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Olaf Chapman Part Three

by threecountiesaction

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Olaf Chapman
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10 August 2005

Olaf (centre) and good friends.

This story was submitted to the People’s War Site by Three Counties Action for Mark Barker, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.


Within a few days we were marched off to this prisoners of war camp...well they called it a camp. It was only just a few little huts, right on the edge of a newly built prison. This was Changi! In all the camp covered quite a large area, which was eventually divided up into smaller units. A lot of it was bordered by the ocean. The rest was just fenced with a couple of strands of barbed wire, to sort of mark the perimeter. They didn't need to do anything to stop us getting out. There was nowhere to go!

Only three people ever escaped from Changi and stayed free. They had every advantage you could have wished for. Between the three they spoke five languages. Two of them were managers of rubber plantations and the other was a bank official. They had many contacts in Malaya, so between them they could talk to friends and be sure they wouldn't have the finger pointed at them. They stayed free all the time due to the friendship between them. One of them had the same name as myself - Chapman. I think they wrote a book about their exploits.

The Japanese soon had the prisoners working. They took a lot of them into Singapore each day, to clear up the bomb mess and rubbish. Periodically there would be a group of prisoners taken out. Where they went to nobody knew. Later on we heard they had been taken to different islands - Borneo - Sumatra - on various projects, aeroplane runways and so on.

Wherever you went you knew there was going to be very little food. The Japanese knew they had a wonderful source of labour at very little cost. They didn't believe in feeding sick men. If you didn't work you didn't eat. Simple as that! They had unlimited numbers of prisoners and they didn't bother if anybody died. It wasn't just POWS it was anyone who was fit enough to work - any nationality. Sometimes you'd see whole groups of people, different families, young, old, marching along with their few possessions to a camp site where they would have to work, doing something or another. It was a lottery whether you survived or not. They were very cruel to the Chinese, very very cruel.

I was a bit fortunate in one way. Ever since we left England, these three particular friends of mine - we'd all been very, very good friends. We all came from London and you can't over estimate what a difference it makes if you've got good, reliable friends. I think we saved each others lives several times.

I remember very clearly, we hadn't been in this prison camp long before I had a bout of dengue fever, which you pick up from sand flies. We were near the coast and there were plenty of flies around. Although dengue isn't as bad as malaria you get a very high temperature and of course you perspire. Unless you get some fluid into you it can be very serious. Our ration of water was half a pint twice a day, and that's not much in a hot climate. They used to give me some of theirs to keep me going, and once the worst is over - it's not like malaria - it doesn't keep coming back. Things like that...very important!


Working parties were sent out quite frequently. They never said where you were going. They used to try and kid you were going to a nice camp in a nice climate (laughter). We knew differently, Unfortunately quite a few ships carrying P.O.Ws to Japan or somewhere, were torpedoed by Americans who didn't know what cargo they were carrying. Normally prisoners wouldn't be allowed on deck. They'd all be battened down, so our chaps never knew they were there. Very unfortunate.

While we were in this Changi camp, word came round there was going to be a big working party going somewhere - we didn't know where. We learned later that many of these working parties went to Japan, to work in the copper mines, some in the coal mines, or anywhere where they wanted labour. My name was on the list, so that was that! But on the morning when we were due to march into Singapore we were paraded and the officers were looking at everybody. As we came along they stopped me and said, 'Why are you limping?' I said, 'I turned my ankle over a couple of days ago and it's a bit dodgy'. They pushed me out of the line and said, 'No! If you can't march we don't want you'. So I was separated from my three best friends and this was a bit of a blow.

It wasn't long before I was sent off with another working party. This time we marched into Singapore and we were put into rice trucks, big steel trucks that used to carry rice in bulk. Very uncomfortable! In daytime you daren't touch the steel because you would get burnt and blistered very badly; and at night the cold was just as bad... Very, very uncomfortable!
Off we went. We travelled day and night, stopping just once each evening for a bit of a meal, which was usually a bit of sloppy rice and half a mug of water! Then off we'd go again. After five days we reached a place called Ban Pong, which was just inside the border with Thailand. We only stayed there a couple of days fortunately, because the whole camp was knee deep in water. They'd had some terrific storms. The latrines were overflowing!

We next marched along to a place called Kanchanaburi, which was the take off point for working parties going up on the railway. We stayed there for two days, then we got in this train, which was just an open truck with sides, nothing else, just sides about two foot high - just boards. These old trains were all wood-burners, consequently as you steamed along sparks, soot and muck blew back over us. You couldn't see...turned your head away ... covered your face! We travelled quite slowly along this railway track, then the train slowed right down and the smoke and sparks began to go up instead of into our faces. I turned my head around to look about and I had the shock of my life! We were on a bridge crossing the river Kwai. Looking over my shoulder I could see the boats in the river down below, like toy boats. I should imagine we were about 60-70 feet from the river. I very hurriedly got off my perch on the side of the truck! It was quite a shock - another narrow escape!


We didn't go much further in the train, just a few miles. Then we had to get off...lined Japanese guard and off we went. The first thing the guard did was throw his rifle at the nearest bloke, for him to carry. I made sure it wasn't me - I might have been tempted to use it. Any way, off we went.

Before we left Changi I'd swapped my big, clumsy old boots for a pair of civilian boots - nice soft leather. I thought it would be better for walking. I hadn't reckoned on the swampy ground we were walking through. After two or three days I thought my feet seemed cold and wet. I looked and I had no soles, only the uppers! The stitching had rotted, the soles had come off and there I was with the uppers and no soles. I got rid of them. Back to bare feet!

