- Contributed by
- Frank Perkins
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 August 2003
I left school aged 14, during the height of the Blitz, to take up work in a stockbroker's office in the City of London. During this time in London I saw some horrifying acts against humanity, all of it countered and made more tolerable by acts of bravery and great resilience.
Conscription to the forces came in the latter part of the war. I had six months of training, mostly in Scotland attached to the Gordon Highlanders, and was eventually shipped out to India.
Joining the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders in India
I journeyed a quarter of the way around the world, cramped into a luxury liner that was suitably downgraded to pack in thousands of troops, and set foot in Bombay. Little time was available to accustom to a new culture. We were bundled into waiting trucks, taken some 40 miles to a transit camp and segregated into groups with destinations we knew not where. During our short stay at the transit camp we were subjected to yet another round of inoculations, graphically lectured about clean living, repeatedly drilled in anti-malarial practices, and kept completely in the dark about our future.
The war in Europe ended in May 1945, and soon we were to learn that a new weapon called an atom bomb had been used to raze two large cities in Japan. Surrender by the Japanese was imminent, and so was information on some of our futures - I was in a group that was to be transferred to the 1st Battalion The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders (QOCH).
In a camp about 100 miles north east of Bombay, near the city of Nasik, the remnants of the battalion of Cameron Highlanders that had survived the Burma Campaign and had not yet been repatriated were endeavouring to rebuild a much diminished unit. The Camerons had engaged in heavy and costly combat with the Japanese, contributing immensely to overpowering the enemy in North East India at Kohima and Imphal. (A dramatic account by Bill PenningtonAbout links) of an operation involving the Camerons and the crossing of the Irrawaddy River may be found on www.burmastar.org.uk.
Waiting for the next step
After the initial chaos of being a member of a new draft to be received by veterans of the Burma Campaign, there was time to make an assessment of the new circumstances. The hierarchy had a delicate task on their hands - in fact they were putting together a potentially volatile cocktail of men with very conflicting ambitions. To all intents the war was over, Burma 'vets' had experienced enough in months to last most people a lifetime and desired only repatriation, some of them resorting to the bottle to endure the passage of time until their opportunity came. The last thing they wanted was to mix with a bunch of inexperienced conscripts who were still wet behind the ears, but equally ambitious to call it a day and get back civilian life. Add the other ingredient, the regular soldier who was eager to pursue his chosen career no matter what it involved, and you have a rare mixture.
Conditions in this ever-changing scenario were far from good - we lived under dusty, tatty canvas, and slept in even tattier beds that were riddled with wood lice. Latrine facilities were primitively crude. Drinking water was stored in large cauldron-shaped canvas containers to allow the evaporation caused by the scorching daylight sun to cool the water. It was so chlorinated you could have been drinking pure bleach.
Food and eating conditions were appalling: weevil-loaded bread to be spread with a runny mess called Oleo Margarine, sometimes with a form of jam. Cooked food consisted of 'porridge' and fried weevil bread for breakfast, and a possibility of something hot later in the day.
Most meals were supplemented with second-hand American 'K' Rations, which were survival packs for use in extreme combat conditions. The contents went something like this: hard tack biscuits, brittle chocolate, pieces of toilet paper, some cigarettes and matches. If you drew lucky your 'K' Ration would contain a can labelled ham and egg. The meal most looked forward to was an occasional serving of Machonochies Meat & Veg, delivered in large steel drums requiring only heating.
To break the monotony of meals, entertainment was laid on by buzzards that would swoop under the canvas, grab whatever was lying around, even from our hands, and make off. There was the elusive orderly officer of the day, who would appear apparently from nowhere, ask whether we had any complaints, and evaporate with well-practiced speed before anyone could answer.
Rumours about our purpose favoured that we were to form part of an occupation force in Japan, but we were kicking our heels in the middle of nowhere in the plains of India. Morale was slipping to an all-time low, and unsavoury incidents were happening. Sadly there were deaths put down as suicide. The new RSM was attacked while asleep in his tent. Someone cut the guy ropes of a marquee that was the sergeants' mess, creating havoc inside.
