As told by
Elizabeth B Norton
This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me….
Grave jumper is the story of an Australian soldier who survived for more than three years as a prisoner of war of the Japanese, during World War II, in the Pacific. Its major focus is the period of four months from the Fall of Singapore – Allied Surrender to Japan on 15 Feb 1942 to the time to his capture, during which, stranded alone behind enemy lines, he lived off the land and his wits.
In a global sense, it may be seen as a story of man, in every place, and in all times, who has survived the horrors of human conflict. It is a story of the human spirit determined to prevail against the brutality of war and its rigours of starvation, terror, loneliness, illness and degradation.
Although Gravejumper fits the genre of a survival story, it is, of course, unique. I hope it will read and be treasured by Claude Dow’s descendants, who will then know the nature of the physical and mental stock from which they spring. It is essential that the story be documented for the people of Western Australia, ‘Lest We Forget’ the men and women who defended our country, and those who paid the ultimate price, in the line of duty. These people speak to us through the memories of survivors like Claude Dow, showing us yet again, the ultimate waste, suffering and futility of war.
To academic researchers, personal accounts such as this are essential to the deeper understanding of significant historical events. Collections of such individual stories fall together like pieces of a kaleidoscope, adding colour, depth, and human perspective to the stark facts and dates of battles, invasions and casualties.
His experiences in the Pacific, and his ability to prevail over the effects of severe mental and physical suffering, have surely influenced Mr Dow’s character and philosophy of life. He lived his life a patriotic man, a loyal friend, and a proud parent. At the age of 81, always immaculately groomed and dressed, Claude Dow radiates dignity and integrity. Underlying these qualities, Claude was well known for his great sense of humour. There is little doubt he was an Aussie Larrikin. He was an avid and generous gardener, which I believe is a manifestation of his respect for life, and Earth’s bounty, as only those who have experienced starvation could know and express. Perhaps it is also a silent gesture of gratitude for his own life, which would surely have been lost, but for the kindness of the Malayan fishermen, who shared their fish and garden produce with him. Claude Dow was a close friend of my father, and is one of the finest gentlemen it has been my privilege to know. He has earned the title Gravejumper.
Elizabeth B. Norton
April 5th 1998
Four months after the capitulation of Singapore, most of the men in Changi POW camp already appeared skinny, half-starved human wrecks, their bedraggled shorts hanging in folds from gaunt hips. Yet, they seemed well fed and spruce, compared to the emaciated shadow of a man who is bought in one day from Outram Road Jail. This specimen of Jungle Man who bore all the marks of deprivation on his haggard features and bony frame, had long been given up for dead, having been reported missing in the battle for Singapore. To his incredulous mates, he seemed the manifestation of a true miracle, a man reincarnated!
I was that man. WX17591 Private Claude Dow of Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion. My mates had last seen me in the vicious fighting after the Japanese invasion of Singapore. This is my story:
Like many others, I had been cut off from the rest of my unit in the confusion as hordes of Japs overran the Australian troops, severely outnumbered, who had tried to stem the ‘yellow tide’ of invaders. I had tried, and failed, so ran the gauntlet through the enemy lines to re-join my own troops. It was impossible to cross enemy lines because of the sheer density of Nippon units, which covered the island. That morning our unit had been chopped to pieces as the Japs swarmed over Singapore Island from the Jahore Straits. I fell in with two Aussie mates, and we all decided to hide up in a patch of bracken until nightfall. Perhaps we could, under the cover of darkness, work our way back to the relative safety of our own battalion. We knew that the Japanese would certainly be under orders to shoot to kill.
We had arrived in Singapore only weeks before, and did not know much of the lay of the land, or the sympathies of its inhabitants, mostly Chinese and Malays. Now we were bewildered and terrified animals trapped in the very heart of the hunter’s camp. Even before this realisation ingrained itself fully, we heard the approaching sound of Japanese boots! All three of us lay face down in the bracken. My heart was pounding like a jackhammer. Perhaps they wouldn’t see us!
This frail hope died hard when we heard excited babble of voices, like a flock of cockatoos coming upon a corn patch. We had been spotted! I could see my two mates lying a few feet from me, motionless, all of us hoping by the Southern Cross the Japs would take us for corpses. There were many bodies wearing Aussie boots lying in the narrow strip between the mangrove swamps and the belt of jungle we had hoped to reach for cover. Our only hope there was to pretend to be dead. To make a blood and glory attempt to take on a whole Japanese patrol would be stupidity, certain suicide! Is this ‘it’, I wondered, simultaneously wondering what ‘it’ was, and what it would feel like.
They were very close now, standing over us! The roar of rifles and a sense of doom had deadened my mind. I felt the smack as the bullet seemed to hit low, against my belly. I lay breathless, waiting for the next shot, when to my disbelief, I heard the Jap patrol moving away. There was no pain! As soon as I dared. I felt carefully for blood. There was none! The bullet had hit the ground and spat of the dirt forcefully against my shirt. When finally, I dared to move again, one glance at my companions told me they were no longer feigning death.
The Jap may have been a good soldier, but he couldn’t shoot straight, or he had a lousy gun, or I wouldn’t be here to tell my story. By some kind of miracle, I was alive, but I knew that my chances of staying alive for any length of time we are very, very dim.
Now I was alone in the country I did not know, surrounded by the enemy, and possessing nothing but the clothes on my body. It was a grim business, but I took a water bottle from one of my unfortunate companions, and a can of herring. The latter turned out to be spoiled, having been pierced by a rifle slug. This was a blow, because I was very hungry, having had only a handful of raisins to eat since early morning.
