• Theatre and Concerts

    May 1 . While Susan was visiting, I booked front seats at the MSM's production of "Le Nozze di Figaro". The voices were remarkably trained and the acting by the performers was great. All three of us enjoyed the afternoon!

    JUNE 14 The New York Philharmonic's first concert in the Park since Covid attacked. As the sun went down, a very cool wind sprang up and the audience began to shiver. Moreover, the musicians had to compete with the gusting wind--All the same, Bomsori Kim's performance of Bruch's Violin Concerto was well worth staying for.

  • Upcoming Trips and Events

  • 23rd June to 26th Susan is hosting a family get-together in the Pocono Mountains. There will be fishing, messing about in boats and reminiscing around the campfire!

    July 2 to July 5 Christine and I will be motoring to York to celebrate Independence Day with Susan and Craig.

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POW tales and other stories


powI imagine that all traumatic events, whether long drawn out or brief, are eventually reduced in the mind to essential impressions. Impressions that are distillations of all that went on in the mind at the time the events took place; ice-cold fear; anger; fear again and incredulity. But they also include, if one is lucky or astute, an element of farce.  I am convinced that a sense of the farcical is a most necessary ingredient for survival—it moderates chemical responses and inhibits emotions to the point where they don’t overwhelm the intellect. Without it, self-pity is likely to take over, accompanied by an all-consuming concern with the injustices of the past and an exclusion of the present. The present is the only life we have to live.

So it is with the memories of my prisoner-of-war days. The impressions are like the link buttons on a web page—click on one and a whole new set of memories appears. The memories are personal. Their accounting may be far from accurate—I am often surprised by the difference in the recollections of the same events my friend, Peter Feloy, and I have. He and I went through five or so years of the Second World War together, mostly in Japanese POW camps, but sometimes I wonder if we were on the same planet at the time. Some of my most vivid recollections are a complete blank to him and vice versa. And there are wide differences in the significance our memories have accorded events. He has little recollection of events which indelibly marked the mind of my youth and often he gets animated about mutual experiences which my memory has practically dismissed.

These tales will not be in chronological order.  Often, as I browse through my scrapbook of recollections a link button is clicked and memory of a long forgotten event floods my mind as if it occurred only yesterday. In no particular order, however.

Your Health, Sir!

While Japanese soldiers were not overly careful of the health of the prisoners they captured in the field, it is a little-known fact that they were meticulous when it came to the ones they were about to ship to the Emperor’s holy land. They did not want their land contaminated by unhygienic Barbarians.

Only the healthiest were selected and this, unfortunately, meant that Peter and I had to part company. He was in a much too weak a state; barely recovering from the diphtheria which had swept through the camp. He tried desperately to get on the same draft as myself but the authorities would have none of it.

Before we sailed from Hong Kong, we were stripped many times and sprayed with some kind of disinfectant, right up to the time of embarkation on the Tatuta Maru—the freighter that was to take us to Japan. I remember the injections. Administered by a team of kimonoed Japanese nurses who minced down the rows of naked soldiers sticking their needles into the men’s breasts. We hated the thought of being injected there! It seemed to us to be so un-British and perhaps, immoral. But the Japanese army knew exactly what it was doing. It would not allow its own soldiers to use sore arms as an excuse to shirk their duties.

But, I have a memory of this time, which marked a watershed in my lifetime education and forever shook my faith in the permanence of Crown and Empire.

Stool testing was part of the medical regimen which the Japanese health officials had adopted for separating out the unhealthy. It was carried out en masse by the same kimonoed nurses who did the breast sticking. Armed with baskets of glass rods some quarter inch in diameter and six inches in length, they traversed the rows of men, strategically inserting their glass rods. Nothing in my whole upbringing had prepared me for such a sight. My reaction to it then, was a sense of utter betrayal and disillusionment, engendered in part, by the thought that I was about to suffer the same indignity. Until that time, only my mother had seen my naughty bits at such close range and the thought of those young Japanese women doing that to me bought shame to both sets of cheeks. The memory, now, is tempered with a rueful admission of the incredible naivete of youth. Perhaps the end of an era could hardly be more appropriately bookmarked in my mind than with the thought of those serried rows of bare British bums sporting their little glass rods!

The One-Armed Bandit

The fitness I spoke about in my earlier story was relative. By no means was it the fitness of boisterous young men found on the soccer fields of London. Rather it was the optimistic condition of emaciated figures, currently free from beriberi, pellagra, dysentery and all the other deficiency diseases, which afflicted the majority of the troops at the time. But five days and nights in the hold of the Tatuta Maru showed how marginal was our condition.

