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15 October 2014
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Freeman to Prisoner to Freedman

by Margaret Martin

Contributed by 
Margaret Martin
People in story: 
Fred Freeman, Joe Jenner, Gunso Mori,Kasayama,Lt Sonni
Location of story: 
Singapore, Jave, Sumatra, Haruku
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 May 2005

Aged 18½ years, Frederick George Freeman (916461) volunteered into the Royal Air Force on 26th February 1940 and was mustered as Aircrafthand General Duties (Trade Group D). He would have joined at the local recruiting office in Queen’s Road, Brighton, and then gone to the Recruit Centre at Uxbridge for preliminary training. He went to No 7 RG Dep Cas Form 61/40 and date of movement 6/3/40 and Cas Form confirming arrival 59/40 until 29/3/40 when he returned to North Weald (No 7 RG is unclear on this photocopy but Hendon suggested it was RAF Bridgenorth)

He was stationed at RAF North Weald (29 March — 13 May). After a 2 weeks’ drill course at North Coates Fittes in Lincolnshire (13 May — 27 May 1940) he then returned to North Weald throughout the Blitz. Then he went for basic training at No 3 Wing, 8 School of Technical training at RAF Weeton and then sailed to the Far East 0n 27th June1941, probably on the Athlone Castle , to relieve men who had been overseas for three years. He served in RAF Butterworth, Malaya, from 25 August 1941and then moved to Transit Camp Seletar on 13 November 1941, before going to Air Headquarters (AHQ) at Sime Road, where he was on the ground staff.

(Fred was possibly brought down from RAF Butterworth to Singapore for Wing Commander Gregson‘s “X” Party, a forerunner of the RAF Regiment. Airmen were used in defence of stations and other establishments in and around Singapore, i.e. ground gunner. [Additional information supplied by Derek Robert Fogarty, RAF 1400393] Singapore a large camp of attap huts at the bottom of Jalan Kayu Seletar, in a rubber plantation on the Yeo Chew Kang Road)

After the war Fred had his story typed up by his wife, Marie, to support the London FEPOW’s claim for compensation.

“On February 12 1942 we evacuated Singapore in the “Empire Star” for Java. During the journey, 3 Japanese dive-bombers attacked us that we drove off with small arms fire, as we had no other defence. According to a destroyer that was our escort we shot down two of them. Later on we were attacked by high-level bombers who scored three direct hits on us, killing 20 men.” They were put into Carpentier Alting Stichting, at Batavia, for about a fortnight, sleeping on the bare stone floor on blanket, and then were moved to a tobacco plantation at Poer Bolingo, Central Java. They were unarmed so had to go to Tjilatjap to embark.(Fred was obviously with the large party of RAF put on a train at Batavia on or about 1 March 1942 to go to the docks at Tjilatjap for evacuation to India. Later that day we were shunted around but eventually put off the train to some tobacco-drying shed outside Poer Bolingo where we slept in attap huts on the side of Mount Slamet (a volcano). Here we were formed into the RAF defence Wing and some instruction was given in the use of Tommy (Thompson) machine guns (.45s). Derek Fogarty was detailed as an instructor.)

“On 4th March this port was wrecked by Japanese bombers so we were put on a train for an unknown destination. [On 6th March (Derek Fogarty) all arms were removed … we assembled at the railway sidings, at a big marshalling yard, and were put aboard the first train. Just before dusk, men were selected to act as brakemen and given some instruction. They sat upon the seat at the back of the trucks, open to the world. Passengers were allocated wooden slatted/seated carriages, others cattle trucks and the lucky ones, steel-sided trucks which were normally used for carrying oil/petrol drums. The journey was supposed to take about 3 hours and we were led to believe we were going to support a “2nd line of defence” at Bandoeng. I think we left about 6pm and at 9 pm, in the brightest of full moon nights, I remarked to my two friends that we should soon be at our journey’s end, when suddenly we were ambushed by the Japanese.] At about 9 pm, the train ran into an ambush to which not a shot was fired in answer, as we had not a round between us. A mortar shell landed in the truck in front of mine, killing six of the occupants and wounding the remainder. As the crew of the train jumped for it at the onset, it was a good job that a bullet had severed one of the steam pipes so that the train stopped on its own after drifting for about a mile and an officer told us to abandon the train and follow the road which ran alongside the railroad. The wounded were taken to a hut where, as we had no medical supplies or orderlies, one of the lads volunteered to stay with them.” [We also were in a metal truck, next to the one hit by a mortar shell and we did extricate alive, a mate who had been lying on the floor. The other many casualties from the truck were carried to wayside attap huts but those able were ordered off, up the railway track, away from the Japanese. We had been protected to a degree by the metal structure of the truck and only some bullets penetrated and richoched around inside. Some complained of getting hit but most appeared able to vacate the moving truck.]