At dusk, I started to move towards the jungle, but realised immediately it was a mistake. Shells from our own artillery rained around me, and were falling too close to be healthy. I was well beyond the Jap lines, and the stuff falling around me was from the offshore coastal batteries. I felt I had been through too much to be killed by ‘friendly fire’, which is just as deadly as the other kind, so I was forced to hold up in the bracken again.
The complete cover of nightfall set me in motion. The enemy was moving forward, and I knew I would have to follow them up, somehow get through their lines, before I could meet up with our own troops again. The hunted animal was now following his hunters, afraid that at any moment they could turn and finish him off. I observed that each Nippon Company seemed to be under its own command, independent of other units. Perhaps they had been given a general destination and objectives, and were working towards them with only some loose system of coordination.
Keeping to what I considered quiet country, I moved on as fast as I could but then realised that extreme caution was my only hope of survival. No matter how quiet the area. I was always in danger of running up against a Jap unit. More than once, I nearly stumbled upon a resting enemy unit, but was alerted by the chatter and noise. For days I hid up in jungle and bracken, and edged forward at night through strange and sinister country, I would’ve starved but for the Chinese vegetable gardens scattered throughout the deserted Kampongs. At least, they seemed deserted. Many times, I saw the natives sling by, but I could not tell whether they were Malays or Japanese. Apparently, the Chinese had fled in terror in front of the Japanese, or had been slaughtered, or were lying ‘doggo’ most of the time.
My constant and gnawing hunger was only partially satisfied by the sweet potatoes and runner beans snatched from the tiny gardens and eaten raw, but these vegetables tasted better and sweeter than any food I had eaten before. Sunday, 15th of February, was just another day for me hiding in a swamp about 200 yards behind a regiment of Jap artillery. But an unusual and unnatural silence fell at dusk, and I knew that something big must’ve happened. What it was, I could only guess, and was afraid to face. The guns remained silent, and the rumble of bombs on Singapore died away. It could only mean surrender or an evacuation by our side.
As daunting as this was, food was still my immediate concern. I rustled around on old shack, where I found a raw egg, a coconut and some more ‘sweet bucks’. In the morning, I decided that I would have to get off the island, and at about 6am started off towards the coast. I had an optimistic notion that I would get a boat and head for home. As I made my way through a patch of rubber trees, I came upon a Chinese house, and decided to approach the owner for food. Perhaps, I thought, if he had a smattering of English, I could find out what had happened to our troops.
I crept to the back door and peed inside. Lying prone on the dirt floor was the Chinese owner, with a bullet hole through his body. Knowing that anything left in the place would be of no use to him now, I searched for food, but the Japs had ransacked the place. I picked up a few old Coulee clothes, which I thought might help me avoid detection, and got going. Dodging both nips and natives, I came across many Chinese homes, which had all been ransacked. There were no signs of the families, so I helped myself to the vegetable gardens, my only source of food on Singapore. I remember finding an old pair of shorts with a string through the top. These are made into a neck string the cat carry bag for my beans, and coconuts, by tying the legs together, and tossing the string as a handle.
Two days later I came across a bomb crater half full of water and wondered whether it might be better water than I’d been drinking from pools and swamps. Then I noticed a tin of salmon, a container of butter, and the tops of three bottles of Malayan Tiger Beer, sticking out of the top of the bag, which was half submerged in the water. With this booty in my swag I dodged into a patch of scrub, where I sat down and had a picnic! As I knocked the top off the first bottle of Tiger, I reflected that anyone who drank with the flies for preference was probably a madman. The first bottle hardly seemed to wash away the mud clinging to my throat from the sweet bucks, or the taste of swamp water. Feeling better, I decided the rest of the beer would be best carried inside me. It certainly was a bracer, and leaving this fruitful spot, I had a nosy around and found an Aussie blanket, which I also took with me.
I knew it was risky business to be traveling in daylight, but reckoned I have that a better chance of keeping a direct course towards the coast, if I could take by bearing from the sun, as it at over me. I have not gone far, when instinct told me to stop. I found myself on the edge of a burned out Ack-Ack post with about a dozen Japs nosing around the ruined weapon. I guess that the position has been blown up by some of our boys, before they surrendered. Lucky for me, I had not been seen, and made a detour around the Ack-Ack through a small Chinese Kampong. At least one Chinese saw me and I made signs to him that I was hungry, but he waved me away, and I knew he was terrified of Japanese detection. He hurried inside, and not knowing whether they were unfriendly Malays about, I reckoned it was time for Mrs Dow’s little boy to be on his way again!
Sneaking away from this part of the village, I found myself in water above my knees, which I realise later, was brackish tidal water from the ocean. However, I dodged this wet patch and made my way to the other side of the village where the country was very open. I found there was a main road about 100 yards in front of me, so I decided to hole up until dark, picking up a couple of coconuts to chew on during the afternoon. I also noticed a pipeline snaking towards the coast on an embankment built through a mangrove swamp, and thinking it was an oil line, I reckon it would be certain to have a boat at the end of it.
At dusk I was on the move again, traveling in a crouching position along the pipe, so that if someone was coming towards me in the opposite direction, I would be able to spot him against the skyline. After traveling about an hour in the fashion. I made out some sailing ships anchored off to my right. My hopes were shattered when I realised, they were Japanese, and the only thing I could do was to make my way back along the pipeline.
