ESCAPE FROM DEATH
By LW.McCann. WX17837 Ex 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion W.A.
During Action in Singapore 1942 Jurong area West Singapore l1th Feb I 942. Troops made up of members of various units British, Indian and Australians were subject to an ambush by Japanese troops. The order to disperse was passed on. Being in a local village and a lot of dividing wire fences hampered the troops dispersal. This allowed the Japs to lift the sights of the mortars and a lot of troops were wounded during this action. Four of the wounded who were left behind as the troops moved east were two British Officers. Lieutenant Aldrich and a Captain Thomas of the Indian Brigade and myself and later Rupert Millhouse of the 2/4th Machine Gun Battalion WA an N.C.O. of our battalion and an Indian soldier not armed, they were not wounded. We found our refuge in a dugout under a large native Kampong.
Midday Wed 11th. 12th to 13th Feb
This dugout had been well prepared by the owners, being on side of a small rise. There was an angled path to an entrance door, large bench bunk cut into hard earth wall-ally way that led to steps and trap door into interior, plenty of water fruit, eggs and cloth. No occupants as they were more aware of where the Japs would be than our troops. They had gone from reports after the wars end. The reason we were not bothered by the Japs was they kept on advancing on to Singapore and thank the Lord for that. We had obtained a medium oil stove from upstairs used for boiling eggs all done in an empty fruit tin.
It was decided that so far we were in luck and we should move out after early dawn Friday morning. Our arms consisted of two serviceable rifles, two service pistols, three bayonets. One rifle was blocked with clay as it was used by Millhouse as a crutch before he was found wounded, glad it did not have to be fired.
Friday 13th Feb
We moved out of the dugout one at a time to the creek at the bottom of the slope under cover of the jungle growth. These creeks run all over the Island continually because of the rainfall and because of the growth, provided good cover of movement. Permission to go out and scout around the area several times by the officers allowing me to find Pte Millhouse who I did not know was out there wounded. On reaching the creek cover some way down, Pte Millhouse said he would have to rest, his leg was giving trouble. I suggested to the others to go on as the two officers knew their way to the coast- Millhouse and I would continue later. We wished them luck and they left. Not long after it started to rain, soaked to the skin we decided to make our way back to the dugout. Some thirty years later a patient in the hospital where I worked confirmed confidentially they had got off the island and made it home.
On arrival back at the dugout after a rest, more boiled water and some fruit and coconut. Cleansed Rupert’s wound and rebound same. There was not a sign of movement of anyone in the area, as a constant watch by me until dark was kept. We were both jumpy with nervous tension, there was no company to pass the time with, even the frogs stopped croaking. I thought to myself hopefully that the vibrations from the heavy sounds of guns and artillery fire which began in the distance may have been the cause. Friday the 13th had been a sad day, little sleep was had by us that night.
Day break Saturday 14th Feb
Awake and ready to get out of there, filled water bottles with boiled water, observed no movement and left back down through cover to the creek and headed south. Smoke from fires in Singapore City could be seen looking from high ground. Our progress was rather slow. Scouting ahead resting when required. We made head way. Oh for some mode of transport. Water was main part of diet apart from some coconut we had with us. Naturally the two of us had been trying to save our boiled water for as long as possible, well on one stretch of water we had been drinking after resting.
To our disgust, we found dead bodies of a number of Japs just around the bend, they had been shot and were bloated and swollen, loin cloths were the only things they had on, no uniforms, no boots. Not much further along was a small cluster of thatched villas several old females were walking around. Some carried small children around. They did not appear to notice us. Revenge had been carried out I thought. When the Japs went through the area they must have stolen the pigs that roam the villages, the bodies would not be there otherwise.
Early afternoon 14th Feb
Having passed this area, we followed the watercourse in a westerly direction for some way hoping to find clearer water to drink, sounds of gunfire and aircraft were still increasing but we did not know to whose advantage. It was hot and sticky and we were resting after refilling our water bottles when we heard the sound of motors from over the rise on our right. After getting the sound of direction, I said to Millhouse to stay put while I went up the rise to view the situation. For a long time I watched a convoy of Japanese troops and British vehicles go by on the road numbering 3 trucks, roughly three hundred troops marching along. No scouts. Not a care for anything. They must have used barges to land them from the Straits of Johore. We rejoined company and pondered the situation for a while. It was obvious that the Japs were heading easterly in the direction of Singapore. But, where were our forces. Sick of the rain, mud, and tired, we again headed south. About two hours later as it started to rain again we came across several Kampong huts. We chose the first one near us. After watching it for any signs of life we then entered. Where were all the people hiding. There were a few household goods, no food but some coconuts of which had been de-husked and was holed by my bayonet. The water tasted like lemonade from these nuts. The hut was dry and warm. I suggested Rupe take a sleep as I knew his leg was hurting like hell. It was hard to keep awake, so I dozed off and on during that night. The sound of the rain, thunder and artillery was strange music this night.
