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Syonanto (Singapore) 1942 - 1945icon for Recommended story

by amateurROMANUS

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Romanus Miles
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09 July 2005

My Japanese army boot factory badge

Part 2 continued:

Here too, it was a battle field and I saw Indian troops burying their dead in the grounds in white sheets. They soon ran out of space. At the convent we heard that Elizabeth the auxiliary nurse had got away as the evacuation of women in uniform had been ordered. We envied her, so Dad made enquiries of friends if there was some way we could escape too. A Chinese junk was mentioned but nothing came of it. Then we got news of a massacre at the Queen Alexander Hospital when it was overrun. No one was spared; even the patients were bayoneted in their beds. This really made us fear for our future but we were pleased that Elizabeth escaped the horror. Unfortunately this was not so because after the war I met her in England only to discover that her ship was sunk. Whilst stranded on a sandbank unhurt she was rescued by a passing ship which was then torpedoed itself, so she drifted on a raft for several days before being picked up by a Japanese destroyer and sent to a concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies or Indonesia today.

A BBC TV film called “Tenko” was based on the life she endured there. Whilst most of the occupants of the apartments shared our stairs with the many army deserters there, I and my brother enjoyed watching the battle raging over the main telephone office opposite. On the flat roof to the right of the entrance was an anti-aircraft gun ringed by sand bags. We called it a “Lewis” gun.

Anyway because the warning sirens had long packed up we relied on the whistle blast from the lookout on the roof to know that a Zero fighter had been spotted. Peering through the taped up glass window with our helmets on, we enjoyed watching the battle as both sides fired at each other. Then one day the enemy fighter dropped a bomb. All I remember was an almighty “Bang” and then flying backwards through the air. Landing on my back I sat up choking in the dust and fumes. I tried to stand but my legs gave way so I crawled to the stairs and descended on my bottom a step at a time. There was pandemonium down there as everyone coughed in the thick dust and strange smell. “Gas, we have been gassed” I heard someone cry. A soldier shouted “Piss in your handkerchiefs, and hold it to your face”. I now know that it was the sulphur fumes from the explosion that caused the panic.

The next day I was shocked to see the three storied Chinese school adjacent to the main telephone office reduced to a heap of rubble. Some parts remained exposed to the street looking like a dolls house with the children’s desk and other furniture in full view. Fortunately there were no students attending school at the time so no casualties, but the Lewis gunner was hurt and taken away in an ambulance. Needless to say I didn’t watch the air battles again.

On another day whilst sitting on the stairs during an air raid I heard a commotion among the soldiers at the bottom and noticed a white soldier trying to wrench a rifle off a Sikh soldier who wasn’t going to give it up. In the tussle that followed the white soldier was shouting “You cowards give me your gun and I’ll sort that Jap bastard out there”.

The other soldiers managed to restrain him saying that with women and children around he should shut up and sit down. He then broke down and started to sob. Talking to these deserters I got a good idea of the hopelessness of our situation and was very scared. Hill Street was packed with military vehicles some on fire and the ground around St. Andrew’s cathedral was full of ambulances. It must have been a field hospital. Dad began to have second thoughts about defending our apartment and suggested Aunty and my sister seek refuge in the convent. My brother and I helped them to get there and on the way I noticed the preparations made for street to street fighting. Trams were placed across the street to stop enemy tanks and there were dead bodies everywhere. With the many fires raging all over the city and the black smoke it was like a scene from hell.

The only news we were able to get of the war came from the many soldiers taking refuge on our stairs and when they talked of surrender Dad panicked shouted "Get rid of those bloody guns at once".Dumping the guns and ammunition behind the block of flats amongst piles of rotting rubbish caused a firework display later when someone set light to the rubbish. Although we didn’t have sirens to warn us of air raids we always knew when the bombers were coming by the distinctive throbbing sound of their engines. The diamond formation of twenty seven aircraft remained the same. We got news of the annihilation of the Malay Regiment defending the Pasir Pangang area a few miles west of the city and that the Governor Sir Shenton Thomas had moved to the Fullerton building for safety.

Rumours that we were about to surrender were followed by news that a counter attack had been mounted. Alas! Nothing came of it and on the 14th of February orders were give to the army to destroy all alcohol to prevent the enemy repeating the killing and raping that had happened in China. Drunken soldiers staggered about on the streets throwing bottles of whisky at the walls littering the whole place with broken glass. The war was temporarily forgotten so they sang songs as if there would be no tomorrow.

