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A Woman Prisoner of the Japanese

by Bernard de Neumann

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Archive List > World > Singapore

Contributed by 
Bernard de Neumann
People in story: 
Pamela de Neumann (nee Thane)
Location of story: 
Malaysia - Singapore, Sumatra, Banka, Muntok, Palembang
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
15 January 2006


1938 - 41 Trainee Nurse, 1941 - 14 February 1942 Nurse in St John's Ambulance Brigade, and Voluntary Aid Detachment, 14 February 1942 - 1945 Prisoner of Japanese, 1946 - 1980 Housewife in Thundersley, Essex, England, 1980 - present living in Mount Pritchard, N.S.W., Australia.

Other Notes:

STATEMENT: I was born in Malaya, and left to go to a boarding-school in Sydney, Australia when I was seven. The school was SCEGGS, and when I joined the Headmistress was Miss Wilkinson. When I left School I went back to Malaya with my parents for a holiday. My father was a rubber Plantation Estate Manager in Nilai Seremban, in the state of Negri Sembilan. Little did I realise what was going to happen to my life when I got back there (The Japanese Invasion of Malaya in 1941.). My brother was in the Australian Army Service Corps (AASC), and came over from Australia in the 8th Division on the Queen Mary leaving about 12 February 1941. As I was interested in nursing I started training in the St Johns Ambulance Brigade and earned their Medale which was worn on the lapel of my uniform. They called it the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) then the Women's Medical Auxiliary Service. This training took place in the Wards and Operating Theatre of Seremban Hospital, with the Matron, Doctor and Sister, and took about three years. All my hard-earned certificates were lost in the war. Everything was just gone.

When the war started with the Japanese we were evacuated to Singapore. I went with my mother, and my father followed later. We continued nursing at the First Aid posts at Singapore. My mother was a trained nurse too, and staff were needed desperately at the St Andrews Hospital at Singapore. There we nursed wounded members of the armed forces as they came to the hospital from the north of Malaya. We worked during the fall of Singapore right until the day before the fall, which was on the 15th February 1942. The police and army came and said that we had to leave quickly the best way we could. This turned out to be by the steamship Mata Hari, which left from the jetty at Singapore. Only my mother and I left on this ship as my father was a local volunteer, being too old for the Army and Fighting Services. We left Singapore at night and a Japanese warship stopped and captured us within a short time of leaving. Under threat of the warship's trained, loaded and readied guns, and dazzled by a searchlight, our Captain, Captain Carson, flew a white flag and indicated there were women and children aboard. The Japanese then took us prisoners-of-war and sent us to the Island of Banka, Muntok then to Palembang in Sumatra; the military were sent to Burma. [The Mata Hari, British, 1020 gross tons, was a P and O ship on full charter to the Admiralty. Many of her officers were British India Steam Navigation Company personnel as follows: Temp. Lieut A.C. Cars(t)on, RNR - Commander, Temp. Sub Lieut. A.H. Hogge, RNR - Chief Officer, Temp. Lieut. (E) F.J. Lumley, RNR - Chief Engineer, Temp. Sub Lieut. (E) H.M. MacGregor, RNR - Second Engineer, Temp. Sub Lieut. (E) T.R. Gordon, RNR - Third Engineer, Temp. Actg. Sub Lieut. (E) W. McCrorie, RNR - Fourth Engineer. She sailed from Singapore on 12 February 1942 carrying refugees, was captured by the Japanese on 15 February 1942 in position 135 Muntok 15 miles. She was taken to Singapore. Prize proceedings withdrawn and vessel released by Sasebo Prize Court 27 December 1943. Renamed Nitirin Maru. Sunk by aircraft 2 March 1945.] We were terribly overcrowded in the camp with no proper facilities for mothers and children. We spent three and half years on these two islands, sleeping on concrete slabs. They transported us on barges between the islands and on cattle trucks to and from the barges. I did nursing as well as I could in the camp, but the Japanese confiscated the medicines from the Red Cross parcels. It was worse than terrible; they starved us and we had to scrounge what we could from the jungle such as weeds and grass - we also boiled banana skins. All the prisoners eventually contracted beriberi and fever, and many thousands died. I slept on a concrete slab and dug roads, latrines, and graves, for three-and-a-half years, and this is where all my arthritis came from. My periods stopped from the shock and malnutrition, as did the other women's periods and we had to have all our hair cut off because bugs infested us. My mother, one of the many who I nursed, suffered with dengue fever and beriberi, malnutrition, dysentery and the physical stress which she had to endure, digging roads and sleeping on concrete slabs. It was too much for her and she died in the camp. This need not have happened if we had proper food and medicine. She was only about fifty when she unfortunately died in the May, just before the war finished and I was repatriated. I had to dig her grave in the camp and then bury her: Roman Catholic nurses put her in a box which I had to carry with rod supports and other prisoners-of-war from the camp.

