Harry Worboys Tocock
Royal Air Force
Marine Craft Branch
Leaflet dropped on RAF Seletar January 1942 - In between bombs
Captured at sea aboard M.V. Rompin 16th February 1942.
Transported to Bangka, Sumatra (Palembang)
NO BED OF ROSES #2 - THE CAMP
By Harry W. Tocock
We were given a rough ride to a place about 4 miles from Palembang and up a dusty lane where we found a crowd of natives already cutting down trees and clearing jungle, much to the annoyance of the monkey inhabitants, and some huts were already erected.
As we cleared the trees we saw the river Musi some miles away and on the opposite bank the huge oil complex of Pladjoe. Each hut, about 150 feet long was made of interlaced bamboo, covered with a thatch of palm leaves, a hole left here and there in the sides for windows, and the good earth for a floor. About 2 feet from the ground were platforms of bamboo slats running the whole length and both sides of the hut- these were our “beds”, 28 inches by 70 inches per man. We soon found to our initial horror, that we soon began to take on permanent “boarders”- and I'm sure we were the originators of the phrase “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em”. We each separated our allowance of space and tried putting each out in the sun all day, but the insects were tough, mighty tough, in the East and they rejoined us at night.
One such hut, away from the others was the “death house” as many went in, but few came out alive.
When dusk fell a sound like Max Jaffa tuning up would fill the air- the Mosquitoes were on the rampage, and I thought longingly of my 'Mozzie net' back at Seletar. By this time, the sight of us running around practically naked offended the Japanese and each man was given an Army issue loin cloth, which was to be our uniform to the end, but our feet became so tough we could have cracked coconuts with them.
Although mixing well out on working parties, the Services tended to keep to its own and I was in a 'Mess' of a dozen or so R.A.F. We were allowed no lights, and after a 10 hour stint out in the blazing sun or the rain we just sat on our 'beds' and talked. and the prime subject? no, ladies, the main topic was food- food in all its varieties from every pub and caf we knew; from the full menu at the Ritz to bangers and mash at “Joe” Lyons. If we'd had the choice of a 'pin-up' then, it would not have been Betty Grable but a full size colour photo of a crusty loaf. Our menu at that time was still not too bad- about 450g of rice per day- 'Mush' or wet rice in the morning, dry rice and river weed 'soup' for lunch and a repeat of the latter when we got back to camp at night. Under 'Jap' supervision we rounded up all the dogs left behind by their Dutch owners and they went into the pot, but sad to say all we got was the 'gravy' left in the pots. A piece of meat came into the camp about every 2 or 3 weeks, for the first couple of years most of it going to the Hospital. The remainder gave each man maybe two small pieces about the size of an Oxo cube when it was the turn of his 'Mess'. Our utensils were old tins, I was the proud owner of a Cadillac hub-cap and the spoons were made out of any old bits of metal that could be found. We drank no water... we had dug 2 or 3 holes which led down to about a foot of liquid mud, useless as water, but it did bring some Frogs which enhanced our diet.
By this time disease was rife, everyone had tropical ulcers, and the cases of Dysentery and Beri-Beri increased each day. There was eventually a grave-digging party, who, granted an extra 50g of rice per day did nothing else but dig pits. There was no wood, and we had to use one coffin of Bamboo, open at one end, the corpse sliding down into the pit.
Sick parade was a horrible farce. The M.O. Stood under a Palm tree clad in spectacles, beard, a resigned expression, stethoscope and tattered shorts in that order, and it was always the same question, Sigh “how are your bowels?”.. “Awful Doc, squittering as usual”.. Sigh “Give him charcoal, orderly”. Charcoal- the only specific the poor doc. Had, as the meagre medical supplies from the Jap's had soon gone.