By the time I got back to the road I was feeling pretty well ‘cheesed off’, as the Poms say. Perhaps anger made me reckless and defiant, or perhaps I was just simply tired of crawling like an unwanted cur, or an insect through swamp and pest infested scrub, but I decided to walk boldly and openly along the main road. I continued walking without being seen, for about two miles. After being set upon by a couple of howling dogs, I left the road, passed a few huts and finally reached the foreshore.
Okay! I have reached the ocean, but without a boat, I was no better off than I had been back in the interior. Finding a boat, therefore, became my next all-consuming objective. There was, some huts on the foreshore, but I had no way of knowing whether they contained friend or foe. I fell asleep on the sand about 50 yards behind them, and upon waking in the morning took cover behind some shrubs from which I could watch the huts. I kept them under surveillance for several hours, and finally judged them to be empty. My need for food and water was becoming desperate, so I headed for a larger house about 200 yards away, which may contain food and water.
To reach the house, I would have to cover about 40 yards of open ground. At this point, I almost stumbled upon a gang of Japs repairing a small breakwater, but I was so desperate for food and water that I was willing to take the chance of detection. I crawled on my belly over the open ground, expecting to hear a roar from the Nips at every moment, but somehow, I managed to negotiate the distance without raising the alarm. Inside the house I found only a barrel of water, since it had been thoroughly raked over by the Japs.
At this point, I realised that I had left my three water bottles behind in the sand! Of course, we have been instructed to drink only boiled or chlorinated water, because of the danger of dysentery, cholera or other diseases and parasites. For the past week, I had tried to drink the cleanest water available, but here was treasure! A shiny gallon drum of freshwater. I had to go back and try to fill up my water bottles. I bought the bottles down to the house by using an alternate route, and was just about to start filling them, when I heard Japanese voices outside! They were coming towards the house, and I had to act fast!
The house was built upon piles, with one door in the front and two at the back. The Nips were coming, I thought to the front door, so I diced my water bottles and scrambled to the back door like a terrified rabbit! I could feel my heart pounding! I was out the back door, before I realised that the Japs were on bikes, and had come around to the back of the house, apparently on a raiding party. Simultaneously, I started down the steps, at the same instant as about four Japs were mounting the steps to the other backdoor about 4 feet away from me! Time stood still, and I acted without thinking, without daring to think! Had they and I stretched out arms we could’ve played ‘handies’. Why they didn’t see me, I still don’t know! It was bright daylight. How could they have not seen me? This incident will remain forever one of the great mysteries of my life.
I slipped under the house and lay there shaking, disbelieving, hardly daring to breathe, until I heard the Japs ride away. It occurred to me through confused and reeling thought, that I had dumped my heavy work-boots sometime back. I had considered the protective function of boots, to be offset by the advantage of being able to sneak around barefoot, silently and quickly, like a cat. Was this what had saved me? By this time, I had also abandoned my rifle for similar reasons, but I still had two bayonets concealed in a filthy old shirt. I reflected on my appearance at this stage. Unshaven and caked in mud, I must’ve been a frightful site.
It was obvious that there were too many Japs in this area, so after hiding up for the rest of the day, I climbed a nearby hill and found a soak of clean water on the side of it. By sunrise the next morning, the view from the hilltop revealed another road on the other side of the hill. As I made towards it, I came across an old dump of broken cases. I poked around them for food, and came across some cardboard containers, sealed at both ends. Not wanting to tarry, I stuffed a few of the containers into my bundle, and began climbing the hill on the other side of the road. Almost immediately, I heard a unit of Japs marching along the road I had just crossed. I took cover to watch and observed about 50 of them march down the road and stop at the foot of the hill. The next thing, I realised that they were coming rapidly in my direction! Leaving my bundle, I crawled around the hilltop to find better cover. I wondered what they were up to, and it eventually dawned on me that they were burning dead bodies. The gruesome work went on all day, and the stench of acrid smoke filled the air all around.
When the enemy finally disappeared, I crept back for my bundle but it had been discovered and ratted. My blankets and a whole coconut were missing (the Japs too were living off the land). I found a few pieces of coconut shell and ate the meat ravenously, my first taste of food that day. A sudden rain shower drenched me as I searched an old battlefield for some scraps of food and was lucky enough to find a few old stale army biscuits. I ate them as only a starving man would, hardly noticing the tropical rain which continued to drench me. (Months later, back in captivity, I found out that the sealed containers I had been forced to abandon, had only contained gunpowder)
That night I slept under a mango tree, and found in the morning that ripe fruit had fallen during the night brought down by the rain and light winds. They were veritable manner from heaven. I collected about a dozen to make a breakfast feast. Soon I saw a group of Malays searching for the very fruit I had just gathered. I had always avoided the Malays, not knowing whether they were friend or foe, and believing that they would turn you into the Japanese to better their own position with the enemy. I lay quiet until they had passed by. Dodging the Japs was hard enough but having to avoid the Malays too put my nerves on edge to the point that getting off the island became an obvious with me. I was willing to try to escape on anything that would float, and set out with the immediate object of putting as much distance between Singapore and myself as possible. I had no idea how to go about it, and decided to leave it in the lap of the gods knowing with certainty, that if I continued to live the life of a wild animal, the hunters and their pack would be in full cry at my heels.
