Historic accounts of horror
STUBBORN BUGGERS: THE SURVIVORS OF THE INFAMOUS POW GAOL THAT MADE CHANGI LOOK LIKE HEAVEN By Tim Bowden Allen & Unwin RRP: $ 29.99
TIM Bowden is a well- known Tasmanian author and commentator. His latest book, Stubborn Buggers, deals with a little- known gaol, operated by the Japanese during the war, named Outram Road.
This prison was under the control of the feared and brutal Kempeitai, which was like the German Gestapo but worse.
Bowden started his journey about 30 years ago when he met Chris Nielsen, who had been a prisoner in Outram Road Gaol.
“This was a place of punishment and death, where executions by beheading ( and crucifixion), hanging or shooting took place continuously between 1942 and 1945,” he said.
There have been many books on the Australian experience as POWs under the Japanese, many of them personal testimonies and self- published. It is hard to understand the cruelty by the Japanese. There have been explanations, but I still do not understand it.
Bowden’s book deals with those who experienced such horror. What struck me was the absolute poetry as recorded by those who suffered, as related by Bowden.
While many Australians were handcuffed to await their Japanese guards, one recorded: “Soon we were caught up, spellbound, as we sat and watched the last act of the play of day. A symphony of clouds, land and sea, in crescendo. Orchestrated shafts of colour speared up and down every which way.”
Outram was where prisoners had to endure solitary confinement, which was extremely regimental and any deviation from what was required meant a thorough beating and a restriction of the already meagre rations. Disease and helplessness became common. Yet there was one Japanese guard who was appalled with what was happening.
American- born Hank the Yank had the unfortunate experience while visiting Japan to be recruited into its army, much to his horror.
Diseases were epidemic. Not only beri- beri, but the scaly skin disease pellagra started to appear. It inflicted great pain, misery and personal degradation, even death.
One inmate, John Wyett ( a Tasmanian), found he went completely blind. His vision returned only to find he was covered with scaly skin “very much like the scales of the fish”.
“From them oozed a clear, yellow and sticky fluid which soaked my shorts and, when dry, stiffened them so hard I could stand them upright on the floor,” he said.
Many died and those who endured such insufferable horrors were liberated in August 1945 in appalling conditions – they were treated as well as possible before nurses came.
“We were sitting in a long 150- yard hut on bamboo slats,” the book reads. “These two nurses walked right through the hut and spoke to every man there and I don’t think one person replied. It was absolutely lovely to see these beautiful women. They were clean and fresh, they had lovely cheeks and their hair was nice and we just sat and looked at them.”
It is interesting to note that even with the hate and desire for vengeance, most when released just wanted to get home and leave the whole nightmare behind.