Chorus Girl – POWs 19

In Chungkai camp over the period late 1944 to early 1945 there were some highlights in the POWs lives, in particular the theatre provided not only distraction but some lifelong happy memories. Barry remembers:

In the summer of 1944, one of the Dutch POWs started a concert party and built a small stage. I was co-opted into the early productions as a stage carpenter and odd job man. Later on a fine new theatre for plays was built and used by several different groups of producers. As a small slim, handsome young man and a good dancer, my true potential as a chorus girl and romantic actress were eventually recognised. Most of the shows were mixed variety concerts with a line of chorus girls.

Cast includes Bob Garrod & Barry (Custance Baker)

Cast includes Bob Garrod & Barry (Custance Baker)

Leo Britt, a Corporal in the RASC, put on a number of straight plays in which I had minor parts. Leo was very strict with us ‘girls’. Report to the theatre after first rice and from then on wear skirts and high heels to become used to moving like a woman. Some of us became anxious that we might possibly be becoming ‘too too’ girlish, and to prevent this we kept a stock of barbells and weight bars (bamboo and logs) behind the stage, which we could lift from time to time as an assurance that our manly muscles were still there.

The parts for the plays were either copied out from books, which we happened to have in the camp, or more often written down by someone who knew the play well from having acted in it or produced it before the war. In my best scene (in Hay Fever), twisting around on a very hard bamboo sofa with the host, I was often worried that our kisses might cause giggles or rude comment, but we got away with it and the host, Leo himself, once whispered to me, “They’re taking it OK, do it just once more”. So we did, and the Japs who came every night and sat in the front row just loved it.

A small part with Dickie Lucas, the main leading lady at the time in a Café Colette show has given me my best-loved anecdote. We did a dance routine to the tune of “Yam” a popular song of the thirties. We danced separately and then as a pair, finally in the chorus line. When walking back to my hut after the show I overheard two soldiers, one of whom I knew, discussing the show. “Those two fucking tarts, they were more like real fucking tarts than any fucking tarts I’ve ever met”. My best theatre crit.

Other members of Barry’s original unit, 27 Line Section, who fetched up in Chungkai, were also stars of the stage. His lieutenant Bob Garrod acted in a very successful production of “Night Must Fall” in June 1944.

Night Must Fall  Chungkai Theatre

Night Must Fall Chungkai Theatre

Meanwhile another member of the unit, Reg Hannam, was still on the railway driving lorries on maintenance work and in spite of this also performing regularly. His son (also Reg Hannam) found concert programmes for shows in Brankassi Camp at 208 km up the line. There was clearly a flourishing cabaret act in which Hannam and his friends performed to entertain their mates.

Reg Hannam in Love Thais

Reg Hannam in Love Thais

It is difficult to overestimate the morale-boosting effects of theatrical performances. The enthusiasm and dedication of those who performed were crucial to the survival of many of their fellow POWs. How much these events mattered can be seen by the fact that such fragile mementoes were preserved.

The cast of Love Thais

The cast of Love Thais

WWII letters across the world – POWs 18

In January 1944 , in response to a circular letter from Phyllis to the relatives of Barry’s men in 27 Line Section, several of them wrote back to say that they have had cards from their men. Although one wife writes:

…You see, Mrs Baker, I received a postcard from my husband in August but it had taken a year to come from the time of writing and he was fit and well then, next came the War Office communication confirming that he was a P.O.W. [more than a year after he went missing].

Just a few weeks later the War Office notified me that my husband had died from malaria in Thai Camp and that the date of his death was unknown…

While devastating for this family, this information may have given false hope to others, thinking that if they had heard nothing their men were still alive and well. Phyllis, still without any direct communication from Barry since early 1942, keeps sending the brief permitted typed slips.

Phyllis notes1

This one, sent in January 1944, miraculously reached Barry 9 months later.

Sometime later in January 1944 Phyllis had her moment of hope, a POW card from Barry reached England. This was addressed to his parents house and the Post Office readdressed it across the Atlantic to Barry’s parents in San Francisco, where they were broadcasting to the Far East in Malay. This small card, having traversed the globe, reached Barry’s parents who then cabled Phyllis with the good news.

