had indeed once received the codeword that the planes were on their way, but after his men had stood by all night, none arrived.

What had happened was that the first squadron had taken off from Sumatra, but it had from the start been monitored by Allied radar based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). By the time the bombers had been attacked by fighters based locally on Colombo airfield and then by aircraft from two Allied carriers (which had been alerted while cruising in the Arabian Sea), the sole surviving flight of three planes had turned tail. When they returned to base, all damaged by enemy fire, and reported the situation they encountered on the way to Ambouna, the CO took it upon himself to postpone future operations for the time being.

In the event, instead of the situation improving, the Allies began a programme of bombing the Sumatra airfields so that it was not long before they had no complete serviceable squadron to deploy and the project had to be allowed to die a natural death — unofficially, because of the recriminations that would inevitably have followed. Tojo, on the other hand, had by now quite enough other worries on his plate, with Okinawa and other Japanese peripheral islands coming under attack, to delve into the situation on faraway Ambouna. On that island the Japanese officers had several radios, taken from their prisoners at the capitulation. Though the batteries of most of these had failed by this time, there were still a few working to gather news from the outside world. What they heard was very depressing for them, but it was not communicated to their troops.

As the months passed on Ambouna, very slowly for all concerned, the deliveries of foodstuffs to the docks went from being erratic to gradually ceasing altogether. By Christmas 1943, the Japanese troops as well as the prisoners were on the verge of starvation. The plight of the native Arab population was even worse, with the invaders requisitioning over seventy-five percent of their locally produced food, which was already grossly insufficient for their own needs. Hundreds were now dying of malnutrition every week. Off the coast of Norway, the Germans lost their last major warship when the Scharnhorst was sunk by the Royal Navy on 26 December as she attacked an Allied convoy. No longer needed in the North Sea, a whole fleet could now be used in other theatres, one of which would include the Arabian Sea. On Ambouna, early in January 1944, a party of thirty Japanese soldiers left in three trucks for the oil wells, where they were trying to salvage what was left in some of the tanks. They were on their way back to camp late in the afternoon, carrying a few barrels of oil in each vehicle, when a flight of three mosquitoes appeared out of the sun and machine-gunned them. Their oil was set alight by the one-in-five tracer bullets loaded in their MG ammo, and those Japanese men who were not hit by bullets were burned to death — all, that is, except three out of the thirty, who staggered wounded back into camp an hour later.

Until this attack, there had been no raids since that last Blenheim bombing. Hajimoto had been lulled into forgetting their vulnerability. Now, as he thought of all those cylinders of sarin stored in shallow caves on the lower slopes of the mountain and the likelihood now that they would never be needed, he was exceedingly worried. A few bombs dropped in the right place, or even bullets, could wipe the whole population out, including himself. He sent a party of his own troops to bring down the emergency rations and ordnance, for which he had originally prepared that cave higher up the mountain against a rainy day, deciding that they now badly needed the stores and the space.

Chalky's squad had remained in the docks all this time and had still been allowed no contact with the main group of their comrades. The following day, together with an equal number of Japanese troops, they were trucked to the mountain to begin the unenviable task of carrying a thousand cylinders over halfway up the mountain to the cave they had deepened the previous year. Their captors had fashioned slings for them to enable four men to carry each cylinder, but even with the Japanese soldiers working as well it would take them several weeks to get the last cylinder up there.

It was noon on 19 March, 1944, that four weary prisoners dropped the last of the cylinders in front of the cave and flopped down on the ground themselves. That last cylinder commenced to roll, slowly at first. A Japanese man spotted it and ran forward, but too late. It escaped his hands and fell fifty feet to land on the rocks below. He yelled at the four British men and attempted to kick them, but, like the cylinder, they were able to roll out of the way. Other Japanese soldiers, hearing the row, came running out of the cave, where, with all the others, they had been working deep in the far end, re-stacking the gas. Six of them under an NCO went down to salvage the fallen cylinder, and at two o'clock they reappeared with it, dented but otherwise intact, much to the relief of all concerned. Although they had been told nothing, the prisoners all realised what they had been handling — or rather, that it was some kind of poison gas and that they had been kept apart from the others because the Japanese did not want the fact that they had such internationally condemned material on the island to become generally known.

As usual, they all sat down to eat their meagre rations just inside the cave entrance, in order to be out of the sun. As they would need to wait until four o'clock for that sun to lose some of its power before returning to their trucks, all the men, except a lookout the Japanese had posted further up the slope to keep an eye open for enemy aircraft, lay down for a nap. None of them was to awake; ever. The lookout shouted for them to get ready to return as he approached the cave at four o'clock. When there was no reply, he walked over to peer in and immediately realised what had happened. That dropped cylinder must have been leaking out the odourless and deadly sarin gas that they had all been warned about. He made his way down the mountainside, alone. As he passed the Arab goatherd, having by this time, like most of his mates, learned a little Arabic, he had the presence of mind to make him understand that there was a curse on the cave and that he was himself the only one to be spared from it, as he had not been inside like the others.

While this catastrophe was occurring, Burma had been the scene of the most daring act of the Allies East Asia Command to date, carried out as an airborne force of gliders landed two hundred miles behind enemy lines, equipped with mules and even a bulldozer to carve out a landing strip in record time for a fighter squadron to land twenty-four hours later.

