Tuesday, January 20, 2009

18. Nippon

Photo Source: LIFE Magazine

Down the gangway we go, into a lighter which takes us ashore to the Land of the Rising Sun. The first thing we notice is a long banner put up at the entrance gate bearing the legend "Welcome to Nippon You Brave Soldiers", which is rather surprising. It is a genuine or a sarcastic welcome? Did not our guards tell us over and over again that a Japanese soldier is never captured alive? That consequently, a living captive is a coward, an object of scorn and to be treated accordingly? Look at the place! Nothing Asiatic about this town, with its traffic lights, shop windows, broad pavements, awnings, fire hydrants and an electric tram. Except for the scarcity of automobiles, one could imagine oneself in an American or European port town.

A large diesel-operated ferry boat carries us to the opposite shore of the harbour, where an electric train is waiting. As soon as we are seated it starts to move, smoothly and slowly and then faster and faster, but without the loud clanging of wheels as we are used to. Yes, they allow us to sit on padded seats! After the hard objects we have been sitting or sleeping on all this time, this feels like cotton wool. Our destination, we are told, will be Yokkaichi, a rest camp. We will travel via Hiroshima, Kobe and Osaka. It is almost too good to be true, straight from the stinking hold to soft seats in a smooth running train, and - hullo, what's this? A paper box, a lunch packet for every one of us. We don't have to share. Delicious sweet rice with pickled horseradish and a tasty seaweed condiment, really not bad. My, my, this is more than we ever expected, and we are ready now to believe anything, except about a rest camp. We've heard that too often. A work camp probably. So what? Keeps the figure slim and body strong.

We are now traveling at a moderate speed. My place is at the window but for a while I do not observe the passing country. There is a sinking feeling inside me, for I suddenly realise how far we are now separated, Lisa and I, now that I am in Japan. I try to recall her voice in my mind, as I was wont to do these two years since that visiting day in Surabaya, but I can hardly hear it. It has grown too soft, as if her voice has difficulty in reaching me with all that seawater between us. God, will I ever see her again?

The train grinds to a halt rather abruptly. "What are we stopping for?" someone asks. "There is no station."

"Whatya makin' yerself worried about? Them Nips wanna stop here, so we stop," answers another.

A feeble sound, hardly audible at first, reaches our ears. It is the familiar sound of an air raid siren.

"Hey, boys, listen to that!" Everybody is silent. Yes, even though it comes from a great distance away from where we are, there can be no mistake. Our planes are over Japan!

"Shhh! Shuddup, boys, listen!" We pick up the drone of the motors, our motors, our fighting men!

"Ye hear that? Air raid! Good ol' bloody air raid! Allied air raid!"

"Terrific! Means we're closing in on them."

"Yep, chasin' the hell out of them in their own yard!"

"Good ol' Uncle Sam! Give it to them, Uncle Sam!"

Sooner than expected the train starts moving again, but not before a Japanese civilian orders us in bad English not to try to look outside, while he pulls all the blinds down. Two armed police officers plant themselves in front of the doors of our carriage. Neither of them appears much upset by the air raid.

"That's to stop us from seeing the damage inflicted by our air force?" ventures one of our men.

"Bollocks, they don't want us to be seen by their own mob, so we won't get knocked off," is the pleasant thought of another.

Several hours later the excitement about the attack has died out and everyone is occupied with his own thoughts. My spirits have lifted. After all these years of silence it is heartening to witness the fact that our Allies are actually bombing Japan. And it isn't the first time either. Those cops looked as if they had become used to air raids. After a while the blinds are pulled up.

Looking outside, I cannot help noticing the scrupulous cleanliness of the dwellings and their pretty gardens. There are a myriad of wooden posts, loaded with hundreds of wires crisscrossing in the air. High above the buildings hang the high tension cables on tall masts. Nothing rural about this part of the country, industrialised to its teeth with war production, no doubt. Still, here and there, a little piece of the soil is reserved for a beautifully modeled dwarf tree, some chosen shrubs, a patch teeming with purple eggplants or red tomatoes. Little bright spots amidst a large field of grey. And look at those houses, how snug and decorative. With varnished timber frame on bamboo matting or paper walls, the dwellings seem to hug the ground they stand on. They have thatched or shingled roofs made in an artistic pattern and form with an ornamental, almost elaborate touch, but not overdone. The whole is a simple, unpretentious prettiness, yet with a feeling for finesse I had never expected in a nation of aggressive warmongers. But then, did not Germany produce a Mozart and a Beethoven before hatching the monsters of Nazidom?

