Friday, February 09, 2007

Changi Prisoner of War Camp

At 8.30 p.m. on Sunday 15th February 1942, the British Army suffered its single greatest ever defeat when Lieutenant General A.E. Percival surrendered Singapore Island to the invading Japanese forces under General Tomoyuki Yamashita. The cost to the British was enormous, with total casualties numbering 138,708 of whom over 130,000 were taken prison of war. 40,000 of these prisoners were taken to Changi, a notorious Japanese prisoner of war camp, where they suffered out the rest of the war until September 1945 when Japan surrendered.

It is said that the conditions at Changi were harsh and deplorable. The Japanese justified these conditions by saying that since the prisoners of war had surrendered they therefore should be treated as such for dishonouring their country by surrendering. I could go into the history of the events surrounding this part of the war but suffice it to say, that the defeat at Singapore was considered one of the greatest defeats in the history of the British Army and probably Britain’s worst defeat in World War Two.

During this period of time, thousands of the men were slaughtered, thousands died of disease and thousands died building infrastructures such as the Burma-Thailand railway and the bridge over the river Kwai.

My grandfather spent three and a half years at Changi. My mother was just a little girl when he went off to war to serve “Queen and County.” When he returned to his family, he was just a fraction of the size that he was when he left. My mother often said that he was never the same upon his return. I think it safe to say that nobody who is seen battle or a POW camp can ever possibly be the same. During those years when he was a prisoner, they never knew whether he was dead or alive and it wasn’t until the war was over and they received official notification that he had survived, that they could breathe with relief.

One of my mother’s memories was going with her mother to be present for the arrival of her father after the war. At one point, they could not find him and, as fear cropped up into their hearts, they received word that his ship had arrived at another pier. With great relief, they rushed over to the correct pier. While trying to track him down, they walked right by him due to the fact that he was gaunt and malnourished. It wasn’t until he reached out and grabbed a hold of my grandmother, did they realize that he was most definitely alive. The first thing that my mother did was to blurt out how skinny her father had become. My grandmother’s response was to elbow her on her arm and tell her to be quiet!

Norman Hector Vaas, my grandfather returned home and lived for another ten or so years until he died in 1955 when my mother was 24.

I had often heard of the stories of how my Grandfather, who I never had the honour of meeting, survived the war. When I was younger, my mother gave me his duffle bag that he used to carry whatever belongings he had from Changi. I still have it. He was an avid reader and writer. Throughout his stay at Changi, he managed to keep a diary of his experiences there… I so wish that diary was still in existence for I would have loved to read of his experiences.

I never had the opportunity to meet most of the relatives on my mother’s side and even less on my father’s side but the stories I have heard about them, I shall never forget… I only wish that, whilst a teenager, I had been more attentive to those stories. Had I know how much they would mean to me when I got older, I would have asked a lot more questions.

Suffice it to say, I am proud of my grandfather’s bravery to fight for what he believed in and the courage he had to survive.


Hammer said...

What they did to those prisoners was deplorable. After news got out
about how terrible the conditions were I believe many less were apt to surrender.

Glad your grandfather made it out of there.

Monika said...

That's such a sad story. I'm glad I knew my grandfather. He was in WW2. When he got old he's got Alzheimer and thought I was his daughter. I spent a lot of time with him and he told me many stories of the war. He could remember the old times, but not the present. I was with him when he died. He wasn't even my real Grandfather, he's adopted my mother. Wonderful man!

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

There has been much debate over General Percival's decision to surrender especially now that we know the Japanese were actually running out of supplies. But this is all wisdom in hindsight and with a lot more information that the Brits didn't have. We can never really understand unless we were there. Nevertheless, it was a decision that committed so many to the hell of captivity.

You had to be strong and determined to survive. You're right to be proud of your grandad and its good to remind the young'uns about their story and their acheivements.

P.S. I think you mean 1955 and not 1945.

Cheryl said...

I had no idea of this part of the war. The number of casualties is hard to fathom and deplorable. How interesting to hear a story from someone who's family was affected by it. I can't imagine what your grandfather and the thousands of others went through. And then to live with the memories...

Janice said...

War is such a terrible event...even if only one died how can it be said the war was won. I cannot possibly know exactly what your grandfather endured but I do know war changes everyone's life completely. Perhaps it is just as well that as a teenager you didn't ask more questions for the answers might have become a burden too hard to bear at that impressionable age. Your grandfather was indeed a brave man to have survived such experiences. Thanks for sharing such a compelling story.

montidogeo said...

Hard horrible times, that I'm sure a lot of old guys in my country still cannot forget.

1945 though I think, though I wasn't there.

No, in 1955 the US lauched an attack on Japan and the world with Elvis Presley. And now in karaoke bars in Japan, the West has finally got it's revenge with our now Japanese friends destroying "Love me Tender" every night.

Anonymous said...

I loved my Great Aunt dearly, but I could never tell her I was learning Japanese as my forgein language elective. She lost her husband and three out of five brothers.

However, I would never hold what happened to my family against my Japanses friends. My closest friend lives in Hiroshima and you already known what we did to her family.

Both sides have blood on their hands.

Dave said...

Hi Hammer... I agree about the deplorable situation... as a matter of fact, the fact that WW2 or any of our recent wars occurred is deplorable for BOTH sides.

Hi Monika... The beauty about what you said that even though he adopted your mom, he WAS your real grandfather as he was your mom's real father. :-) Blood is not always thicker than water. Take care.

HiLGS... YOu made a number of good as well as accurate points regarding the history of the circumstances surrounding singapore and Changi. Also, thanks for the year correction...Much appreciated. For those who are wondering, I gave 1945 as the year my grandfather died when, in fact, it was 1955.

Hi Cheryl!... I knew very little until recently. It ceases to amaze me how many stories are just out of range of our knowledge until we venture forward and discover them.

Janice... You are so correct when you talk about there being no winners. Everyone loses in battle.

montidogeo... You are right. Violence like that in wars will never be forgotten by the one's in the battle.

Hi Proxima... I agree. It would be a terrible mistake for us to continue to hold grudges after peace comes into effect after such bloodshed.

Em said...

I understand your wish that you had paid more attention. We never do as kids or teens...they just seem like old people and who cares. Now we care. And we miss them.

Le Nightowl said...

Have you seen Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, a fim directed by Nagisa Oshima? It's about a Japanese prison camp. An excellent film, as far as I remember.
Of course, reality often surpasses fiction.
I'm impressed by the precision of your memory. I don't think I could tell any stories about my family.

Portia said...

this was a wonderfully written, powerful story. i am so glad you mentioned it to me or i never would have found it, as i don't go digging in archives very often.

it is funny how little we think we need to hold onto when we are very young, but as we age we feel the need to know more about where we came from. thank you for sharing!

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