Finding a boat had come to mean so much to me, that when I eventually did come across one, my ticker jumped and pounded with joy. It had been placed upside down on a pair of trestles near a Chinese house. After a quick look around I sneaked from cover to examine the craft and found it to be a small fishing boat about 10 feet long with a beam about 3ft 6in wide. In the empty house I found an oar about 3ft 6in long. I trimmed it with my jack-knife, and planted it in my hideout.
That afternoon I climbed a tree as a lookout, to decide which way I would try to depart. The ocean was about 600 yards distance, and I plotted a line of direction to the nearest water. I would have to wait until nightfall to get the boat down to the water, and to make the task easier, I set out to explore the proposed route to the ocean. Fortunately, there was plenty of cover, consisting of trees, bamboo, shrubs and Lalang grass. I felt like whistling as I made my way along the bank of a creek. It seemed that I had been up so many blind alleys, and faced with so many setbacks in the last few days but at last fate might be siding with me. With my thoughts set on that bright possibility of escape, they were immediately whipped back to reality with a rude shock, like the sobering of a mellow minded drunk, struck in the face with a bucket of cold water. I heard voices ahead of me, and I barely had time to throw myself into a spread-eagle position beneath a clump of bamboo, when two Nips wandered into sight.
They were swinging choppers and looking up at the bamboo tops gabbling to each other. I tried to still my thoughts of the hopelessness of the situation. Should they cut the bamboo they were looking at, it would land right on me! It would be goodnight on the receiving end of two Japanese chopping blades. After what seemed an age, but was probably just a minute or two, the Nips wondered off along the creek, and feeling that perhaps luck was still perched precariously on my shoulder, I scrambled silently back to my hideout. I felt shaky and nervous all day, but after darkness fell, I became excited to be on my way again.
About 9 pm, I started off. It was heavy going pulling the boat over the sand and seagrass. In my weakened state, it was a matter of willing my weak body to perform, and to force my aching muscles to do the job. I then went back for my swag, and after a couple of trips, I was ready and assembled just out of sight of the islands West Coast Road. My outfit consisted of two ground sheets, an old red rug, 2 bayonets, a jack-knife, a few pounds of sweet potatoes, half a dozen mangoes, a handful of runner beans and 2 gallons of water. Again, hauling my gear, supplies and the boat in relays, I finally made it to the edge of the breakwater, but as the tide was well out, I still had to hump everything another 200 yards to reach the water. With the canoe loaded, I finally climbed in and found I had only about 3 inches of free-board. This would be fine in calm water, but what if I should run into a squall?
At last I was on my way, heading out between Puloe Bukum Island, and another dark blob, which I had spotted from my tree top look out, and recognised as a small swampy island. Oil tanks still blazing on the Puloe Bukum thew a light over the island and the surrounding water. The tanks have been burning for a few days and I wondered whether they had been set alight by the jet bombing, or whether our own troops have fired them as part of our scorched earth policy. I was inclined to the latter opinion, and still wondered what had become of our troops. Have they been slaughtered when the ‘blue’ had finished? Were they still on some part of Singapore as prisoners? Had most of them safely escaped after the battle, like those at Dunkirk and Crete? I could not help obsessively wondering what had become of them, and the more I thought of it, the lonelier I felt.
It was hard work trying to make much headway with my one small oar for a paddle, and I was feeling extreme fatigue, by the time the bow hit the bottom. Peering over the side through the gloom, I realised I was on the edge of the swampy island, so I went over the side into the shallow water, and guided the boat to a small salt water bush, to which I tied her up. Then I made my way to the highest point at the end of the island, and flopped down to sleep. I woke with the dawn, and returned to the boat to pull her up onto a patch of dry-land, which was only about 10 yards square at high tide. Gathering a few dry twigs, I felt safe enough to make a fire and roast some ‘sweet-bucks’. Few breakfasts have ever tasted as good as that one, when I peeled back the blackened vegetable skins, and gulped down the steaming vegetables.
During the next few days, I found myself scrambling among the leaves and rubbish to find any scraps of burned potato skins I had so recklessly thrown away that first morning. What the rats had not eaten, I wolfed down, weakening with privation every hour. Of course, I tried to conserve my small supply of food as long as possible, and when the tide was out, searched among the rocks and tide pools for edible sea life.
It felt better to be living in an area which was not a Jap camp, but food was very scarce, and I knew I could not survive long here, yet could not get much further away in my frail craft. I found two old boxes, and rigged these up against a stump to make a bed, where I slept with an old ground sheet over me for cover.
On the fourth day, luck seemed to have turned my way, when two Malay fishermen came to my camp, producing a bottle of sweet-milk coffee, and a packet of army biscuits. They seemed very scared that they would be seen with me, but after I produced a couple of dollars, they became very friendly and handed over the coffee and biscuits. However, they left very quickly, and I couldn’t help wondering whether I was as safe here, now that I had been seen here.
That same afternoon, two more Malays came, one of whom spoke a little English. They told me that if I would give them my small sampan, they would return at midnight with a large one, and they would take me to another island where I would be well fed.
Wanting to believe they were genuine, I gave them my fountain pen, and arranged to meet them at midnight. They called me John, since I had told them that this was my name. I did this both as a precaution should they turn me into the Japanese, and as a matter of phonetic convenience, since John seemed easy for them to pronounce. Long after midnight, I was still sitting on my small patch of dry land waiting for that call, but of course, I waited in vain.