Sunday 15th Feb
This morning was bright. The area was viewed from the hut, not a soul, animal or bird, even a dog would have created some interest. We took the meat out of two coconuts with us, made our way to the cover of the nearby jungle growth.
Sunday all day 15th Feb
All Sunday we made our way in a south easterly direction according to the sun and the fires from Singapore, that way we must reach the coast before very long. We had past the Jurong east west area about midday this day but not know that. We had not seen a person or villager to ask.
Sometime after we knew, so about mid afternoon Rupe remarked to me that the gunfire was not so loud. But I thought it was a change of wind. We were resting in the outside area of a fenced village in a dugout opening in the ground. About an hour before full sunset, strangely quiet, no heavy gunfire. Sitting on two woven mats having a rare cigarette from a steel case I had found earlier. I heard voices outside. I went out with rifle. Two Japs were running through the gate area of the fence. I fired two shots in their direction yelling to Rupe to get out into the jungle growth ahead of us. I caught up with him helping him to hurry. Native women jumped up from amongst the bushes and quickly disappeared. I think they were hiding or praying as is their custom at sunset. Later when we stopped and got our breath I realised the Japs were only armed with bayonets. Just on dark we noticed some monks who were walking towards a building. We could not hear any gunfire. I approached one of the men and said we required help. He made it known to us that the British troops were agreeing to a surrender. He suggested we stay in another hut he pointed out and he would help us in the morning. This we did do and spent a very worrying night. It would appear the Japs were using the shelter for themselves as the matting in there was issued with their equipment.
Monday morning 16th Feb
Not long after daybreak two monks came to the hut, told us the news of surrender. Cleaned and dressed Rupert’s wound, we were offered some rice and fruit for which we were grateful. They told us Japs wanted all troops to go into Singapore quickly. It appeared to us they knew more about what bad been going on. Bush telegraph perhaps. We realised the danger we posed to these people as well as ourselves. We thanked them for help given to us. We were given directions to the coast road and their blessing, then left the area as quickly as possible. We had retained our weapons.
Rupe was able to go along a little better at this stage, and about two hours later on the west coast road, needed more stops. We were sitting in the shade at the side of the road when a person on a push bike came along riding in a westerly direction. This person was a lad about 12 or so old. The bike was in new condition. I requested he give us the bike so I could help my friend. He understood me. He looked back from the direction he came from and said Japanese gave me. No can have. With bad thoughts in my mind told him to go Pigi Lakas quick. We started walking east in the direction of Singapore. About a half mile further a man spoke to us from the side of the road. Can I help you. He was an Australian navy man, armed with a Thompson machine gun he had been issued with. He was actually going out in a western direction away from Singapore when he decided to rest. He offered to help us along. No gunfire had been beard since Sunday evening. He had heard the war was over also, so when we came to a bridge over a creek running towards the ocean we decided to dispose of our weapons. We dismantled them, and threw the parts in different directions into the creek and jungle reluctantly. Well sometimes luck is a fortune. The boy on the bike knew there was Japs down the road, for he had looked back in that direction. Around the next bend were Japs working on and over several Ford and Chev British service trucks, it appeared they had been driven into the ditches. The Japs just watched us go on past, no trouble there. Not long after we came into a village. This village was the junction of the then Reformatory Road, now renamed Clemently Road and West Coast Road. We could see two armed Jap sentries outside an arched gateway of a large building on the right hand side of the road. The guards beckoned us over and into the courtyard. One stayed with us the other hurried up the steps and inside the entrance. We heard voices talking then that guard returned. We had to empty our pockets out. They took two pocket knives, Rupe’s and the sailor’s watches. We were allowed to keep our water bottles, cigs and pay books. No aggression was shown at this time. We were taken to one of two barred window and door cells, and locked up. It was a long time later before I could find out we were in the Pasir Panjang Police post lock up. Later that afternoon we three were taken out of the cell and out onto the back of an Army truck with eleven Australian soldiers, one Australian driving and one Jap guard. The men on the truck had been selected from a mixed group of prisoners in Singapore earlier
on Monday morning by the Japs to move trucks and bodies from around some roads. Two members of the 2/4th M/G Battalion W/O Airey (WX13977) and Pte Ockerby (WX7336-died 19 Feb 42) were amongst this group. W/O Airey was the senior officer in charge of this group. The driver was instructed by guard to proceed and turn north into Reformatory road. This road went past the Ford Motor Company at Bukit Timah. Some distance short of the Ford Company, the truck diverted left into an area by Jap troops, and stopped. Field ambulances, three Bren carriers, several were out of action. Opposite where we stopped, bodies were still sitting in positions in the Bren carriers. I hate to think what happened here. I mention the ambulances here for they had a lot to do with helping me to survive as a driver. The Japs that were in this area were a pretty angry mob and tried to pull some of the men and their packs and haversacks from the truck. Fred Airey resisted strongly. He had written records during action. The Japs backed off after some senior officer shouted an order. After some Japs conferred with our truck guard. We were returned back to where we started from. After we were returned to the Police post, the Jap guard had a confab with other guards then off the truck and all of us fifteen men were put in the one cell and locked in. We were given a bucket of water after some haggling. We started talking among ourselves after dark, discussing what the outcome would be. Well sometime later there was some action and lights outside the cell. The door was then opened. We had to move away from the door area, 15 men in a 12 by 10 cell is rather tight. A chair was put just to the right of the door inside. A Japanese came in and said, I am an interpreter our officer wishes to ask you some questions. The Officer that came into the cell, I have since recognised him from photographs, and seeing him later, with and without a moustache. Through his interpreter, he asked for information to the whereabouts of troops in Australia. How many Americans etc. As senior Officer W/O Airey became the spokesman for the rest of the group. Roughly an hour after the interrogation was over. No threats had been made to us and the Japs left the cell. Later that night we were given some blankets, we needed them as the cement floor was hard. Rupe Millhouse put up with his wound well that night.