Seasickness and dysentery soon became very noticeable. Exacerbated by the security arrangements. A trip to the benjo (Japanese toilet) meant climbing an iron ladder up the side of the hold and making your desires known to an armed guard who, if he was sympathetic or just couldn’t stand the smell, escorted you to the heads and back. For the 300 or so men packed on the metal floor of the hold, this was a trip contemplated with little expectation of reaching the objective in time. The sicker ones found it too daunting altogether. At night, matters deteriorated. Covers were put over the hold to prevent any light from making us a target of American submarines. We were generally in favour of this precaution but it did cut down our air supply and made what we had so much less agreeable to breathe.

Our relief was unimaginable when we docked in Nagasaki and emerged into a bright, crisp Japanese morning. While we were being sprayed again with disinfectant, the low of our optimism received a welcome boost. From the other side of Nagasaki Bay came the sound of an almighty explosion and the sight of great columns of smoke. Probably an overtaxed boiler or something akin to it—not a war-stopping event, but it did give us a little joy at the time. I wonder, now, whether any Nagasakians could have had any notion of the extent of the catastrophe that would shortly overtake them.

From the dock we were marched though the town to the railway yard. The local populace turned out in quite flattering numbers to welcome us. A band was playing the Japanese national anthem and the little kiddies lining the streets waved their flags at us. We boarded a train, traveled somewhere, disembarked, boarded another train and eventually disembarked again at Amagasaki, a town between Kobe and Osaka. A short march, carrying all that we owned, and we reached our new camp. It was now sometime in the early hours of the following morning.

Unlike the camps we had occupied previously, this one was custom-built. It was long and narrow, constructed entirely of bare lumber. It had a narrow walkway along its length and, on each side of the walkway, were two tiers of tatami (straw matting) flooring. One about six feet above the other. The upper tatami floors were reached by wooden ladders nailed to the floorboards at intervals along each side of the walkway. In addition, a series of very narrow tables were attached to the concrete floor along the centre of the walkway. All in all, it had the look of an outsize chicken house.

As we crowded in one end of the building, this impression struck a good many and murmured cluckings began to be heard. Short-lived, however, for, standing upon the table at the far end was an impressive Japanese officer in full regalia including sword. His uniform jacket was not, however, completely occupied. One sleeve was rolled up and pinned to the side.  Standing next to him on the floor was a venerable old Japanese gentleman in an American style suit. As soon as the last man was inside, the One-Armed Bandit (for such was how he became in our minds) began a tirade in venomous Japanese, which went on interminably. Our spirits, already at rock bottom, sank further. Here was a war veteran bent upon revenge we thought. We waited in dread to hear the interpreter reveal our fate.

The venerable gentleman raised his head and said: “This guy says he’s the Camp Commandant”.

We were astonished that so much Japanese could amount to so little in English. But we did not have a great deal of time for reflection because the Bandit was off again. This time he seemed to go on even longer. When he had finished, the interpreter said: “This guy says you will learn from one to fifty in Japanese tonight”. This brought audible groans from his audience. The senior officer in our party was a Commander Page, Royal Navy Medical officer. Courageously he spoke up in protest. “These men are exhausted,” he said. “They cannot be ordered to learn Japanese in their weakened state”.

The bandit re-mounted his table and spat Japanese words at us forever, it seemed. Once again we awaited our fate. The venerable gentleman drew himself up to his full height of barely five feet and said: “This guy says that in that case you will learn from one to a hundred in Japanese tonight”, and left the building.

Footnote: Such is fate! On her very next voyage out with her cargo of prisoners, the Tatuta Maru was sunk by an American submarine with very few survivors.

The Emperor’s Bathday

What we call ‘days’ are simply the result of the earth spinning on its axis in front of a light source. They had been happening some four billion years before we got here but as soon as we could count we began to imbue certain of them with special significance—every thirtieth, for example, would be an auspicious one for a nice sacrifice, or a ceremonial slaughter. The general idea being that the labouring ones would have a rest from their humdrum rote and enjoy the day in a manner that pleased them best. As we became more sophisticated we designated, as holidays (Holy days?), the anniversaries of days on which terrible events had happened. And, not content with that, we began to predict dire events that would happen on certain days in the future. These never fulfill their expectations, however, and generally turn out to be as disappointing a day as any other. Witness the Y2K damp squib.