Destined for Japan
When the battalion was up to full strength, we found out that we were to be part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan (BCOF) - the 5 Infantry Brigade Group of the British India Division, the 14th Army (BRINDIV). The main force were three infantry battalions. Ours, 1st Battalion QOCH; the 2nd Battalion Dorsetshire Regiment; and the 2nd Battalion The Royal Welch Fusiliers, supplemented with units of 8 Coy, RASC (Service Corps), 5 Field Ambulance (Medics), and 5 Inf Wksps Coy, REME (electrical, mechanical engineers).
I was sent to Poonah with a unit of the Army Education and Intelligence Corps for a two-week course on communication qualities - the gathering of knowledge and information from, and imparting the same to both army personnel and the civilians of where we may be. It seemed irrelevant, but I did appreciate the absence of regimentation and the relaxed atmosphere. The course seemed irrelevant, but a by-product was a step on the ladder of promotion.
A new interest served to ease some of the boredom - full Highland dress uniform for every member of the Battalion arrived. Appropriately dressed and assembled with a now competent pipe band in the lead, we brought a positively brilliant display to the barren surroundings. The Royal Welch Fusiliers had imported a goat to serve as their traditional mascot, and the Dorsets were now the proud owners of a fine military brass band. In its entirety, the brigade was becoming a very impressive force, enough to make anybody stand and stare, and hopefully to scare the pants off any troublemakers.
After several weeks of drill practice, we were ready to break camp and go. No converted luxury liner this time, instead a vessel unable to hold the whole brigade - the Dorsets had to follow. A motor-propelled sardine can heading into the tropics, full of bodies taking it in turns to walk the open deck.
A promise to stretch our legs ashore in Singapore had a sting in its tail. Drag your kit out of the hold, don the full Highland dress and march parallel to the equator dressed in a heavy kilt. The mace was lowered, the band struck up, and off we set on our morning leg-stretch through the heart of Singapore. Waiting to take a salute at the Municipal Building was no other than Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia. Protocol satisfied, we sweltered back to the ship. At Hong Kong a similar march took place at the dockside - nobody saw us, and we saw nobody.
Arriving in Japan
Honshu is the main island of Japan. There are two major islands in the south, Kyushu and Shikoku, with the seaway around the two littered with smaller islands. On the main island, sheltered from the open sea by the land masses, is a major port, Kure, situated a few miles from Hiroshima. Kure was our landing point.
As the ship slowly navigated her way through the islands we had ample time to observe. Beaches were virtually non-existent. The shores rose steeply from the sea, straight into mountainous terrain. There was an atmosphere of controlled apprehension, as we were entering an area of natural fortresses. As we slipped into Kure harbour the view revealed that the surrounding hills bristled with gun emplacements. At that moment I made a decision, one that nothing will ever change. To take Japan without the use of the atomic bombs, conventional combat would have cost an incalculable number of lives over an inestimable period. As with all war, no one side profits in the long term.
We set up station at a place called Hiro, some 15 miles from Hiroshima. We found the Japanese in our locality were not eager to befriend us - after all, they had not long ago had the most fearful weapon of all time dropped on their doorstep, destroying an entire city and most of its population. I formed the opinion that those present at the time of the bomb were unable to come to terms with the sudden change in their circumstances. Having seen the remains of Hiroshima, I could understand the confusion.
Research some 50 years after I was in Japan revealed a lot of information that most of us were completely unaware of at the time. The initial headquarters of BCOF was at Kure, which had been the principal naval base of Japan, and the area included the largest combined dockyard, ship-building yard and naval arsenal in the country. The BCOF consisted of personnel from British, Indian, Australian, and New Zealand Brigade Groups, as well as air force and naval components from the various countries.
