Prisoner Under The Rising Sun

The Island of Haruku


Haruku -3

Across the straits to the east of Ambon was the island of Haruku and the ship took us there after all the oil and petrol drums had been off-loaded. This was to be our camp for a long time. It was a coral island, one of the "spice" islands boasting nutmeg, pepper and coconut groves. It was getting dark and pouring down with rain when we landed, so the first night was spent under what shelter there was around the trees. With the morning sun arrived a group of natives, bringing with them bamboo poles of various lengths and thicknesses. Whilst the prisoners cleared away undergrowth and did some levelling, the natives built long rectangular huts with bamboo roofs and sides (Atapi), one for the Dutch, one for the English and a cookhouse by a river which was at the bottom of a small hill. Inside the huts on both long walls, bamboo sleeping platforms were hung. It was an education to watch the natives constructing these quarters for us. There was a continuous elevated walkway platform on both sides and flaps in the walls which served as windows. The huts were probably about seventy feet long as we found that each man had enough room to lie down flat on their backs (we had no measuring equipment so always resorted to average man length). There was an entrance at each end with a passageway in the centre. This meant that there was ample room to move around. A wide pathway was dug out by the prisoners, leading down the hill to the river and cookhouse. A parade ground was also levelled out. The Japanese officer in command made his inspection, and we were all counted. The rules of the camp were given to us through a Japanese interpreter. Although he had been brought up in an American mission, he did not translate very well which led to confusion on many occasions. We also met the man who became known as Mori Gunso (Gunso Mori I believe from research, SE), he was the "number one" Japanese. He was the man who was responsible for us, we would carry out his orders and he would personally see that we were punished if the orders were not fulfilled, nobody else had the right to decide punishment (although many did). The guards were mostly from northern Japanese islands and they did not appear to be as aggressive as the previous guards we had encountered. The island had been surveyed by KLM airlines, we were told by the Dutch, as a possible relief runway for the airfield on the island of Ambon, but it had not been started. There was a plateau that needed levelling because of two depressions and there were also large outcrops of rock. The Japanese had decided that it could be levelled by we prisoners of war .As soon as dawn broke, we paraded, numbered off (they insisted on this being done in Japanese), and the guards marched with us to the proposed airstrip. Here we were issued our tools: hammers and chisels of various weights, bamboo poles and many sacks destined to become slings. Again we became three groups: rock breakers; carriers; hole fillers or "levellers". The rate of progress, with the tools available and the lack of enthusiasm for the job, was very slow. The Japanese brought in some more men of their own to augment our numbers. They were equipped with superior tools, explosive charges, light railway lines, and trucks.

A Japanese civilian arrived on the scene who looked like the old American film star Jack Holt. He was undoubtedly an expert and knew exactly where holes had to be made in the coral and how deep they had to be. We were issued with bigger heavier hammers and heavy strong metal stakes. One held the stake upright while the other hammered it in. Jack Holt would then lay the charges. Everyone retired to a safe distance and after the explosion the coral was thrown into the trucks for dumping. Things began to run more smoothly which meant that other jobs could be tackled. There were accidents, but to keep up our spirits, the British on their march back to the camp, led by some Southern Welsh voices, would sing as they walked. The Japanese guards seemed puzzled, but after a couple of nights they were demanding the songs, especially "She'll be wearing silk pyjamas when she comes"! They were intrigued and sometimes sang along with faltering mock-English accents. It would not surprise me if some of the Japanese when they got home after the war, would have sung this to their children, some had learnt it by rote!

Ships began to arrive bringing barrels of petrol that we had to put onto lorries and take up to the airfield. There, they were unloaded, stacked up, and then covered over with palm tree fronds as camouflage. We had already discovered that if we "accidentally" dropped a barrel onto a coral outcrop, it leaked. The Japanese became alerted to our dodge and some heavy punishments were handed out including beating with bamboo. I experienced this treatment and have had chronic varicose veins all my life since then. At the end of the runway there was a slight downward slope. The Japanese decided that it could be excavated and storage space made in tunnels. So, each morning a number of men were detailed. It was also decided that a road had to be dug through a coconut plantation down to the mouth of another river where a jetty could be built for ships bringing in supplies. The Japanese axes made no impression on the coconut trees so they had to be dug out of the ground. It sometimes took a complete working party one whole day to clear just one tree. After some weeks the road was levelled and stones were taken from the bed of the river because of their smoothness to form a surface. The only trouble as far as we were concerned was that the strongest men were required on the banks of the river to put the stones into the trucks. Thus, the smallest and weakest were in the river spending half the time with their heads under water. If they changed round, it was all hard work for the small fellows. This made for very tired men returning for the night. On the walk back to camp everyone surreptitiously gathered any wild fruits or edible leaves within reach which we added to our issue of boiled rice. We also began to acquire Coconut oil at this time. (See short story Trading with Natives ) About this time, the aerial visits by American planes commenced. The first night visit allowed us the opportunity to do some fishing for ourselves. It worked. So we had to do it again and again. Eventually things went wrong but it also provided us with one of our funnier moments. (See short story Ikan Men)