But the idea of having a regular day off after a period of toil dates only from the monotheistic religions of the last two or three thousand years. According to these, the Lord slogged away for six days and flaked out on the seventh for a well-earned siesta. The Christians and Jews disagreed about the day upon which to start counting, so the day of rest is either a Sunday or a Saturday according to one creed or the other. In these days of total political correctness we have overcome this dilemma by everyone, faithful or not, taking both.

The Lord and his followers were fortunate in having a rest every seventh day. In Japan we had a yasumi every thirty days! Yasumi was Our day. All others were without the slightest significance. Christmas days, Boxing days, Hanukkah days, Good Fridays, Bank Holidays, Sundays and Saturdays all passed unnoticed but our yasumi day was a beacon in our anticipation. A beacon increasing in intensity from the very first day after the last one, it was a survival goal to set our minds upon. If only we could reach the next yasumi we might endure, we told ourselves. It is on the eve of such a yasumi that my tale begins.

After the winter of our first encounter with the One-armed Bandit, our spirits gradually began to return. We could count well enough to number for the Nip guards to stop nudging us with their rifle butts and if we forgot, the number would be supplied anonymously from someone in the rear rank. We accustomed ourselves to the routines of furnace-stoking and unloading coal and pig-iron barges and even began to control them a little. A sure sign of our burgeoning optimism was that men began to whistle again. It was like the sudden awareness of spring that the first birdsong brings on. The tunes they whistled, though, were mainly ones of defiance like Colonel Bogey and Rule Britannia and the like.

As usual, we paraded at the end of the working day in front of the Otani factory to take the salute of Mr. Otani, the CEO and owner. Unaware, Mr. Otaini’s theatrical arrogance was a great source of entertainment for us and this was expressed in unflattering soldiers’ terms by the prisoners. Muttered in such a way that the guards could not tell where the sound came from. He was the Pooh Ba of all Pooh Ba’s. He stood atop a wooden crate in front of us (a line of 200 men) and would start his salute facing the man on the far end of the line and, with Mikadoesque theatrics, would very slowly turn his head until he was facing the man on the other end. This took an interminable time. But, it was his dress code that drew the men’s attention. They were not looking at his face but at his knees. His military twill, always immaculate, included, in summer, short trousers. But he was still wearing his suspenders! (Garters for my American readers). We associated this ridiculous social gaffe with the war effort of the Japanese and knew they could not possibly win.

As we marched back to the camp that evening we were met by the Venerable Gentleman, the interpreter. As was his wont on the eve of yasumi days, he liked to be the first harbinger of good news. He said, in his halting and pulverized English “Todye……there will be MEAT…… in the soup……becows…….it is the Emperor’s Baaathdye”. The meat news raised a cheer. We were not so much concerned with the Emperor’s ablutions although some of us did wonder what he would smell like at the end of the year. As it happened we had no need to be concerned, it was a birthday that he was celebrating, not his bath day. It may not have been the Emperor’s bath day but it was ours.

You may know something of the Japanese bathing routine. Our version was not exactly typical. The bath itself was a concrete enclosure about ten feet square with a ledge at sitting height along two of its sides. The top of the concrete wall was about three feet from the ground. At one end of the enclosure was a wood-fired boiler, which efficiently heated the thirty inches of water in the enclosure to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The Japanese custom is to wash thoroughly before getting into the bath and this is done by scooping a ladleful of water from the bath, dousing oneself and then soaping and rinsing well before stepping over into the tub itself. This is where our routine became untypical.

We were divided into four groups of about fifty men. One to each tatami floor. These four groups carried out the camp-keeping chores and daily activities in rotation. Group One, for example, would be the first to bathe on one yasumi day followed by groups two, three and four. On the succeeding yasumi, Group Two would be first in and Group One would be last. And so on. You will, no doubt, understand the competitive enthusiasm of fifty bath-deprived bodies when faced with a tub full of beautiful hot water. The rinsing was very sketchily carried out from the very beginning and was completely ignored as the men vied with each other not to be last in the water. Furthermore, under the guise of using wash cloths, some of the bathers surreptitiously laundered their fandoshies (loincloths)!

