Tuesday, January 20, 2009

15. Tamuang

Inside a hut at Tamuang
Photo Courtesy of Roger Mansell

The days pass. The days of Chungkai, of getting up to the reveille signal by the camp's bugler, breakfast followed by not-too-hard work, the good food and, above all, the rarity of confrontation with Jap brutality. These have rendered us blind to the hard reality. With human egocentricity we forget what happens daily in the nearby hospital huts, where our men die because of lack of proper medicine, medicine which is systematically withheld by our heartless captors so as to get rid of the weak and sick in due course. The orderly way of things in this camp, and time off after work, when we are left free to do what we want. To clean ourselves and so retrieve some of the lost dignity. It all helps to let us move in a make-believe contentedness with renewed hope for the future.

But now the time has come to say goodbye to all this, goodbye to Han and my friends. The order for breakup has been expected. A week ago we were split off into units, an unfailing sign of impending departure and separation. Joop is listed in a navy unit, Harry in the medical orderlies corps, and I in the old infantry. But Han is to remain in the camp's entertainment troupe, lucky fellow.

The infantry is the first group to leave, but all of us, so they say, are eventually to be assembled in a big new camp, a departure centre called Tamuang. Departure center for what destination?

"Speedo big yasme" (resting time), the Nip has said. "Work finito, no more sick, no more pintu, back to wifoo."

Some among us have readily translated this sort of blabber into the approaching Day of Armistice and Peace, but most of us do not believe that the Japanese will give in, not just yet. A small farewell party of boiled fish a la Chungkai is arranged, but without Barry, who is indisposed. The MP had caught him prowling on the grounds again, well after dark, and for some inexplicable reason had found this serious enough to slam him in the cooler.

Images from a small sketchbook kept by Frank at Tamuang
Top: Title page for "Dutch Songs", written for Lisa on her birthday
Bottom: Sketch of "Oom Toon" (Uncle Tony) and an unidentified POW wearing either a side cap or sailor cap (possibly Joop)

Image Source: Frank Samethini Collection

Tamuang is a large camp. It is empty without my friends and my brother. I miss Barry too, that Barry with his beloved Kipling. "There's a green eyed yellow idol, to the north of Katmandu..." he would endlessly recite while watching me frying the day's catch. Fancy a character like him wrapped in poetry.

What a difference with these jokers I am now landed with. Joop would have said, "Nay, they don't appeal to me none. Bad sort of landcrabs." A queer mob, given to sidelong glances and whispering.

Today is the 6th of June 1944. It is my birthday. Twenty-nine years I am, and married to a gorgeous blonde, father of a child - and look here where you are, chum, in a cursed prisoner of war camp somewhere in Thailand! Rendered harmless to the enemy. Hors de combat they call it, what a way to go through a war. One might as well be dead, totally at their mercy as we are. Beasts of burden, put on a slow starvation diet if it would suit them to get rid of us in that manner. No use kidding ourselves. It is because we are still of some value to them in one way or another that they let us have enough food to exist. Heaven only knows for what purpose, otherwise we would all have been dealt with long ago. There are absolutely no scruples with the Jap mob when it suits them to liquidate cheap work materials, even when these happen to be human beings.

Source: US Air Force Academy

Come on, stop worrying. It's your birthday, remember? Though it's almost over. Look at that big Halloween moon! Would Lisa be remembering this day? Something has happened to mark it, though. For the first time, Red Cross relief parcels have been distributed. Each packet has to be shared among thirteen men, which doesn't leave much for each of us, but still there are those brightly coloured labels on the tins and boxes, to read and to absorb: KLIM POWDERED MILK, SPAM CANNED MEAT, CAMEL and CHESTERFIELD, MADE IN CALIFORNIA, U.S.A. [1]

Red Cross POW food parcel
Source: www.thehewitt.net

The letters in fine, neat print on good quality paper do not merely spell out the contents of the cans. They are words with a familiar ring about them, hope-inspiring legends rushing on to me from a free world, carrying in some deep way the message: "Not to worry, we are here. There is still that big, mighty USA behind you. Just wait some more and you'll see!"

Oh, let's get to bed. Tomorrow is another day. After all, birthdays are bad. They hurt, like Christmas and New Year's Eve. Sleep, please come quickly, without the whispering images of those days. What did that funny looking Korean say again this morning? "Europa taksan (much) boom-boom?" There should be a lot of that before this infernal war is over.