Beatings were now part of life, some deaths resulting directly from them. Forget to bow to a guard no matter how many times you were passing him, even whistling, and of course trying to bring in some small loot from a working party brought a battering, and our own C.O. Complained bitterly to the Camp Commandant. The translated reply was “You stupid British, spend hours looking at books, writing papers, then man off work all time running around with things tied to his back, all time no work. We Japanese, man naughty, stand up, have good beating, go back to work” And that's how it was. The Jap's could not understand it, but we gradually became immune- not to the pain, but to the actual taking of blows. The Jap interpreter told our C.O.- “Cannot understand you British surrender like coward now live like hero in this muck”. It was truly discipline, both self and service wise
that got us through. Our camp C.O., a Royal Navy Commander came through our stinking hut one wet day on “Captains Rounds”, followed by the Master at Arms and retinue. He wore naval Gold-braided Cap, well patched green shorts and lovingly preserved boots. He squelched to a stop as he spied a prized old piece of rag hanging on the rafter. “Haul that thing down” he said, a twinkle in his eye.. “makes the place look untidy”.
An amusing incident took place when a young sub-Lieutenant, in charge of the camp party that spread 'fertiliser' from the latrines to the guard's vegetable plots, was jealous of the fact that officers in charge of outside working parties had armbands and he had not. The Jap's gave him a small silk one which he wore proudly while at the head of the lads wheeling the 'fertiliser' drums. He couldn't understand why the guards tittered every time he passed, and he completely lost interest in his job when he found out that the characters on his arm band denoted “Licensed Army Prostitute”!
The only place where lighting was allowed, home-made efforts of course, was the 'Hospital', and my friend Dick, dying of Dysentery wanted to read one of the few tattered books going the rounds - “This Above All”, by Eric Knight. He lay with his eyes closed, a mere skeleton, and I droned on until the lad laying next to us said “You can pack it in, Dick's dead”....
One Christmas Jan, an R.A.F. Cook, decided if we got him a few odds and ends, damn, he'd make a cake. We managed to smuggle in a few beans in our loincloths; a lad proudly produced a small unlabelled bottle which he said was fruit juice and, Damn, Jan did make something remotely resembling a cake. It tasted foul, and so were the after effects- the 'fruit juice' was “Syrup Of Figs”!
This then was the general run of camp life, very dull, it was being on the outside working parties that made life tolerable, despite the harder-than-hard work.
Written at Tayport, Scotland, c. 1984. Transcribed from the article published in FEPOW FORUM, Number 84/4, July/ August Edition, 1984.
LIFE IN HIROHITO'S FINISHING SCHOOL, 1942- 45
By Harry Worboys Tocock
I will not bore the reader (if any) with all our capers at sea, and in the jungle after the fall of Singapore. I start this feat of memory at the time we took up residence at Sungei Rhon, near the town of Palembang, Sumatra.
Part 1- Life
Jungle was cleared and our bamboo and Atlap huts erected, each man had 27 inches of bamboo slats to live on, and sleep- on our backs because a lip caught between the slats- agony! We soon learned to exist with the bugs and lice, having no water we remained in constant filth.
After some weeks of airfield construction our remnants of clothing just gave up, soon we were virtually naked and the sight of so many- well, the sight offended the Japanese eyes apparently and we were issued a Jap loincloth which was to last for 3.5 years. Time, as with clocks and watches meant nothing to us; we turned out at dawn, slurped a half pint of wet rice and a scratch and the lorries arrived for working parties.
A day at the docks unloading cement ships- a heavy sack of cement on our sweat streaming backs giving them a surface which I describe as wet sandpaper- from the ship, up to the stack men in the Godown, and a minute of relief as we padded barefoot back to the ship not forgetting to bow to our guard, who reclined on a stack of bags of rice. And “oil drum party”, load barges with red-hot empties- across the river to the refinery to load up with full ones. Then back to the docks and unload them. There was one “Good” task where we loaded ice at the factory- where chunks of ice would be 'knocked off' but brought a beating- a very common experience! We had no water except in the monsoon; nothing to drink and the rice made us pee a lot, and the river weed soup which we lived on “helped”.
