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- Charles Whitehead
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- Contributed on:
- 10 November 2003
This is the story of my father, who wrote this for his grand children, so they would know what he went through in WW2.
Beauty of Indonesia
The island of Indonesia is the most important and most densely populated island in the world. Close to 60 million people live there, and it is 750 miles wide, 75 miles across. The Javanese people are very poor. We passed a canal outside Batavia, and the women were standing in the murky water doing their washing and bathing and also obtaining drinking water from it. The canal was also used for bodily functions.
The island at that time was governed by the Dutch, so you had two distinct classes, the rich Dutch and the poor natives. It was in 1950 that the island received its independence, and a republican government was formed.
The island is a land of beauty, with mountains, jungle, rolling hills. It is noted for the volcanoes, 400 in number - 160 are still active. The story of the volcano is that the sulphur makes the land so fertile that the rice crops are increased to three a year instead of one. The main plantations are tobacco, sugar, tea, coffee and rice. The farmers with their bullocks plough the wet land called 'paddy' fields, 'paddy' is the word for rice.
Flowering trees are everywhere. Banana, coconut, passion fruit, wild orchids and many other fruiting trees. Oranges are grown in abundance. There are various birds of all colours, not to mention monkeys and lizards which you hear at night. The most important tree in Java is the quinine tree.
The taxicab service is called betjaks. The betjak consists of a double seat mounted on a pair of cycle wheels, placed in the front of the rear half of a bicycle on which a man sits and pedals. I had one experience of a ride. The men carry their goods on shoulder poles with a large basket each side. They do a trot when laden with these goods.
I can remember, when one passed by, he was a walking cafe. On one side he had pots and pans and a charcoal fire, and on the other side he had his rice, fish and other things to cook. If one asked for a meal, he would cook it on the spot. The women carried the produce on their heads, in large baskets. They carried the babies in a sarong wrapped over their shoulders. When they went to plant the rice they carried the baby in the same way, even the young children have to work in the paddy fields.
Now to my story.
Hopeless situation at Batavia
When the war ended and the Japanese finally capitulated, the Indonesians were far more experienced than they had been before it started. Because of this, they were able to organise and to resist the return of the Dutch in 1946, when a new armed conflict began. The final defeat of the Dutch was in 1950, when the independence of Indonesia was declared. During their occupation the Japanese had given the Javanese arms, and encouraged military formations, for their own purposes - and this helped the Javanese in their struggle against the Dutch.
I will start my story on board the 'Empress of Australia', bound for Cape Town. We only had a few days there when war was declared in the Far East, so our convoy was immediately transferred to meet the Japanese.
We landed at Batavia, we were the 42 Regiment RA. We had three weeks to wait before the Japs invaded the island. Then came the news that Singapore had surrendered, we knew that Java would be next. Suddenly, out of the sky, came the dive bombers in large numbers.
The civilians were rushing to get on to boats in the harbour. We watched packed boats leave the harbour, then down came the dive bombers - sinking all the boats, most of them carrying women and children. Looting was going on everywhere.
After heavy, constant, bombing the Japs landed at Batavia. Three days later Surabaya, the Dutch naval base and the city of Bandung were in enemy hands. With the fall of these cities the fighting in Java came to an end. The Dutch had lost most of their navy in trying to prevent the landings, and the air force was no match for the masses of aircraft the enemy were able to throw into the battle. The Japanese claimed that 93,000 Dutch and 5,000 British, Australian and American troops had surrendered.
We withdrew into the hills to wait for instructions, but first we had to blow up the guns, make other equipment useless, burn all documents and make all transport useless. The regiment received orders to stack all small arms, rifles etc.
Break for freedom
Now I will take my story to when six of us made a break to freedom. Our Colonel addressed the ranks - I can hear his words now: 'It is up to you to try and make a break, but you must remember you are surrounded by the sea, your only chance is the jungle'. An officer came forward and asked for five volunteers. I was the first to volunteer. Why, I shall never know, but my decision certainly saved my life.