BCB POW card1

BCB POW card1R

Phyllis was now among the lucky ones, she sent another slip to Barry.

Phyllis notes2

And she shared her joy with the other relatives of 27 line section. This reply, from the wife of one of the men who saved Barry’s life nine months earlier, shows that by now relatives are at least partially aware of the bad treatment of Far East POWs.

Dear Mrs Baker, Many thanks for your nice letter, and let me say how glad I am to know that your husband is safe and in the same camp as my own husband. [Relatives naturally assumed that “Camp or Group 2” referred to a fixed Prison camp.]

Things seem to be moving a bit now, with the Japs getting a foretaste of what’s to come, so maybe a few more blows will make them decide that better treatment of their prisoners would be beneficial.

Also that twenty-five words included the date, which I had not known, so I’m hoping, that my previous notes, have got through.

I was most interested to hear that you have a small son Mrs Baker, as I am very fond of children, and having one of my own, I know what a comfort he must be to you. My little boy is nearly seven, and it’s due to him that I kept going during the long period which his daddy was posted as missing.

It will be a wrench parting from him to take a job, but in the circumstances I think it would be best for you and will help to keep you from worrying. Often I have wished I could take a job myself, but having my father and sister to look after, (they are doing important work) along with my son, I seem always to have plenty to do.

I don’t think any more mail has arrived from the Far East since December, and although it’s unlikely that another postcard will arrive for a time, I’m just longing to hear that the men have received some mail from home.

Badly off as we think we are, it’s so much worse for them, not knowing how things are at home or how their dear ones are faring. Your father-in-law’s remark that the government hasn’t just let things slide, is very heartening, since he is in a position to know, so it’s up to us to be as brave and patient as our men, and who knows, it might not be too long before they return, when we will be able to make up to them a little for what they have gone through.

Hoping this finds you and your little son well and happy.

In late 1944 this correspondence that Phyllis kept up with the relatives became crucial when some Far East prisoners were rescued after the sinking of a transport ship.

From Palembang to Chichester – Singing to Survive

Last night we sat in the beautiful open nave of St Paul’s Chichester as thirty barefoot women filed past and took their places at the altar end. These were the singers of the Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra, conducted by Chris Larley about to re-create an extraordinary enterprise of WWII.

In early 1942, civilians caught up in the Japanese invasion sweeping across South East Asia, were rounded up and imprisoned. One group of about 600 women and children, from more than 20 nationalities, existed for the next three years in a series of camps on the island of Sumatra. They suffered starvation, lethal diseases and forced labour. For the full story see:

See http://www.singingtosurvive.com

By late 1943 morale had sunk disastrously and cultural misunderstandings between nationalities flourished. Then two women, Margaret Dryburgh and Norah Chambers, were inspired to create a language-free form of music. They created an ‘orchestra’ by dividing thirty women into four groups by voice (First and second sopranos, first and second altos). They then set well known quartet or even orchestral passages for these voices, using vowel and consonant sounds, but not words. The effect of this ‘orchestra’ on morale, cultural relationships was instantaneous – even their Japanese guards responded to the beauty of it.

Last night the Chichester Women’s Vocal Orchestra, with three members of the cast of Tenko, Stephanie Cole and Louise Jameson speaking and Veronica Roberts directing, performed the story. They used letters, poems and interviews with survivors for the narrative. For the musical passages, the choir used the original settings to recreate the  sounds that the women in this amazing jungle ‘orchestra’ made. They sang pieces such as the Largo from Dvorák’s New World Symphony, Beethoven’s Minuet on G, Bach’s Jesu Joy and many others.

The sound was unique and difficult to describe. It had a silky, liquid quality, softer and warmer in tone than orchestral or even string sounds. In a well-judged direction, we were asked not to applaud until the concert ended. This made the interleaving of story music even more spell-binding and fluent and there was a fully deserved standing ovation at the end.