Apparently the station at Hiro had been manned for a short while by an Australian force, and we were to take over from them. From thereon I did not engage in any regimental activities for the rest of my stay in Japan. A group of us that included those who attended the course at Poonah were labelled as an education section.
Some educational activities within the unit did take place, but the arrangements to mix with some Japanese civilians was somewhat revealing. In an exchange of opinions and other information with one such young, well-educated Japanese ex-serviceman who had excellent English, I was told in no uncertain manner that many of the Japanese did not consider the conflict at an end and they had facilities to continue. His comments were not to be disregarded.
The Japanese military expansion began in the late 1920s, and continued into the 1930s. By 1931 they had overrun Manchuria, and by 1933 they occupied a land mass equal to four times that of Japan. The aggression continued into China and onwards. By spring 1942, Japan dominated most of South East Asia. When the war ended some of the Japanese military had enjoyed up to 14 years of success and were still in their early thirties.
Life in Japan
The whole of the BCOF area was found to be honeycombed with caves and tunnels. Many contained large quantities of explosives, ammunition and poison gases.
Inflation was out of control, with prices doubling by the day. The entire Japanese currency was recalled in one day, and replaced with a new issue the next - from then onwards old currency was worthless. This hardly affected us - we had little to buy.
The spring cherry blossom was all that one would have anticipated. Coupled with the delightful oriental singing of Japanese primary school children, it formed a welcome feeling of peace. Seasons followed the same pattern as at home, but to extreme. From May to September it was hot and humid by day, and persisted through the night.
Most of the landscape was mountainous. Terrace farming was practised everywhere, with rice the main produce. Paddy fields in the few flat areas would come alive at night with frogs - the croaking was incessant.
The bands play on
Contact with other occupation forces was rare, but one proved to be a terrific morale booster. An exchange of attractions with the Americans was arranged - they were to send a band to entertain us. It got off to a humorous start. The railway stop at Hiro had no platforms, and to alight from the train necessitated a degree of jumping, but our American friends would have been used to this. To the adjutant and RSM (who made the arrangements), a band meant men in uniform with highly polished buttons and boots. All instruments would have been packed in suitable containers. A truck was sent for the instruments and the pipe band was sent to meet the men.
Dressed in casual uniform, wearing ordinary shoes and carrying their own personal instruments, the Americans struggled from the train. They were not soldiers in the usual sense, but were entertainers in one of the very popular 'big bands'. The instruments were their own property - no way were they going to have them piled into a truck. They co-operated and formed up behind the pipes and drums - this was a new experience for them. The drum major lowered his mace, the pipes struck up, the drums rolled, and the spectacle set off at a cracking pace, except that the Americans were trailing behind, and I mean behind. Nearly a mile carrying instruments, with the pipe band setting the pace, was a torture they had not endured before.
At the guardroom the RSM had assembled the guard - a good first impression for our guests was essential. The expression on his face was one for the books. The now-exhausted followers were a single file of slouching beings. The RSM's world collapsed. The Americans nearly followed suit - they were saving their energy for later.
A large corrugated-iron building resembling an aircraft hangar had been selected as the venue for the performance. A platform was erected, and seating was concocted from a wide variety of objects. The band slouched onto the platform, the conductor raised his baton, and suddenly an incredible surge of energy erupted. The band was transformed. The sound issued forth in ever-increasing volume, enhanced (or otherwise) by the acoustics of the building. Renderings of the most popular music of the period continued almost non-stop. The atmosphere was electric as our lads called for encore after encore. I had not seen such enthusiasm, and felt so much of a lift in morale in a long time.
To return the compliment, we sent a section of the pipes and drums together with a Highland dance team to Tokyo. Word had it that the Americans received the performance with equal enthusiasm.
Moving on from Hiro
Time came to hand the station at Hiro back to the Australians, and move on to Shikoku, the second largest island in the south of Japan. The brigade had been assigned occupation of the island. Our final base was in a previously Japanese barracks outside the city of Kochi on the mid-western coastline of the island. The Dorsets were sent to Tokushima in the north west, and the Royal Welch completed a near perfect triangle, stationed at Matsuyama, in the east.