There was the officer, a sergeant, myself and three privates. We loaded up with supplies, tinned foods, Red Cross equipment, and water bottles, two each. One of the men carried only cigarettes. With our heavy burden we left our unit. The officer's decision was to try and make for Surabaya, hoping to board a boat for Darwin. Little did we know our task was hopeless from the start - Surabaya was crawling with Japs, but the officer was determined to carry on with his plans.
We entered the hills to climb up a volcanic mountain which would lead us deep into the jungle. After climbing over rocks and boulders we finally made the top. To our surprise, we were looking into a deep sulphur pit. We had to cover our mouths to protect ourselves from the sulphur, which was boiling. Java is noted for these mountains. On reaching the top we discovered a hut, and on going inside we found an old gramophone - with records which happened to be in English. We stayed the night for a good rest, before our adventure into the unknown. A party of Australians joined us at this point, but had other ideas and so were leaving us in the morning.
We had tropical kit, so only had short trousers with putties, plus the good old Topy. Not a very good outfit for the jungle. We found the cigarette supply came in very useful, as we found the leeches were getting into our putties.
Out first two nights in the jungle I shall never forget. We had our ground sheets, so made our beds after making a clearance. I think the worst noise came from the monkeys. Needless to say we had very little rest - we just prayed the Japs were not coming our way.
After the third day we entered a tribal village, just small hovels scattered around. Our problem was, were they going to be friendly? I can still see the chieftain, a big native, bare from the waist upwards and decorated with beads of all sorts. He mumbled some words, which must have been of welcome! They made us go into one hovel, which was the chieftain's, making us sit around on mats. We had a meal with plenty of rice and fish. Afterwards they made signs for us to sleep so we settled down. First of all they posted four guards to watch over us, each had a large hatchet. You can image our thoughts! We stayed for two days with the natives who seemed to be very friendly, especially the topless ladies!
Before leaving the chieftain gave us four guides to take us through the jungle to the next kampon, which took us four days. We received the same friendly welcome, staying for one night, but found the following morning all our money and documents had gone.
So there we were, no name or number, and in a hostile country. Our guides left us at this point to return to their village. We carried on through the jungle until we found a rough road, which seemed to go on for many miles, then we had our first experience of tropical rain.
Tropical rain, and some good luck
We took the opportunity of having a good wash down - believe me, we needed it. The rain soon passed over, so we dried our clothes in the tropical heat and carried on. Suddenly in the distance we noticed a large building, the officers went forward to find out how we stood with the natives, and if it was all clear with our friends the Japs. He came back full of smiles. We had found a tea plantation.
The manager was a Scotsman with a charming wife and two children. They immediately made us welcome. First of all they showed us to the bathroom, we could hardly believe this was really happening, back to civilisation in the heart of the jungle! The wife found us bath robes and washed our clothes. We sat down to our first real meal which included pancakes done in brown sugar, never have pancakes tasted better!
After the meal our hosts showed us to our bedrooms, with lovely white sheets. It was just paradise, we slept well in this dreamland. The following morning we felt like different men, having had a good breakfast and with clean uniforms. We talked about our chances of escape. Our host showed us a film of the jungle and the rocky coast line we would have to travel over, as Surabaya was fully occupied by the Japs. There was a small fishing village before Surabaya. He told our officer our task was impossible - also that the Japs had broadcast a message that all troops trying to escape would now be executed on capture.
So it was live or die. He wanted us to stay in a hut in the jungle, sending us news through his natives - he was certain the Japs would be beaten in a few weeks. Our officer refused the offer, so we left our home of dreams, with six native guides and plenty of stores to help us on our way. We noticed the guides were carrying ropes, and we soon found out the reason. We came to a swollen river, which we had to cross. One guide went over after fixing a rope to a tree. Then we had to cross by hand. The natives took the stores over, which was a blessing. Safely across, we were in the hands of our guides. We had to have faith in their knowledge of the jungle. How we prayed, knowing that if we met up with the Japs it was death for us.
