Last man stand­ing

Work­ing un­der the Kem­peitai in Pe­nang dur­ing WWII haunts James Jeremiah to this day.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - R. AGE - By NAtASHA VEN­NEr- PACK allther­age@ thes­tar. com. my

STAR­ING out to sea on Fort Corn­wal­lis, James Jeremiah cuts a lonely fig­ure.

“Be­fore the fight­ing started, we were so ex­cited to shoot the Ja­panese. We had never seen war; we had only seen it in the movies,” said Jeremiah. “But the first time I heard a real bomb, I was scared to death.”

That was at the old Bayan Lepas Air­port, where Jeremiah wit­nessed the be­gin­ning of the Ja­panese in­va­sion of Pe­nang. He was 18 at the time, and a mem­ber of the Eurasian “E” com­pany of Pe­nang, a vol­un­teer force sim­i­lar to the Bri­tish Home Guard.

“We thought the Ja­panese would fly in from Batu Maung in the south, but they came in through Tan­jung Bun­gah and Batu Fer­ringhi. I think they knew we were fo­cused on the south.”

The tac­tic worked. The vol­un­teers mis­took the Ja­panese planes for Bri­tish fight­ers, a mis­take that al­most cost them their lives.

“They turned out to be Ja­panese Zero fight­ers. They start­ing bomb­ing and ma­chine gun­ning us. Shrap­nel was fly­ing ev­ery­where. I can­not even de­scribe the fear we had in our hearts.”

Al­though they were trained to some ex­tent, the Vol­un­teer Forces ( VF) were not hard­ened mil­i­tary men.

Af­ter the bomb­ing, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore Ja­panese ground troops ar­rived.

Even then, the vol­un­teer forces re­grouped at their head­quar­ters on Peel Av­enue, and did their best to main­tain or­der.

With the Bri­tish gone and the Ja­panese at their doorstep, peo­ple were loot­ing ru­ined houses and bod­ies were strewn ev­ery­where from the bomb­ing.

“We car­ried the dead bod­ies away, as­sisted the wounded and stopped all loot­ers.

“It’s no joke when you’re in that sit­u­a­tion – we just didn’t know what to do,” said Jeremiah.

Things quickly got worse when the Ja­panese ar­rived. The Vol­un­teer Forces were rounded up, and the Euro­peans and fairskinned Eurasians were sent to Sin­ga­pore to be held as pris­on­ers of war.

“My father had rather dark skin, which I in­her­ited. I think it saved my life!” said Jeremiah.

The re­main­ing VF mem­bers were used by the Ja­panese as guides. Jeremiah’s work ethic as a guide caught the eye of a mem­ber of the Kem­peitai, the feared Ja­panese mil­i­tary po­lice.

“Colonel Watan­abe took me to his of­fice and asked what work I could do, so I said any­thing. He asked me to make tea, coffee, pol­ish his boots – things like that.”

The Kem­peitai of­fice was lo­cated in the Wes­ley Methodist Church on Jalan Burma. Al­though he was a mere of­fice boy, the ex­pe­ri­ence was ter­ri­fy­ing.

He still lives on Pe­nang is­land to­day, a mere 20 min­utes from the church – but he has never gone back to the church in over 70 years, un­til he brought R. AGE there last month to shoot an episode of The Last Sur­vivors ( rage. com. my/ last­sur­vivors).

“I used to see peo­ple be­ing ar­rested. I don’t know how, but they were ‘ in­ter­ro­gated’. I used to hear screams, cries... I couldn’t take it,” he said in the video, which is part of a se­ries doc­u­ment­ing the sto­ries of Malaysia’s WWII sur­vivors.

Al­though the bru­tal­ity of the Kem­peitai has haunted many, in­clud­ing Jeremiah, not all the Ja­panese were cruel overlords.

Watan­abe was ed­u­cated in the United States, and he saved Jeremiah’s life a few times.

The Ja­panese would hold “tri­als” at pub­lic spa­ces – in­clud­ing Padang Kota Lama next to Fort Corn­wal­lis – where their lo­cal in­for­mants would ex­pose other lo­cals who were work­ing against the Ja­panese.

“( The in­for­mants) wore hoods when they pointed peo­ple out. The minute they point at you, you’re fin­ished, gone,” said Jeremiah. “The Ja­panese would round up the pub­lic so the in­for­mants could point peo­ple out.”

Jeremiah thanks Watan­abe for sav­ing him from at­tend­ing the tri­als, where he be­lieves he could eas­ily have been sin­gled out for ex­e­cu­tion. “Watan­abe pro­tected me. I was so lucky, he was very good to me.”

Some of the in­for­mants flaunted their spe­cial priv­i­lege with the Ja­panese, ac­cord­ing to Jeremiah.

“They would say ‘ don’t mess with us’, so we kept quiet. I re­mem­ber a fa­mous Eurasian doc­tor, Doc­tor J. E. Smith, who was done in by them and, I think, be­headed.”