There was an abundance of fish in the seas around the island, but the Japanese did not give us regular opportunity of catching any. If they wanted fish, they threw in explosive charges and we had to swim out and collect the corpses floating on the surface. The idea to do some of our own fishing came from a Scotsman, a fitter in the RAF. A couple of us had still held on to a mosquito net. Why not use them to net some fish? We tried to trawl but the coral stopped that. The native way of throwing out the net looked so simple and we thought that we educated men could do as well if not better. There were six of us in our group and each of us had already contemplated our own "better" way to throw a net. Every ten days we had a half day to ourselves and were allowed to go into the sea and try out our fishing skills. For educated men, nobody ever mastered the over and around the head native technique, as we usually finished up with netting ourselves. Although we managed to throw the nets forward, we could not get them to spread out. The only way was to stake the nets out as is done at the mouths of rivers and leave them a while. The traps were set one night and checked the next. We were able to add to our boiled rice by gathering the sea snails that we found amongst the roots. We were also allowed to have a dip in the river by the cookhouse and with a bit of luck could catch crayfish under the stones. I became an expert in catching fresh water or land turtles. There were parts of the river bank which were very muddy and because I was smaller than the majority, when we were on the stone gathering jobs, I invariably ended up being one of the chosen few to wade through the mud, feeling for rocks with my foot, then bend down and choose the stones. One day the stone turned out to be a turtle. I was able to tell the difference after that by whether the stone felt rough with a ridge, or, alternatively, smooth to the sole of the foot. The Japanese guards allowed us to take them to our huts not knowing that they could become a tasty morsel. They thought that we wanted them as pets! The most humane way of killing the turtles was to plunge them into boiling water. The job of getting the shell off was tricky, but it was solved by an RAF cook who was also adept at removing the bile and the bladder, casting the rest into any kind of pan available along with wild leaves. The outcome was a tasty soup or stew. I was on a BBC radio programme after my release and the interviewer asked me what I had eaten as a prisoner of war. I replied (forgetting the turtles) that we consumed, rats, mice, snails and snakes. After the interview a group of ladies were talking and one of the older ladies was most concerned for us, but a younger one said, "he's only joking". After that, she asked, "What did you really have?", and I replied, "If the rodents, snails or snakes were unavailable we'd have turtle soup". She was convinced that I was still joking.

The aerodrome seemed to be taking shape and some Japanese aircraft had performed some circuits and bumps. Large forces of American-built aircraft began flying over regularly, not menacing the island, but one night we did have a raid. There was panic among the Japanese guards, especially when we heard loud explosions. The following day we were on repair duty . The bombing the night before had been centred on the end of the runway. It was not a heavy raid, but unfortunately, part of the native village had received some damage, along with the Japanese huts near the runway. There were no casualties as the natives had been previously transferred by the Japanese to do some building elsewhere. We were given the job of tidying up and removing obstacles which could get in the road of anyone in a hurry .During this operation I came across red and green peppers and some small tomatoes which promptly were added to our wild fruit & vegetable supplies. A Dutchman, a farmer in civilian life, discovered some sweet potato plants there, which he replanted in our own camp. The aircrew camp had to be restored to operational status and a section of the coast had to be cleared of undergrowth so that a number of Japanese ladies who had arrived could walk around freely. They were not at all like the geisha girls I had seen pictures of, they did not wear kimonos but looked more like peasant women. By accident, I hit a Japanese soldier with a length of bamboo I was carrying. Although the blow was mild, he wanted to show the ladies that he was a superior being, so proceeded to give me a beating with a bamboo cane that he was carrying. My face was cut and bleeding and my nose broken once more (it had already been broken by an earlier bamboo beating). At the end of the day, we stopped at our guardhouse to be booked in and counted. Whilst this was being done, Gunso Mori was checking us and making sure that none of his prisoners had been lost during the day. He saw the condition that I was in and wanted to know what had happened. Through the interpreter, I gave my story and to all our amazement, one of our guards spoke on my behalf before I was sent to see our doctor. The following morning, Mori fell in with the prisoners, standing behind me. We marched to the aircrew camp where Mori insisted I pick out the one who had beaten me up. He then confronted the soldier in my presence, took him on one side and gave the soldier the same treatment he had given me, underlining that he, Mori, was the only one allowed to punish his prisoners. We knew that on the camp he personally instructed a guard to punish anyone out of step and if the guard was not giving out enough Mori would take over. I thought that he enjoyed knocking people around because every now and again the guards would indulge in some physical encounter and it was always Mori who broke up the confrontation with his own physical strength, therefore becoming the winner himself. He had to be number one, the man in charge. This determination of being in charge showed up in the best way when another move was decided upon by the High Command. There had been much sickness and death amongst the prisoners. I had helped bury about two hundred and eighty .The work we had been doing had now subsided and there was no need to keep so many on the island. Japanese High Command had therefore decided that all the sick should be shipped back to Java. They were transferred by rafts to a ship waiting a little way off shore. Going across, two of the rafts collided and capsized. About ten prisoners were in peril, Mori was the first in to rescue them and kept diving in to make sure all his prisoners were saved. He had carried out his duties and I suppose he was still number one. Mori then sailed with the ship and that was the last I saw of him.


Short Stories

Trading with Natives

Ikan Men


Next Chapter

Ambon Again



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