I look back in wonder that some of us managed to survive, several of us woke up one morning to find we had Scrotum trouble- turned purple and even the touch of our cotton loincloth was too much to bear. Mozzies, bugs and lice were just part of the existence- it was cold at night, nothing to cover me, and we awoke shivering at dawn only to be baked and par-boiled when out at work. To this day if, in a hot summer I cannot sweat, no relief that way: I just bake!
Most of us were fairly dotted with tropical ulcers and it was our 'Doc' Reid that pioneered the use of maggots to clear the sores. One Dutch working party thought they had a cure, working near the Musi River downstream of the town they got permission from the guard to have a dip- they were mostly tropical ulcer sufferers and to their surprise tiny fish were partial to them. Reporting this to the M.O. (Doc Reid ) he was not pleased as he said the filthy condition of the water could do more harm than good.
Our enemies were- JAPS, Malaria, Dysentery, Dengue fever, Typhoid, Ulcers etc. I don't include the bugs and lice they were guests. I and another lad had Typhoid right at the beginning, he died.
No water, except in the Monsoon when we had too much and had no towels, not even rags and we just staggered back into our huts, and shivered until we dried off. The camp would be a sea of mud, an effort to put one foot in front of another.
One awful fact is that I was NEVER alone in these four years. In the huts, on working parties, squatting on the plank in the latrines, always someone there; one does not appreciate being on one's own, till the communal feeling wears off, very quickly.
The Latrines, or 'Benjo', was a deep pit with a plank across it upon which one had to squat. I did not hear of anyone tumbling in- it's a wonder. The Dutch, or some them, dropped a tin on a line, scooping up maggots from the seething mass below them and cooking them. I couldn't eat them, although, as a Dutch Officer stated “full of vitamins!”
It is my opinion (criticised by some) that working and sweating jobs all day helped to keep us going- if we had hung around the huts with little to do all day we would have lots of time to dwell on our awful state, lots of thinking of our loved ones at home- and would we keep alive until release? The Officers didn't have to work- card parties, lectures etc. to pass the time. An Officer was allowed to be in charge of a working party, but when one was beaten for something that one of us had done wrong the practice ceased!
As time went by, so did the death toll- we had one bamboo coffin with an open end- the corpse moved into an open ditch as the rear of the coffin was lifted. We had a permanent 'Grave Party' who dug them all day, (and got a slightly larger ration of rice than the outside workers). Death was always present- on two separate occasions I awoke to find a neighbour dead, on his 27 inches of bamboo slats.
The Apes, yelping and howling in the trees at night didn't bother us, but their counterparts, who made a habit of calling “TENKO” at 2 or 3 AM certainly did. Not bothering to count us they would keep us shivering in the cold of night.
I started saying a silent prayer at night- there's nothing like pain or mortal danger to put one in the mood!
Eating Irons were were a bother at first, but soon solved- in the 'Happy' times, early on, when we still wore remnants of our Khaki Drill we cleaned out a Hospital and I left, the owner of a 'Spitting Mug”- new! Which took care of my ration of river weed soup. Then, with a gang breaking up old cars (red hot in the blazing sun) I knocked off a rusty Chrysler hub- cap. I took it to the Jap guard, bowed, and made motions of eating rice, pointing to myself. To my surprise he just nodded- another bow and I was away with a rice plate! A spoon was made from a piece of aircraft metal and I was thus equipped for the next 3.5 years. Filling the utensils was the trouble, never enough of our rice ration and river weed soup. I soon proved – to myself at least- that the only way to exist was to forget all the comforts, and relatives, and civilisation, and take each miserable day as it came.
Were there any lighter moments? Well, I do remember one. Our 'Gang' were digging the country side for the Jap's vegetable gardens when 'Ginger' downed Chunkle (a spade like tool only used like a pick-axe)- are you with me? Ginger unearthed a skull and held it up at arms length, crying “Alas, poor Yorik, I knew him well”. The Jap guard did not appreciate Shakespeare as he gave Ginger several thumps with a stick for stopping work! It was an Indonesian burial ground we were working on and we came across some skeletons but ignored them.
An Insight into the Japanese mind
Now, for an insight into the Japanese mind- who can explain or fathom it? Here are two examples.