Viewed from the top of a nearby hill, our base could have been a British barracks built around a massive parade ground (fodder for the regimental types). The single storey buildings were built entirely of timber, the floor raised about three feet from the ground on stilts that were boxed in with cladding. An interesting form of joinery was used on all rafters and joists - there were no traditional joints, they were all bolted together. This method allowed the whole to sway and flex, but remain intact in an earthquake. The electricity supply was a hoot: two lines of bare copper wire supported on insulators running the entire length of each building. Connection was made for any appliance wherever required with the use of a pair of crocodile clips.
The towns were a mixed bag. Timber- and paper-walled dwelling and business places next to the unpaved pathway were separated from the road by frequently bridged open drainage trenches. On the unsurfaced road, rail tracks carried ultra-modern trams. A mixture alien to our ways, but it worked.
A sharp reminder to remain alert came to light through the sloppy activity of a few individuals. Many barrack rooms had an insignificant trapdoor in the floor. Sweeping out was a daily requirement - what easier than to lift the trapdoor and conveniently dispose of the sweepings. Curiosity overcame one individual, so he wriggled down through the trapdoor and exposed a potential threat. We were living on top of a virtual arsenal. Tucked away underneath our barracks were cases of well-preserved weapons and ammunition. This initiated another search to be carried out by the BCOF.
Going to hospital
An incident resulted in me being carted off to the nearby field ambulance (equivalent to a small cottage hospital). In addition to my immediate needs I was having trouble with my ears. Apparently my stay in the field ambulance was short because the next memory was that I had been transferred some 150 miles to the main BCOF hospital at Kure. It was a busy place with a mixture of staff from a number of countries. The daily routine was to be wheeled to a treatment room by an Indian orderly. The rest of the day was spent perspiring on the bed and developing sweat rashes in awkward places, and prickly heat elsewhere. It was uncomfortable. Soon I could make my own way for treatment, and the line of interest taken by the doctor had switched to my ears, which were now very swollen and closing rapidly. One question arose frequently. 'Have you been swimming in the rivers?' The answer was, 'Yes, but before the notice forbidding it was posted at Hiro.'
The earth tremor
In a square ward with about six beds to a wall were a mixture of surgical and other patients, most of them immobile. It was a normal afternoon with everything proceeding in an orderly manner, but soon the ward would resemble a scene from a French farce.
The calm atmosphere was disturbed by an unfamiliar rumbling, like distant thunder. It continued and seemed to be getting nearer. The building begun to tremble. There followed a feeling like being on a ship about to ride a huge wave. It was an earth tremor, one only, that rolled in from the sea, lifting the building which seemed to flex with it, and then putting it back down again.
The Indian orderlies fled the patients. It was every man for himself. The fellow in the bed on my right had ear trouble and no control over his balance. He clambered from his bed, did a pirouette and fell to the floor. After three demonstrations of his ballet skills he returned to bed.
Another fellow in a bed halfway along the wall on my left had his leg in plaster, hoisted by a weighted cord over a pulley at the foot of the bed. He was determined to not be left behind. Mimicking a contortionist, he selected a table knife from his eating irons, and unsuccessfully hacked at the cord.
Diagonally in front of me, yet another fellow decided to take matters into his own hands. Quitting his bed, he attempted to crawl across the floor using his hands only, but with each slow advance he systematically lost his pyjama trousers. In desperation he gave up and burst into almost hysterical laughter. The rest joined in.
Returning to the unit
Space at the hospital was in heavy demand. It was decided I could return to my unit, as I had responded reasonably well to the treatment - but I felt far from well.