After about a week at the spot, living mostly on old, dry coconuts, I decided to move to the other side of the island, which was still a maze of swamps, with very little dry land available for camping. I found some old boards, and rigged them up for a bed. Over this I pulled the bushes together and tied then with a string, to provide cover from Nip air patrols. I came in contact with the Malay couple who did all they could to succour me, as though to atone for the treachery of the people who had stolen my boat. Sabtu Bin Link and his wife visited me every second day, bringing food. They bought Malayan bread, pineapples, fried fish and occasionally, curried eggs. After the scavenging I had done for a few pieces of mouldy coconut, and the near starvation I had suffered, it seemed like princely fare.
As the weeks passed, conditions became tougher, even for the Malays, and eventually I was rationed down to one day with food, one day without. Late in the afternoon, rats would come out to scavenge around the mangroves and scamper after see lice on the mud. I spent hours on end waiting patiently for a chance to clout one with a sling did, I was stalking them through the mangroves. I lost my former repugnance for these foul creatures, and when nothing else was available, roasted rat tasted delicious.
At last Sabtu told me the Nips were watching him closely, and that he would have to move me to another island. I had met many Malays on the island, but none as helpful as Sabtu. He was a one-in-a-million and always stood ready to assist me, even though he had little to gain by helping me. Had the Japs discovered him, he would have been instantly put to death as an example to others.
One night, I felt a rush of excitement as I heard him calling from the water ‘John’, ‘John’, Sabtu greeted me with the Malay ‘salaam’ as I ran down to meet him, and he told me that his uncle and he were taking me to another island about eight miles away. I dashed back to my miserable camp, and rolled up my belongings in a ground sheet, before re-joining my dusky friends. They had come for me in a sampan, which was moored a little way out in the water. There was another moored near it, and to minimise any slip-up in our plans, one of the Malays went out alone, agreeing to signal with his cigarette if all was OK. When we saw him turn and light his smoke on reaching the sampan, we lost no time in wading out to it.
The craft had sails set, and was about 14 foot long. I was given a pair of blue dungarees to put on, after I clambered aboard. As I crouched on the floor of the boat, it occurred to me that I must’ve been a ferocious sight, with my long hair, beard and piratical clothes, wolfing rice and fish and a cup of tea brewed on a charcoal brazier.
In the stillness of the tropical night, with hardly enough breeze to ruffle the surface of the water, I found it hard to believe we were under way. We slid over the surface of the water like a blacked-out ghost craft, and in my fatigue and weariness, I found myself wanting to believe I could drift off to sleep, and wake up somewhere around Rottnest Island near Fremantle.
As we neared Plu Sudong, the island where Sabtu’s uncle lived, I was told to lie down flat in the boat. My friends pulled some mats over me, and told me to remain quiet, as they were waiting for the moon to rise, and we were going ashore to the house. I waited undercover for two or three hours, and could hear voices of other Malays, as they returned from fishing, and pulled the sampans up onto the beach. I dozed several times, but did not sleep deeply, before my friends returned and called a cherry ‘okay John’ to reassure me that all was well. They cast off again, and after we were out a couple of hundred yards, they told me I could safely sit up. It was a relief to breathe fresh air again, after casting off the musty mats. The moon loomed over the palms of the island, it’s reflection dancing like quicksilver in the thousand ripples of our wake. It was the type of scene one can imagine a local tourist bureau using to sell the romance of the exotic east. The beauty of the image was marred, however by the stench of the tide as it flushed out the sewer-like latrine drains of the coastal villages.
We soon reached another small island, one side of which was occupied by Chinese. We sailed around to the other side, where the malaise landed me with an old cane lounge, which was to serve as my bed. They told me they would return the following day, to move me again. As I rigged up the old cane lounge for the rest of the night, I felt something like a ludicrous beachcomber who has seen better days, and might cling to his sofa as a mark of idle ease. My attempts to sleep were hampered briefly by the voracious mosquitoes, which swarmed on me by the thousands. I did my best to huddle under a ground sheet, despite the sticky, sweaty humidity, and soon, not even the mozzies could keep me awake, and I slept soundly.
About noon the next day, the Malays returned, bring with them tea and food. After my friends chatted among themselves for a while squatting on their haunches, they told me they had decided to leave me on this island. However, they moved me a little further around the coast to where the vegetation was thicker. In fact, the overhead canopy was so dense, it shut out the sunlight, and left me in a gloomy darkness. We rigged up the bed with two ground sheets above for a roof, and after giving me a good supply of green coconuts and some native food, the Malays left. I had gathered that the name of the island was Powai.
Days and nights dragged by, with food becoming my one all-consuming obsession. I occupied my time going after birds, but was not often successful. I was able to catch a few crabs by digging with my bayonet in the sand. The Malays had given me a fishing line. I found an old stump, which at low tide was about 8 feet out of the water, and could be used as a fishing ‘possie’. I rigged up a kind of platform on the stump, and after gathering some worms to serve as bait, I seated myself there with a tin and a bayonet. It was dusk, and the tide crept in slowly, hour after hour, until I noticed I with a sense of panic, that the water was only about a foot below the platform. I was trapped there, because I couldn’t swim, and had to wait until the tide went out again before I could return to camp, cramped and tired. I had only caught three fish, a small return for the danger I have put myself in. The Malays had warned me to keep out of sight of the Chinese on the island, who are not to be trusted, and we are ‘not a very good type of Chinese’.