Keeping his eyes averted, he circles me with slow, careful steps on bare feet. His next move with probably be a kick to the groin. I've fought his kind before, back in the old school days. They will not fight fair and square with the fist, or even wrestle. It's the feet they use, and man, can they kick with them! And it's always the crotch they go for, so I must keep my feet close together. It will make it easy to twist the hips sideways, taking the groin away from his kicking heel. But keep my hands low, for I want to grab his leg or, better still, his foot to wrench it in one turn while pushing it up and forwards, all in one move.

These thoughts race through my mind as I face the man who has vowed to fix me and - here it comes! But his manner of attack is new to me. His foot flicks sand up flying in my face, stinging and blinding one eye only, fortunately. With the other I catch his follow-up kick, and I grab his foot as planned. Down he goes, yelping in pain with a strained ankle. His head hits the sand before he rolls over on his face, groaning like an animal. I feel like groaning too. My eye hurts! Watch out! His two mates, who first chose to stand by, are rushing on like two mad bulls. But my luck holds, for I trip one and hit the other with a punch in the mouth that jars me from fist to elbow. It stops him momentarily, cutting a deep gash in his lip that sends blood flowing down his chin. Stepping backwards, I look for a weapon of some sort, for the odds are too bad. It's too late. Uttering filthy exclamations, they advance with guarded moves from two different directions, their eyes spitting hate...

"Jumpin' sea turtles! Now we get to pull him out of this! C'mon, lets get to them rats!"

Joop, Harry and Barry step into view. It's all over in two shakes. The three attackers are no match for the four of us. Hurling abuse, they "clear the deck faster than spit in a gale", as Joop puts it.

"Now tell me, why mus' ye git yerself always in trouble? First I had to stop ye from playin' cops an' robbers with Barry here. An' first thing I know when I see ye again, yer tryin' to git yerself kicked into sickbay!" Shaking his broad shoulders and hitting his head with open hand, he continues, "How did I ever git mixed up with this dump rifle-totin' footslogger"

"Well, Joop, frankly, I don't know why they wanted to fight with me. Somehow they had decided that I had stolent their tobacco, and no matter what I said, their leader said he was going to fix me!"

"Never mind that now. They won't trouble ye none anymore. Aren't ye glad to see yer old sea-daddy again?"

"Of course. When did you boys arrive?"

"Just now," says Harry. "We dumped our gear at the office and asked for your whereabouts."

"How long were you in the clink, Barry?" I ask.

"Not long, cockie. An' I got me bird!"

"What bird?"

"Haven't you heard?" says Harry. "Barry here caught the quinine thief with more than twenty pills on him. 'Twas Mister Tom!"

"Splendid that they - WHAT?"

"Yep, cockie, 'twas Mister Tom awright. Good ol' Jap-fighting, back slappin', friend-of-all Mister Thieving Bastard Tom."

"Good heavens!"

"Remember that night when me an' you saw that joker puttin' the barge on fire? I sort of never stopped wonderin' why this Tom should be there all on his own. I mean, if he really wanted to catch the thief somewhere at the river, why didn't he have some MP boys with 'im for witness, see?"

"Incredible. Sounds like a Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde story!"

"Which is true," says Harry. "It is a case of split personality, straight out of the can, and you know what happened afterwards?"

"Ye wouldn't read about it," says Joop.

"Well, he was taken right in front of the ranks. In full dress he was, kilt an' all, and then he was cashiered, stripped of his commission and reduced to private. Furthermore, he was sentenced to five years detention after the war. This was all carried out without the knowledge of the Japs. And the following morning he got his officer's pips back again!"

"Why, for Pete's sake? Why?"

"One important detail had been overlooked in all the commotion. The Nips were asking the next day for the work detail officer who hadn't turned up at the usual time. So they put the pips back on him in a hurry, and sent him to the Jap office with some sort of excuse. The enemy was not supposed to know. British officers' face-saving you could call it, anything to keep that precious front spotless."

"Bollocks!" grumbles Joop. "They had a much more practical reason. If the Nips knew, they might get hysterical an' send for them Kempeitai, an' ye never know what them gorillas would do. Perhaps pop off Tom and a few others jest for good measure."

"But Barry here was in the cooler, you said. How did you get your man, Barry?" I ask.

"Coo, what you think? That was all fixed up. MP let me out as soon as it was dark. Me bird was made to believe that no Barry would be tiptoeing around to catch 'im in the raw."