When the first group had finished, the water in the tub was down to about 20 inches deep. It was still warm and serviceable but no longer invitingly clear. What was left was an opaque grey. Ever innovative as prisoners are, this was turned to some advantage by the second group in. Laundering could be carried out with the feet with little or no chance of being discovered. In turn, the third group was presented with about a foot of tepid liquid, somewhat viscous in character and grey-green in colour. Immersion was not possible or desirable. Keeping the suspension out of one’s hair, pubic and otherwise, was a necessity since the only way to rinse it out was under the cold tap outside. It was a given, however, that the third group of bathers could legitimately do their laundry.

What of Group Four? There was resignation but little enthusiasm in evidence as the last fifty men were marched into the bathhouse. Awaiting them was six inches of a most unappetizing green slime with only tiny pools of grey liquid here and there—not enough to wash in. But enough, perhaps, to sanitize small bits of the body where this had become imperative. But the human spirit is unlimited in its capacity to overcome adversities and life’s disappointments. These men were not daunted—their heads were lousy but unbowed. For it was ordained that next yasumi day the first shall be last and the last shall be next to last. And, in four months, the dirtiest would inherit the bath!

Rice Almighty

The first phase


Our mindset is influenced  by accidents of birth and upbringing. I remember my early absolutes mostly with amusement. With some embarrassment as well. And I try very hard to keep a receptive mind or, at least, to be aware that tradition has a powerful influence on the limitations of our thinking. Ruefully, I may be less successful as I get older.

Rice, for example, boiled or steamed by itself, was unknown as a staple food in my working-class family. When I was growing up it was foreign and regarded with suspicion. Rice was a dessert and properly prepared in the oven with milk and sugar with, perhaps, an egg or two and liberally sprinkled with grated nutmeg. It should be cooked until the top turned a deep golden-brown with occasional shiny patches of darker brown. Our mothers knew precisely what was proper and what was not.

This image was latent in the soldiers’ minds as they gathered in Hong Kong University to await their formal surrender to the Japanese Army. Stunned by their fate, the men speculated upon their chances of survival. The Japanese, not party to the Geneva Convention, had not bothered to take prisoners before. We were the first. One man said, gloomily “They only live on rice”.  For those of us who understood exactly what this somewhat ungrammatical pronouncement meant, the gloom further deepened. But, for at least one amongst us, the early conditioning prevailed. “That’s great!” said he with countenance a-glow, “I’m very fond of rice pudding!”

And so commenced our four-year love/hate preoccupation with rice.

The first encounter was a culinary disaster. Sham Shui Po, the camp where we began our internship, was formerly a British barracks with a two-storey building along the waterfront to house the married men’s families. Local civilians had looted the camp during the fighting and little that could be unattached had been left behind. The kitchens were destroyed and the only fuel available for cooking was the debris left by the looters. Unbowed, we got on with the process of preparing for consumption the unfamiliar substance called “Rice”.

Cooks were elected. Democratically. For it is said, that among the blind the one-eyed man is king, and much the same goes for the hungry and the cook. But, as is often the case, the procedure elevated the least qualified

candidates for the job–those who had never before prepared boiled rice in their lives. It would have been logical and the results, probably, infinitely better if we had just turned the preparation over to the Chinese Volunteers among us for whom steamed rice was the staple food but British pride forbade this solution.

Improvisation was essential in the looted camp and the troops threw themselves into the construction of a habitat with crusading fervour. There was no end to their creativity, it seemed. Bombed-out vehicles were stripped and the materials converted into everyday needs. Leaf springs were tempered and sharpened into axes; Bricks from the ruined huts were turned into ovens and 60-gallon fuel drums were cleaned and became cooking vessels. The anticipated rewards from all this activity were great. Not least, our self-esteem would get a much-needed boost from showing those Japanese that British ingenuity could overcome all obstacles. In addition, we would have the means to do some cooking—It is impossible to eat rice raw. We tried. The drums were filled to the brim with rice and water and the fires were lit.

In the open air, it took more than five hours to bring the mixture in the drums to a reluctant simmer. No longer recognizable as an edible substance it had rather, the appearance of the material for repairing tarmac that came in similar drums. And it tasted no better than it looked. The black smuts, from the smouldering wood and tyres, which had been stirred into it for five hours had become the dominant ingredient. The rice itself simply refused to be cooked and remained suspended in the glutinous mass in its original gritty form. Indistinguishable from the real grit which the cooks had omitted to wash out of it.

