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Phyllis Briggs's War - A Nurse's Wartime Diary [P.Thom : Part 4]

by Bournemouth Libraries

Contributed by 
Bournemouth Libraries
People in story: 
Mrs. Phyllis.M.Thom (nee Briggs)
Location of story: 
Malaya
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A3477468
Contributed on: 
05 January 2005

15th February - Captured by the Japanese

After the Jap officer came aboard we were told that the men were to be taken off the ship that morning and the women and children were to follow in the afternoon.
Before leaving the 'Mata Hari' we were told to bring not more than one piece of luggage ashore. I had only one suitcase, which contained a travelling rug and a few clothes; my other case had been left behind on the wharf in Singapore. Christine Bundy had two cases and more clothes than she could carry, so gave away the rest and offered me a glamourous black satin dressing gown with long sleeves. This garment I treasured for the next three and a half years, as I slept in it and it was protection from the mosquitos.
We were taken by launch to a narrow wooden jetty, where we were kept through the long hot hours without fod or water. When darkness came a cold wind blew up and we huddled close together to try and keep warm. The night seemed very long; we tried to help the wounded who were with us but there was little we could do. One very sick man was a sailor from the famous 'Prince of Wales'.

16th February
In the morning we were given a bucket of water to share between us. I had brought a small metal sugar basin with me from the ship and this served as a mug. I knotted the jewelery I had with me into a head scarf and tied it under my hair for safety; we had seen a Jap guard walking amongst people removing their rings and watches etc. It was almost midday by the time they made us walk in threes to large building next to the jail. Originallly built for the coolies in the tin mines, it comprised of a number of windowless stone buildings or blocks with sleeping space consisting of raised concrete platforms sloping towards a central passageway and at the far end a small room with a tap and water tank for bathing and another room with a row of squatting type latrines. The women and children occupied the blocks on one side of the square, the servicemen and civillian men were in blocks on the other side. The centre there was a roofed over area where there were trestle tables and benches. We had had no food for over twenty-four hours and it was night before we were given some rice. More and more people kept arriving - a large number oof British and Dutch servicemen, also many Dutch and Eurasian families.
The first night we lay on the cold concrete slabs trying to sleep - the small children screamed all night and every hour a Jap guard tramped through our block and seemed to take a delight in hitting our shins with the butt of his rifle.
There were five doctors in the camp, two of them women and at this time there were six British Nursing Sisters and a few Chinese nurses. Then twenty-five Australian Army Sisters joined us. We took it in turns to help with the wounded and the guardroom was turned into a surgery. There were about five hundred people in our camp and in the jail a large number of servicemen.

21st February
A British Air Force officer had to have a foot amputated. Alice Rossie and I assisted the surgeon who had to do it in the most primitive manner. The Japs refused to let the patient go to the local hospital or to send in the right instruments, so someone made a saw out of a knife. It was just as well this poor man, Armstrong, was too ill to know what was happening. Another man had been bayonetted in the stomach when trying to get a drink of water. One day this man was lying on the floor waiting to have his dressing done when the Jap guard came in and ground his heel into the man's wound.

One night we were called up to attend to another group of people just brought in. They had been on board the 'Kuala'. The survivors had clung to the rafts and some were burnt black with the sun. One such girl was brought in, the only survivor from a raft full of people. Her eyes were sunk into the back of her head and it was some minutes before we realised she was English. This was Margot Turner, a Q.A. She had reached a small island and after three days there she was taken off by a cargo boat which was in turn sunk the same night. Four days later she was picked up by a Jap battleship and she had survived all this time by collecting rain water in the lid of her powder compact. Margot was much liked by everyone and years later became Matron-in-Chief Dame Margot Turner. The only other Q.A. with us was an Irish girl, Mary Cooper, whose hands were badly lacerated from sliding down the ship's rope into the sea before getting into a raft.
Some people who were able to get onto rafts died of exposure and lack of drinking water, others fell off into the sea as they had not the strength to hold on. We were told that twenty-three allied ships had either been sunk or captured in that area and the survivors were brought into our camp.