"Clever, clever. I guess he will be cashiered and jailed after the war anyhow. He should be hanged. Who knows how many died of malaria through shortage of quinine? And he had a part in it. Who sentenced him, the Colonel?"

"Nope. They set up an Allied Court Martial, presided over by a fellow who knew all about this sort of thing, a retired Dutch judge from Sumatra. Now this chappie worked in the hut building detail, where Mister Tom had assigned an easy job to 'im on account of his age. And what do you think happened soon after the quinine thief was reinstalled as boss of the hut builders? He made a point of sending the old man up in the rafters, fixing the roof. You could be sure the bastard was prayin' for the old feller to lose his foothold and drop dead. Anyways, hut building is finished now."

"Boys, how's my brother?" I ask.

"He's all right," says Harry. "He's staying in Chungkai. Like the Padre, you know, who always buys paw-paws from the Phong couple, and Hank the Yank. I didn't see him when we left."

"Who are the Phongs and who is Hank the Yank?"

"Don't you know? Remember that Thai couple, man and wife? Fruit vendors they were. The Padre always bought the biggest paw-paw from them, for the hospital. And Hank is the only American officer in Chungkai. He walks about clad in a G-string only. When the Colonel ordered him to dress fittingly for an officer and wear his rank distinctives, Hank was reported to have said something about the Boston Tea Party. He kept on wearing the G-string, with his officer's pip - or rather the one bar as lieutenant - attached right on top of it. Was cut dead by some of the British, who considered him a shocking disgrace to the station of an Allied commissioned officer."

A kitchen at Tamuang, May 1944
Photo Source: Noel Harvey/ picasaweb.google.com

Australian mess parade at Tamuang
Photo Source: Noel Harvey/ picasaweb.google.com

As in Chungkai, work is not hard in Tamuang and the food is good too. One day a quantity of green coffee beans is supplied by the Red Cross and distributed to all kitchens. These beans should be dried before roasting them and grinding them into coffee powder, but alas, none of the cooks has ever seen green coffee beans before, and are at a loss to understand what to do. So they decide to cook a soup with the beans. Three hours of cooking produces nothing but hard pellets and hot water, given to us as a dessert. We all agree that Joop was unsurpassed in expressing his anger when he thought to enjoy at last a bowl of "good ol' home made bean soup." He swore for a solid two minutes without once repeating himself.

We feel that something is in the offing. Bad or good, we don't know. A radical change is at hand. Rumours about a journey over sea become more persistent every day.

Then there is the day when all of us are standing on the parade ground, waiting for the Japanese commander to deliver his address. We shall be moving again, that is certain, for here we are with rucksack packed and full water bottle. But where to? The rumour-makers wear their most triumphant face. Do they really believe that the war is over? Well, here comes boots-and-gold-tassel-sword. We shan't be much longer in the dark.

We have been selected for transfer to the happy land of the Rising Sun, to work there among the sons of Nippon. The sea voyage, however, will be long and not without hazard, as a result of those wicked American submarines menacing the international sea routes. Therefore we shall be escorted by the fearsome Imperial Navy. As an added gesture of sympathy, the commanding officer of Tamuang himself will pray for our safety and good health on our journey to Nippon. Our section leaders are at once to number off their men and march them to the railway station.

Metal box on "ding-dang" wheels and a hot tin roof. It seems like yesterday when we traveled like this in Thailand. Where would Joop and Harry be? Sitting on the floor opposite me is one of the greatest rumour makers at Chungkai. His face is turned to wood, the eyes still and rigidly staring into the distance. What would he be telling us now? That the Americans have no torpedoes left or that the sharks do not fancy POW-meat? The man looks completely knocked out by the news. In his immobile eyes a convex, reduced reflection of the landscape along the railroad moves slowly with the progress of the train. A muscle trembles violently beneath the skin of his cheekbone. The tremor runs to his lower lip, to his mouth corners which begin to twitch. Good grief, the man is crying. Bewildered, I look away from him. Then the realisation crosses my mind of what we are heading for, bringing the crazy thought that very few, if any, insurance companies would want to take out a policy on our lives. This trip we are going on is certainly not a picnic on the old ferry boat. The crossing may involve torpedoing or shelling by the Allied Navy.

Blinding flash. Bang! Raft bobbing up and down. Water, water, drinking water! But there is no fresh drinking water to quench the searing thirst, only burning liquid salt. A last sob, and fingers release their grip on the raft. The body sinks down, down to the green depths. From the open mouth a chain of air bubbles working their way upwards through layers of water. Then nothing more than a shape rolling slowly over in the seaweed with the turn of the tide, a feeble glimmer from the wedding ring on his finger.

