Charles Arthur Kenneison
Civilian War Dead
4th May 1942
Charles was a Warrant Officer in the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force and executed with three others for trying to escape.
(Source Becca Kenneison)
Husband of Doris Hazel Kenneison. Died at Mallang Camp
Civilian War Dead
The text below is an abridged and adapted version of a chapter of a family memoir which I have just completed.
Charlie was my uncle.
Rebecca Kenneison, May 2011.
I cannot remember if I heard Charlie’s story before I knew his face, or if I saw his smile in his wedding photograph before I knew where he had ended.
Charlie was a tall, narrow-faced, narrowly built man, curly auburn hair brushed back, looking rather rakishly out of the sepia photograph, his bride on his arm. It was taken at the very end of 1934, just after Charlie had married Doris Cropley in the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Singapore. Charlie’s father and stepmother stand behind the bride and groom with Doris’s mother and stepfather; flanking the newlyweds are Doris’s brother and stepsister, and in the front row are the pageboys, my father and his brother, standing on either side of a little girl in a flower-girl’s frock. It’s an essence of Empire photograph: the only European is Charlie’s father, my grandfather. Everyone else is Eurasian: Doris was of the fourth generation of Cropleys to have begun their lives in Asia; Charlie’s late mother was Anglo-Indian; Doris’s stepfather came from a family well-established in Singapore. The people in that picture could, between them, trace their forebears to a broad spread of countries: Britain, Portugal, Germany, Denmark, India, Ceylon, and Malaya itself.
Charlie and Doris had three children, a boy followed by two girls. Charlie had been trained in England as an engineer, and in the late 1930s he was dispatched to the Kenneison Brothers works at Segamat, about halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. When the War came, Doris took the children and fled Segamat, joining my grandparents in Singapore. Charlie was attached to the RAF as a Warrant Officer with the Air Ministry Works Directorate, the organisation mostly responsible for organising airfield repair, and he saw to it that his wife and children made it onto the Devonshire, which sailed on the 8th February. This was the ship that his father, stepmother and niece missed. His elder daughter’s last recollection of her father is of him on the dockside of Singapore, chaos all about them, wishing her goodbye.
Throughout the Malayan Campaign, the RAF was completely outgunned by the Japanese. Whitehall had promised Malaya 366 aircraft by the end of 1941, yet when the Japanese launched their first attack, there were only 141 planes available on the airfields of Malaya, many of them out of date. For example, the old Brewster Buffaloes were no match for the Zeroes, an aircraft which could reach a speed of 300mph and had a range of 1,000 miles, whereas the Buffalo was “short, fat and stunted like a beer barrel fitted with an engine, and when the engine started up it couldn’t make up its mind whether to continue running or cough up its innards and report sick”. Japanese air attacks caused terror amongst civilians and complicated the movement of troops on the ground — at times, in some places, even individual staff cars were considered to be at risk. They also made life difficult and dangerous for the men of the Railway Maintenance and Operating Company (one of the Volunteer units), who often had the task of moving large numbers of troops up and down the country. Nonetheless, the course of many battles was governed by the Japanese possession of tanks (of which the British forces had none) rather than by their air superiority.
Fifty-one Hurricane fighters arrived in Singapore early in January 1942. They gave the Japanese pause and enabled reinforcements to be landed in Singapore, but many were destroyed in the air and on the ground. The eight surviving Hurricanes were withdrawn to Sumatra on the night of the 9th February.
This was part of a general retreat of the RAF: during late January and the early part of February 1942, RAF personnel were moved from Singapore to Java, but before they could be evacuated to safety, Java fell to the Japanese. Our last sight of Charlie as a free man is on 27th February, 1942, a fortnight before Java fell: post war, Corporal Nagamany Damodaram Pillai, a survey draughtsman in the Directorate of Works who was later awarded the British Empire Medal, testified that on that day he accompanied Charlie to the Chartered Bank of India in Batavia, where Charlie exchanged about £90 sterling in return for a banker’s draft. A few weeks later, he and Charlie, along with thousands of others, were taken prisoner, and soon found themselves behind the wire at a former Dutch barracks at Singosari Aerodrome, three or four miles from the town of Malang. The American Liberator crews which had been there before the Japanese had wrecked the place, and the almost one thousand POWs were put to work to tarmac the grass airstrip and to carry out repairs.
