Tuesday, 9 August 2005

Wartime stories - with the War Veterans

Its 9th August - Singapore Independence Day! And its time I dust my shelves and take out old files and albums again. Posted by Picasa
Three years ago, I attended a gathering of war veterans at the Imperial War Memorial Museum in South London where ex war prisoners met up to remember the 60th anniversary of the fall of Singapore into the hands of the Japanese on 15th February, a day that Winston Churchill described as the greatest disaster in British history. Here was what I wrote then...
"It was a cold bleak day in February when more than 100 Far Eastern PoWs and civilian internees met at this reunion, to yet again relive the experiences of working in labour camps and the notorious Death Railway and to remember their friends and relatives who did not make it home. It must have been a darker day in February 60 years ago for the Singaporeans then as well as the Allied soldiers.
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Many were accompanied by their children and grandchildren and it was not difficult to spot the veterans. These British war veterans, who had served in Malaya and Singapore, came with their medals, walking sticks and in their wheelchairs and the painful, bitter memories of their embittered years as prisoners of war.

One even came with a painting of a harrowing image that still haunts his days and nights, but putting it on canvas has helped him to cope. Besides their impressive array of medals and name tags, they had colour-coded dots to help us identify them. Those with red dots, and there were quite a few of them, were prisoners of war. Green-dot bearers were civilian internees while those with blue dots were those who managed to escape and the ones with black dots were child evacuees.

But there was one distinguished-looking man whose surname could not have made it very easy for him to turn up and mingle with the rest. He was Brigadier James Percival, son of Lt-General Arthur Percival who was in command of the Allied Forces during the war. He was also the one who surrendered the supposedly-impregnable fortress of Singapore to the Japanese, which to Churchill was "a grievious and shameful blow to British prestige." The fall of Singapore did have dire consequences for the thousands of men, women and children who were forced to work in terrible conditions. Many did not survive. A few came to tell their stories again.

For the junior Percival, who himself served in Malaya fighting the terrorists in the Fifties, criticisms levelled at his father were unfair.Posted by Picasa
"He never had any conscience about surrendering Singapore because he always felt that if we had not surrendered it, the civilian population would have been annihilated by the Japanese," Percival said of his father. Although his father never spoke about the surrender, he knew that his father was bitter till his death, as all the blame for the loss of Singapore was on his shoulders. "The reason we lost that particular campaign was one of resources and we as a country were very pressed in the Middle East (and) on the Russian front. We didn't have many tanks in Malaya or sufficient ships. "So that was the result. He didn't have enough to fight with. We didn't know very much about fighting in the jungle and the Japanese knew a lot about it. He was a very honourable person and with his upbringing, he kept a stiff upper lip," said the younger Percival.

General Percival and his troops remained as prisoners of war until the end of the Second World War. He died in 1966 at the age of 78.

Robert Brook was a mere child when he and his parents were thrown into Changi prison.
"As children, we were better treated by the Japanese. They were strict with education and insisted that we be given sterilised milk," he remembers.

But for others, there were no fond memories. Wing Commander Peter Kingwill, who was a flight lieutenant with the Royal Air Force and served in Kuantan during the Japanese landing in Kota Baru, spoke of the starvation and tropical diseases he had to endure. He worked on the Death Railway for three years after his plane was shot down in southern Thailand. Not many escaped but one did and lives to tell the story. Roy Pagani, who was a corporal with the Reconnaissance Regiment, stained his skin with burnt rice and walked barefooted for 400km wearing a lungyi.

"What can I say; we were slaves on that railway track and many people died carrying the sleepers. So I had to escape."

Posted by Picasa Escape was not the end of the story, for it was only the beginning of nightmares for some.How does one cope with the trauma that haunts every waking hour only to turn into nightmares at night? Ronald Delavigne, who was imprisoned in Japan exorcised his nightmares onto canvasses. What he showed us was harrowing, what he experienced was worse. "The older I get, I become more intolerant of people who complain about being hungry, cold and wet. I think to myself, they don't know what it means to be hungry, cold or wet. But I am glad they didn't know," Delavigne says. Bitter as he is, he cannot hate his captors. He told a story about a Japanese worker, who gave him tobacco at the risk of losing his own head. The Japanese worker also helped him with his digging chores as Delavigne had broken his leg. On the day of his departure, he met the old man again and was invited into his house.
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"He gave his tobacco pipe as a memento. He helped me," he sobbed. "So how can I say I hate all Japanese?"