We applauded the valiant efforts of the cooks but decided that starvation would provide a more acceptable end than that of filling ourselves with the cement-like material, which their long and dusty labor had engendered. We consigned our share to the potholes where it would do most good. We could, at this early stage of our internment, afford to be dismissive of rice if not contemptuous. After all, we had all that nice western canned food which had survived the march from Victoria and, with the money and possessions we had brought with us, we could resort to ‘The Fence’ for our sustenance. (‘The Fence’ will be the subject of another tale). But these resources could not last forever. In fact, they were being depleted at an alarming rate and for those of us who had husbanded them more wisely, the fearful prospect of the effect of having to subsist on rice alone, began to be apparent.

Beriberi was the first to hit. At first we thought it was an outbreak of leprosy.  We knew little of either disease at that time; they were afflictions that attacked only the natives. But we had seen or heard of the frightening lion faces of lepers on the streets of Hong Kong and when we first became aware of the grotesque swollen faces in our midst, terror struck us and we fled from them as far as we could. It was rumoured that the incubation period of leprosy is seven years, and there was no cure for the rotting disease!  But the medics knew enough to reassure us that what we were witnessing was the first signs of a vitamin deficiency disease. Reassuring, because, naively perhaps, we thought we could do something about it. Beriberi is the result of a vitamin B deficiency, essentially self-inflicted on rice eating populations by their habit of polishing the grain to make it white and fluffy. This polishing removes the reddish-brown layer that contains all the nutrients that rice has to offer—The rest is plain starch.

Pellagra came next. Then dysentery. Diphtheria appeared inexplicably. We had thought until then, that diphtheria was a children’s disease. It was devastating because the victims had to be isolated in the married-quarters building, displacing the many sheltering there, and the serum required to combat the disease was so limited that medics had to choose between which patients would benefit from it and those for which it was probably too late. Fortunately, my friend, Peter, was among the former.

Pellagra manifested itself in two forms: ‘Electric feet’ and septicemia. ‘Electric feet’ is the name we gave to a condition that manifested itself in an excruciating and unrelenting tingling in the feet. Rather like a permanent case of the worst ‘pins-and-needles’ you have ever felt. Neither sleeping nor walking were possible. Men tried to assuage the agony by sitting with their feet permanently in buckets of cold water but this only brought further complications for them. Septicemia was probably worse for the men who suffered from it. The more delicate membrane coverings of the lips, under-arm and scrotum began to rot away and suppurate. The medics did their best to treat the condition externally. There were no antibiotics yet. They supplied the sufferers with the Army’s universal cure for open wounds—A black iodine substance that one plastered on the raw flesh. There was a macabre humour in the image these conditions conjured up. I often wondered what an out-of-the-world observer would make of all these humans sitting around with their feet in buckets or delicately fanning their blackened scrotums. The faithful observing a religious rite, perhaps? There was one immediate effect of the septicemia. Company buglers used to play the ‘Last Post’ to honour each man who succumbed, but the condition put an end to all bugle playing.

Dysentery was the most frightening condition of all. Its onset meant the beginning of the end. Not even the watery rice could be kept long enough in the digestive tract to supply life-sustaining energy. Towards the end, young men at the prime time of their lives would weigh no more than 60 pounds. The image of that dim-lit corner of a hut where they lay in degradation will never leave me. Burned in my memory, is the courage of those humans who could still raise a skeletal smile as we tried to reassure them. They had achieved an inner wisdom and they knew!

In the meantime the Japanese authorities were showing concern. After all, we were a source of work (Kai Tak airport would not have existed without our slave labour). And I have mentioned in a previous tale that they were very health-conscious in their way when their direct interests were involved. They sent in proper woks for cooking and began providing some vegetables as they became available. In addition, a small amount of contaminated flour was provided. Not enough to bake into bread but enough to start a yeast culture which, after a little while, began to provide each of us with half a cup of unappetizing fluid every day. We were made to consume this stuff under the combined authority of our medical officers and the Japanese. It was supposed to alleviate the vitamin deficiencies. The general taste was foul but it did have in it some little black pellets that were quite chewy. These, we were informed, were the vitamin B additives. Later, we discovered that they were in fact, rat droppings and a marvelous source of typhoid fever.

The brightest health scheme that the Japanese instituted was the forerunner of Communist China’s campaign to eradicate the housefly. The goal was to eliminate fly-borne infections. In today’s China it worked. In Sham Shui Po it failed miserably. The difference was in the incentives dangled before the participants. In China’s case it was probably beheading, in our case, the Japanese offered two cigarettes for every 100 flies turned in. At the start of the campaign there was a frenetic upheaval. Men with traps of every conceivable design were seen to be running in every direction staking aggressive claims to prime pieces of fly estate. The fly population went into rapid decline and fights over territory increased as it did so.