Unfortunately the 15th arrived and after a day of ferocious fighting Gen. Percival called a conference of his Generals and decided to unconditional surrender despite Churchill’s instructions to fight to the bitter end. The lack of water,fuel,ammunition and the large civilian population trapped with a hundred thousand troops, influenced his decision. It was the first time the British Army surrendered. This was the beginning of the end for us all and my life changed forever. The guns stopped firing at eight that night and the silence was quite deafening. Crackling noise from the many fires and the sound of smashing bottles replaced the sounds of war. I fell asleep exhausted after watching Dad pacing up and down for hours.

Eventually the morning arrived and after hurriedly getting dressed I watched the soldiers nearby sabotaging their light anti-aircraft guns by “Spiking” them. The barrels were splayed open like flowers. They also ran the truck engines without oil until they stopped. Suddenly a strange looking truck with coconut palm leaves covering its cab and short engine pulled up outside the telephone office. The enemy had arrived and they looked fierce with black beards and dishevelled uniforms. With fixed bayonets the soldiers leaped out of the truck and raced into the telephone office building screaming on top of their voices. The others stood guard around their truck glowering at the British soldiers around. I noticed everyone around scatter. After hoisting the Nippon flag at the flag pole they left leaving me Dad and everyone else petrified. This was the cue for us boys to make a run for it, so in a flash we were out on Hill St. literally running for our lives. Avoiding the burning trucks, the broken glass and jumping over dead bodies we arrived at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus on Victoria road, my old home. Surprised to see the once high walls now a heap of rubble, I also saw a dormitory roof on fire.

The convent had taken eight bombs; one just missed the beautiful chapel. There were refugees everywhere, many wounded. The nuns were pleased to see us and I was soon put work at the make shift dressing station.

Given a large pot of Vaseline I attended a badly burned boy of my age. His head and arm was burnt so I applied the Vaseline as best I could and I remember the smell of burnt flesh around the poor chap. On a visit to Singapore in April 2005, I was very surprised to meet his sister. She told me he survived the ordeal, was now well and remembered the boy that helped him on that dreadful day. She told me that the family abandoned their lovely home at Newton Circus to the advancing enemy and walked to the convent seeking refuge just as the bombs fell.

Unfortunately her mother was killed by a falling beam and her brother burned by the subsequent fire. Aunty couldn’t face all the chaos and my sister vomited at the sight of the blood but still gave a helping hand. We were very pleased to be in the safety of the convent with the war outside at an end but everyone including the nuns were wondering what the morrow would bring. Reverend Mother put out a large red-cross flag and forbade us boys from going outside in the grounds in case aircraft spotted us, as only women and young children were allowed in the convent. The Japanese army marched into the convent demanding women, but Bishop Deval who was saying mass at the time managed to persuade them to take the convent Rolls Royce instead.

That night we slept on the top floor of one of the undamaged dormitories which gave us a clear view of the roads around. Next morning I was woken by the noise of tanks racing by. They had the “Hinomaru” rising sun national flag fluttering from their turrets and had a strange camouflage like the toys we had seen before the war. Their crews with leather helmets proudly surveyed the conquered city. Motorbikes with sidecars carrying a machine gun were a new sight for me, as were the dozens of soldiers on bicycles; a bicycle blitzkrieg. Dad managed to come over later with some food and news of the situation outside.

It wasn’t good. After a few days in the safety of the convent we had to return home as the nuns couldn’t cope with the huge number of refugees, especially with their food stocks dwindling away. Now we really felt exposed to the reality of living in an alien world. Being fair skinned Eurasians, often mistaken for Europeans, we were vulnerable to the wrath of the Nippon army.

Hundreds of British troops and European civilians were marched off to Changi prison many miles to the east of the Island. In the scorching sun, they had to manage as best they could, with water bottles and the food they had on them. The Jap guards provided nothing, except shouts and rifle buts, but local people braved the situation by giving them food and water enroute. Yes we soon learned the meaning of the word “Nippon” and many other new words; the hard way on the streets. No sooner had we returned to the flat at 22-B Hill Street, when there was a loud banging at the front door. Dad opened it, and there stood a Japanese soldier with rifle and fixed bayonet, accompanied by a Malay man.

Dad being very shrewd bowed and addressed the Malay man in high class Malay, which boosted his ego and put him at ease. It was a wise move on Dad’s part as this Malay man spoke Japanese and had our lives in his hands. They wanted to know who we were and if we were sheltering any British soldiers, so they looked in all the rooms. Fortunately we spoke Malay fluently, and were able to satisfy them but whilst all this was going on we could hear screams and raised voices from the flat above.