The people in that room that day share a lot together. They appreciate solidarity, friendship and human kindness although it can be difficult for them to explain to those who never went through their ordeal. "

But pls continue sharing your stories in the entry below - ones that you hear from your parents or grandparents.


anedra said...

yaaaayyy! finally can comment! I actually wanted to comment on the posting before this. That my TokWan was such a handsome man, and that he must've been a real heartbreaker what with his white suits and violin playing and that i so so wish he lived longer so that I could have met him and would have had a grandfather. But that's not what God had planned and at least I have people like you with lovely stories of him to share!

thank you so very much Otehku!

Anonymous said...
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Jane Sunshine said...

This brought tears to my eyes. Haunting memories but as always, the triumph of the human spirit shining through.

Sunfloraa said...

Hmm reminds me of the show "Tenko." I shudder at the thought of any of us ever having to go thru any of that again.

Atok said...

Unfortunately, not much has been said on the British Indian Troops who spotted 3 Japanese warship 3km from Pantai Pak Amat (near Kota Bharu), well 70 minutes before Pearl Harbour started. The shelling of the beach started almost immediately as the 3 ship anchored. The Indians fought galantly... sacrifiying their lives defending a foreign soil for a foreign master.

Kak Teh said...

anedra, one day, sit at my feet, and I will tell you more!
sunshine - yes, i was in tears too when I interviewed them.
sunflora, i dont think i watched the entire Tenko - cant bear it.
atok - that's a very interest story. tell more!

Nazrah Leopolis said...

i too followed tenko, and oh how sweaty everybody were in that drama series.

i also remember fondly that comedy series, "it ain't half hot mom"

Leen AshBurn said...

I am suddenly reminded of the book I read when I was a kid - Nyawa di hujung pedang. And reading this makes me sad, I don't know why.

My atok told me that my tok yang pempuan once tengking a sojar Jepun "APA? MANA AKU ADA ANAK PEMPUAN??" dengan beraninya when the sojar wanted to find if there were any girls in the house. My Tok mak at that time was hiding under the bed. Thankfully, the soldier left.

Darah Bugis membuak2 kot masa tu :)

Iskandar Syah Ismail aka DR Bubbles said...

my late grandfather was one of Force 136 recruits during the WWII. (Aha.. now I remember that book I used to read when I was very young,the exploits of Lt. Mohd Nor Pahlawan Gerila Force 136. ).
Interesting enough, my late grandfather was stationed in my hometown Jerantut,guarding the railway station. I can still see the remaining 'kolah' he used to tell me when i was young. after all the station is just 500 meters away from my house.

Kak Teh said...

nazrah, have you watched "Town Like Alice"? and i am sure many more - and mostly can't bear to watch.
leen, do you inherit yr grandmother's garangness? takut sojar tu agaknya. Have you read salina?
Is, ceritalah!

Skater Girl said...

My grandparents live through the Japanese occupation.. and also during the British occupation too.. She does not like to talk about Japanese occupation that much because it was a time of darkness and sadness but she always reminded us to be Thankful for what we have now and always remember to do our solat... On top of that she even understand Japanese language till now.. something that one won't forget..

But she loves talking about the Brits.. because she used to be the nanny for one of the British families...and she refused to work for the chinese after the independence... and the employer who is still alive.. visited her in late 1990s in Singapore.. such a lovely and wonderful event..

oh! forgotten to say.. my nenek was interviewed many years ago by a neighbor who does not reveal himself as a journalist because she won't talk to journalist.. and he lied.. so my nenek won't trust the journalist that much.. ;)

Anonymous said...

