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Phyllis Briggs's War -Part 10: Friends in the Internment Camp

by Bournemouth Libraries

Contributed by 
Bournemouth Libraries
People in story: 
Mrs.Phyllis.M.Thom (nee Briggs)
Location of story: 
Women's internment camp Sumatra.
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 January 2005

I looked around our new camp and was not impressed. The camp was in the centre of a large rubber estate, surrounded by jungle. Three years earlier the Dutch manager had followed the scorched earth policy and destroyed the rubber factory and much else. The manager's house and a smaller one were taken over by the Japs for themselves and the Indonesian guards. There were some long wooden huts, obviously put up hurriedly just before our arrival. These huts were badly built, the roofs leaked and the floors were of mud. There were puddles of rain and grass grew inside. The British and Dutch were old to occupy these and the remaining people were put into old coolie lines; they were in need of repair but had the benefit of a cement floor.

The upper camp was divided from the lower camp by a steep bank leading down to the river. We had to cut steps in this bank as all the food had to be carried up this way and in wet weather the path and steps were very slippery. A bridge crossed the river and led to the communal Kitchen and coolie lines and older buildings, including the 'hospital'.
I went down the hill to the hut which was to be used as a hospital. Mary and the other patients were already there lying on the damp smelling bali-bali. I remained there as I had developed fever. Two days later we heard that our belongings had arrived with the second batch of people from Muntok. My legs were shaky as I went up the hill to collect our cases, Mary and I each had one small case and then discovered that many people had had clothes and other things stolen from their bundles. My precious sewing needles had gone and other things of real value. I could have wept because I had only a few cents left and just did not know how I was going to manage. But like every other time something turned up unexpectedly. Dr.Goldberg was anxious to buy a pair of strong shoes. There was mud everywhere and she only had light sandals. Dr.Goldberg never wore trompers like the rest of us, she was always well dressed and seemed to have plenty of money. Just before I left Muntok Iris Frith had given me a good pair of shoes which were too small for her. These I still had so I offered them to Dr.Goldberg, hoping she would give me a good price - but being who she was she only gave me F.10. Later I sold my last piece of jewellery - Mother's gold bracelet - I got F.100 for it, later I heard that I should have had five times as much - but not being in with the black market people I had to get someone to sell it for me and she got a good 'rake-off'.

Although Dr.MacDowell had suggested I was to have a month's rest, I found myself back at work within a week - infact Dr.MacD was quite sharp with me when I told her I still felt weak! So I continued working in the 'hospital'. There were very few medicines for the sick, but we could at least wash the patients and try to make them comfortable. One of the first jobs we did was to get hold of logs of wood to try to make a dry passageway down the centre of the hut, which was especially necessary at the entrance, where it was ankle deep in mud.

I went to live in a little hut near the hospital across the river. The Australian sisters lived in a similar wooden hut on the opposite bank and the Dutch hospital nuns lived in a small wooden bungalow next to them. The three doctors had another small hut further away on the edge of the jungle by the barbed wire fence. They lived in fear of tigers and other wild animals. Actually there were a number of wild pigs and deer in the nearby jungle and they came down to the river at night and we certainly heard all sorts of queer noises.

The hospital hut never got any sunshine as it was in a hollow and trees grew all round it - the worst possible building for the sick. It was an old wooden building with a mud floor left from pre-war days. The wood was rotten and the roof leaked. There was a small building next to the long hut which was used for the most serious cases. These had the advantage of a cement floor. Both buildings were rat infested. The rats squeaked and ran about all night.

When we had been in Leoboelinggau about a week Mary improved and was sent to live in a large British hut up the hill. She was unhappy about this, but Dr.Goldberg decided that Mary was not well enough to do hospital work. I used to go up every day and was glad to find her getting stronger. Most of the British sisters lived up in the main camp. Gilly had broken her leg on the journey so was unable to move. Alice Rossie, Netta Smith, Jenny and Margot had had a row over the running of the hospital before we left Muntok and they did not want to move down. Mary Cooper was to ill to do any work and MacCullum had all her time taken up helping Mrs.Hinch, our commandant. When we had been there only a short time they all got fever one after another, so that put an end to them coming to live in the little hut down by the river.

Although it was officially the British sister's house we called it International Cottage. Our little group who lived there was a very mixed collection of nationalities and characters. The best place in the hut was bagged by Mrs.Rover - a German married to a Dutchman who was somewhere in Java. In the early days in Palembang she was allowed comparative freedom and got the job of running the household for the Jap so-called Governor and his staff she was a good cook and very fond of her food. She evidently got on quite well with the the Japs for when she was sent in to join us eighteen months after we had been captured she arrived looking as fit and fat as if she had been through no hardships. She also arrived with stacks of luggage - a whole collection of sauce pans and cooking utensils, a dog and even some of her husband's clothes. Fortunately the dog had been given to a Jap before we got to Loebeolinggau. Most of us hardly knew Mrs.Rover as in the previous camp she had lived with the Dutch. She was about forty and a trained nurse before her marriage. She decided she would like to join the hospital staff when we moved from Muntok. She had a deep voice and her English was funny at times. She liked being the grand lady and as she had a much bigger matress than anyone else she consequently took up more room. She hated getting up early in the morning, but never minded doing a late duty in the hospital at night. She loved her coffee and her cigarette and always had plenty of both as she was well in with the black market people. Although Mrs.Rover was entirely selfish she was kind and generous in many ways and lent her cooking pots, zinc bath and many other useful possessions. I don' know how we would have managed without them, for our rusty tins were developing leaks and the little frying pan had two large holes in it. Mrs Rover was very friendly with Dr.Goldberg and got many privileges - some of which we were able to share. She always managed to get quinine or atebrin when she had attacks of fever which she certainly made the best of.