Mrs. C. was beaten because they had seen her husband’s helmet and wanted to know where he was hiding. Thoughts of all those guns we ditched flashed through my mind. That night loud explosions in the distance awakened us and in daylight a mushroom cloud hung over the Geylang district. An ammunition dump had gone up deflating our hopes that a miraculous counter offensive had begun. Rumours galore from all the people turning up at our flat for sanctuary abounded. How we managed to cope with all these people I don’t know most of whom were strangers, but we did. Sleeping on roll up mats on the floor with curtains as screens was how it was done. Mrs. S and her adopted Chinese daughter Joy, and an elderly couple and their daughter Connie were just a few of the many who sought refuge with us.

They all had similar tales to tell of abandoning homes before the advancing army and seeking safety in the city. Now the talk was much worse, brutality on the streets for everyone, with fear uppermost in all our minds. News of the Selarang barracks incident where 20,000 POWs were crammed into an area for 1,200, reached us on the grape vine. We also discovered to our cost,that the infamous Kempeitai Division of the Nippon army now garrisoned our district. They were the vanguard of the successful assault on Singapore leading the 5th, 18th divisions and Imperial Guards. The men came from mining communities in northern Japan, were exceptionally tough and practiced their cruel brutality in occupied China. Now they were our masters setting up roadblocks all over the city terrifying anyone who dared to pass. This we had to do daily and I shall never forget the fear I had approaching one of these check points. Every bridge and major road junction became a terrifying experience for travelers. The soldiers manning these posts looked fearsome in their coarse uniforms, and those caps with the flaps. They took a delight in slapping or kicking us as we lined up to bow to the sentries. All watches and jewellery were taken, the owner usually receiving a slap as compensation and they liked British made bicycles especially the Raleigh make. Because of language and custom differences, misunderstandings often occurred with tragic consequences.

For instance, the Japs pointed to their nose if they meant themselves just as we would point to our chest so if misunderstood tempers would flare up. When I pointed to my chest the sentry thought I had something on me and began to inspect me closely causing move havoc. Bowing the Japanese way was also a source of trouble so there was much shouting and violence. Often a few unfortunate souls would be bound tightly with rope and left in the hot sun, their fate unknown.

We soon learnt the danger words like “Bageiroh, kurra and nanda” and would respond with much bowing. My heart would sink when having passed the post thinking all was well, I’d hear a loud “Oi” and turning around I’d see a sergeant languishing in a chair in the shade beckoning me over. He was usually curious about my skin colour and if I didn’t satisfy his questions he would get nasty. On one occasion I was grabbed by my hair and had my head pulled down for inspection of my scalp. It was scary and just one of my many frightening experiences in those tyrannical times.

Using our wits my Brother and I began claiming German or Italian nationality at interrogations and were rewarded with a pat on the head and a smile. But on one occasion it didn’t work, because the Jap was drunk and particularly nasty so in the end with a nod from L, we literally ran for our lives down the back streets of the Capitol cinema and got away with it. I can imagine what would have happened to us if we got caught. There were many proclamations from the army, displayed on notice boards in public places like markets, or just pasted onto street lamp post. Invariably they ended with a dire threat of sever punishment or death for non-compliance.

All Eurasians had to assemble at the Padang near the Singapore cricket pavilion to be screened on a particular day. So with water bottles, food and sun hats we went there wondering if we would ever return. Jap guards ringed the area with machine guns, looking menacing but after being harangued in the hot sun by English speaking officers about co-operating with the new regime we were allowed to go home. There was a reminder that they were going to check birth certificates at a later date.

This proved a problem for us later, when they sent for Dad and E. At the municipal building they discovered that E’s name was missing from her birth certificate, so Dad had to swear an affidavit to settle the matter. Like the German Gestapo, they were thorough in these matters. Overnight everything changed, and we had to learn fast.

The date 1942 was now 2602, Singapore became known as Syonan-to, meaning “Light of the South” and the Emperor Hirohito was God. “Syonan- to” sounded to the local Hokkien Chinese like “Birdcage Island”, which was a sinister thought?

Bowing to the North East, the bearing of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was a ritual we all got used to daily. At the road blocks, the sentries would ask locals in Malay where they were going, and if the response was Singapore, which was the customary term for the city a rain of blows would descend on the unwary individual until he remembered it was Syonan-to. On one occasion I watched a man beaten to the ground for replying “Raja” meaning King, when shown King George’s head on a coin.

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