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15 October 2014
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A lost youth

by greyladies

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Archive List > Prisoners of War

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Drina Leeson (nee Boswell)
Location of story: 
Singapore and Sumatra
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
26 December 2005

The recollections of Drina Leeson, as told to her daughter, Janet.

The Boswell family were living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya when the war broke out. Drina was just 16 years old.

At the end of January 1942 they fled to Singapore to escape the advancing Japanese Army. Before they left KL Drina's father was instructed to set fire to the rubber processing plant he managed, to prevent the Japanese benefitting from this valuable resource.

The family had to wait several days before they could get away from Singapore. They spent their last two days and nights on the island huddled in a rat-infested basement of a building on the harbour, while bombs rained down on Singapore.

On the 12th Feburary they were able to get on to almost the last of the boats to leave Singapore: the Mata Hari and the Giang Bee. Another boat, the Vyner Broooke, also left that day. The family's plan was to eventually get to England where their father's relatives lived.

Drina's father had been bundled on to the Mata Hari; the remainder of the family were on the Gian Bee. All three boats were severely overcrowded. As they were being taken by launch out to the boats, which were just large fishing boat,the harbour was being mercilessly bombed.

The next day Japanese bombers sighted the Giang Bee and three destroyers raced towards her, their guns trained on the fishing boat. In an effort to save his passengers the boat's captain signalled surrender, ordered all service personnel to throw their guns into the sea and put the women and children on view on deck in a desperate attempt to show the Japanese that his passengers were unarmed and innocent civilians but all to no avail.

During the ensuing bombing raid a number of passengers lost their lives or sustained severe injuries. The bombers returned time and again and the boat started to sink. There were not enough lifeboats for all the passengers. The boat was on fire and sinking rapidly: some people tried to jump from the boat in to the sea. Those that were left on the deck of the Gian Bee were fired upon by the Japanese. It is estimated that some 200 people from the Giang Bee died that day.

Drina and her family lost all of the few possesions they had with them. Not all of the family were together in the lifeboat - they assumed other family members were in other lifeboats.Two nights were spent in a
lifeboat with one small barrel of water to be shared by approximately 56 people, some of whom were young children. The water was strictly rationed - s sip in the morning and another in the evening. It was blazingly hot in the daytime and chilly at night. Several people were so parched, Drina included, that they dipped their hands into the sea and drank what little seawater they were able to cup in their hands. This made them thirstier and caused blisters to form in and anround their mouths.

By day those in the life boats were terrorised by Japanese sea planes diving low over them, thinking that they were going to be machine gunned. By night the search lights on the Japanese battleships were fixed on them; they were sure they were
going to be killed.

On the third day they sighted land - Banka Island in Sumatra. In a very weakened state they dragged themselves ashore and found some natives who allowed them to have a wash at the village well and gave them rice and salt fish to eat.This hospitality was paid for in jewellery as Singapore dollars were now worthless. Drina's mother parted with her only piece of jewellery - her wedding ring. The clothes the family were wearing then were all they had left.

From the natives the Boswells learnt that Singapore had fallen on the 15th, and were also told that their presence on the island would have to be reported to the Japanese. They next day they were escorted to Muntok where the Japanese were waiting for them and placed in Muntok Jail.

It was in the jail that the Boswells learnt that some family members were missing - Drina's sister and three half brothers. The family made every effort to trace them after the war but to no avail. They had to assume that the four missing members had been killed at the time of the shipwreck. Drina's father was to die in internment in July 1944, suffering from beri-beri.

Over the next three and a half years the women and children internees were moved from one camp to another - always under cover of darkness. But whichever camp they were in, the duties were always the same. In very high temperatures, under a blazing hot sun, Drina dug graves, buried the dead, dug latrines and took her turn at clearing those out, chopped wood and was a member of the camp' s cooking squad, carying extremely heavy containers (it took two women to carry each container)of water, rice and 'porridge' - which was actually rice starch.

All this heavy labour was being done on near starvation diets. The internees had a cup of "porridge" in the morning and a cup of rice in the evening. The rice was dirty and had to be cleaned very carefully for it invariably contained sand and splinters of glass. Meat was rarely seen and when provided, was rotten. One day when the internees asked for meat the guards threw a live monkey into the "kitchen". Hungry as she was, Drina could not bring herself to eat the animal. The women had to grow vege- tables for their Japanese guards and sometimes tried to take some leaves to cook with their rice. If they were caught, severe punishment followed.

Apart from the illnesses associated with malnutrition and starvation,many of the women suffered from malaria and the dreaded Banka fever. Drina had both and the maleria reoccured for several years after she was released from internment. When it became obvious in August 1945 that the Japanese were losing the war and that it would soon end, the guards started to increase the quality and quantity of food for the internees. And after the Japanese surrendered and Allied troops found the women's camp, deep in the jungle, it was discovered that the Red Cross parcels of food and medicine had been locked away by the Japanese, and used by them instead of being given to the internees. So many lives would have been saved if the Red Cross parcels had been used as they had been intended.

For much of the Boswells' time in internment, Drina's mother was very ill so Drina assumed responsiblity for the family. She and her younger sister, Joan, tried to earn a little money by doing jobs for some of the Dutch internees who did not want to take their turn at working at the various jobs in the camps. They used whaterver money they earnt to buy some food on the blackmarket for their mother. Even though Joan was younger than Drina, she too was expected to undertake manual labour. The youngest girl, Maisie, was too young to be put to work and when not attending "the school" run by the Dutch nuns, sat by her mother's bedside, frightened to leave her.

Drina's youngest brother, Kenny, was removed from the women's camp when he was 11 and taken to the men's camp.

The women lived in cockroach-infested huts and with overcrowding and poor sanitation, head lice was rife. The internees slept on boards that measured somewhere between 18" to 2 feet in width. There was no privacy at all.

Drina was hit twice by the guards, for defying them and refusing to bow to them. The guards seemed to enjoy keeping the women and children standing for hours in the hot sun while they counted and re-counted them - Tenko. If anyone tried to help an internee who fainted and fell, they would be severely punished. Some very cruel punishments took place within sight and sound of the women and the children.

The news that the war was over was given to the internees by the Japanese camp commandant about a week after the war in the Far East was officially at an end. He stood on a table in the middle of the camp and said, "The war is over. England won. Now we all friends."

It was several days before the Allied troops found the camp and it has been recorded as being one of the worst internment camps because of its appalling conditions. The medical staff said that if the war had lasted another week, Drina's mother would have been dead.

The surviving members of the Boswell family were flown in to Singapore by the Australian Air Force in September 1945. and taken straight to the military hospital. Drina had fantasised about what she would eat when she was no longer interned - fresh bread and butter. When they landed in Singapore the Red Cross volunteers met them off the planes offering cups of tea and plates of cake. As Drina was about to help herself to a piece of cake, a hand was placed on her shoulder and a doctor told the Red Cross volunteer, "Nothing to this plane load of passengers. They are too ill."
Drina wept.

Apart from suffering from yet another bout of maleria, Drina was so malnourished that nourishment had to be given to her and other internees very carefully. That first day she was given a teasponful of soft boiled egg - it was a week before she was allowed to have a whole egg.

Drina has always spoken highly of the work done by the Dutch nuns and the Australian nurses in the camp, who worked tirelessly to care for the internees and to raise morale - even though they were also suffering the same deprivations and cruelty. And at the age of 80 she still remembers the kindess shown by one or two of the Japanese guards who risked cruel punishment when they gave a tin of corn beef or a banana occasionally to help her very sick mother.

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