Back on the island the following day, a party of Japanese engineers climbed the mountain to the cave and donned their gas masks. They drilled their own holes for the gelignite and blasted the front of the cave in, burying men's bodies together with the sarin. At four o'clock they sighed with relief, removed their masks and began their journey down the mountainside. As they descended, one by one all twelve fell out and died; they had been unaware of the fact that their masks were not made to filter out sarin gas.

On Wednesday, 10 May, a solitary plane flew high over the island, dropping leaflets. They were printed in English only and conveyed a surprising message to the starving men:


There will be a major bombing raid on the Japanese troops at some time during the next two weeks. While this lasts you should remain in your enclosure, keeping as low as possible. We are advancing on all fronts, so remain cheerful. You will soon be released.

'Short and sweet, but I don't see much point in it — I'd far rather have a parcel of grub,' said Wicker to his starving men as they read the short message. The leaflet was not primarily intended for them, however, but to bluff the Japanese with its uncertainty. In that, it was successful. Hajimoto had all this time maintained a seagoing launch in one of the covered boatyards down at the docks; it was at all times kept fuelled and stocked with food. In addition, every spare bit of free space on the craft was stacked with spare drums of diesel, ready for a three thousand-mile trip. That night, he and his three fellow officers left for Sumatra.

The Japanese troops, now left with only NCOs in charge, stood to for a fortnight, during which time there was no air-raid after all. Instead, the day after they had stood down and relaxed, a parachute regiment was dropped in the vicinity at ten o'clock at night, to secure both airport and docks and surround the Japanese camp. The amount of resistance they were met with was negligible. When a warning mortar shell landed harmlessly on the Japanese parade ground, the starving, leaderless Japanese soldiers came out with their hands up. None were seen to commit hara-kiri. More troops landed by air at dawn and a British destroyer pulled into the docks shortly afterwards.

By now, less than half of the original two thousand captured Allied troops were alive, and many of those were at death's door. A Red Cross hospital ship pulled in that same afternoon and took them all on board. After an initial roll-call and cleansing, names were radioed home and, among others, Wicker's mum, dad and sister learned at long last that their much missed son and brother, who was believed lost, was now found; once dead, he was alive again. Chalky had died up in the cave with the remainder of his squad, so there was no disconcerting message for his wife and her fatherless daughter. In the course of the month of TLC on their journey home, during which their ulcers were treated with the new wonder drug, penicillin, and their amœbic dysentery with emetine, their nourishment was gradually increased as stomachs became adjusted to a normal food intake. Consequently, by the time they docked at Dover four weeks after thankfully seeing the last of Ambouna, most of them had recovered sufficiently to be allowed home for a few days before returning to hospital to finish their treatment. The war, which had still a year or so to run, was over for them.

Hajimoto and his henchmen, incredibly, reached Sumatra safely after an uneventful voyage of sixteen days. From there they were sent on to Singapore; Hajimoto was posted as second-in-command of Changi prison, which held mostly civilian prisoners. His three fellow officers were sent straight up the Malayan Peninsular via the newly completed railway extension to join their retreating troops in Burma, replacing some of their many casualties. For Hajimoto, not to be sent to join the battle for his emperor-god should have been regarded as a disgrace; many would have committed hara-kiri rather than accept a job like this. It was not so with him, however. Not long after his posting, his commanding officer had to be retired due to ill health and he stepped into the vacant post of governor. There he found numerous ways of improving his financial position, since all the rations had to pass through his hands. With a starving populace, he entered the black market trade with much enthusiasm, filtering off about a third of the prisoners' rations. In not recording the many who died of undernourishment, he continued to draw rations for them, which also went the same way.

Hajimoto, one of the few Japanese who by now had no illusions as to who was going to win the war, insisted always in being paid in gold or jewellery, knowing that both local and Japanese paper money would be worth little or nothing sooner or later. What is more, the precious metal and gems would not deteriorate in the soil. It was about a year after he took over the running of the prison, and a couple of nights after the first of the two atomic bombs fell on his homeland, that Hajimoto buried all his treasure not far from the prison walls, between the roots of a great mango tree. It was probably the first heavy work he had accomplished in his life. At daylight, Hajimoto packed his personal belongings, took the prison pickup and made for Seletar airfield, hoping to be able to catch a plane — anywhere would do, rather than be caught in Singapore or Malaya, with his record. The place, when he arrived, had just suffered a bombing raid, and the runways were unserviceable. He made for the docks and got there just in time to be on the receiving end of the commencement of a bombardment by salvos from ships of the US Navy, lying offshore and softening up the enemy preparatory to landing a brigade of marines.

Shortly afterwards, it was announced that His Imperial Japanese Majesty had renounced his deity and surrendered to General McArthur. Willy-nilly, as with all the other Japanese on the island, Hajimoto was taken prisoner by the Allies. Unlike most of his fellow countrymen, however, he did not parade to be counted and identified, in order to be treated as official prisoners of war under the auspices of the Geneva Convention. Instead, he returned to Changi prison and dressed himself in a dead man's rags in order to try to pass himself off as a fellow sufferer. Hated and well-known to the prisoners, however, he stood no hope, was quickly identified for who and what he was, and handed over to the British paratroopers who had been the first Allied troops to arrive there and release the inmates. Six months later, a war tribunal sentenced Hajimoto to twenty-five years of imprisonment. He served it patiently and was fifty years of age when he was released onto the world.

An Idyll Too Far Archive

Len (Snowie) Baynes


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