Hospital reader and Lady Almoner – POWs 17

All through spring and summer of 1943 starving and diseased POWs from the up-country railway work camps (in Thailand) trickled south to the bigger camps such as Chungkai. Barry reached this camp in July 1943 and was soon fit enough to do some work.

My first and simplest job was basically as a storyteller or rather reader. I would take a likely book from the camp library and sit down on the end of a bed space in one of the sick huts, and read a chapter or two. Then I would move down the hut, twenty or thirty yards, and read the same piece to another lot of sick men. This was judged to be a useful employment, so I was never called on to join a maintenance party.

In October the two parts of the railway, Thailand and Burma, joined up at Konkuita and from then on sick and dying men poured into Chungkai transported by barges or on the railway itself. Meanwhile Barry began to enjoy the theatre and concerts got up by enterprising prisoners, but found that:

These jolly functions contrasted harshly with our work in the sick huts, which got steadily worse as more parties of sick and dying arrived from up river. We were burying ten, fifteen, or even twenty every day, and it was disconcerting during my readings to become aware that one or two of my audience were never going to hear the next chapter.

From Peter Fyans biography of Fergus Anckorn: Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW, the Conjuror on the Kwai

From Peter Fyans biography of Fergus Anckorn: Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW, the Conjuror on the Kwai

He progressed from reader to Lady Almoner

The job of Almoner, or “Lady Almoner” as it was called, involved the actual distribution of goodies bought from the welfare fund, to the sick men in the huts. The most useful purchases were eggs, honey, palm syrup, and occasional pots of vegemite, the Australian marmite. There was, of course, not nearly enough for everyone, the M.O. in charge of a particular hut would give me a list of the men due to receive these extras and the quantities for each one.

I did not at first realise the difficulty of the job but it became clear soon enough. Most of the very sick men got nothing at all because, as the M.O. told me, they would die anyway. The extras, very carefully husbanded, would go to those men who were able to profit from them and might just recover with their help but who would die without. At least I was spared the agony of deciding who got what, but every day I was faced with the need to find answers. “I am much sicker than Joe, Sir, why does he get two eggs this week and I get none?” An unanswerable question to which I had to find some reasonable answer day after day. I talked to the other Almoners and had no comfort from them, all in the same position as I was. “Tell them Orders is Orders, and you are just doing what you are told to do.”

Writing to a Ghost – POWs 16

While Barry is slowly recovering his strength in the big base camp at Chungkai, Phyllis has managed to move out of her parents house. Like so many other relatives, she struggled to write again and again with absolutely nothing coming back. It was, as someone said, like writing to a ghost – which sadly many of them were.

In November 1943 Phyllis wrote:

DEAR DARLING I HAVE NOT WRITTEN FOR SOME TIME, BECAUSE THERE SEEMS TO HAVE BEEN SO MUCH DOUBT ABOUT WHETHER YOU WILL EVER RECEIVE THE LETTERS AND THE MUST BE TYPED [IN CAPITALS] NOW. I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO BORROW THIS TYPEWRITER FOR A SHORT WHILE THIS MORNING. ROBIN AND I MOVED UP HERE AT THE END OF SEPTEMBER AND ARE NOW REALLY GETTING SETTLED IN. I HAVE A VERY NICE SITTING ROOM OF MY OWN. … ROBIN HAS BEEN RATHER SEEDY SINCE WE CAME HERE … BUT IS NOW PICKING UP AGAIN.

Robin

Robin

HE IS, NEEDLESS TO SAY, A CONTINUAL SOURCE OF DELIGHT TO ME. HE IS DEVELOPING IN SOME WAYS VERY LIKE YOU, AND IS REALLY AN INTELLIGENT COMPANION TO GO ROUND WITH NOW, THOUGH THE CLARITY OF HIS VOICE IS MATCHED BY THE DIRECTNESS OF HIS QUESTIONS AND OFTEN EXERCISES ALL MY TACT AND PATIENCE WHEN IN COMPANY, BECAUSE HE NEVER MISSES A POINT OR ALLOWS ME TO EVADE A DIRECT ANSWER. … HE IS ALWAYS TALKING ABOUT WHEN DADDY COMES HOME. … AND WHEN HE COMES HOME AND WE ALL HAVE A …HOME, AND A LITTLE BABY SISTER (PLEASE I WOULD LIKE A LITTLE BABY SISTER) LIFE WILL BE PERFECT.