My grandparents lived through the war and yet they don't talk about it. I wished I had asked. You know, it would be a great story to tell my children. All I knew was they ate ubi kayu...that's all and nothing more. I am so pleased to read these stories from you, at least I can tell my children what it's really like living through a war. :)

Anonymous said...

arwah my uncle told me the story of how the jap stick bayonet on his a** and ask him to climb the coconut tree for nyoq muda... kelam-kabut pak long naik pokok tu sampai terlondeh...nasib baik pakai seluark katok... kalau tidak naya jepun tu...

atiza said...

my grandmother lived through the war and according to her, the water at her paddy fields in front of her house were crimson red after the japanese slaughtered the chinese community (including a pregnant lady)..

at that happened at the back lanes of Istana Seri Menanti

Sidah Salleh said...

kak teh... wow! rasa macam time travel lah. my Abah jarang cerita about WW2, but he tells a lot about zaman Emergency. anyway, he did tell about my Atuk being corpse robber masa perang Jepun - he went out at night and took whatever he could get from mayat2 chinese killed by the japs. interesting to note: my kampung in Muo is called Parit Jepun - not sure how it came about tho... will dig more.

Kak Teh said...

suriyati, I have met afew Malay nannies too yang datang ke sini jumpa anak-anak yang dia orang jaga dulu. How interesting. and yes..beter watch ot the journalists! tak baik kalau dia diam2 tulis without telling her abt it.
BQ - i wish i have more - but these little snippets from others are getting to be really interesting.
endeavour - memang kak teh pun dengar pasal cara jepun paksa orang naik pokok nyiork - sapa tak pandai kalau dah ada bayonet di bawah.
atiza: yes..what a pitiful story.
petaling street - go korek somemore!

MassyLassy said...

My arwah atuk never mention about the wartimes coz he refuse to talk about it, so we never push him further... But at least with your entry, we can learn more! Thanks Kak Teh!

Anonymous said...

hi kakz. i've been a silent follower of ur blog. i like reading ur writings as it's usually very engaging and heartwarming. :D

my yayi was a british soldier masa WWII. tak tahu pulak apa dia punya rank. bt i knew that he had to leave his young family (anak baru dua, my dad was abt a few mths old and my aunt abt 1yo-plus) in the care of his other siblings. my nyayi pulak sedih jer selalu risaukan suaminya tak pulang2. bt i do know that my grandad endured malaria while hiding in the jungle. my grand-uncle pulak said that they used to hide under a table covering my dad and aunt whenever they start dropping bombs. rumah jauh dari shelter agaknya.

bt they dun talk much abt those days. too depressing kot? or maybe the memories were just so bad that they refused to think abt it anymore. but nw and then my grandad does talk abt his days being a soldier only because he's getting a bit senile and only remembers what goes in his past. hehe..

Kak Teh said...

massy, am glad to share - and of course many of the comments here too are so interesting.
fidaaaaah! why lah didnt u say you've been reading me? Your input is so interesting. I wish I had listened and paid attention more when my parents were talking abt it.

Ely said...

seems like i am the only one with noone who has memories of the war!

but kak teh, thank you for posting in conjunction with the Singapore National Day :)

Kak Teh said...

Glad we can all share these snippets but imagine, the next generation will only have to read from history books and archive from blogs! Whatever it is, its always good to document oral history.

Anonymous said...

a great job kak teh, pls write a non fiction book abt this!!

ween said...

Hi Kak Teh,

I've added your link to my blog. Hope you dont mind.


Anonymous said...

sure M, pls do and I will also add you to Sentraal Station! Thanks!

MA said...

Kak Teh : My Dad told us tht in view of the Jepun masuk kat KB, depa kat Johor semua lari ke Batu Bahat and it took them days (weeks maybe) berjalan kaki whole kampung with their belongings on kereta tarik (mcm kereta lembu minus the lembu la gamaknya or beca style zaman dulu-dulu where instead of basikal, gunakan orang).

After the war, he went back and found that his house (the one he stayed with my Tok pompuan and his siblings) were burnt to the ground.

He rebuild the house with the help of his neighbours.

They missed a few years of schooling and ppl of that era were hungry of education and opportunities.

Which sadly, many of the post-Merdeka anak-anak took all these kesenangan and "freedom" for granted.

Good job on the story Kak Teh - keep us anak-anak Merdeka in awe and appreciation of our forefathers in fighting for Independence.

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