“We continued along the track for about 9 miles then we came to a bridge by a railhead. The Dutch officer in command told us we could cross it but not to touch any wires as the bridge was mined. This was just before midnight. I was about 2/3 of the way over when there was a terrific explosion and the bridge started to sway and collapsed, only about 29 men got over after me. [I also survived the demolition of the bridge and with difficulty helped my friend and injured up onto the surviving portion of the bridge. Shortly before the bridge was blown up we heard the second train being ambushed.] Altogether we lost about 200 men that night. In the early morning we had a forced march of about 15 miles along the railway track [towards Bandoeng], then another 6-8 miles down a side road, only to be told a train was coming for us so we had to return to the railway. We eventually entrained and were shunted up and down the country till we arrived at Tasikmalaya. About 11 am on the morning of 8 March, we were marched into a school and after the gates were shut and a guard mounted; we were informed we were Prisoners of War, as Java had capitulated.” Fred was to remain on Java for one year.

“After about a week, we were sent to the aerodrome that was just outside the town, where we stayed for a few more days then I was sent to Malang aerodrome. There we were compelled to fill in the various bomb craters. At this camp they treated us fairly well as the Japanese Commandant’s son was in one of the English Universities and I believe that their officer - in - charge had been to the same one. Also one of their crack pilots said he had been to Cranwell on a course.”

“After about a couple of months there four of the boys tried to escape. After 24 hours, they were recaptured and well and truly done over on the parade ground in front of us, then a couple of days later (on 4 May 1942), when we were at the aerodrome, just before starting work for the afternoon, we were all lined up in front of a dispersal bay and the four men were put up against it and shot and from then on, the Japanese tightened up their discipline towards us.”

“In September, the Japanese officially recognised us as prisoners and brought in Koreans as our guards: then the bashings started. The same day we were moved to “Jaarmarkt” and I’ll never forget that search we had on entering the camp; every stitch of clothing and baggage was searched and woe betide anyone who had any contraband. The tragic part of it was that nobody knew what was contraband and what was not as one guard would pass you and then another would beat you up. The work on this camp consisted of loading ships in the docks with petrol, scrap-iron and everything from furniture to motorcars. At this camp malnutrition set in and the men started to get beriberi, eye trouble and various other complaints. We were billeted in what had been the stalls in this old fairground and Attap buildings were put up on the spare ground. Our beds were made of slit bamboo raised about a foot of the ground, each man having a portion 20 inches wide.”

“After about 3 months here (in early 1943), I was shipped on the Amagi Maru to Haruku, where we were told that we would find a perfect camp with electric light, running water and brick billets. Instead of this we found we had arrived a month too soon and there were the frames of 2 huts and a pile of bamboo. We had to wade ashore with all the camp kit and by the time this was done it was dark, so we just slept where we stood, as there was no shelter anywhere. For the first 36 hours we had no food or drink; I myself pulled down a banana plant and chewed the water out of the stem to release the torments of thirst. This by the way was the rainy season and as it rains for 300 days out of the 365 you can imagine the discomfort we felt as it was three days before we had the roofs up for shelter.”

“Our diet here consisted of ½ pint of rice porridge for breakfast, ½ pint of dried rice and about 1/8 pint of jungle stew (banana flower, various leaves that were collected from the jungle and a root something like turnip.)”

“In about a week we had the camp organised and started work on the aerodrome. The island was of coral and consisted of two hills (as we had no footwear, nearly every cut on the feet turned into a tropical ulcer). Our job was to take the top of these and fill in the hollow to make an aerodrome but I’m sorry to say I saw little of this work as about a fortnight after the commencement of the work dysentery hit the camp and we went down like flies; in less than a week the whole camp, with the exception of 80 odd men, were down with it and we were burying 20-30 men a day. I had it 8 times and twice I was given up for dead. My weight was 70 lbs and in three months 500 of the 2000 had died.”