It is dark when the train comes to a halt and we are ordered to alight. They march us to waiting lorries which take us to our "rest camp", a compound situated at a short distance from what looks like a jagged silhouette of dark, looming structures and a very tall chimney from which a pillar of smoke rises high into the dusky air. The lorries stop in front of barbed wire, high wooden walls and blazing floodlights. We go through the open gate and assemble before a low building, probably the camp's office. In rows of four we are then numbered off, but without the customary shouting and blows. All is done quietly in a civil manner, though I don't kid myself about the purpose of the place. It is a penitentiary, nothing else, with that wall and barbed wire.

Yokkaichi POW Camp
Photo Source: www.mansell.com

A Jap, sporting an enormous moustache glinting at the tips, walks up in front and addresses our ranks in perfect English. After bidding us welcome to Nippon, he continues:

"It is here where you shall have to stay for the duration of the war, probably not for a long time now. Sad as it is that you should be separated from your families as unwilling guests in our country, these facts, alas, cannot be altered before peace has returned to the world. In the meantime, keep head up and spirit high, for has not Shakespeare said, 'To be or not to be'? Therefore the question remains: do we wish to be happy prisoners of war or unhappy prisoners of war?"

After this enigmatic address and a summary of musts and must-nots, we are herded inside one of two wooden barracks. The smaller one is a hospital. Both are equipped with electric lighting. The larger of the two is divided in bays on both sides of a passageway in the middle, leading from the front door to the rear end. In each bay are two lower and two higher bunks built opposite to each other, running through the length of the bay, the top bunk about six feet above the ground. There is matting on the bunks to sleep on and two blankets for everyone, all new and clean.

"If only it would 'ave been attap and bamboo, it would 'ave been home," cracks a Briton. There is plenty of room left in the building. In fact, we find that only a comparatively small group of our ship's contingent has been sent to this place. Where the others have gone nobody knows.

"But we do know he is with us," says Roel. "All this and Rabbit-face too."

For supper we have a tasty soup of capsicum and pearl barley. Just before lights-out we are stood in front of our beds to be counted. After the rubber bales, this bed of matting is heaven, but what is best of all is the fresh air. No more foul odor of vomit, sweat and urine of the lower hold.

Fourth of September today, my brother's birthday. Where would he be? Is he dead or alive? Arms akimbo, leaning against the densha, I look at the copper slag-blackened beach, sloping down to the dirty seawater. I have been in Yokkaichi more than a month now. Not much of importance has happened until a week or so ago, when I got this job of driving the densha, a battery-powered engine running on a rail track. It is a very good job, pulling and tipping carts with copper slag from the plant to the beach where Japanese labourers tip the slag into the sea. The beauty of it is that while I am sitting nice and snug in the engine cockpit the Nips do all the dirty work outside in the cold!

It all began like this. On the second day after our arrival, the "holidays" over, our work turned out to be general labour in the nearby copper blast furnace plant. We work a twelve hour day, or night, shift with one day off in every ten days when the shifts change. On entering or leaving the factory area we have to halt and face the tall chimney, at the base of which is a small Buddhist altar. To this we are made to pay homage by bowing from the waist down in true Japanese custom. This is usually performed with some choice samples of bad language, softly muttered in English or Dutch. We are detailed to various tasks all over the vast terrain, but I think that the one I had might well have been the most tedious, spirit-breaking job in the whole plant. Given a heavy steel instrument to which a long rubber tube was attached (a pneumatic chisel, they explained), I was placed at the edge of a shallow basin dug in the ground, about fifty feet long by thirty feet wide. At set times a valve was opened by unseen hands, releasing a sluggish flowing stream of eleven hundred degrees hot liquid copper slag. The basin full, the valve was then shut and the sizzling hot substance left to cool off. This process did not take long. Within half an hour the fierce red glow in the porridge would disappear and the slag turn into a glass-hard, blackish-grey cement. It was then that I was given the privilege to express my gratitude for Nippon's benevolent treatment of prisoners of war, by cutting the hard cake into small pieces and shoveling these onto a carrier belt ending over the waiting train of tipping carts. So all I had to do was place the chisel on the slag and press down on a lever. This started the confounded thing, together with my body, jumping and vibrating with a teeth-chattering, lips-quivering shudder until the cutting part was done. Then came the shoveling, which took at least an hour. [1]