HOW AM I? QUITE WELL, VERY BUSY, AND GLAD TO BE SO. TRYING TO POSSESS MY SOUL IN PATIENCE, NOT TO THINK WHAT LIFE MAY BE LIKE FOR YOU NOW, AND TO CONCENTRATE ON DOING ALL I CAN FOR YOU NOW BY WHAT I CAN DO FOR YOUR SON. ALSO TO SAVE AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE TOWARDS OUR FUTURE, … TO ONE IDEA I HANG ON FIRMLY, NAMELY THAT YOU WILL NOT BE WASTING YOUR TIME MORE THAN CAN BE HELPED, AND WILL BE LEARNING ALL THAT YOU CAN FIND ANYBODY TO TEACH YOU. ALSO, IF I KNOW ANYTHING OF YOU, YOU WILL BE DOING A LOT OF HELPING OTHER PEOPLE, TOO. SO MANY PEOPLE HAVE SAID TO ME THAT IF ANYBODY COULD ‘TAKE IT’ YOU CERTAINLY COULD. AND THANK GOD I KNOW THEY ARE RIGHT, MY DARLING. NEVER FORGET THAT I LOVE YOU, WILL YOU? EVER YOUR OWN, Phyllis

Sadly, Phyllis has missed notices in the post office saying that correspondence to Far East POWs has been limited by the Japanese to 25 words. Her letter is returned by the  censor.

Her next communications look like this.

permitted Far East POW letters

permitted Far East POW letters

Invisible DIY, finding heroes, writing and autumn outside

It been a busy week!

Today I relaxed by covering another two wall areas with thin woollen jackets. Our house has a mere nine solid inches of brick between us and the winter storms, so each year we add another layer here or there or another piece of secondary glazing. Some panes arrived with the new magnetic attachment system which works brilliantly (though to my embarrassment I had the dimensions of one of them wrong).

I needed to relax from the excitement of two days of Internet connections. Pierre Lagacé, of Lest We Forget, found a website for me with the story of my airman uncle’s Commanding Officer (http://www.marcusbicknell.co.uk/nigel/). I have been in touch with his son, Marcus, and had a a wonderful and productive email exchange and the blog (http://johncustancebaker.wordpress.com) has now become a rich repository of Mosquito and meteorological lore of WWII.

Signalman William Dawson

Signalman William Dawson

Both these activities have been punctuations in my all out blitz on the manuscript of Writing to a Ghost: Letters to the River Kwai 1941-45. A few weeks ago we visited the museum where some of the materials – letters to my mother from the wives and mothers of my father’s Unit, all Far East POWs – are housed. This time we photographed all the photos my mother had collected. I have been able to put faces to nearly half the men in the story. They are brilliant, but some of them make me weep.  I have also been following a friend’s advice as I worked over the manuscript.

Meanwhile, the sun has come out again and the air is warm, and autumn is raging outside. I want to be in the garden. (We did have lunch in the garden.)

Rosa Mary Rose

Rosa Mary Rose

DSCN4320

Acer palmatum Sengokaku

Acer palmatum Sengokaku

DSCN4321

Beyond the call of duty – POWs 15

As the cholera epidemic raged, the POWs including Barry and the remnants of 27 Line Section were still working long hours on the railway. He remembers:

Towards the end of June 1943 several of us found it increasingly difficult to swallow and digest even the small ration of watery rice porridge that was our daily portion. We rapidly became so thin and weak that we were no longer able to get out to the working site. I carried on for a few days trying to do something useful in the camp or cookhouse, but eventually gave up.

The Japanese commander decided to make up a party of thin useless men and send them south in barges. We were a group of about twenty, I believe, unable to walk and barely able to stand, it was assumed that we would soon die, which most of us eventually did.