My Malay friends had saved my life, and for that I was very grateful. But as time went by, it became more and more difficult for them to look after me, and I saw less and less of them. Because they could not bring me food very often, my health and strength began to go downhill very fast. At this stage, I was only able to climb the palm trees for coconuts about every second day. At times I went without food for three or four days, unless I could catch a few spider crabs or shellfish to have with the coconuts. I was very weak, and easily exhausted, and the effort of climbing 30foot palm tree for coconuts left me shaking, and panting, with sweat pouring off my skin.
In the semi-starved and emaciated condition, I came down with my first attack of malaria. How I survived without any form of treatment whatsoever, and how I hadn’t come down with either malaria or dysentery before this, I’ll never know. I lay on the stiff cane bed hour after hour shivering so hard, I thought my aching bones would rattle to pieces. The ‘wogs’ raced through my bloodstream like animated icicles, until I was beyond caring about anything but an occasional drink of water. This attack left me weak and worried. I found a couple of old tins of Shelltox on the beach, and at night I smeared my face and hands with it. But the mosquitoes fed on me just the same, and the fever hit me hard a second time.
One day my Malayan friends turned up with worried faces. They told me that somehow the Nips had heard of my existence, and it demanded to know where ‘John’ was. They had denied all knowledge of my existence, but knew they were being watched, and had decided to move me to another island.
They came for me the next day, helping me to the sampan with my gear, but leaving behind the cane couch. Before setting sale for an island 6 miles distant, one of the Malayans prayed for a blessing on the journey and on me. The man asked the blessing, took half a coconut shell, filled it with water, besought Allah, and said a sincere prayer. He ended by sprinkling the sail with the salty water, and we were under way. I did not know much about Islam, but these two followers of the faith, and proven themselves as good and trustworthy as the Good Samaritan of the Christian Bible, so I showed him as much respect as I would any Christian on his knees asking for the same Divine help.
After drifting along in the light breeze for some time, we entered a narrow passage between two islands, and immediately sighted two Japanese craft lying at anchor. Again, I was concealed in the bottom of the boat, while my friends used the oars to hasten our passage past the enemy. However, we passed without incident, because the crews were either asleep, or totally disinterested in our craft.
We finally reached the remote island, which was to be my new haven, but the tide was out too far for us to make it to shore. It was decided that I would be dumped on a tiny island, which had only one Malay inhabitant, who lived in a native shack. I slept in the shack for the night. And was still lying there in a malarial stupor the next day, when my drifting senses were brought alive by the drumming of a launch engine! I staggered out the back door of the shack, my head aching and spinning, and my eyes blurred by the fever. I managed to climb up the hill a little way, panting for breath and sweating with exhaustion, and upon flopping into undergrowth, found myself covered immediately with red ants. These vicious little meat eaters of the tropics attacked with head down, and tail up with the ferocity of bull terriers. As fast as I could brush them off, they were on another part of my exposed flash. I thought of the agony a wounded soldier must’ve endured, unattended and left to die a lingering death in the jungle. I was experiencing what he would have gone through before permanently losing consciousness. It made my blood creep, to think of the pain he would’ve gone through, and the relief death must’ve bought with it. The Japanese launch pulled into the island, and left again fairly soon after its occupants failed to find the native shack, and waited until nightfall, when the resident Malay was to take me to my first intended hideout.
With the tide up, and darkness for cover, we finally set out on a small sampan across the narrow strip dividing these two islands. I dozed on the shore that night, and the next day the Malayan came back to help me erect a rough shelter. Here I was left like the shipwrecked Mariner of legend. This island was only about a mile and a half long and three quarters of a mile wide, and I was its only inhabitant. It was apparently out of the way even for the Malaysian Sea Arabs, who came to the island beach in their quaint fishing craft. There were very few coconuts here, and because I was too weak to climb the palms, I scavenged a few from amidst the washed-up debris on the beach, trying desperately to replenish my almost non-existent food reserves.
I had my worst period here, my health eroded by fever and starvation. I soon became a fever riddled effigy of a man, rotten with beriberi, which caused my feet to swell. My strength was so depleted, I had to hobble around with the aid of a stick and stop every 20 yards to rest. My gaunt face was covered with matted hair, my clothes had become tattered, filthy rags, and I was suffering agonies with the fever. With every attack my bones rattled, and my teeth chattered with the shivering.
I had to lie in the scorching tropical sun to try and escape the feeling of intense chill, during the first phase of every attack. After this I would become aware of my high temperature, and look for cool spots to sit or lie in, to try to keep it down. On part of the seashore, there was a bank where breakers had eaten away the sand, and left damp cool spots. Into these I had to crawl to cool my fever. To make matters worse, my water supply was in the in acute condition, there being only a small muddy hole of freshwater on the island. I had to scoop it up in a can, boil it and strain it three or four times to get it clear enough to drink. Even so, it made my throat sore when I had to drink it in quantity after an attack of high fever. When the water hole ran dry, I was forced to rely on rainwater caught in the small groundsheet on the roof of my shelter.
My Malayan friends seemed to have abandoned me completely, but I realised that it was a long way for Sabtu to come, especially since he was probably being watched, apparently, the other Malays did not feel responsible for me. My neighbour the Malay on the new nearby island had felt obliged to provide me with only one feed of coconuts.