When the men arrived at the camp, the officers were addressed by a Japanese officer, Lt. Koboki, who was to oversee the work on the aerodrome. Charlie acted as Koboki’s interpreter, for the lieutenant spoke Malay: you have to wonder where he had learnt it. Wing Commander Welch, the senior British officer, objected to the instruction that they were to labour on the airstrip; he said that this was not work suitable for POWs. Koboki’s reaction was to threaten “severe punishment” if they did not comply; at this point Welch began to understand that the death penalty was a possibility.
The prisoners were housed in the former Dutch barracks, where they slept on the floor. Charlie was able to help the other men trade at the fence with the Indonesians in the evenings: he spoke the language, and he had a better idea than they did of the going rate.
The chain of events is slightly unclear. Some sources state that a mass escape was being considered and the first four went to test the water. Others assert that two of the men — F/Lt Gordon and Pilot Officer Cheesewright — were merely off on an ill-thought-out prank to buy some beer in Malang, and that Charlie’s escape with P.O. Eddie Poland was a quite separate thing. However, F/Lt. Sydney Catt stated in his autobiography that Gordon and Cheesewright had discussed the possibility of escape with him shortly before they broke camp, and that on the night they left — a Sunday evening, the night of 26/27 April — they offered him the chance to go with them. He refused and “tried all ways to stop them” but they went through the fence regardless. He adds that “at the same time a W.O. Kennenen and Sgt Poland went with them.” Most of the witnesses state that Charlie and Eddie Poland left later, on the night of 28th/29th April, but F/Lt Catt claims to have been there, whereas the others all seem to have relied on hearsay. Three of the men who escaped were familiar with the East, but as well as being those most likely to be sent on such a mission, they were also the men most likely to try under their own initiative: they spoke Malay and thus had the highest chance of success; one of the POWs was under the impression that Charlie (who he thought was “partly Eurasian or Chinese”) had “a Dutch Eurasian contact in the town of Malang.” Charlie, in any case, would have been willing to take the risk: according to his wife, “he was a headstrong, stubborn man.”
One of the eyewitness accounts, that of James Home, states that the warrant officer was a “Malayan”. The term “Malayan” was often used at this time to mean someone who usually lived in Malaya, but was not necessarily of Malay blood. Another witness, Jim Hodson, says that “the W/O or a Flt/Lt was coloured and could pass as a local.” At first I was sure that this had to be Charlie, but further reflection made me doubt this. Auburn-haired and olive-skinned, a six-foot beanpole, Charlie could probably have passed as a European and would not have been able to blend into a crowd of Indonesians. He didn’t even look like an Indo, a Dutch-Indonesian. I wondered, therefore, which of the men Hodson might have meant, since there was only one Flt/Lt .
Albert George Frederick Cheesewright was born in 1901, and married Dorothy Davies in the spring of 1928 in Edmonton, North London; they had two children, a boy and a girl, both born in London. Although his birthplace is not known, it seems unlikely that he was anything other than straightforwardly British. Eddie Poland’s given names were Dennis Albert, but clearly these did not appeal; he was twenty-two and from Heaton Mersey in Lancashire. Robert Gordon, by contrast, is a mystery: no one seems to know anything about him. He seems to have been one of the three who had lived in Malaya, but he’s not in the records of Europeans who were there; it’s possible, therefore, that he was the man who “could pass as a local”.