The day chosen for the evacuation was a Sunday, one of our rare ‘yasme’ (rest) days. We had about 7km to walk to reach the barges. Two of my men helped me, one carried my pack and I was supported between the two of them. After a short distance we found that we were making poor progress and one of them took me on his back and carried me the rest of the way. The two names of Gibby Douglas and Corporal McWhirter are in my mind but I cannot be at all sure that this is a true recollection.

The first proper camp the sick men reached was Tha Khanun (Tarkanoon). One of the POWs there was Dr Robert Hardie. His diary describes: “a lot of very sick men are coming down from 211 camp in a shocking condition – gaunt spectres of men, riddled with malaria and food deficiencies. One can do very little for these people. They can’t assimilate the sort of food we have except eggs, of which we have very few”.

Barry, and the men who reached this camp alive, were welcomed by:

 a proper reception committee of doctors and orderlies who first examined us very thoroughly to make sure that none of us was carrying a cholera infection and then did whatever they could to restore our strength. After we had been thoroughly tested we were all weighed on a beam balance, built in the camp and calibrated against a 50kg rice sack. My weight, about average for the group, was noted as 5 stone 12lbs, or 37kg.

Hungrier, thinner, speedo and then cholera – POWs 14

Barry and the remaining men of 27 Line Section reached a big well-run camp, Tha Khanun, more than 200 km up the river Kwai Noi. To their disappointment they had to march on up-river and then inland:

When we reached the site of (the misnamed) 211kilo camp it was as usual raining and there were no preparations at all, in particular there were no huts or latrines or cookhouses. Our Jap O.C. pointed out a heap of green tents… There were not nearly enough to accommodate the whole group but fortunately these tents were supplied with separate fly sheets, and these extra sheets could be pitched on improvised bamboo poles to provide extra cover although without ends.

On our first morning at 211 we were roused out very early, in the rain and in darkness for a full scale Tenko [parade headcount]. Through the medium of a Japanese interpreter who spoke very little English, our Jap commander told us that the progress of the railway building had fallen far behind schedule and that this was caused by the idleness and incompetence of the British workers and their officers… This speech was recognized as a “speedo”, which meant longer working hours and more harrying, shouting and beating by the guards.

There was no barge traffic up to 211 camp and our rice ration came up through the jungle paths on a hand cart or carried on our backs by ourselves. A 50kg bag (one hundredweight) is not an impossible burden for a fit man, but by now most of us were far from fit and were anyhow already fully occupied building the new section of railway, so that the rice ration was small and became steadily smaller.

…the rice ration, now down to a very few ounces, would be calculated strictly according to the number of men who went out to work. This put us in the unhappy position of being forced to detail for work men who were too weak to stand. It was quite usual to see a man actually suffering from a malaria rigor being supported between two others on the march out to the railway site. Such men were, of course, no use for actual work.

One day a few dysentery cases started violent vomiting as well as producing sudden dehydration and death within a day or two. Men who had served in India recognised the symptoms of cholera… The cholera spread rapidly and it soon became impossible to bury the dead so, on the advice of those who had experience of such epidemics in India, we started to burn the bodies… The fire was kept burning continuously by a small duty party. We never ran short of fuel.

Walking, Walking, Long Time Walking – POWs 13

After constructing the Wampo Viaduct, Barry and the remaining men of 27 Line Section started a very long march up the river Kwai during the rainy season (early summer) of 1943. Barry had been born in Malaya and before he became a prisoner had been studying the language. This led, as he remembers, to a random encounter:

During the march after Wang Po, on the way up river towards 211 kilo, the weather became gradually worse and we were slogging through rain and mud with no comfort at the end of the day’s journey. I often passed the time by talking to myself in Malay and repeating some of the pantuns that I could remember. On this particular occasion I was marching beside a stranger whom I recognised as probably a Dutchman as his dress was different from ours, but he had no rank badges or any other recognition signs. I started to say aloud a particularly apposite pantun, which goes:

“Jalan, Jalan, sa-panjang jalan,
Singa menyunga di pagar orang,
(Walking, walking, long time walking
Looking over neighbours’ fences)

At this moment, half way through the pantun, the man beside me joined in and recited the last two lines,

“Pura pura men-chari ayam,
Ekor mata di-anak orang.”
(Is he perhaps searching for a lost chicken?
But the corner of his eye is looking at his neighbour’s daughters)

At the same time he put a finger to the outer corner of his eye, which was exactly what my munshi had told me that a Malay would do.