My mental and physical Health had deteriorated to the point now, but I didn’t even mind the rats running over me at night, searching for scraps of food. Yet, in the depths of my scattered thoughts and vivid mind, I knew that if I stayed much longer on this island, I would die from starvation. With this dire affect staring me in the face, I somehow managed to drag myself, the rug, and a bundle of belongings down to the muddy mess of beach, and lie on one of the dry sand patches. At this point, I came into contact with a group of Malayan fishermen who lived on their boats. Too hungry and ill to exercise the precaution of hiding from them, I left my bundle on the beach to accept some food, fish with rice and nuts, which was offered to me. As I was eating, I looked around in the direction of my bundle, to see a couple of sea-folk going through my gear, and ratting my belongings. At that moment, I was too sick and weak to worry about them, but I discovered later, that my bayonets, safety razor, mirror, a shirt and above all my precious water bottles were gone. These were the first Malaysians to do the ‘dirty on me’, and for the first time, I felt that the bottom had truly dropped out of the vessel of hope which had thus far sustained me through it all.
I started back to my jungle camp which was only about half a mile away, but in my condition, it felt like a 20mile training match with full equipment pack. About dusk, I made it back to my bunk, which now consisted of a couple of boards on the sand. I lay down in the knowledge that if my fortunes did not soon change, the 2/4th would be one machine gunner less.
Two days later, a Malay I had seen only once before awakened me very early in the morning. He said that he was taking me to another island where I would be looked after. I didn’t need much coaxing, and I scrabbled my things together to go with him, but collapsed immediately. The man half carried me to a waiting sampan which contained another Malay, and we set out for the open sea immediately. After we had traveled a few miles, they told me to lie down in the boat so that I would not be seen, and they threw a cover over me. I was glad to be off the island where death would soon have claimed me, yet I did not entirely trust these Malays, as I did not know them. At the same time, I was too tired to care. After dozing a little, I became fully aware of what was happening when I was jolted awake by the sounds of planes overhead, and the noises of motor launches, cars and trucks. We must be near Singapore! I lay and let the realisation wash over me and sink in. A few minutes later, one of the natives whisked the cover off me and announced ‘Singapore’, much as a bus conductor might call the name of a destination.
The die was cast now. The future could not be worse than the past four months had been, and I had prepared myself to endure anything which may eventuate. I was greeted calmly by a couple of Japs and a crowd of natives, and instantly figured that the natives were being paid a bounty to round up escaped prisoners. The Nips searched me and went through my wallet, which showed plainly the effects of a tough four months spent in muddy swamps, torrential rain, and steamy tropical humidity. They gave me two English cigarettes, and a few bananas to allay my hunger, and we set off for jail. As we left, I saw one of my captors, who framed a wide grin, and shouted merrily, ‘Goodbye, Australia’.
I was taken to the prison hospital at Changi, and at this point, made the dramatic re-entry into the company of my old mates. In light of my physical condition, most of them were relatively fit. Incredulous and delighted that I was still alive, they took extra care of me as best they could. My friend Bill Halligan, also from Kalgoorlie, risked his life by going outside the compound at night to buy food and smokes for me from the Chinese. I still remember the large jar of Vegemite he bought me on one occasion, which surely helped to nourish my depleted body and mind. I still eat and enjoy Vegemite to this day.
Upon discharge from the hospital, I was put to work around the camp, digging holes for the latrines, tending gardens, and gathering wood. We had old, light truck bodies to aid in this endeavor. These had no engines, just a steering wheel and for running wheels. We had to load the truck with wood and bring it back to camp under the power of six men pulling from the front end. Salt water, for cooking rice, was brought from the ocean, about a mile away, in the same fashion.
On 18 March 1943, I was one of the 2200 men shipped to Thailand, to work on the infamous Burma Railway. We were divided into parties of 550 men and four officers, and further organised into groups of 27 men to ride in each rail wagon. With a few bags of rice, and our meagre belongings, we were very cramped for space. The hellish ride from Singapore to Ban Pong, Thailand took five days and nights. I will leave it to the reader to imagine the filth and the stench of sweaty, unwashed bodies, and the lack of hygienic facilities. We were put to work on the railway on April 5th…. a great present for my birthday! The work was brutal for men in our physical condition, our captors were unrelenting and merciless. We worked on bridges and cuttings. We carted soil in bags (for building embankments) which was slung on pairs of bamboo poles. Each pair of men carried the poles on their shoulders, back and forth, back and forth, all day long. When cutting rock, we used the primitive and slow method of ‘hammer and tap’. This was also worked in two-man teams. One man hit the drill with the hammer and the other turned the drill in the rock after every tap. I don’t remember ever missing, so routine and monotonous did the work become. Many days we were made to work all day long, and then by the light of bamboo fires, far into the night, for eleven and twelve hours at a stretch.
During my time on the Burma Railway, I was moved to different camps several times to perform the same mind-numbing, body wracking work. Month after endless month, in mud and monsoon, heat and humidity, we worked in conditions of disgusting filth and degradation. On April 5th 1944 the Tamuang section was completed. Another present for another birthday! A few days of rest. Then another move, up the line to begin work again. And so, it went.
On June 21, 1944, a party of ‘fit’ men were chosen to be sent back to Singapore, and on to another Japanese project. At this stage, I was considered fit, (which I was, in comparison to my days of starvation in hiding) and was chosen to go in this group. In total, 900 men and six officers were shipped back to Singapore in the same type of crowded and filthy rail vans in which we had arrived. At 4 am on June 26 1944, we were marched to the River Valley Camp.