I left the hospital with travel rations (corned beef sandwiches and apples), a rail pass, instructions to link with others to form a group, use only carriages designated for forces, and report to the rail travel officer (RTO) at each change. Following instructions, the first major change was at Okayama to catch the ferry over to Shikoku, but things were not going too well. As we approached Okayama a Cockney comrade looked closely at me and said, 'Yer don't arfe look ruff mate.' It was an understatement.
My new Cockney friend made the ferry crossing with me. Alighting from the ferry, things began to go haywire. I slumped to the floor and seemed to be on my own, except for passing Japanese who had a distinct disinterest in the foreign devil on the ground. Members of the RTO had been alerted and came to my aid. They decided to get me to the nearest unit with a doctor available. It turned out to be the Dorsets stationed at Tokushima. The doctor decided to keep me overnight and transfer me next day to my own unit. By the time I reached the Camerons I was in a right state, and the battalion doctor sent me back to the field ambulance. Placed in isolation, I alternated from consciousness, to semi-consciousness, to just plain nothing.
During this period I gained a memory that was to stay with me for ever. A fellow Cameron had been involved in an incident with the Japanese. He had been stabbed in the abdomen, his bladder had burst, and his blood system was poisoned. The air was filled with moments of haunting cries of agony. He took about a week to die.
Returning to consciousness, and choking because of a nose bleed, I was confronted with a Japanese face staring at me from a few inches. Frightened and confused, I signalled to seek his aid. He just grinned and left me to it. (Japanese labour was used for cleaning.) Oh, to be rid of this accursed country and its people!
A welcome turning point was reached. Thanks to the meticulous, dedicated care of an Australian doctor I was blessed with a steady recovery. I never even knew the man's name, and the opportunity to convey an ultimate debt of gratitude didn't arise.
Sufficient recovery paved the way for transfer to another hospital at Okayama, and there began the prelude to my happiest time in Japan. Stretchered into a bell tent I joined a group of about half a dozen chaps installed toe-to-toe around the central pole. It seemed we were untouchables, to be kept away from others. None of us had been told what ailed us, but the general consensus seemed to be that we had something like diphtheria.
One day, into the tent walked a little Japanese man. He shinned up the central pole dragging a pair of wires with him. Securing the wires to the pole he proceeded to strip off the insulation and affix a lamp holder. He then inserted a lamp, and to our surprise it lit immediately. Job done, the man left. Life was cheap there - he had been playing with live wires in excess of 200 volts.
A female touch
Transfer to a proper isolation ward within the hospital was rewarded with two very pleasant surprises. The hospital had a team from the Queen Alexander's Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) Proper lady nurses with a proper matron, who came to see us. 'You may have one portable gramophone and one recording,' we were told. 'Let the nurses know your choice,' she added, and left. The fellows were from all over the BCOF, and diverse units. We had a ballot on the choice of recording - the leaning was toward classical music, one factor being that complete works required more than one 78rpm record. The tactic was a success. Beethoven won with his 'Emperor' Piano Concerto, and was avidly followed note-for-note, over and over again.
Takuma Bay, formerly a seaplane base, had been adapted as a convalescent centre staffed by the QAIMNS and the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS). I had a whole month to come and go as I pleased, in comfortable surroundings, with the feminine touch that sometimes bordered on the luxurious. There was a well-stocked library of books and records, with peaceful facilities in which to enjoy them, both in and out of doors. A radio was tuned into a forces station called Radio SEAC (South East Asia Command).
The food was excellent - snacks and beverages available throughout the day, willing assistance (if required) available 24 hours a day. Could this have been the army, or was I dreaming?
Early days were spent in simple relaxation, and lapping up the remains of the autumnal atmosphere. Later I ventured further to take in the beauty of the setting, some of the land laid out in typical Japanese garden style. The furthest I went was to the land edge rising almost vertically out of the sea. It was a good feeling.
In the third week the matron approached me and suggested I explore the surrounding countryside - no further than I wished, and for as long as I liked. A bicycle had been reserved for me, and picnic food could be prepared. Assurances that I would not encounter any problems in the areas I could reach alleviated any apprehensions I had about the Japanese. It was go!