Oh, away with that pessimistic picture! Are we going to pieces? Look at those men there who don't seem to be worried at all, deeply absorbed over a draught board.[2] And over there a game of cards in underway. Well, why not? What can you do about it, if it has to happen? Perhaps we will not be hit at all, and if we are, surely they will try to pick up survivors?

Suddenly the hissing sound of opened air valves. Periscope and conning tower of an American submarine thrusting up from the boiling sea. The lone survivor on the raft raises his hand with difficulty.

Rubbish. That happens only in the movies. Let's get the cards out for a game of solitaire. Deck in hand, I look through the open door of our van. The train, rounding a bend, offers a side view of the engine in front with wheel pistons going angrily up and down. As a very young child I used to lean out the window to catch a view of the engine, and get scolded for it by Mum. "Must you fall out?" Look there, the spurting white jet of its whistle.

"Down at the station, early in the morning. See the little puffin' Billies, all in a row. Chooka-chook, chooka-chook!" went the old nursery rhyme. Ding-dang, ding-dang. Where to, where to? Where are you taking me, train? To Lisa? To the seaweed?

Hours later, when we stop for food and water, it appears that Joop and Harry are not on this train. We start to roll again, day in, day out, through the Isthmus of Kra, by the Gulf of Siam, Alor Star and then Ipoh, in Malacca. At this little town the train pulls to a halt, but when the men step down, they are at once ordered back into the vans by agitated guards scampering about like disturbed ants. We are told that the train must wait for another to pass.

A scuffle breaks out between some of the men in our van. We have become restless; tempers are raw. I turn my back to them and look outside. Our van stands on a slight eminence at about twenty yards from a modestly built weatherboard cottage, with a small garden in front. It offers a picture of quiet serenity amidst the tumult of running guards, angrily shouting in the sweltering heat. In the typical style of the tropics, the high ridged roof of mossy, reddish-brown tiles slopes down over an open front veranda. The tall windows on the side of the house are shut against the heat but the front door leading into the veranda is wide open.

Behind me fists fly. A water bucket is turned over. "For Pete's sake, stop that!"

"Shut up, let them fight if they want to!"

The garden, basking in the sun, shows a patch of well-kept lawn split in half by a flagstone path leading to the front steps of the veranda. At the edge of the path grows a line of white flowers in carefully tended soil. Potted palms, orchids in wire baskets hanging from the eaves. At both sides of the front door hang two identical frames. One contains a faded magenta of a landscape, the other a photograph of something like a group of soccer players. Through the open door a part of the interior can be seen. A low coffee table, two cushioned wicker chairs, a bright blue ashtray on a small davenport.

The brawling men must have been separated. A train comes clanking from the opposite direction. We'll be moving again soon.

Who would be living in that nice little place with an atmosphere of order and decency lying over it all, with the garden, the high roof, the veranda where now a black kitten is turning around on a coconut-fibre doormat to find the best way to lie down on it? There is no sign of a living soul in the house. All is still, quietly sleeping in the sun. Like a vision of the past, bringing back Mother's voice. "Boys, have you washed your hands?" she used to say at dinner time.

The whistle blows and the train jerks, moves, stops, jerks again. Bye-bye, little house. Again the whistle, a jerk, and finally we are moving, rolling away from that incredible, peaceful scene.

Penang is passed on the following day, then Kuala Lumpur. By this time the rumour maker has recovered from fear, and is telling himself and anybody who cares to listen that our destination will be either Batavia or Surabaya. Would it not be senseless to spend so much money on transporting prisoners of war all the way to Japan? With the added risk of losing an even costlier ship? The argument that the Japs don't need money, they just take, bounces off his impregnable self-delusions. Good luck to you, Mister Rumours. Some need religion to hang on to, or a fairy-story to believe in. Others just don't care a hoot, plucking the days as they come.


[1] The Red Cross parcels were distributed in Tamuang on 25 May. The diary of POW George Wiseman (Federated Malay States Volunteer Force) records: "25.5.44....American Red Cross parcels are being issued. The Yanks intended them for one per man, but we are having 13 men to two parcels." George Wiseman's Diary FMSVF - Burma Thai Railway, pp. 92-93. Microsoft Word document embedded in the web site Prisoners of War of the Japanese 1942-1945.

Draught board: a game of checkers (US).

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