We carried on through the jungle. The monsoon season was now causing us great hardship, the heavy ram was making swamps, and the steaming heat was unbearable. After a time Charles Allen and I caught malaria - our quinine tablets had run out. Having had no mosquito nets to protect us at night we had already taken all the tablets. I really thought it was the end of the road for me. Then another miracle happened.
We approached another plantation which was managed by a Dutchman. He told us the Japs were moving fast, and that we stood no chance of getting off the island. It was too risky for him to take in the six of us, but he agreed to help myself and my friend, as we were beyond walking. He took us to a bedroom. There we remained for three days. On the fourth day he brought round a truck, and told us to lie down on the bottom, and covered us with sugar canes. We could see out of the truck, which had wooden sides. We went through Bandung, and could see the Japs walking about. He then drove up to an Allied base hospital, which up to that time had not been taken over.
Japanese take over control
Two days after, the Japs took over control, and we all had to line up, including some stretcher cases. I shall never forget that forced march, at bayonet point. The main prison had been emptied to occupy the troops, and here ended my episode of trying to escape. The Dutchman had saved the life of the two of us, at great risk to himself. The Colonel in charge of the Allied base said it was a miracle we had got through. Two days later we would have been doomed.
We heard the sad news at a later date that Lieutenant Sherian, Sergeant Walker, Sergeant McNeil and Private Jones had all been executed, after being captured.
We remained in our prison packed in cells like sardines, twelve men to a small cell, with a small square which we would keep walking around. We had our first experience of the true Japanese. The rice diet we had to enjoy three times a day. Our watches, all rings, wallets, photographs and everything that was personal to us was taken away, we were left with only the clothes we were wearing. Our boots were also taken from us. Finally we had to have our heads shaved, or rather cut by a native with a long clipper and a knife. There we stood, no boots, no hair, awaiting our fate for the coming three and half years.
After a long period of time our prisoner of war camps were ready for our occupation - these had been built in the jungle. This time we were transported by a fleet of lorries.
The camp was situated next to a plantation, which the Japanese had commandeered for their own use. The quarters for the prisoners were open-sided huts, with a line of wooden boards down each side. Everybody had one blanket, which either you used as a pillow or to cover over you.
After a few weeks bugs appeared, so each morning boards had to be inspected. Bugs were a great torment during the night. We tried to get mosquito nets from the Japs with little response, so we therefore also had mosquitoes buzzing around.
Sanitation was like a bad dream. A stream went through the camp, this was used for everything. Imagine using this, with the Japs enjoying the fun with a large bamboo cane. Each morning we had to parade for Bango (number in Japanese), and we had to bow to the Sun (the god of the Japanese) when the sun went down. In these parades we were told how Nipon was winning the war, how the 'Prince of Wales' and the 'Repulse' had been sunk, and how Nipon was defeating the Far East.
Each morning there was a beating for somebody - one only had to smile to be picked out for special treatment by the guards. Once, two men tried to escape. They were caught, brought back to the camp, put into the wire cage - which was a special treatment of the Japs - and left in the cage for a week, starved.
After this period they were brought out on parade, and we had to witness the execution of both men. They had to dig their own grave. Then they were tied to a post. The Jap guards then bayonet-charged the men 15 times, before finally killing them. The following day the Japanese brought flowers along, and placed them over the grave.
The Japanese now formed us into working parties, for building blast walls and many other slave labour jobs. It did get us out of the camp, although it was against the Geneva Convention. Can you imagine? No boots, sore feet - hook worm was the main problem to the soles of the feet.
The conditions got so bad in the camp. Our diet consisted of pap rice for breakfast (just like wallpaper paste, although after a time your stomach got used to it), steamed rice mid day and again about 6pm. After a time, you got so hungry you prayed for more rice. If there was rice over we formed groups, each man had a number. If it was your group and your number came up, you were lucky. How we used to watch the rice bins, just hoping! The extra helping was called 'Legi'.