The first day I took just a snack and drink. It was necessary to accustom myself to the bike. The initial feeling of freedom was exhilarating. I didn't go too far, saw no Japanese, and determined to do more of this, ventured further each day. The area was rural with a great deal of appeal. The roadways ran through the valleys of the hilly terrain, frequently bending to offer numerous changes of view. Coupled with the rural atmosphere and sparse population, there was a feeling of having slipped a century or two into the past. The local people were more inquisitive about than aggressive to this strange uniformed foreigner.
Rice was grown on terraces that were laid out like giant steps to the top of the mountains, irrigated by an antiquated system of large water wheels linking to the top. The water was fed into channels through the terraces, and back down to the feeder pool below. Women, frequently clad in only loin cloths, spent the entire day walking on the spot on treadmills to provide the required energy.
Back to join the battalion
With a series of fascinating and colourful images planted in my mind I eventually headed back to rejoin the battalion.
Christmas 1946 was four days off. In the early hours of the morning our sleep was disturbed by a sound like a hurricane force wind heading our way, unlike anything experienced before. There were four of us in the completely dark room. The only communication was by voice, and that was tempered with controlled anxiety. The noise increased and communication was overpowered.
Situations are not readily recognised when one is woken from deep sleep. The full reality dawned on me as the building began to shake. This was not an earth tremor like the one at Kure, it was a full-scale earthquake. I scrambled out of the trembling bed, but could not stand. The other three had done the same, we were colliding with each other as we crawled across the now violently moving floor. Total collapse of the building seemed imminent. In effect we were up against a raging element, and were helpless.
It was claimed that the initial impact lasted approximately four minutes. I cannot confirm or deny this, my mind was on self-preservation. Without doubt there was relief when it subsided - the building had survived major damage, but there was chaos, and still total darkness. It quietened, and the first impulse was to find clothing and get dressed. Vocal communication was re-established with a garbled mess of requests and advice. Somehow, we had sort of dressed, and were remaining calm.
The noise and trembling started again. Get out! Keep covered! Conflicting opinions. Confusion had set in. I opted for out, it seemed best.
Outside there was immediate contact with the ground, and the movement was more pronounced. I was beginning to doubt my decision, but the duration of this movement was shorter.
A pattern of repeating quakes of varying violence continued into the day. Daylight revealed the extent of the damage. The design of the Japanese barracks had proved its worth. Not so a cookhouse built of bricks by our chaps - it was reduced to rubble.
Security was immediately tightened, and not without reason. Japanese grenades that had been hidden in the rafters had dislodged. The CO was away, leaving a very level-headed major in charge. To establish our authority - after all, the Japanese had superior knowledge and experience of earthquakes - we had to show the flag. A company in full battle order was assembled. Headed by a Bren carrier (a small armoured vehicle), a piper and drummer, they marched into the accessible areas of Kochi in a show of strength, and returned to camp.
Information on the full extent of the damage caused by the quake was passed to us by men from the company that had marched into Kochi. The hilly terrain had given us shelter from a massive tidal wave generated from the epicentre of the quake somewhere out at sea, but much of the city of Kochi had been engulfed. Large boats were left stranded miles inland, buildings had been wrecked, and many people had been washed out to sea. I have no knowledge of human injury and loss of life, but it must have been considerable. Many were left homeless. No casualties were sustained by members of the Commonwealth force.
Earth tremors continued for up to two weeks. The seawater took a considerable time to recede, and had not returned to the original coastline when it was time for us to leave Japan in early 1947. The Camerons had found another spot needing attention in Malaya. The battalion marched out with great pomp and ceremony. I left as an individual. The CO had decided I should supervise the carriage of a number of crates over the 150 miles to Kure. (I suspect they contained the bounty he had collected.) At Kure I saw the crates into the hold of the ship, and we left.
From me, no goodbye, definitely no thank you, only a positive message. I will not be back!
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