Tues morning 17th Feb
We all got to know one another and discussed our situation again. We required to go to the toilets. We wanted to get a wash and some bandages. The sailor, Rupe and myself did not have any eating gear, so when the Japs gave us some rice and stew, we borrowed from them. Our ablutions were carried out against the wall, above the drain for one job and over the drain for the other. Two men at a time, then washed with water. My leg wound was not giving mc any trouble. Rupes, we kept a damp cloth under the bandage. We made swimming signs to the Jap guards through the bars but was answered with the words NUNU NUNI. W/O Airey was the only one with writing material, some of us wrote the names of the others in Pay books as I did. Rice and stew that evening. We were not bothered by the Japs today and things were the same way on Wednesday. Food, water and toilets.
Thursday 19th Feb
Thursday morning was much the same as previous. We were given rice and some greens, bamboo shoots. Then the usual ablutions parade two at a time. We were by now pretty worried about what was to happen to us all as we were not able to get any words out of the Jap guards. It was obvious no body but the Japs knew we were locked up. Other Australian officers and troops, now prisoners of war knew that the twelve men had been taken away from their units. The sailor, Rupe and myself would also be missing. This was the topic of conversation plus that morning. There appeared to be more Jap troops in and around the place in the afternoon at one stage. The Jap who had been bringing the food to us, pushed some rice in banana leaves through the barred window and quickly left. There seemed to be a change of personnel outside the building and their attitude appeared to be sullen. What was going on. We were soon to find out. Towards late afternoon the cell door was unlocked, two armed Japs were standing back from the door one of the Japs was standing with
lengths of what appeared to be hessian. We were taken out one at a time, our hands were tied behind our backs and we were all taken to the courtyard. None of these Japs had we seen before. We were pushed into threes then indicated to march out the gateway to the left. It seemed that we were expected at this time. There were local people mixed with Jap troops across Pasir Panjang Road. When we arrived near them they jeered at us with closed fists shaking at us. My reaction to this was unbelievable. We turned into Reformatory road and was marched up the bill for some distance. It seemed we were taken into the jungle at a pre arranged point. We were halted overlooking a gully with water running from the hills. We were arranged by Jap junior Officer,
facing the gully. Seven Japanese troops appeared a few yards behind us. They were armed with British 303 rifles with bayonets fixed. Some of us had turned around, but the Officer yelled and gestured to look back toward the gully. I was on the left flank facing north, the other men to my right. Fred Airey was the man on the extreme right. I lent forward to speak to the man next to me and as I straightened up this Jap gave his men the order to fire. I was hit under the left shoulder blade. The bullet came out of my left chest, hitting my steel cigarette case and pay book, blew all the pocket off destroying the names of the men with it. After falling down into the water there was much yelling and shots fired. Shot in the back by a firing squad. That created a massacre. (Coincidentally the 19th February 1942 was the day the first bombs were dropped on Darwin)
After the massacre, when Les McCann came to, all the others appeared dead. Les wandered off and told some Nips he had been driving an ambulance or some tale. He was taken to Changi Gaol and put in with the civilian internees. When he had recovered he was returned to his unit at Selerang. The officers were not sure of believing his story. When the Java Party was passing though Singapore in January 1943, word got out that Sergeant Major Fred Airey was with them. The 2/4 MG Battalion officers questioned him regarding the massacres. He said “how do you know anything about it?. I have not mentioned it, as the Nips would knock me off if they knew.” He said that when the first volley was fired he fell into the ditch and lay still. The Nips shot anyone still moving. When he thought the Nips had left all appeared dead. So he took off and got as far as Java and was then taken prisoner.
(The last paragraph has been added by Wally. The account can be confirmed from Fred Airey’s book “The Time of the Soldier”p125.)