I suffered from excruciating toothache in the camp and so I went into the particular room where we had dental treatment. The Japanese dentist wanted to pull my tooth out without any painkilling drugs and I refused. With my being in great pain I didn't bow to the Japanese dentist and so at the next roll-call (Tenko - which took place both morning and night) they called out the person that didn't bow. The Officer knew that it was me and they took me and stood me at the entrance of the guardhouse. I had to stand there every day for a week as punishment in the blazing hot sun without food or drink. This was just one of the many cruelties that they subjected us to.

When I finally left the internment camp I was extremely ill, with ulcers all over my legs and arms, and had severe malnutrition - weighing approximately 4 1/2 stone (63lbs). When the war ended I was on the first aeroplane out with some of the Australian nurses who had been sent out to Malaya; the aeroplane was a propeller-driven Dakota. When I arrived back at Singapore I had to go into Hospital for treatment for two weeks to have vitamin injections etc. Here I met my father again, and learned that he had come through OK even though he had been a prisoner in Changi Jail. It was a great shock to him to learn of the death of my mother. Unfortunately the letters which we wrote to each other did not get through, and I had written of my mother's death, and assumed, when I met him that he knew. This is yet another example of the brutality of the Japanese. As he wasn't in the Army he wasn't sent to Burma to work on the railway. My father and I decided to go back to Australia, and we left Singapore in September 1945 on a ship called the Highland Chieftain and came back to Sydney. This is where I stayed, but my father went back to Malaya to manage a Rubber Plant Estate. He viewed Estates and lived in Serembang in a bungalow until he died in 1973.

Sydney is where I met my husband who was a Merchant Navy Captain, and Commodore with Frank Strick and Co., of London, England. In peacetime their ships all went to the Persian Gulf. These ships carried troops during the war, and he came to Australia at the end of the war where he began loading wool for England. I married in Sydney in June 1946 and went back to England on his ship which was part cargo and part passenger - with up to twelve passengers on board. I lived in Thundersley, Essex, England for thirty-five years. In 1980, with my husband no longer with me, I thought that it would be a good idea to return to Australia with my daughter Estelle Ann. She, and my two sons, were born in England. My brother sponsored us, and we now live at Mount Pritchard. Of my two sons, Phillip is an Architect in London, England and Colin is a Financial Adviser in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

My brother, Colin Tarleton, left Singapore on a ship, the Empire Star. Japanese aircraft bombed the ship and she suffered a near miss, and he was badly wounded by shrapnel. The ship went on to Java, where he embarked on a hospital ship for the journey to Ceylon where he was in hospital for six months. He then returned to Australia. He did his schooling at Scotts College in Sydney, and he now lives in Tuncurry, New South Wales. He was in the Australian Army Service Corps (A.A.S.C.), 8th Division, D Section, No. 1 Company, 22nd Brigade. [The Empire Star, 12,656 gross tons, owned by Blue Star Line, Captain S.N. Capon, was one of the last vessels to clear the port of Singapore. Under aerial attack the whole time her departure was marred by much confusion in the port area. Some people missed their allotted ship, others jumped aboard the first they came upon, some tragically lost their places altogether. Empire Star with cabin accommodation for only sixteen passengers sailed during the early hours of 12 February carrying a total of 2,154, mostly staff from the Military Hospital, Australian and British Nurses. Four hours later Empire Star sustained three direct hits as six dive-bombers came out of the tropical dawn - fourteen were killed and seventeen badly injured. Great damage was inflicted and the ship was set on fire in three places. Although the attacks continued throughout the morning and many of the bombs were near misses, the Blue Star merchantman miraculously escaped further damage. She arrived at Batavia 40 hours later and after a short stay sailed for Fremantle. The Empire Star was later torpedoed and sunk on the 23 October 1942, at position 48 14' N. 26 22' W. by U615, commanded by Kapitän Leutnant Ralph Kapitzky. Four men were killed on board. Captain Capon's boat with 26 crew, six gunners and six passengers was never seen again. Note added by Ed.]

The Government is at fault they should have got us out before the Japanese came.

The Governor General, during the fall of Singapore, was Sir Shelton Thomas.

The book called The Will to Live by Sir John Smyth, V.C. (compiled by Viviane Bullwinkle), was about the camp. Viviane Bullwinkle never mentioned me in the book but I knew her well.

As regards compensation, Jim Greenwood of the Ex-Prisoners-of-War Association, Veterans Affairs, even wrote to the Ministry of Defence in Kementah, Kuala Lumpar on my behalf. Because I was a civilian internee, and not in the military, nothing can be done for me, and, whilst the American prisoners-of-war received $22,000, it seems that I shall receive nothing.

We have a meeting in Liverpool Return Soldiers League (R.S.L.) every two months for the Prisoners of War Group. There are approximately nine of us left now, and I am the only woman there.

I was born a British Citizen, of parents with British Citizenship, have continued to be a British Citizen, and will remain a British Citizen.

Pamela de Neumann
14 July 1991

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