It was a tough job but the worst of it was that, as soon as I had finished, the valve was opened again and I had to start all over once more, time after time. It seemed so senseless, all that hammering and tearing away at that stuff only to see it crawl on me again. Pretty soon I began to hate it immensely, so when one day the Jap supervisor asked who among us had at one time or other been a driver on an electric tram, up went my hand. Why not? Had we not seen what had happened before when tradesmen in a specific field were ordered to make themselves known? They had to do work very remotely connected with their craft. Former craftsmen in ceramics were made to haul a consignment of W.C. pots into a truck [2]. Even musicians did not escape a similar treatment. They had to carry a number of pianos into a Nippon bound vessel. The Japs thought it was a great joke to do this sort of thing, and so I thought I would have to push lorries or something. How great was my surprise when I and another Dutchman were taken to the densha shed and shown how to operate the engine.

The work is simple, the best part of it being the necessity of having to remain at the controls inside the cockpit to manipulate the carts to the right spot for loading or unloading. This means that the Jap crew does all the rough work outside.

The Japs we are dealing with are not too bad, even friendly. Most of them are elderly men who make no bones about being fed up with the war, having had more than their share in fighting conflicts with China and Russia. Now and then they come up with some juicy bits of news: Palermo and western Sicily fallen into Allied hands and, best of all, the great invasion of Normandy on the sixth of June. Just think of it, on my birthday Allied forces had begun to invade German occupied Europe! I remember what that Jap had said back in Tamuang about "Europa taksan boom-boom." So it was all true, though we hardly could have had a clue of what was going on at that time. The great news bolsters our spirits and once more we are determined to pull through at all costs.

Only a handful of soldiers guard our camp, of whom two accompany the shifts to work. At the plant they soon disappear until they have to escort us back to camp. The Japanese blast furnace personnel are bossy and curt towards us as long as there is a soldier around, but this attitude changes when the army has withdrawn. They offer tobacco or a snack, and on one occasion the overseer cooks a soup of fish and vegetables for us. To this soup, to my great dismay, is added a special treat: two spoons of sugar. I am very surprised by this gesture of friendliness, ahd have to admit that even among the enemy a good man might be found. Nevertheless I know that so much military discipline has been bred into the bones of this man that to him an order would be an order, a mentality similar to the German "Befehl ist Befehl." This friendly fellow who has prepared a special dish for me will calmly cut my throat if that should be ordered one day!

The tipping of the copper slag is done on a deserted beach sector on the outskirts of the plant. Here stands a small timber shed with a pot stove inside. Each time before returning to the plant we sit here for a short time to smoke. It is then that sweet potatoes, sugar, flour or dried fish from the Japanese densha crew are exchanged for a Ronson or Dunhill cigarette lighter, a briar pipe, Mido watch or Parker pen, all highly in demand with the villagers. There are still a number of these luxuries available among our men, and in no time Thys, the other Dutch driver, and I set up a barter trade. The owner of the trinket quotes his price and anything over and above that is mine, but should I be discovered, the camp code demands that I should act as if the article found on me is mine and take whatever penalty is imposed.

The Jap officer with the big moustache, promptly nicknamed "Handlebar," does not approve of my trading with civilians, and had my shins kicked on the one occasion that I was caught with contraband. The same evening he called me out on the passage way. After inquiring whether my shins were still hurting he added that, though he regretted the punishment, he had expected me to remember that "a man with offensive ears should wear a hat to conceal them, and a man with bad teeth should keep his mouth shut." I caught on, and have made a point since them to carry my business as inconspicuously as possible on my body. Thys and I share our profits, at times as big as ten sweet potatoes, with our mates who have nothing left to trade off. Sharing with one's friends is something which comes naturally in wartime. So, after a good night's trading, a little fire is going on the floor and someone comes up with a special recipe for yams or dried fish, whatever the loot may be. After a time, others find a way to establish a trade link themselves, and occasionally in another bay you notice, as Roel put it:

"Amidst the shouting and the din,
A smell of burnt potato skin,
Peeling fingers and smacking lips,
In spite of all the blasted Nips."

