POW Experiences at Changi

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Brynmor Roberts, a British signalman who served as wireless operator with Royal Corps of Signals in the 3rd Indian Corps Signals in Malaya, was inprisoned in Changi from February 194 to May 1943 when he was then sent to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway (Roberts 1980). On his first day in “captivity,” a Sunday, he stayed at a YMCA, but the following day all the soldiers that had been interred there were forced to march to Changi. Roberts noted that they benefited from the fact that the barracks used to intern the soldiers had recently been constructed (as part of the so-called “Singapore Strategy”) and therefore the creature comforts if afforded were of quality, such as good floors. The day after arriving, however, the army rations were pulled and the soldiers were made to eat local fair. “I soon got myself on to eating rice,” Roberts explained, with the Western food (the army rations) being greatly restricted; when these rations were distributed, however, Roberts noted it was with great equality “so no one got more to the detriment of anyone else” (ibid). Roberts remarked the fact that he had “never been much of an eater” greatly assisted him in making this transition, which we glean from his interview, was the greatest hardship he was forced to endure at Changi. He noted, however, that many of the strong, those who “gloried in their strength” suffered the worst and were the first to die, presumably from the ravages of malnutrition as Roberts claims that some of these men went from “fourteen or fifteen stone to seven or eight stone, and their hearts could not stand it” (ibid). There was a dysentery outbreak after the first month of capture, and this contributed to the weight loss of many individuals.

For the first period, Roberts reports that the prisoners were “ left to [themselves] for a time” and organized for the usual barracks duties of soldiers. He agrees with Havers, who writes that

this freedom complicated matters as it delayed the realization of becoming a POW and made the necessary transition that much harder. However, the comparatively gentle introduction to POW life that occurred at Changi helped those captured at Singapore to overcome the alleged stigma of losing Singapore. (Havers 2003, 5)

Roberts says that “it tied us over from being masters of our fate up to a point to being prisoners,” but eventually the Japanese “ordered us to organize working parties to go out to Singapore to clear up, we had not lost any of our discipline because our officers were still with us (Roberts 1980). This helped maintain the morale of troops. During the work parties, they were given breaks and lunch. Roberts relates a telling story during one of these lunch breaks. As he and five or six other POWs sat on their lunch, they were laughing. A Japanese officer approached them as asked them why they were laughing so much, assuring their answer would remain only between them and him. The Japanese officer told them, “Yes, Singapore has fallen. Yes, you are Japanese captives. If my men had been in my position, they would have committed hari-kiri. But you are laughing” (Roberts 1980). The men told him simply, “The British will be back,” using an analogy of a many-armed octopus that, if one arm is cut off, still have seven more with which to respond. When asked if there were many such conversations with the Japanese, Roberts stated there were “many sensible Japanese” whom were quite willing to have conversations with the POWs.

Lieutenant Eric Richmond Moore was a British officer served with 75th Signals Regt, 18th Divisional Signals in Singapore, Malaya, January and February 1942, and was a POW in Changi POW Camp the entire duration of the Japanese occupation. As such, he was able to report on the conditions and happens at Changi for the duration of the occupation, and the changing conditions there was well (Moore 1987a). His perspective as an officer in command also added something to his experienceHis story begins by relating how ill-equipped his regiment was, so much so that they asked to borrow arms from locals to resist the Japanese. When they “first encountered” the Japanese, they simply handed over their rifles and were instructed to remain where they were, in a school house; all communications came through their commanding officers (ibid). Twenty four hours later they were, like Roberts, marched (actually, transported most of the way by truck) to Changi where he would stay for three and a half years. Individuals who were wounded were treated by the British themselves, the Japanese not providing assistance; the medical officers were interned along with the Lt. Moore. The camp, Moore reported, had been completely looted, down to the lamps, with only a blanket (ibid). The camp had previously been barracks, and some individuals were eventually assigned quarters in huts, houses, and former barracks, but Moore noted that Australians who arrived later in the war were given only tents.

Although organized into work groups, conditions at Changi were not overly harsh aside from rationing. For example, Lt. Moore relays the story about how two Australians sneaked away from a work party to gather coconuts. On being discovered, they were briefly detained, but in the end they merely had their coconuts confiscated. They even requested to Lt. Moore that he ask if they could have them back, but he cautioned them against making such a request given the circumstances (ibid). Another group caught cutting down a coconut tree were forced to stand for hours with their knees bend (ibid). Rations were limited to eight ounces of rice per day. Hospitalized POWs received only six ounces. No additional food was provided. The main infractions were individuals leaving the camp to see out additional food for purchase with the small allowance each week by the Japanese (ibid). All purchases with such an allowance were illicit, however, since they were not permitted to leave camp (ibid). Lt. Moore conveys that the senior officers were invited to watch two others who had attempted to escape be shot in the head; as such, escape was not something often attempted (Moore 1987b).

He also tells the story of being marched at four o’clock in the morning to a camp, built for 800, that was made to house 5,000 after refusing to sign “non-escape forms” which they refused to do. Havers notes that this was “[t]he only manifestation of coercion, on a large scale, occurred when the Japanese attempted to extract, from the prisoners, a declaration promising not to attempt escape” (Havers 2003, 4). Lt. Moore reports, though, that after this event the brutality increased, and that non-commissioned Japanese officers were placed into the work parties with sticks, and that brutal beats, often requiring hospitalization, occurred at the hands of the Japanese (Moore 1987b). As an officer, Moore stated that slaps or a blow to the head was often coming if “the Japs did not agree with something” (ibid). Once, he removed a one-armed soldier from work duty after a severe beating, noting that the Japanese expected officers to provide a number of men, but who was left up to the officers, again indicating that there was some autonomy given to the POWs in meeting the demands of the Japanese.

The primary problems seemed to stem from the deteriorating health conditions caused by the lack of adequate nutrition, particularly after responses to slipping out of camp became more heavy-handed. The beds of the hospital were terribly lousy (Moore 1987b). By the end of the Occupation, when the Japanese’s own supply lines were strained, conditions became even less tolerable, with daily roll calls to ensure all POWs where were they were meant to, stricter rationing, and the appropriation of Red Cross and other medical supplies by the Japanese (Moore 1987c). Lt. Moore reports during this period that one of his duties was to supervise individuals afflicted with sores (pressure ulcerations brought about by malnutrition) to bath in the river (ibid).

The conditions described by both Roberts and Moore are not the unrelenting brutality and work-to-death conditions often ascribed to Japanese POW camps in the second World War, but both do reveal the brutalities of war. Both identified the lack of adequate food as the most difficult challenge while at Changi, but Roberts goes on to report about far more trying conditions during his time in working on the Burma-Thailand railway. Overall, the stories of these two POWs largely accord with the claims Havers has made in his text, Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience the Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-5.

Havers, R. P. W. 2003. Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience the Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-5. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon. http://www.crcnetbase.com/isbn/9780203423011.

Moore, Eric Richmond. 1987a. Moore Eric Richmond IWM interview (10005). 10005, Reel 1. Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80009788.

———. 1987b. Moore Eric Richmond IWM interview (10005). 10005, Reel 2. Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80009788.

———. 1987c. Moore Eric Richmond IWM interview (10005). 10005, Reel 3. Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80009788.

Roberts, Brynmor. 1980. Roberts Brynmor IWM interview (4796). 4796, Reel 2. Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80004755.

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