Five days later, on July 1 we were marched to the wharf, and loaded onto the Rashin Maru, a burned-out ship anchored in the harbour. Heavy steel girders had been welded tight around the top of the ship, to keep it from falling apart. It had been burned out and sunk during the initial attack on Singapore. The Japs had actually raised it from the harbour floor to serve its present purpose as a prison ship. No lower decks had survived the fire, and we were forced to sleep literally, on the blackened hull of the ship. We were packed in foot-to-head, exactly like sardines in a can (to use an old cliché) with only the shreds of our old blankets for cover, and small straw-filled pallets, supplied by the Japs for pillows. The captain had only a small wooden hut, constructed as a bizarre, primitive, bridge from which to command the vessel.
We sailed on 4 July, 1944 about 5 pm, and arrived at Miri, Borneo on July 8, and Manila on July 16. Leaving Manila on August 9 at 10 pm, we survived a submarine attack from friendly fire, the following day. I believe the fact that our old tub looked like an unimportant wreck, probably saved us. The convoy lost two ships in front of us, and oil tanker at the rear. The day after this, a terrific storm arose, with strong winds, and waves up to 50 feet high. Our ship was forced to take shelter behind a small island, while the rest of the fleet sailed away. We limped on alone to Japan, the trip to having taken 70 days to complete what was usually a 10day journey. Three of our men were buried at sea.
The food was in edible, we had no medical supplies, and the toilet was an open hole over the side of the boat. Some of us, assigned to shovel coal, secretly invented a way to wash, by pulling a small wooden plug from the side of the boat, quickly splashing ourselves with the water, and replacing it. Because of the sleeping conditions, it didn’t take long for bedbugs to breed by the thousand. We were required to catch at least six each per day, which did ultimately serve as a fairly effective control. Having supplied some sketchy details, I will leave it to the reader to imagine the true extent of the living conditions aboard during this journey through hell. Before long we renamed the vessel the Byoke Maru which means ‘sick ship’ in Japanese and the name only tells part of the story.
Shortly after our arrival in Moji, Japan, we were shipped across the Inland Sea to the island of Shikoku. We were put to work on the copper mine here in September 1944. Again, the brutal conditions and endless hard labour was simply to be insured. Men who had already survived more hazards and hardships than most people encounter in a lifetime, learned once again to harden the minds and bodies and hang on to hope.
A great personal sadness for me was the death of my friend Cyril Dilley who died just a few days before the war ended. On August 11, 1945, we have received confirmation that Russia had entered the war against Japan. Cyril had come to my room in a state of excitement. ‘You can count the days on your fingers now!’ he said. That night, he fell from his upper bunk on the second floor of our barracks. He suffered a fractured skull, and never regained consciousness. He died at 9am the next day. If I hadn’t suspected it before, I learned that day, that nothing is certain in life. Cyril, so excited about imminent liberation, made his own untimely exit three days before the war ended on August 15th 1945.
We were only about 48 miles from Hiroshima, and could plainly see the mushroom cloud of the H-bomb dropped on the city by the Americans. We were aware of its deadly consequences, but to us it was a huge, graphic liberation symbol, written in the sky! From this moment on, although the Japanese made no immediate formal announcement, the guards kept away from us, and their former arrogance changed to meekness. We tested our theory that the war has ended by opening the slaughtering and butchering a pig. Although the camp commander gave a speech, roaring about the pig incident, no one was punished. On August 20, he gave another speech, saying that peace talks were underway, and that fighting may begin again. We were to remain calm and not riot! He was still in control! This ridiculous face-saving speech was all the confirmation we needed. Reading between the lines, we knew that an armistice would soon be announced. We were not forced to do any more mine work, and spent several days just smoking and resting without interference from the guards.
For another month, we stayed on Shikoku, feasting on the bundles of wonderful food the Americans dropped for us by parachute. Again, like the fruit dropping from the mango tree so long ago, now, I gratefully received what seemed like manna from heaven.
To men accustomed to years of starvation the food was not only miraculous in itself, but also the first little taste of liberation, the first tangible sign of the longed-for comforts of home, yet to come. We ate too much, too fast, too often, and it was wonderful! We were taken on board the ‘Yank” ship Sanctuary for the first part of our homeward journey. The food and hospitality provided by the Americans was unbelievable! It was the first time I had known cleanliness, comfort and safety for years! The Sanctuary was headed first for Okinawa on a two-day trip, but on September 16 we were caught in a typhoon and blown about 500 miles off course.
After leaving Okinawa, we sailed on the USS Bingham for Manila, where we left the ship for a temporary camp. After two or three weeks of rest here, a few mates and I were taken by Catalina flying boat to Darwin, then on to Perth by Liberator. My two older sisters met me at Guildford, having been notified of my return by the army. Never has there been a more joyful reunion! However, they also bought some bad news for me. My older brother, Ray, had been accidentally killed in a training camp, north of Perth. What a blow! He had been dead for three years, and of course, I had no way of knowing.
After a week at Hollywood hospital, and transition time at point Walter, we were finally discharged. Going back to my family and the freedom of civilian life, was a joyful and wondrous experience after a POW ordeal of 3 ½ years duration. The simple joys of soap and hot water, clean clothes and bed linen, fresh food and a full belly seemed miraculous, never again to be taken for granted. At the end of the day, even the richest man alive has nothing more valuable. My mates named me Gravejumper for the number of times I had cheated death. Yet, looking back over the extraordinary events of my life, I realise I didn’t have to die to experience both the depths of man-made hell, and the heights of human kindness and compassion right here on this earth.
2/4th Machine Gun Battalion