I suppose we had to march for 1-2-3-4-5 days, until we came to quite a big camp. Tarso it was called, T.A.R.S.O. A very big camp. It wasn't half way to our destination. After a couple of days we were on the move again. We passed two or three other camps, all close to the river. Most of the camps followed the course of the river. One was called River Camp, I remember that. Another was called Spring Camp.

From then on we saw nothing and nobody for four days, till we came to a patch. The new railway that we were going to work on, the ill-famed Burma Railway, had reached about half a mile from here, but they couldn't go any further until a working party hammered out the rocky outcrop. It had to be levelled off before the line could be laid, and that was going to be our job.

First of all we had to spend two days hacking down the bamboo at the jungle's edge, in order to put up three or four tents. They were more like colanders than tents. Anyway, we rigged them up. Then we had to make makeshift beds, which we did by putting in bamboo posts, then getting long pieces of quite thick bamboo, splitting them - not completely, just sufficient to open them up so you could lie them flat. That was to be your bed, with a little bit of spring, but not very comfortable. At least it kept you off the ground.

Next day, off we went to work. Real Fred Karno that was! They'd get you up about three hours before you were supposed to leave. then they'd start counting (laughter). It was funny really. The guards were Korean, not Japanese. A Japanese officer would come to take you to the work place, but first of all we had to be counted.

These Korean guards counted us first, then the Japanese guards - only two of them. They would start counting and it didn't matter how many times they counted, they never got it right. You'd stand there, sometimes in the pouring rain... There were only about thirty of us in this camp, not many really, compared with some of the other camps. Sometimes this would go on for hours. Count, count, count!
They couldn't get it right - they never agreed - they all shouted at each other! Then along would come the little Japanese officer, five foot nothing, with his sword...he had to hold his sword up, otherwise it would trail on the ground (laughter). We had a special name for him, not a very polite one. He would start: first he'd ask them what the total was, they'd tell him and he'd walk up and down a couple of times and ask again. Then he'd start bashing them about.

Their favourite thing was kicking. They were kicking machines! That's what he would start with. Then he would bash them about. Then he'd ask the Koreans what they made the count and they couldn't agree on it, so there was another kerfuffle. In the end there were Japanese and Korean guards all setting about each other. We were splitting our sides and of course that annoyed them. We had to turn and look the other way. Eventually they came to some conclusion... All that time wasted there. What did it matter? I can still count up to ten in Japanese! Itchy nee san see go roko chuchi hachi kew du!


There we were, starting work, three people to each group. One had a big hammer, a fourteen pound hammer with a long handle. Another would have a big, long chisel, a metre long - you couldn't tell the sharp end from the top end, they were both the same. The third man had to hold the chisel. You were supposed to hammer the chisel three foot-into these rocks. For the first two days we didn't get more than a couple of inches dug, which didn't please them at all. It was no use telling them that the chisel was blunt, or that we had a job to lift the hammer.

It was dangerous too. You'd hit somebody's finger with the heavy hammer while they were holding the chisel. I've got a few bent fingers as proof of how many times they were broken. It was funny, if it wasn't so tragic. More times than not you'd hit the ground instead of the chisel. We were getting nowhere. It was silly really, because if they had fed us properly we could have worked much harder or better.

They didn't care. They had plenty more prisoners to fill the gaps. When you were working and you wanted to go to the toilet you'd put your hand up and then off you'd go, into the jungle. Why didn't we try to escape? There was no where to escape to, no where to go. A thousand miles to get to anywhere at all... You'd never get that far, anyway. Too much rough country and jungle in between Thailand and Burma and India... In many instances prisoners would wander off and lay down in the jungle to die. The Japanese didn't bother to search for them. If they couldn't work they might as well die in the jungle. There must have been hundreds and hundreds in various places, just disappeared - never accounted for.


One day I noticed a swelling on the instep of my left foot and in a couple of days it was huge. Whether I'd been bitten, stung or whatever, I don't know, but it got so bad I couldn't even walk. I had to stay in camp, but that wasn't good, because if I stayed there I was going to be on half rations, which was little or nothing.

I didn't want to starve, so I volunteered to work for the Japanese in a camp about half a mile from ours, where they did their compilations. My job there was to keep the fire going under a big boiler, to cook their rice. It was a huge boiler, a massive great thing. It was quite an easy job really, keeping the fire going and stirring the rice with a big paddle. A couple of Japanese would come over and have a look at it - see how it was going. At five o'clock in the morning they'd come out, have a look at it and say, 'Pull the fire out'. I'd pull the fire out from underneath it and just let it steam and leave it like that for about fifteen minutes. The steam would come through and every grain of rice would be separate. Really beautiful when it was cooked!

They'd dish out the food, lots of rice, lots of pork. I wanted to eat lots, but unfortunately, after two or three spoonfuls you couldn't eat any more, no matter how hard you tried. Your stomach got so small with starvation that you couldn't take it. Gradually, after a time when the stomach got more used to food, I could eat a little bit more, but still there was a limit. The rice was not for prisoners, but we were fed it there because we were keeping the fires going. The rice the prisoners had was of the very poorest quality; very, very poor, small and hard.

For the next instalment go to Olaf Chapman Part Four (A4919538)

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