Then, it was noticed by jealous trappers that some people did not seem to be engaged in the frenetic activity to which they themselves were impelled, but were, none-the-less, handing in their 100 flies each day with uncanny regularity. It was further observed that these same people were secretly tending cardboard contraptions of varying complexity. It then became clear that true British enterprise had triumphed once again. These entrepreneurs had raided the sewage pits and were engaged in fly breeding on a massive scale. The Japanese were less impressed and withdrew the incentive. They gave the cigarettes only to those who put in a full day’s work at the airstrip. This was a fairer arrangement since workers were away during the whole of the daylight hours and flies are difficult to catch in the dark.

To augment the rice, there were a few among us enterprising enough to obtain vegetable seeds. Aubergines, for example, grow all the year round in Hong Kong in poor soil without overmuch tending. But we faced a dilemma which other gatherers in their time did not—whether to harvest the fruits of our labour while it was still unripe or wait until it was stolen by the hunters who were impatiently eyeing the crop with same intensity as ourselves. Gardening was out.

Kai Tak

I wonder if any of the many thousands of passengers who have landed and taken off from Kai Tak airport realize that the runway the plane is trundling over was the labor of thousands of half-starved prisoners of war? Not only their labors but some of their bodies as well—None, I imagine, except for those few, like myself, returning to Hong Kong to re-live, in memory, the comic tragedy of our P.o.W days.

Rice Almighty

The Phase Two

Our attitude towards rice changed completely after we were transferred to Japanese soil, i.e. Amagasaki. Strangely, the feeling of dependency upon it heightened and the compulsion to get enough of it intensified our aggression. Survival became competitive.

We were no longer distracted from our hunger by disease or vermin. Rice was supplemented by Soya beans and vegetable soup. We had our monthly hot bath and had access to daily washing facilities. Lice and bugs were eradicated. And the work was regular. All we had left to worry about was hunger and survival.

The famous cooks became emperors (And mostly overweight). Four hundred intensely suspicious eyes watched their every movement. And there was a lot to be suspicious about because the cooking of rice in large quantities is not an exact art. Steamed to perfection at the top of the wok, rice gets progressively less fluffy towards the bottom where it becomes downright stodgy. And at the very bottom is produced a thin layer of a wonderful product called ‘Burners’. I can only describe this product as a sort of rice crackling.

Perfect rice was the last thing anyone wanted! The first to be served received a bowlful of the pitiful fluffy stuff while the last received a bowlful of  lovely stodge three or four times the weight. Before this became apparent to all, a politeness, unaccustomed among soldiery, developed. Men became concerned that they should not be seen to be greedy and that their comrades should take their turn before them. This courtesy soon developed into an unseemly race to be last and required immediate regulation.

This problem was resolved by allocating an order of serving to each person and relying upon group surveillance to see that the order progressed from first to last at succeeding servings. In this case it was the first who were the unlucky ones to start with.

But there was another problem. The amount of cooked rice, produced from the same quantities of water and grain, varies from day to day and from wok to wok. In general, this is a function of the efficiency of the fuel used to heat the water. Wood logs in our case. If the water is slow to boil, the grain does not aerate as much as it does with a fast boil with the result that the total volume produced is by no means the same from one batch to the next. To overcome this problem, the cooks predicted the serving size that a given batch would provide to each man. Wooden stops were constructed to fit over the standard bowl. One for three-quarters of a bowl and one for half a bowl. If the cooks predicted a full bowl, serving was relatively simple. But this was not a frequent occurrence. Mostly it was three-quarters of a bowl and occasionally a half. And this is where complications set in for the server. He was required to fill the bowl as usual, then slip the appropriate measuring device over the top of the filled bowl. And then insert his serving paddle into the bowl precisely against the wooden stop and precisely vertical so as to scoop out the overfill without compacting the rice. This procedure was carried out on the centre tables of the chicken run watched with terrible intensity from the upper tatami by the rest of the men in the section.

