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Episodes & Studies Volume 1



The changi peninsula was used by the Japanese as a concentration area for the British forces captured at the surrender of Singapore. This peninsula of Singapore Island was eminently suitable for the purpose—if the prevention of escapes is the criterion for the siting of a prison camp. Barbed wire across the small portion not already cut off by swamps and river secured the landward side; for the rest there was the sea.

Although a New Zealand doctor witnessed the slaughter of patients and medical staff in a military hospital soon after the surrender, in general the Japanese behaved with restraint, judging them by the standard of the sack of Nanking. The prisoners had their own organisation within the area, and the appearances of the Japanese were comparatively rare. Some Indian guards who had gone over to the Japanese behaved vindictively; but there were other Indians of unshakeable loyalty who made great sacrifices for their European fellow-prisoners and others who paid with their lives for their refusal to collaborate. The quarters were fairly good and the food poor. The curious mentality of the Japanese was seen in their treatment of hungry men caught pillaging. A party who had been beaten for stealing sugar at the docks was surprised to see the Japanese send the sugar to the prisoners’ cookhouse. Some Australians who had succeeded in selling some petrol illicitly to Singapore Chinese were punished by several days’ exposure to the sun in a confined space; but they kept the money.*

The guards, when they appeared, demanded an exaggerated respect. The first prisoner to see them shouted a warning, then all within sight, whatever their rank and whatever the rank of the Japanese, stood rigidly to attention, saluting or, if without a hat, bowing to the soldier of Nippon when he approached. Failure to stand properly to attention or the omission of any detail from this ceremony would bring down on the head of the offender (and literally on the head) a severe beating. The victim would be lucky if this were given only with the fists. A Japanese once explained to a prisoner that for a guard to slap his face was ‘like a mother lovingly correcting her child’. The broken jaws or broken eardrums commonly resulting from these encounters cannot, however, be attributed to the intensity of the guards’ affection.

The ‘Changi Square’ incident, as it is called, occurred in September 1942, when orders from Tokyo reached all corners of the Japanese Greater Asia Co-prosperity Sphere that all prisoners of war, who were regarded as having been incorporated in the Japanese forces, should sign a pledge not to escape and to obey all orders. This was universally resisted and almost as universally signed under varying degrees of compulsion. In Changi the ‘persuasion’ to sign took this form: all the Allied troops, some 17,000-odd, were concentrated in one barrack square (Selerang Barracks), an area of about ten acres. Under indescribable conditions the men held out for three days, many of them already suffering from dysentery and other diseases; then the senior officer, on the advice of the doctors (the Japanese had threatened to cram in the hospital patients as well), ordered the men to sign and himself recorded that the signatures had been given only under heavy duress.

Towards the end of 1942 the fittest men were drafted away from Changi to work on the Burma-Thailand railway. Changi, largely depopulated, remained by comparison only one of the better camps. Later, its prisoners were concentrated in Changi jail, which until then had been the place of internment of the British civilians in Malaya.

* John Coast, Railroad of Death, pp. 29–30.