Most real Malays know hundreds of these pantuns and by saying a key word from them can indicate a meaning to another Malay, which might not be apparent to someone else. That “ekor mata”, the corner of the eye, is a hint that some one is on the prowl and that girls, and wives too, should be on the look out. This episode cheered me up very much during a wet and miserable period of our long march northwards, and we spent the rest of the day talking Malay to one another; mine very stumbling and uncertain, his accurate and fluent. I lost touch with him and found no other Malay speakers in our group.

Mother of the regiment – POWs 12

String of letters from Phyllis

String of letters from Phyllis

In 1943 while Barry and the men of 27 Line Section are sweating and starving on the Thailand Burma railway, Barry’s wife Phyllis is juggling her responsibilities. She is living at home with her parents, she has two-year old Robin and her mother (demanding and increasingly an invalid) to look after. She wants to move out of her parents home, but can’t unless she finds a job, and she needs one in which she can continue to look after Robin. She has heard nothing from Barry for over a year:

Dear darling, if I didn’t have to type this, which makes one stop to think what one is saying, and was not therefore very conscious of the censor, I could write you a real letter tonight. It is 11p.m. and I have been re-reading all the letters you have sent me since you left England. It has somehow brought you much nearer to me for a while…

Then there is her correspondence with the wives, mothers, fiancées and grandparents of Barry’s men. Phyllis heard that Barry was a prisoner in October 1942, 8 months after he disappeared. She wrote to the relatives over Christmas, replies like this came back:

A mother writes to Phyllis

A mother writes to Phyllis

By June 1943 some more relatives hear, more than a year after silence fell, that their men are prisoners.

Dear Mrs Baker, I am now able to tell you that my husband Dvr. E. Parker 2587178 has been reported a Prisoner of War in “Tai Camps”. I received notification of this from Army Records Office on 6.5.43.

 I am very thrilled, but sorry to say that none of the other Glossop Girls have heard any news as yet, but there are great hopes.

I will take this opportunity of thanking you with all my heart Mrs Baker for your unceasing comfort through those long weary hours of suspense.

My very kindest regards & wishes for your husband’s speedy return. Yours Sincerely. Marjorie Parker.

Phyllis writes to them and then to Barry:

Darling, I’m probably going to get a wigging from Mother, but I just must sit down and finish this letter to you. I have had letters from four more next-of-kin of the men in your section to say their men are POWs… I can’t type up in my room, as they can hear me, and it’s not worth having a row with Mother… (They get so worried at the time I get into bed as it is. With lots of sympathy for me, they can’t fully appreciate how much I dislike going to bed). But all day and every day I am thinking of you, either all the many many happy memories we have, or hopes for the future…

The news of bad treatment of Far Eastern POWs is beginning to trickle through. All the relatives are worrying, Phyllis writes:

Always now I think of the past, and only realise with my mind, not with my emotions, that you must inevitably have changed a lot. Only my darling please don’t let anything you have or are suffering take away that light touch that was so essentially part of you. It was that which comes back to me almost more than anything else when thinking of that mad summer, and our two years engagement… This letter is going all wrong. Partly I know that Mother and Daddy are waiting for me to come upstairs, and though my heart and mind are just full of you…

There is no way for relatives to know, but some of their letters do eventually arrive, a year or so after they are written. Barry keeps them on a piece of string held with a bamboo toggle. All except one are still readable today. The one below is from Barry’s mother, Barbara.

String of letters from Barbara & Alan

String of letters from Barbara & Alan