“We had 2 huts down by the beach that were nicknamed “Death Houses” 1 and 2 as 90% of the inmates died there. I went in twice and it’s no fun when you hear your bed-mate (bed space 18 inches) die alongside you. On this camp Gunso Mori (the Mad Sergeant) reigned supreme and it was nothing to see him rushing through the wards, waving his sword and firing his revolver in the air, shouting at the top of his voice while the interpreter (Kasiyama) followed behind shouting “You are all dying; you will never see your people again!” and like phrases.”

“On this camp, an operation was performed for appendix, with no anaesthetic, on a bamboo table to which the man was tied under a mosquito net. A strand of parachute cord was used to sew the wound up for, although there were 2 capable Medical Orderlies, we had no proper medical supplies. We also had a lot of “beri beri” whilst I also went totally blind here (Malnutritional Optical Neuropathy) for approximately 6 months and one of my friends, Joe Jenner, used to lead me round, take me to the lavatory, cookhouse, etc. The number of beatings that poor kid had from the Japanese was unbelievable as he never knew what to do for the best. On one trip he would make me bow to the guards (as we were supposed to) and the Japanese would bash him up, saying that as I could not see, I should not salute. On passing the next Japanese, the latter would say that he was supposed to be my eyes and would expect him to have told me to salute and so would proceed bash him for that.”

“During this time the Japanese sent us back to Java. (I should remark we were a party of 150 - 200 sick men. The remainder had to stay on Haruku.) I was one of the walking sick, (my eyes). We left Haruku in a coal boat, which had no alterations done for our accommodation, as we were to join a hospital ship at Ambon. We had to go to the bottom of the hold (3 decks below), by a vertical ladder. Those who could not climb down on their own had a rope slung under their armpits and were lowered down. At the outset, one man slipped and had to be taken ashore again (believed broken back). I think he died later. When we arrived at Ambon, we had to wait for a couple of days for the hospital boat and the night before its arrival there was an air-raid on the island with a lot of casualties among the Japanese so that when the ship arrived we could only get about 50 of our chaps on, as the Japanese took the rest of the accommodation. The ship was fairly well equipped but they had 2 aircraft lashed to her decks so that we were not surprised to hear when we reached Java, that she (Suez Maru) had been sunk.”

“After this boat had left, we had to get back on our coal boat to await another ship. This did not arrive for another month. Whilst we were waiting, we lost a few more men with dysentery and beriberi. Eventually the other ship arrived (Nichinan Maru) and by that time we were so weak that 80% of us had to be hauled out of the hold with ropes. I had my first touch of wet beri beri and as few of us had strength to climb up on deck during our stay, you can imagine the state of the hold where the decks had been fouled by the men who had not the strength to balance on the tins that were used for latrines and others who could not make it in time. Six more died on the trip to Java and were buried at sea.”

“On arrival at Surabaya we were put on a train for Batavia with a guard in each compartment to see that we did not open the shutters on the windows. Two more died on this journey. When we arrived at Batavia we were lined up and asked if we could make a five-minute walk as the Japanese had only two lorries available. About 30 of us said we’d have a shot at it - that trip took the best part of an hour as we were so weak we had to stop and rest every few yards. We must have looked a sight for even the Japanese guards took pity on us and I saw one of then helping one of our chaps. When we arrived at the camp even the Japanese commanding officer (Lt Sonni) was shocked at our condition. He gave us double rations which, to be quite honest, we could not eat as we were used to small rations. He also allowed us fruit into the camp to BUY with money that the other POWs had collected for us among themselves. After a few months in Java my eyes improved slightly till I could see and distinguish people but could not read. For about a month we did no work then we went to another camp on the outside of Batavia, Tandjong Oast; this was a farm on a so-called rest camp and it was here I met up with my first “Diggers”. I “rested” here and we farmed, growing food for the other POWs and guards.”
“Eventually, in September 1944 I was put on another draft, this time for Sumatra - about 8,000 of us (Junyo Maru), but just off Bengkulu (West Coast) we were torpedoed by the Allies and the ship sank in 15 minutes. We had a captured Dutch corvette for an escort but at the first explosion it scarpered and was soon out of sight, leaving us in the middle of the Indian Ocean, just a mass of wreckage and bodies. After about 6 hours in the water I was picked up by the (returned) escort vessel and taken to Sumatra. We had to continue our trip on this boat and of course they had no rations for us. For the next three days we had no food or drink. There were only 700 survivors.”

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Fellow contributor

Posted on: 04 December 2005 by Amanda Johnston

Hi Margaret,
I took your advice and posted my father's story on the site. I also managed to track your father's story down.
I see there is a growing number of FEPOW stories, including Ernie Boswell from the Java Club.

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