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Continued from Bill Taylor's Memoir, Part Five


SIME ROAD

At the two year mark the Japs decided to move us to another camp. We were given orders to pack our possessions and we marched out. We were taken to a camp at a place I understood was called Sime Road. There were huts with roofs but only part of the sides were covered, the rest was open, not very good in the monsoons. The perimeter was rolled barbed wire with about a twenty foot walkway for sentries then another lot of barbed wire. I lived in a hut near the perimeter. I should mention the Japs allowed about two feet plus six feet per man sleeping space. By now most of us had slimmed down so we could survive in the measurements. Sikhs were used more and more to help the Japs guard us. We found that malaria was prevalent in this area and many of us caught it. We arranged with friends that if you were ill and could not eat, he got your food as well as his own. When it happened in reverse, you got his food. It worked out quite fairly to keep fit.

Syme Road Camp - Singapore 1944-1945 by Lilian Gladys Tompkins
Syme Road Camp, Singapore by Lilian Gladys Tompkins
This watercolour by New Zealand nurse and PoW Lilian Gladys Tompkins (1893-1984) shows a general view of Sime Road (Syme Road) camp, featuring "The Flying Dutchman" snack shelter. The painting belongs to the National Library of New Zealand where it is part of the Alexander Turnbull Library Collection, Wellington. (Ref: C-095-027)   For more information about this painting Please Click Here.   British PoW and artist, Ronald Searle was also intrigued by this view of the camp. To see his drawing of "The Flying Dutchman", please visit the Imperial War Museum (Catalogue Number Art.IWM ART 15747 109 f).

Gardens were started again and working parties were sent on different jobs. We mainly grew sweet potatoes and tapioca. There were only small kitchens now spread over the camp site. This was better, but the food was just as limited in quantity, but there were plenty of garden snails and these were added to the liquid they called soup.

The Banana Palm - Syme Road Camp, Singapore. [1944-1945] by Lilian Gladys Tompkins
The Banana Palm--Syme Road / Sime Road Camp by Lilian Gladys Tompkins
This watercolour by Lilian Gladys Tompkins (1893-1984) shows a banana palm tree growing outside a building in the Sime Road (Syme Road) prison camp. The painting belongs to the National Library of New Zealand where it is part of the Alexander Turnbull Library Collection, Wellington. (Ref: C-095-021).   For more information about this painting Please Click Here.

A few months later there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague. A group of us known as the "heavy gang" were asked to volunteer to clear the areas around the camp, as the grass was about three feet high. It appears that a type of flea on the rats was brushed off on the grass and they carried the plague, so anybody walking through; the flea got onto them and would walk around for twenty four hours approximately then bite them between their legs. The bite created a bubo and you went into a fever and died. The Japs agreed to give us long pants and shirts and boots and also extra rations if we volunteered. We went into the grass cutting it down letting it dry and then burning it. The Japs were very frightened of the plague. So was I but extra food was worth the risk. When we finished work each day we had to climb into a big tank filled with lysol and detol and water and completely submerge ourselves for ten minutes.

On one of our better days we had a large area cut and dried, checked the wind, told the guards and set light to it. The fire was roaring away when the wind changed direction and it headed straight for the sentries. They saw the fire heading for them and ran. Unfortunately there were old slit trenches all over the area hidden by the bracken and two of them fell into one. When the fire had passed over them they climbed out, covered in soot and their uniform smouldering, shouting abuse at us, but they dare not come near us for fear of catching the plague or we would have been beaten up. Our efforts over the weeks proved successful and the plague died out. But the rats, the biggest I have ever seen, were still running around. Our job was finished. I made a catapult and used to shoot doves and cook them in an old tin can (gourmet food). We also caught python and cooked it, just like tuna fish in taste--we spent all our days thinking of food.

A fellow in the same hut as I made a deal to meet a Sikh outside the wire one night to get ten pounds of coffee. When the time came to go and get it, he made out he was ill--he had really lost his nerve--so I arranged to go in his place. I crawled through the wire and met the guard as arranged, collected the coffee and returned to the camp safely. I had to use pressure to get my share, as he tried to renege. Some days later when I was on a working party when the Japs weren't looking, the Sikh started to harass me for the money the fellow had not paid him. I told him it was nothing to do with me and to go and see the fellow he had dealt with. Back in the camp I went after the coffee dealer and told him to pay up or else. He was cured and paid his debts.

At Air Force Camp (Syme Road Camp).   Miss Stewart and Sister. Matron for S[inga]pore General Hospital. [1944-1945] by Lilian Gladys Tompkins
Air Force Camp (Syme Road Camp), Singapore by Lilian Gladys Tompkins
This watercolour by Lilian Gladys Tompkins (1893-1984) shows a a nurse walking with a companion in the Sime Road (Syme Road) Prison Camp. "Air Force Camp" in the title refers back to the post-war era when the Royal Air Force (RAF) built their Command and Control Centre for Malaya on this site. The painting belongs to the National Library of New Zealand where it is part of the Alexander Turnbull Library Collection, Wellington. (Ref: C-095-019)   For more information about this painting Please Click Here.   For more information on the history of this area please go to the Ex-Pat Living, Singapore website to read the May 19, 2014 article Guide to Sime Road, Singapore:   All about the former WW2 camp. The article is written by Verne Maree with photography by Michael Bernabe..