Now things began to move. In the camp, our charming hosts formed us into groups of 100 men. One morning a group was called on parade, and each man was issued with a large straw hat, a pair of wooden clogs, and an extra blanket. Working parties were being moved to other islands by ships - and later were taken to work on the Burma Railroad. It was many months before I was to see those men again.
Next draft I found myself included, but luckily for me, I had contracted yellow jaundice with dysentery, it was agony. This shipload left Batavia with all prisoners battened down below. I was taken off the draft. I later learned the ship was sunk, nobody survived.
Hospital work; victims of the Burma Railroad
I and other men too sick to work, were moved to the Dutch army barracks, which was now used by the Japanese as a hospital to get the men back to work. After a period of time I was well enough to move about, and being a medical corporal I was able to help others. The officer in charge was Lieutenant Colonel Van-de-Post. We had very few medical supplies. The army barracks had a few more luxuries than the camp, like iron beds, and the sanitation was greatly improved, but the hospital was still treated by the Japanese like a prison.
It was some months later that we had our first draft of PoWs back from the islands. The men were in a terrible state - just living skeletons, with ulcers, sores and dysentery. Some were in a bad mental state. One had to see these men to imagine that such cruelty could be inflicted on another human being. When the men arrived they had been in the hold of the ship, battened down. Some died a terrible death. These men had been worked to near death before being sent back to Java. Now our real work started - to help the men, give them the hope to live, and give medical attention to the best of our ability.
We only had two medical officers, with six other medical personnel. When the Colonel noticed how I was working he decided to keep me under his wing, which I was thankful for.
The men were now coming back from the Burma Railroad. Few of these men lived to tell the world how they had suffered. We struggled against a hopeless task, but these men wanted to die, they knew they only had to stand and they would be sent off again. We had to dig a large communal grave for those who died. There is now a cemetery in Singapore in memory of those lads who died in the prison camps.
Approach of the end of the war
We are now in our second year. Our clothes are now just loin cloths, two per man. The rice diet has just about kept us alive. I suffered much dysentery, malaria, ulcers, but when I looked round at the mere skeletons of men around me, I realised I was thankful for my medical experience and for the help I was able to give.
Towards the end of the third year things got better. The Japs altered our diet. Buffalo meat appeared in our rice, with sweet potatoes. The guards were becoming friendly, we began to realise the end was near.
We had to wait a further six months before that was to happen. The great day arrived, for those of us who had survived. Lord and Lady Mountbatten, both in white naval uniform, came into the camp to announce the Japs had surrendered, the war was over.
Need I tell you our feelings. They told us we were all being drafted to Singapore, but we had to be patient. I received my first mail from home. Then on to Singapore - the Red Cross received all the troops in Singapore. Australians, American, Indian, Dutch and the British, we were all graded according to what condition you were in. The worst cases were sent home by plane.
I was taken, along with many others, to the Sea View Hotel, which had been made the Red Cross base. The Red Cross are an organisation one must be proud of. We had every attention by the nurses and Red Cross staff. We spent four weeks getting fit enough to travel home by the troop ship. I weighed 8 stone - in Singapore, I had lost 6 stone.
The time came for us to board the ship in glorious sunshine. The first stop was to be Colombo. I shall never forget the reception we received. Bands were playing on the dockside, cars were lined up to take us to various places. I sent a telegram home to Grace, letting her know I was on the way home. We spent two weeks here with wonderful people.
Whilst we were in Colombo we had measurements taken for our new winter uniform, these were flown to Port Said, our next stop. We boarded ships for our next stop through the Suez Canal. We landed at Port Said, where there was a large marquee on the bank. We went inside to find our kit bag with all our new clothes. Even our ranks were sewn on, including war ribbons.
So once again we were in full uniform - although a bit different. Our next stop was Gibraltar for a further few days. Then on to Liverpool, the end of our journey, then straight to the army barracks. The next day a train to Euston station, there to meet Grace and Ralph once again!
So ends this story of my experience.
I may add I was mentioned in Dispatches for my services in the prison camp, this I greatly treasure.
Also I was reported missing for two and half years.
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