Georgette Gilmour took the place next to Mrs R. She was French and married to an Australian who was a prisoner in Singapore. She was a sweet thing with plenty of common sense and most capable in every way - and with a sense of humour to go with it! Mrs.R. used to get on her nerves and it is no wonder that being French she had no time for a German woman, as when Georgette was a young girl she had been through a very hard time in Lille all through World War 1. Georgette used to get severe attacks of malaria and she generally became delirious and talked all sorts of rubbish - sometimes in English but generally in French or Malay. She must have been very attractive when younger - she had pretty wavy hair and big blue eyes and a slight French accent which was charming - she had become very pale and tired looking but always did her best.

Maimie Macintosh came next to Georgette - she was a little woman with a round face - always talking about the Highlands or her Grannie (although she must have been one of the eldest in our hut.) She was very nervous and easily upset over things and she used to worry about her health alot - at one time she used to tremble all over and became too frightened to go across the bridge by herself. Geogette used to try and calm her - she felt responsible for her as she had known both Maimie and her husband in Malaya. Maimie struck me as being the type whose husband had always been the boss - she seemed unable to make decisions for herself and she got flustered very easily - although she liked telling people what to do! She and Helen had many arguements. Helen could not stand her. She became desperately ill and nearly died, but although she recovered she looked very anaemic and had to be treated almost like a child.

L:ater when she joined us Mary slept next to Maimie and then I was next to her. Helen MacKenzie was on my left. Helen had only been in Malaya a short time as a nursing sister in K.L. when the Japs came - she spoke with a broad Glasgow accent which many people found hard to understand. In ordinary times she was a really big girl but by this time she was very thin and boney - she seemed so clumsy and was always falling over things - this was partly due to drop foot as she had beri-beri and found it difficult to lift her feet. Helen used to get wildly excited about the least thing and was always going off the deep end about someone, but one could not help liking her. She used to get dreadful attacks of vomitting whenever she had fever but as soon as she got over the worst of it she would be up and about again - she used to get very depressed when she realised that she did not have the strength she used to have.

Kong Kum Kiew was a straits brn Chinese girl. She had been a staff nurse for some years in Malaya. She was short with funny little sparrow legs and a broad smiling face unless she was in one of her moods. She would do anything in the world for people she liked - in fact she was almost too generous. She loved people to make a fuss of her and joke with her - but if she thought they were trying to boss her or take advantage of her she would sulk for hous. She was always having trouble with Mrs.R. who tried to treat her like a servant. Neither could she get on with Maimie, who did not realise that her mentality was different from ours. Fortunately, I understood her as she was so like many of the Chinese nurses in Malaya. I used to enjoy hearing her talk bout her family and about the gold mine and shop they owned in Kuala Lipis. She knew quite a number of chinese legends. Kong always kept herself very clean and tidy. Her favourite garment was a man's waistcoat which she always wore if it were at all cold or damp. On special occasions she used to put on a spotless baju, also lipstick and a string of really good jade beads. She used to make a little fire at the back of the house then after mush pounding, frying and flapping of the fire she would produce a little fried cake or hot sambal and insist on giving us a taste. She got fever quite often but when she was well she loved entertaining - she was very friendly with Dr MacDowell and Audrey Owen and had quite a number of friends among the Dutch.

Mrs MacKinnon had ben assisstant Matron of Penang Hospital - she came from Edinburgh, but her mother was pure Icelandic. She was tall and thin with long black untidy hair - she definitely was the wrong type to wear shorts and sun tops, but she always did so. Mac nearly always had a cigarette drooping out of her mouth made out of any vile tobacco she could get hold of and rolled in any old scrap of paper - but sometimes she got hold of native straws which I think smelt worse. She used to love getting up before daylight to light the fire making no end of noise waking everyone up. She was one of those people who whenever they are not well refuse to say anything about it until just on the verge of collapse and then become a very difficult patient. After a few weeks we were able to quell Mac's ardour as we were very short of wood and none of us had the strength to chop more than was absolutely necessary. She used to eat all sorts of rubbish including snails out of the river and in the end she developed typhoid and very nearly died. Her heart had been in a bad state for a long time so it was amazing that she pulled through. Poor Mac was very kind and sincerely religious but she certainly was a trial to live with, with all her eccentric ways.