There was an old Japanese interpreter who brought women over to our hospital for treatment once a week (the hospital was an old hut). He would do business with you, if you crawled under the hut to one room that had a hole in the floor, and you had to talk to each other through the hole. My first business was a Cyma watch. You gave it to him and he took it to town then the following week he would give you a price. If you accepted, he paid you, if not he returned it. His prices were fair and I collected various items from some of the prisoners who were scared to go themselves. My charge was 30 percent. This worked very well for all of us.

One day I was asked to sell a diamond ring. I gave it in as usual and it was taken to town. I asked the owner what he would accept, he agreed to anything above twenty five thousand dollars (Jap occupation money). On the Thursday--as usual I was under the hut--the Jap told me he would give thirty thousand for it so I made the deal, on one condition that he pay me 20,000 cash and the balance had to be in food. I could pay the seller and my 30%, 10,000, would pay for the food. He paid the cash and told me that after the next funeral my items would be brought in for me in the coffin (it had a false bottom, the body fell out and the coffin was returned.) He was as good as his word. After the next funeral the coffin came back on the truck, which I met inside the garage area, and the Jap pointed to a large tarp and underneath were my goods. Palm oil, sugar, canned food etc. The value of food was so high that you did not get much for your money, but I was happy as I had spent a few restless nights waiting for it. With friends we moved everything into hiding places to be safe. Life improved for a time almost luxury. I suffered with jungle ulcers. These would eat away at your feet or legs and were hard to get rid of. Odd bouts of malaria etc. kept me behaving to a degree. When not working or trying to scrounge things I spent my time reading and although lights out was early, on clear nights you could read by moonlight. This helped pass time but also set your mind to other places and you felt free.

British Women and Children Interned in a Japanese Prison Camp, Syme Road, Singapore by Leslie Cole
Syme Road Camp, Singapore, by Leslie Cole
Leslie Cole (1910-1976) was a British War Artist who travelled widely, and documented the horrors he witnessed with his artwork. This photo of the original oil painting shows the dire conditions of the women and children at the Sime Road (also spelled Syme Road) Prison Camp at the time of Liberation. The painting is part of the Imperial War Museums collection and is copywrited as IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5620). For more information please visit the Imperial War Museum (Catalogue Number Art.IWM ART 15747 109 f).

Christmas 1945 came again, now my third. I was now twenty one, almost old. I woke up to the sounds of Christmas Carols. The cooks at the kitchen near us were serenading us, unfortunately nostalgia set in as I listened to them it made me think of home. That was a very bad thing to do, so I closed my mind and concentrated on other things closer to me. We had managed to get news that the war was now going better for us, so maybe the end would soon come.

A new job was found for us, digging tunnels into a hill. One gang started on one side and one on the other side. The idea was we would meet in the middle (theoretically). I joined the tunnel gang and we started work just like a mine we fitted pit props as we dug, you had to watch out if you were digging on the face for slides, if you were to carry out the soil it was heavy labour. As none of us including the Japs knew what we were doing it was fairly dangerous, anything could happen. Sometimes the tunnel flooded from the rains and we had to bail it out. After about three months the Japs got some surveyors to check us, they could not understand why we had not met the other gang coming digging towards us. They found out that the tunnels were running parallel to each other. (Some of the boys had arranged it) so we would never meet. The Japs as usual started slapping us around, but we were too busy trying not to laugh to bother. They made us work until midnight for several days to try to catch up on their schedule and we had to start at 6:30 am the next day. I hurried to my hut to get my rations, I was starving. I picked up the plate of rice and cold soup and started eating. My mouth suddenly felt furry, so I spit the food out, it was full of ants so no food that night. The tunnel continued, but as slow as possible.

I sat one night by the perimeter of the camp near our hut. When a voice asked "You okay?", I replied "yes" and a soldier came out of the dark up to the wire. He told me he was from Korea and was guarding Dutch prisoners at a camp next to us. He asked if I had pens or watches for sale. I explained not at this time. He said he would come again the following night at the same time and bring food. He arrived as promised with rice cakes and a bottle of pineapple brandy. He crawled through the wire and sat next to me, offered the cakes, which were good, and the brandy and we talked for a long time. Then he said he would come again, but I never saw him again. I heard the Dutch troops had been moved away so he must have gone with them.

I always went to work early on the tunnel and got to know the Jap engineer who was about my age and we got friendly. I used to help myself to his cigarettes and see what food he was issued. When he could he brought me food also. One morning when I met him at the tunnel he was crying and most upset. I asked him what was upsetting him and he started to explain about a big bomb. He also said we were not to work anymore. As I could not fully understand him I told him to wait where he was and I ran full speed across the camp to get one of the English men who could speak Japanese. He was still sitting there when we got back and the interpreter started speaking to him asking him what had happened. He explained the war was over. Japan had surrendered because of this big bomb. Later that day British planes flew over dropping leaflets warning everybody to make sure we were not harmed or there would be trouble. The next day we got our first Red Cross Parcels and although they were mostly badly damaged we managed to salvage something edible.




Bill Taylor's Memoir is continued in Part Seven


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