- 1. It was morning Tenko and the Corporal I/c Camp Guards was standing there, not uttering a word, but sobbing, tears giving forth. His pet monkey had died.
- 2. We were halted at the camp gates, coming in from work. 6 or 8 Jap's formed a circle, inside which one of them had a dog by the hind leg, swinging the animal around and bashing it's head on the ground until it was dead- all laughing like kids at play. The dog was then thrown to the cook house for the Jap's supper. I have to say that we felt like the “Bisto Kids” as the smell of the stew wafted through our huts.
We had one rest day a week, not from any generosity on the part of the Jap's- they would lose most of their slaves without a break.
Sickness was rife- but going 'Sick' and confined to camp meant “no rations”- of course the mates of the victim would help out with a little of their own ration, at night. The 'Death' hut was a hut like any other from the outside, but lined inside with rows of dying men. On a more cheerful note (?) dogs, whose Dutch owners had fled, were being brought into camp by the guards. Pups in particular made a tender stew. One bitch however, 'Daisy' joined the working parties always getting back in time to go 'home'; she was allowed because of her prolific output of pups. One night the now familiar aroma of stew reached us and one brave lad of our gang volunteered to see if there was any left over by the Jap's. He returned, with the largest tin we could muster, of dog soup. Much smacking of lips and belching. Next morning we clambered up into the work truck and some called out for daisy- then we noticed the camp guards all in battle order and a strange set of guards taking over- KOREANS!
No daisy, tailboard up and away, some one shouted “Good old daisy, faithful to the end”. Actually it made us all even more off-colour than usual.
Illness was rife all the time- Doc Reid R.N.V.R., made his surgery beneath a palm-tree, clad in shorts, boots, naval cap and stethoscope. He'd say “How are your bowels?” “Terrible, Doc” reply from patient- Doc, to Orderly “Charcoal, who's next?” 8 out of 10 found themselves in the “Hospital hut”, much like our own but lined inside with the dead, dying and the maybes.
By late 1943 both physical and mental powers were at a low ebb. We worked, and lived like robots but still the frenzied cries of the Korean Guards “LEKAS- LEKAS” (HURRY UP). We had no water to drink, or wash in, and our bodies what with the de-hydration and starvation and disease were in a mess. I would have sold my soul to the devil for a COCA-COLA!
We lived, too, under the shadow of the dreaded KEMPI-TAI- equivalent to the German 'Gestapo'.
Here is an instance:
We were at work in Palambang's docks , and among us, carrying a sack of rice, was Cpl. Saunders. He was in a better state than most- when a Jap Officer, half-pissed bumped into him, then hit Saunders repeatedly in the face. Saunders dropped the rice and gave the nip a blow which knocked him down. Saunders was taken away by the Kempi-Tai- 3 days later our commander was informed that Saunders had died of 'Beri-Beri'- the truth as was later found to be was that the lad had been tortured to death.
If any reader has come this far, I make no apology for awful writing, etc. and I just pen the facts.
One night a Hurricane hit camp, collapsing a few huts- ours was leaning at a right-angle ready to go when one of my gang left the comparative safety of the 'Parade Ground' and ran back into our hut, emerging with a banana! Risk life for a Banana- certainly!
Punishment now: beatings and clenched fist blows to the head were normal. I had my quota. Torture I did not have but I have witnessed examples- a man filled with water and a gang of Jap's jumping on his distended stomach; or tied to a tree in the hideous glare of the sun, one Jap went up to the victim with a can of water- and dashed it to the ground.
Opposite the guardroom were two 'Hutches' 4 Feet square where 'wrong-doers' were pushed and hardly able to move- 2 days of this could break the spirit of any man.
I forgot to mention “Doc” Reid's attempt to find 'cures' with local herbs, with no success. I remember one change in our diet- a consignment of sea-slugs! Tasty, but our weak stomachs could not take such rich fare!
By late 1944 our morale and physical strength had dropped to zero. I think we all had the feeling, when we lay on our bamboo at night (no light except the cold face of the moon) that we might not see morning.