28th February
I was in the surdery that afternoon when two people were brought in; one a tall Australian Army Nursing Sister called Vivian Bulwinkle, the other a British Army soldier. Both were covered with scratches and septic mosquito bites. Vivian had had a terrible experience. She had had a terrible experience. She had been with twenty-two other Australian sisters on rafts trying to reach the shore, they waded towards the beach and landed near the town of Muntok. The Australian sisters joined some other people on the beach including elderly civilians and servicemen, some of them wounded. They all spent the night on the beach, then the next day some of the civilians decided to walk towards Muntok to find help. The Australian Sisters stayed with the wounded. Soon a number of Japanese soldiers appeared, they made the men walk a little distance away beyond the rocks, then proceeded to machine gun and bayonet them to death. The Japs then returned to the Australian girls and made them form up in a line and told them to walk into the sea, then proceeded to shoot them in the back. They were all killed except for Vivian who lay down pretending to be dead. After the Japs had gone she wandered through the jungle for ten days. She came across the British soldier, he was one of the men who had been bayonetted but survived; he died in the camp after a few days. They eventually reached a village where the Japs found found them. Miss Jones, the senior Australian sister was told about this shooting of the twenty two Australian sisters and it was decided not to tell the other Australian sisters as it would have upset them so much to hear the fate of their friends.

Twice a day we were given a small bowl of rice and some thin vegetable soup. The first few days we also had weak tea in the early morning but afterwards we only had a cup of hat water. Once we had a small amount of stewed dried octopus with our rice, which made a change. Dysentry developed and most people had swollen ankles. There were an increasing number of flies and no disinfectant. Armstrong, the Air Force Officer, had to have his other foot amputated - he was very brave and never complained - mercifully he died a few days later. Soon after, another man died of dysentry.
At this time I got to know Mary Jenkins. She slept beside me on the concrete slab. I had not met her before. Mary had joined Auxilary Medical Service in Singapore and she knew several of the sisters in Singapore General Hospital. Mary could have left by ship some weeks before but decided to remain with her husband and help with the wounded. On 13th February orders came throught that as many Europeans as possible were to leave on all sorts of vessels and head of Batavia. Mr.Jenkins volunteered to man a small coaster. There were about twelve British men on board and Mary offered to cook for them. Two days later the little vesel was captured and the people on board joined us. Mary and I became good friends.
Amongst the last to brought into the camp was a Russians Jewish woman and her little boy, Mischa, who was three years old. This woman and her husband and child had been thrown into the sea when their ship went down. She had seen her husband drown. She developed pneumonia and died a few days later. The little boy knew no English - fortunately he was really too young to understand what had happened. Mary Jenkins took charge of Mischa.
I exchanged a blue hankerchief for two rolls of bread from an Indonesian guard - the Japs had taken on some local men to help with guard duty. Many of the male prisoners exchanged leather wallets and watches ect for food smuggled in by the local guards.
March 1st
We became more accustomed to the meagre diet and sleeping on the 'fish slabs'. Every morning there was a great scrabble for the bathroom; the smell of the latrines was dreadful. We bathed by having 'dipper baths' - throwing tins full of water over ourselves from the water tank. At first the Jap guards used to walk in and watch us, but they soon got bored and walked out again.During the heavy rain, I stood outside and washed my hair. There were not enough drugs for the sick and wounded. I used my pot of face cream for burns on a man's buttocks.

March 2nd
The women, children and all civilian men were taken to Palembang. We six Malayan Nursing sisters remained, with some other women who volunteered to stay, to look after the sick. There were twenty-three women and five hundred men left. Another batch of two hundred and fifty prisoners were brought in, so we were just as crowded.
One day a Jap officer rode through the camp on a horse, no doubt this was done to impress us. Then the order came that half the servicemen were to be sent to Palembang.

I became very ill with fever, diarrhoea and a terrible headache. This lasted for several days and left me as limp as a rag. Dr Reed gave me some quinine but said I probably had dengue fever. The number of flies increased. Then one day the Japs wanted six of the best looking women to go and serve in the officer's mess! There was great indignation about this. We were given three days notice, but fortunately before the three days were up the order came that we were all to go to Palembang.

To be continued in 'Life in the Dutch Houses'

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