A young man from Norfolk, Len Abbs, was also held in the camp; he relates that Charlie and Eddie had purchased a boat for 1,500 guilders (£400). Wing Commander Welch, the officer responsible for the discipline of the POWs, stated that they were supplied with foodstuffs such as oranges and chocolate, as well as maps, a compass, money, a first aid kit and some bedding. Up to this point, “Japanese discipline… had been fairly slack and there had been no written or verbal orders in respect of breaking camp or of the punishments to be incurred for so doing.”
During the morning of 29th April, Wing Commander Welch was called to the tent in the middle of the aerodrome from where Lt Koboki supervised the POWs. Koboki told him that two men had been captured outside the camp, and that they would be shot.
During the lunch break on either 29th or 30th April, Koboki ordered a muster — the first. The POWs were drawn up around three sides of a football field, and whilst this was in progress the Malang Kempeitai arrived in a truck carrying both Charlie and Eddie Poland. They were brought in with their hands manacled behind them, and were beaten — “very badly”, according to Pillai — in front of the other men for between fifteen and thirty minutes before being taken to the guardroom. The story that went around the camp was that they had arrived to collect their boat at an agreed rendezvous, where they were at once pounced upon by Japanese troops: the boat’s vendor had betrayed them for the sake of the reward of an extra 25 guilders, despite having already been paid the price of the boat.
Once the two men had been taken to the cells, Koboki announced that they would be shot, and that in future anyone else who escaped would also be shot, and so would their commanding officers.
A day or so later Welch was called to the tent again, this time to see an officer he knew as Major Misoi; his distinguishing feature was a “small black, Hitler-type moustache.” Welch protested, saying that the death sentence was far too stern a punishment for the crime. This interview was followed by the return to camp of Gordon and Cheesewright, who had been briefly held at another camp where it was clear they had been beaten up. They were also sent to the cells.
Whilst in the cells, where they were kept shackled, the men were interrogated by, amongst others, Major Mizoe Hachizo (clearly the same man as Welch’s Misoi), the Japanese with overall responsibility for the camp. He wanted to find out why and how they had escaped, but they refused to answer any of his questions. He claimed in his post-war statement that he had received orders from Singapore to execute the men.
An RAF man took the men their food, but they were allowed no other contact and were not permitted to leave messages for their families. During one such food delivery, one of the four prisoners handed over the compass on a piece of string, saying, “Tell the lads there is no getting away. The natives betrayed us.” This compass was buried soon after, when the Japanese searched the camp for radios and any other incriminating items.
On 2nd or 3rd May Welch made another attempt to have the punishment made less severe. He pleaded with Major Misoi, saying “that his threatened action was not in accordance with the high standards of morals which all the world knew was the predominant trait of the Japanese race.” He added in his witness statement, “It hurt my pride considerably to use such tactics but I was at a loss to know what to do.”
During the lunchbreak on the 4th May, Welch was called to the guardroom, where he found twelve armed Japanese and the four men, who had their hands tied and were linked to one another by a long rope. They were to be executed at 1400 hours.
With their guards, Welch and the padre, Paddy Rorke, they were taken up the road from the guardroom to the front of an earth-banked aircraft pen on the aerodrome; according to witnesses, they were preceded by a Bedford truck, loaded with piles of flowers and several spades. One witness recorded, “the behaviour of the four men was magnificent; no one would have guessed from their demeanour that they were going to their deaths. No sign of fear could be read upon their faces.” Two lorries mounted with machine guns and Japanese soldiers with fixed bayonets guarded the ranks of prisoners who were drawn up to watch. The camp commandant and his interpreter were dressed in traditional Japanese costume “as though to attend their noble Emperor”; the execution squad was clad in immaculate white.
When the mass of the POWs realised what was about to happen, “the ranks began to sway to and fro as though to break” but the order came through to “Hold it!” On an order from the Japanese major, some of the guards ran over, “whooping and laughing like children.” As the firing squad took up their positions, S/Leader Hardie said to the men near him, “There is nothing you can do, don’t try, but don’t forget this.” The men were blindfolded, though Eddie Poland refused.