Hurrying to the latrines with an urgent message was hazardous- at night- the guard flashing a bayonet, on our route and uttering a strange cry.
Then came the allied raids on the oil refinery on the opposite river bank. The camp guards were jittery, with reason- one bomb killed a guard and another made a crater at the bottom of which we saw muddy water- and frogs. The latter were worked into our diet with no ill effects.
Then came the day when the crew of a downed RAF bomber were brought into camp. How white was their skin- and all clothed! They told us of the first Atomic bomb on Japan, and of aircraft that didn't have propellers! But this was only the overture to the main event.
The beginning of the end.
We were told, openly, that Japan had surrendered after an awful second Atomic bomb and felt stunned by the news. We heard later that, had the allies come ashore on the mainland all P.O.W.'s were to be killed.
Next day we lounged around camp with the almost forgotten experience of not having anything to do. Then we heard the Guard Commander call “KIUTSKI” (attention) and a kind of vehicle (Jeep) came to a dust-raising stop at the Guardroom. There emerged from the car a vision in crisp Khaki - Lady Mountbatten, with two Royal Marine Officers. She wanted to visit and talk to our men in the huts, but not with general support; she used her vehicle as a pulpit and mobile “prisoners” - I should say ex-P.O.W.'s- formed a circle around her. Her address was short and to the point- “all of us were to be away first as soon as possible” (actually 2 days). Most of us considered Edwina a “get things done” type and I think we were right.
We were issued suits of Khaki drill, shoes, etc.; some of the guards staggered up with mattresses, but were told to “stuff them”; we'd slept rough for 3.5 years, another couple of nights made no difference. Some natives from town 'de-bugged' the place, I saw no point as all the huts were being burned on our departure.
I must mention here that two allied bombers (RAF) came over and dropped food and goodies; one jar of a popular hair cream was dropped on its own parachute “For the Brylcream Boys”!
Then tragedy - one came in too low, a wing-tip hit a tree and it crashed- I can say that tears flowed.
In their favour, the Jap's buried the crew with full military honours Going Home
The first step was flying us to Singapore (I was terrified and not alone), however we arrived safely and I was with a platoon of Army lads for a few days (it shook them when I asked “could I please have a piece more bread?”
Then down the after hold of an old Blue-funnel steamer and now on a slow boat to Liverpool.
1. Very soon in captivity there appeared the first stirring of natural comradeship which sprung up between men isolated from all normal experience, and caught in the same web of circumstances which only they could properly understand.
2. These few pages are only the prcis of the whole- it has taken better writers than me to write a number of Far East P.O.W. BOOKS.
3. Our toe and finger nails did not grow for 3 years, due to vitamin deficiency.
4. About 30 of us had the 'Purple Plague', a hard and purple scrotum which cleared up within two weeks, and nobody even today (1998) knows it's cause, etc.
5. Beri-Beri took more lives, well, on a par with dysentery.
6. Apparently one red Cross consignment reached Palembang, but the Jap's took everything except blanc-mange powder which went to the sick hut, and 10 cigarettes of 'doubtful' Tobacco.
7. All the medicines were removed and sent to Singapore. Our Doc (Reid) was mad about it and complained forcibly to the Jap Officer Doctor who was very sorry but “could do nothing”. Just let the poor sods die, less to feed!
8. Waiting at Palembang for the old 'Dakota' to uplift us to Singapore we began a question spree- “what's the thing you crave for most- two said “the ladies”, two said “roast beef and Yorkshire Pud” and two (I was one) said they longed for a British Lavatory seat AND a solid C***!”
9. An RAF lad and myself mysteriously got Chicken Pox. Ten days of heaven- we were kept in solitary; while the Jap's are brave in battle they are cowards where illness is concerned. A head, complete with face mask, would peer round the door at TENKO time “Ichi-We”- the head would count and disappear quickly! (This was before Sungei Rhon, in an old school with a concrete floor.
Harry died in 1999
Rest in peace your story told