Naturally the extra food is welcome, the camp's menu being invariably, three times a day, half a bowl of pearl barley with boiled horse radish or capsicum with an occasional chunk of whale or seal meat thrown in.

One morning a full trainload of American prisoners of war are herded in, and the Australians, British and Dutch suddenly find themselves as a minority group, with all the consequences therefrom. The management of the camp's internal affairs is taken over by the Americans, which means in our bay that the Dutch are ordered to move from the easily reachable lower bunks to the upper deck, not without loud protesting and swearing. There will be a day when we call ourselves fortunate for having made that move. Otherwise the Americans are meticulously fair in their dealings with everybody in camp. There is no discrimination whatsoever; everyone gets what is due to him. Even the knife used to split the cooked ball of barley in two halves may not be licked clean by the same person. His helper is to lick the other side. At one time that was the main cause for a fist fight between the cutter and the helper.

The days are getting colder and then, overnight, winter is here, bringing leaden skies and a penetrating cold. In spite of repeated promises, no coke is supplied to us for heating the draughty barracks. They do allow us to bring in bits and ends of timber from the plant, but when this source is exhausted the boys start on the linings of the bunks and even a part of the front door. The Japs, furious, set an example in their displeasure. The American commander is belted by Handlebar personally. The Yanks are angry, claiming that the damn Dutch have wrecked the door and therefore our commander should be punished. We retaliate by reminding them that since the damn Yankees want to play boss, their chief should bear the consequences. In no time fists are flying and the Japs chase us out in the cold, where we have to stand in the snow for an hour. It isn't quite a picnic but being together in the snow seems to break the ice between the Dutch and the Americans, and we are friends again. The fight has brought another point home: our hospital is given a small stove with a daily allotment of coke.

The number of patients in our hospital grows daily. The lack of good food and medicines brings an old acquaintance back into our midst. Funerals as we were used to in Thailand are out of the question here. Handlebar explains in his usual apologetic manner that, for our own safety, every possible provocation of the people of Nippon must be avoided. Hence, no funeral processions and burials according to the Christian faith, and since we also have to consider our Buddhist guards, there will be no Christian worship services inside or outside the barracks either. Thus our dead comrades have to be put away in a Japanese Army issue coffin, which is placed on a wheelbarrow and taken without any further ceremony to a place outside the village to be cremated. This is done as simply as possible by setting the coffin on top of a woodpile under a chimney. The death ceremony is performed by a Buddhist monk who drops a blank paper on the coffin and, stepping backwards, signals for the pitch and the match.

Only one of us, under escort, may push the wheelbarrow. The task is done in turns for it offers a chance to walk through the village, observe the trees and the grass, and know that the whole world is not built on copper slag. It is a good job. Boxing the corpse is not so good. The coffin provided by the Nips is of standard measurements, not to be altered without the provocation of tender Nipponese feelings. Often these boxes are too small for our dead and a certain amount of pushing and squeezing is unavoidable. When the deceased is a tall man the situation becomes particularly embarrassing. Handlebar, though polite in his way, falls under the same category as the vicar-faced brute of Thailand, but Handlebar is cruel in a gentle way, if such a thing does exist. He is more refined, and should be horsewhipped with gloves on.


[1] Ray Heimbuch, one of the American POWs, gives additional details about the copper plant: "At Yokkaichi we were put to work in a smelting plant. I was assigned, along with twenty-nine other men, to a detail called Uki Watashi. Our job was to load scrap metal into small handcarts that ran on narrow gauge rails. The scrap metal consisted primarily of Chinese coins and other bits of brass and copper. We would push the cars to a conveyor belt, dump it, and return for another carload. We were assigned six men to a car. Loading the scrap metal into the car was relatively easy; pushing it to the dumpsite was another matter. It took every bit of our strength, especially in our weakened condition." Raymond C. Heimbuch, I'm One of the Lucky Ones, I Came Home Alive (Crete, NE: Dageford Publishing, 2003), p. 93.

[2] W.C. pots = toilets, commodes.

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