Len Abbs recorded that “A volley of shots echoed round the mountains. Birds took to the air screeching wildly.” It took several volleys to bring the men down: one fell with the first volley, two with the second and one with the third. Even then, they were not dead: Len’s account continues, “In Heaven’s name, three were crawling about on the ground. Another order was barked out and more shots followed, Nip soldiers pointing their rifles to the men on the ground.” To make quite sure, the gunso took his pistol and shot each fallen man in the temple. “No one could believed what they had just seen.” Sidney Catt recalled, “I could hardly march away.”
Padre Paddy Rorke, a tall, burly man, was a soldier’s padre, not an officer’s padre. He had Len Abb’s respect, for he had, on being taken captive, changed his uniform for that of an airman, and he slept in their billets. That evening, Rorke explained to the men what had happened. It was apparently the custom to kill with a shot to the throat, but as three of the men had stood with their heads bowed, the first bullets had merely shattered their jaws.
Even witnessing these executions did not cow Paddy Rorke. At a later camp, in Soerabaya, he came across a Japanese guard energetically engaged in beating a prisoner with a rifle. Rorke took the rifle from the guard, stood to attention, bowed, and then handed the weapon back. The guard, astounded, almost hit him with the rifle, but then told Rorke to accompany him. The men were convinced that Rorke would be shot, or at the very least be beaten up, but three hours later he returned unscathed to his hut with a packet of Japanese cigarettes and some fruit: apparently the camp commander (“a true Bushido”) had admired the Padre’s courage, and “from that day some of the guards even saluted him.” According to another story, he tore pages from his breviary to be used as fag papers by the men. Post-war, he was Mentioned in Dispatches for his courage, as also were the four men who were killed at Malang: they are all there together, on the same page of the London Gazette, separated only by their ranks.
Although Rorke sought to reassure Len Abbs that the executions he had witnessed were the work of men, not of God, that seems to have been small comfort. Years later
Len commented, “It was oh so long ago. I still have nightmares.” It is an event he remains deeply reluctant to talk about, for he dreads re-awakening the images of that day.
A few weeks later, on 23rd May, there was another execution at Malang. This time the victims were Dutch, shot at the Dutch camp, but once again there were four victims, and once again one was a tall Eurasian; according to an eyewitness, Felix Bakker, he had “a handsome and earnest face, 28 years of age.”
Welch, in an unsigned copy letter included in the Malang file now held by the National Archives at Kew, stated that when he was later in No. 3 POW Camp, Bandoeng, he buried a steel document box which included, “A few personal belongings of the four prisoners executed at SINGOSARI…. It is hoped that these will also be forwarded to me as they would almost certainly be appreciated by the next of kin.” The recovery of the box was to be carried out by Lt. Col van der Post (that is, Laurens van der Post, later the author of The Lost World of the Kalahari.) Van der Post, however, recorded that although he oversaw a squad of Japanese POWs digging up the camp, almost none of the things that had been buried was recovered: his supposition was that spies in the camp had informed the guards about the burial of valuables amongst the records that van der Post and his colleagues were anxious to preserve. He assumed too that the guards’ greed ensured that they informed no one of the burial of the records, and thus the men who had buried them, van der Post and Welch amongst them, remained unpunished.It is crystal clear from van der Post’s account that he despised Eurasians, and I can’t help but wonder what he would have said if he had known whose possessions were amongst the things he was searching for, and how they had come to be there.
There are two more twists in the end of this tale. The first is that after the war, those responsible were tried at the war crimes trials in Singapore. On the 4th September 1947 both the Straits Times and the Malay Mail reported that Mizoe Hachico was to hang for his part in the deaths of four RAF men on Java, who had been shot following an escape. Mizoe Hachico must be Mizoe Hachizo and the four RAF must therefore have included Charlie. However, the dead men were not named and thus most of the family members then in Malaya were unable to make the connection between these events and Charlie.