Ours was a small one-roomed house of wood with a corrugated iron roof. This projected in front and made a tiny open veranda. Fortunately the roof only leaked badly in one place - this happened to be over my bedspace at my feet - when it rained I used to curl up in a ball, so avoided the constant drip, drip! My mosquito net used to get soaked at the foot. If it rained heavily we placed a bucket to catch drips. I always meant to climb up onto the roof but somehoe never got there. The noise during heavy rain was terrific - being a tin roof every little twig that fel from the trees sounded like a large branch. The little house was surrounded by rubber trees - one could hardly see the sky, the green foliage was so thick- and when the rubber nuts fell on the roof they sounded as loud as a pistol shot. There was one huge dead tree just outside and during heavy storms huge branches used to crash down. We used to dash out in the morning for the firewood and wondered what would happen to us if the whole thing came down.

The bali-bali took up most of the space inside the hut; it was made of bamboo and smelt musty. The floor was of cement so was the tiny veranda outside, so really it was a better built place than we had been in for a long time. It obviously had belonged to one of the native workers in the estate, slightly higher up than the ordinary coolie. At one end of the veranda we had a great time building a fireplace of stones, pieces of corrugated iron and odd bricks. The first few days we roamed around the camp keeping our eyes open for any treasures that might come in useful for our little house. Pieces of rusty wire, planks of wood, metal, rubber, cups etc - all sorts of bits and pieces that were left when the Dutch smashed up their machinery before the Japs arrived. Our greatest find was a large wooden table which was partly submerged in the river and caught up by a fallen tree trunk so that it was wedged into the bank. Georgette was the pioneer in getting hold of this valuable possession - she waded thigh deep and after much pushing and struggling she freed the table and turned it on its end so that Kong and I could pull it up the bank. The table must have been in the water for months as it was very slippery we stood it against the outside wall by the fireplace. We made ourselves little stools to sit on; I'm definately not a carpenter but made myself a little seat. Mary was really clever at anything that required hammer and nails. She used to spend hours hammering peices of tin; she made lids that fitted, kitchen utensils and all sorts of useful things. I was better at lighting a fire, often with damp twigs and a little latex from our nearest tree. The latex was most useful, we used it for mending holes in tins and for sticking peices of rag to the bottom of leaking buckets.

After a few weeks Mary felt mush stronger and was keen to do some camp work again - and after getting the doctor's permission, she came to live with us to help run the 'home'. We needed someone to fetch our rations, boil our drinking water and go up to the 'shop' when anything came into the camp. The 'shop' was run by the rations officers and once or twice a week the Japs would send in a few things which could be sold to us: bananas, limes, chillies, root ginger and occaisionally sago flour or salt fish. These had to be divided into equal portions and we had to go up the hill to fetch them. Sometimes palm oil or tapioca root would come into camp. There was the everlasting cry for containers to put these things into - then someone would have to climb the hill again with the money. We nearly always bought everything that came, then if we were hard up we could re-sell our portions at a profit and were able to make a few cents. Chillie we could nearly always sell at double the price and the same with the small onions which were a ridiculous price. Our food was much the same as at every other camp, at one time the rice ration was larger, but after a while it was not nearly sufficient. We sometimes got carrots which were a welcome change, but there was never enough of anything. The only thaing that we got more of was palm oil or coffee. The palm oil agreed with most of us, I used to eat it raw. We also used to fry our rice in it. We were given palm oil for our lamps which we made out of tins and a bit of rag for a wick. We ate most of the lamp oil and only had a light if absolutely necessary.

Although we had to buy the coffee it was really good quality - very coarse and grown locally. I don't know how I would have got through without it - I started the day with my large mug full of strong coffee and generally had it twice again during the day. Many times when I was on the verge of fainting, a cup of coffee and a spoonful of sugar woulf bring me round - Mary generally came to my rescue - and after lying down for half and hour I would be able to get up and start work again. Occasionally we had a small portion of wild pig and once or twice the Japs sent in a piece of wild deer. Once they sent us a black bear - this meat was good but we had such a small portion that it made us hungry for more. Once we had monkey, the grey long-haired variety and although we only had about a desertspoonful of stew each, it tasted very strong. Once we had some stew sent to us that the kitchen staff said was jungle meat - none of us knew what meat it was, it did not taste as strong as the monkey - later we discovered it was panther!

After two weeks the river rose so high that it flooded the bridge and we were marooned, we could not go to fetch our rations from the kitchen or to reach the hospital to go on duty. Fortunately we each had a small portion of uncooked rice as an emergency ration, so we were able to boil ourselves apot of rice and wait for the water to subside. Normally the river was not deep - it ran over big rocks and stones and one could wade to the other bank quite easily.

In early days we used to plunge into the river for our daily bath - the guards strolled about but it did not worry them or us - it was such a welcome change to be immersed - I used to hang on to a large stone and let the water rush over me. Unfortunately, our joy was short lived for the river became shallower and dirtier; the Japs lived up river above our camp - their latrines were boxes hanging over the river and the rest of the latrines were opposite us on the other bank. For our own cooking etc we filled up buckets and the zinc bath from the river as early as possible in the morning and some weeks later when the river got very low we carried pails of water from a well near the community kitchen - it was rather a strain and not easy as our little bridge was slippery but at any rate the water was cleaner.

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