Even with Watan­abe’s pro­tec­tion, the atroc­i­ties be­ing com­mit­ted at the Kem­peitai of­fice was too much for Jeremiah to bear, and he asked to be trans­fered to the rail­ways. The colonel relunc­tantly agreed.

Watan­abe con­tin­ued show­ing kind­ness to Jeremiah even af­ter he started work as a lo­co­mo­tive driver, putting in a good word to his new boss and Gen­eral Ya­mashita him­self, the mas­ter­mind be­hind the in­va­sion of Malaya. Ya­mashita had de­feated the com­bined Aus­tralian, Bri­tish and In­dian force of 130,000 sol­diers with just 30,000 troops.

“Ya­mashita was rid­ing the train along with Tadashi Suzuki ( an in­fa­mous samu­rai sword- wield­ing ex­e­cu­tioner), but I couldn’t un­der­stand what they were say­ing as it was in Ja­panese,” said Jeremiah. “They no­ticed that my new boss’ boots were shin­ing, and Watan­abe said I was the one who pol­ished them.”

The gen­eral made a last­ing im­pres­sion on young Jeremiah, who said the very sight of him made ev­ery­one afraid.

“He was very fierce and very dy­namic, though very big and chubby. Ev­ery­one was afraid. I didn’t dare look him in the eye.”

While many strug­gled for food dur­ing the Oc­cu­pa­tion, Jeremiah said he was lucky to be paid in both “ba­nana money” – the Ja­panese cur­rency – and food.

“I used to get about 30 dol­lars a week, some­times more. I saved the bread for my par­ents and if I wanted an egg, I’d ask Watan­abe.”

Had he been caught smug­gling eggs, the colonel would have be­headed him.

The hor­rors of the Oc­cu­pa­tion were a far cry from his pre- war days.

Jeremiah was ro­tated around a few places, in­clud­ing Fort Auchry ( now a Malaysian army camp), Fort Corn­wal­lis and Batu Maung.

He re­mem­bers watch­ing the Euro­peans and Eurasians board­ing ships at Swet­ten­ham Pier head­ing to Sin­ga­pore, where they be­lieved they would be safe. Win­ston Churchill had in­sisted Sin­ga­pore would not fall.

He was also posted at Batu Maung, a Bri­tish fort which the Ja­panese turned into a tor­ture cham­ber.

He brought the Last Sur­vivors crew there dur­ing film­ing. The orig­i­nal fort re­mains, but the land is now a pri­vately owned mu­se­um­cum- theme park, with plas­tic “ghosts” hang­ing ev­ery­where and a paint­ball field at­tached.

“Ev­ery­thing has changed,” said Jeremiah with a laugh. “I don’t re­mem­ber any of this be­ing here!”

Jeremiah spent the rest of the war as a lo­co­mo­tive driver. Af­ter the war, he worked at the Batu Fer­ringhi reser­voir, where he would re­tire as a su­per­in­ten­dent.

While he ex­pe­ri­enced many hor­rors dur­ing the war, some­thing beau­ti­ful did come out of it. He met his late wife, a for­mer Miss Thai­land, dur­ing his time on the rail­ways.

“I trav­elled all the way to Bangkok af­ter the war to find her,” said Jeremiah with a wide smile.

“All I had was her name, as her let­ters never had a re­turn ad­dress.”

Though he lives on, hap­pily sur­rounded by his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, Jeremiah said young Malaysians need to find out about their grand­par­ents’ ex­pe­ri­ences.

“War is some­thing that hurts ev­ery­one – it’s not like what you see in the movies. They should find out; they need to be told what hap­pened.”

To­day, he has out­lived all 18 mem­bers of the “E” Com­pany, all five of his sib­lings, and one of his chil­dren.

“All my friends and col­leagues are now gone. I am the last sur­vivor.”

Know any World War II sur­vivor’s sto­ries? Email us at allther­age@ thes­tar. com. my and we’ll add your story to our web­site. Feb 22 marked 70 years since Ja­pan’s fi­nal sur­ren­der in Kuala Lumpur dur­ing World War II. Sadly, the sto­ries of the peo­ple who sur­vivied through those dark days are be­ing lost to time. The Last Sur­vivors is an in­ter­ac­tive doc­u­men­tary pro­ject to doc­u­ment those sto­ries. Find out how you can con­trib­ute sto­ries to our in­ter­ac­tive WWII map at rage. com. my/ last­sur­vivors now. Mar­ried at 14 to es­cape be­com­ing a com­fort woman, Ch­wee Lan’s courage helped saved many lives dur­ing the war. She hid peo­ple above her hus­band’s laun­dry shop in Jo­hor Baru, sav­ing them from ex­e­cu­tions. Watch her full episode on March 21 at rage. com. my/ last­sur­vivors. # Nev­erFor­get

While film­ing an episode of Jeremiah brought the crew back to the Wes­ley Methodist Church in Pe­nang, where he would hear the screams of those toru­tured there by the Ja­panese. He had not been back to the church in over 70 years. — HAFrIZ IQBAL/ r. AGE

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