However, travelling to the UK after her release from internment, my grandmother Violet was approached by a Ceylonese: Nagamany Damodaram Pillai. Was she, he enquired, any relative of Charlie Kenneison? Upon discovering that she was his stepmother, Pillai told her what had happened at Malang. Once in England, Violet passed the news on to Doris. Eventually, early in 1947, Doris wrote to Pillai asking for further details and he responded with a letter at once very gentle (towards her, towards Charlie) and very angry (towards the Japanese), and enclosing a copy of his testimony.
Even so, myths and rumours circulated until the 1980s when Charlie’s daughter Wendy came to England to discover the facts for herself, and was eventually able to locate her father’s grave: he and the others lie where they were buried that afternoon, unmarked but for a frangipani tree. When Charlie’s daughters finally found their father’s grave, they were told by the Indonesians that even a year or so later, Charlie and Eddie Poland would not have been betrayed: by then, they had come to understand the hollowness of the Japanese slogan “Asia for the Asians” and to detest their new masters.
The second twist is that my father at one point worked with the man who had designed the gallows on which Mizoe was hanged.
Charlie’s POW career was a short one. Had he not escaped, there is no knowing what would have become of him, where he would have ended up, whether he would have lived or died. A quarter of British prisoners in Japanese hands did not live to see the end of the war. A quarter. Mostly young men, mostly fit and healthy when they entered captivity, and a quarter of them did not survive the next three and a half years.
This can’t easily be ascribed to the fact that most of them – the vast majority – were entirely unfamiliar with the East, because even men who had lived all their lives there died in their droves. Charlie Kenneison, as we know already, didn’t make it. Charlie’s nephew, Ronnie Kenneison of the Singapore Signals, didn’t make it: the Japanese falsified the records of the camp where he was held, so we don’t know if he was worked to death in October 1944, or shot at the end of a death march in June 1945. The death toll of the men who comprised the 1 Malaya Field Ambulance tells another terrible story: these were young men, mostly Eurasian, who had volunteered for the RAMC. John Abad, Anthony Andree, scattered though the alphabet all the way to Colin White. I have identified almost thirty deaths of men from this unit and only one of them, Kingsley de Run, died during the fighting.
Behind them they left wives and children, girlfriends and sisters, mothers and fathers and brothers and cousins and friends. They left families and communities with holes torn in them, and what made it worse were the ways in which they died, and what they endured before they did. Sometimes what was already terrible was made worse by the simple fact of not knowing when. Out of every three men, there would be at least one whose date of death could not be known with certainty. All that anyone could be sure of was that they suffered first.
They died of malnutrition and deficiency diseases. They died of other diseases, made worse by the malnutrition. They died of diseases that could have been prevented by better hygiene or cured by minimal medical treatment, neither of which was possible in the circumstances in which they were held. They died on the job: they died when rocks fell on them, or when great baulks of timber fell on them, or when graves they were digging caved in on them. They died after beatings, during and after forced marches. And they died from friendly fire: the Japanese shipped their POWs (as well as large numbers of conscripted Asian civilians) around their short-lived empire to use as slave labour. They did not identify these transports, and they also often shipped their prisoners with cargo such as rubber and tin and other commodities useful to the war effort, and, inevitably, many thousands of POWs lost their lives at sea.
Charlie’s story is by no means unique, but is unusual in that the men immediately responsible were taken to trial, and there were surviving witnesses to give statements, which were neatly filed and carefully stored. Because of this, we know, in some detail, what happened to him. It’s not the same with his nephew Ronnie: there was a trial but, from a group of 300 men, there wasn’t a single survivor to bear witness. The only testimony came from onlookers, civilians who reported what they had seen, but who did not know the names of the prisoners they saw. My father’s uncle and aunt, Pat and Tilly Whatmore, died in a massacre of more than sixty civilians, men, women, children, babes in arms, in Johore in March 1942. Again, no survivors: no one will ever know what sparked that morning’s slaughter.
People vanish in the fog of war. Millions go into it and never come out again, but at least with Charlie we know what happened to him, and we know why.