Choice of server was not an haphazard affair. It was made with great subtlety and understanding of the psyche of the POW. The rice ration was portioned out by the last man in the serving order for that day, overseen by the man who was first in the order for the day. This arrangement effectively provided the checks and balances between justice, greed and corruption that modern politicians have to be concerned with. For example, the observer was concerned that his serving would be as generous as possible and therefore kept a very sharp eye on the amount of pressure the server used to compact the rice into the bowl. He was also concerned that the pressure should not increase when it came to the turn of the server’s buddies or by arrangement with a future server. The counterpoise to this was the server’s own overwhelming need to make sure that there was enough rice left at the end for his own ration. If he misjudged the pressure, he would be left riceless. Worse, if he misjudged so badly as to leave some of the other men at the end of the roster riceless, retribution would be his lot. Servers developed a very fine sense of the compacting nature of cooked rice.

Chosen rice, the variety favoured by the Japanese, has a softer texture and a nuttier flavour than the dry Indian type rice to which most Westerners have become accustomed. Just the same, eaten day after day after day as the main dish, it becomes boringly bland and men began to seek ways of enhancing the taste. We were paid for our work in the Otani factory. Ten sen a day for the lowest paid, rising to thirty sen a day for the “Heavy Gang”. The “Heavy Gang” members unloaded the coal and pig iron barges which continually supplied the raw materials for the furnaces and the roller- and strip- mills. At the end of a month’s work, the “Heavy Gang” men would have enough money to buy an envelope of  peppermint-flavoured toothpowder and one of curry powder. The curry powder made a fine change of taste when sprinkled lightly over the rice. Rather harsh on the tongue but acceptable, none-the-less. But here again interminable repetition gradually led the prisoners to excess. The sprinklings got heavier and heavier until the curry powder was a quarter of an inch thick over the top of the rice and a whole month’s ration used in one burning binge.

The tooth powder was not easy to use. We had no toothbrushes. Most of us rubbed it on our teeth with a finger in an effort to keep the conventions of our society alive even if it did not remove much plaque. The rest used it to sprinkle on their rice in much the same way as they did the curry powder. This approach probably did as much for their teeth as ours did, but their digestive arrangements certainly got a good scouring.

After a year or so, the obsession with rice began to engender some psychological problems of its own. There developed a phase, which we called the ‘Borrowers and Lenders’ syndrome. It worked like this: The ration of rice was never enough to assuage the hunger pangs, one was always left with a feeling of loss after eating it because the hunger was still there but the rice was not. Most of us accustomed ourselves to this feeling but, for some, the feeling became too daunting to face and they could not bring themselves to start eating, so they became ‘Lenders’. They found ready partners in their counterparts, the ‘Borrowers’ who were willing to forego a future bowl of rice for two bowls now.

This practice very shortly became addictive. ‘Borrowers’ and ‘Lenders” alike began to experience famine or plenty conditions. But for some ‘Borrowers’ it became intolerable. Their addiction led them to borrow more and more until they owed far more than they could repay without starving themselves to death or risk being put on the Japanese sick list. Japanese sick were excused work but they were put on a diet of only rice water until they recovered or died. The practice was brought to an abrupt end by ‘Pagee’ our medical officer. I do not remember what threats he used but lending or borrowing food was outlawed from then on.

The darkest memory I have of this time is of the “Punishment Committee”. For the weaker willed among us, survival strategies included stealing food from other prisoners. Either by raiding the kitchen in the dead of night or indirectly by bribing a cook with offers of sex in exchange for rice. As a deterrent, a young and very foolish second lieutenant instituted a “Punishment Committee”. This was composed of volunteers from the section of a man found to be stealing. They would line up in two ranks along the narrow passageway between the tatamis and the transgressor would be made to run the gauntlet between them. I witnessed two such horrors and the victims were both bloodied before they escaped the end of the ranks. I am proud to say that, immature as they were, the spectacle was abhorrent to at least as many of the young men as the volunteers who meted out the punishment. This episode provided an interesting commentary on the divergence of the two peoples divided by a common language. There was, by this time, a second chicken run in the camp and it was occupied by American prisoners of war. They had, of course, stealing problems of their own but their punishment took the form of public embarrassment and the threat of court marshal when the war was over. When the Americans learned of the Brits’ system of immediate and awful punishment, many of them thought it laudable and wished that they had had the ‘courage’ to do the same.

I will end this tale with an anecdote, which always encapsulated for me the powerful survival instincts of the human race, and the courage, audacity and perhaps, immorality of which humans are capable when their survival is at stake.

As you may well know, Japan experiences a great number of earthquakes. The majority of them are no more than tremors that cause alarm but no great harm. Unfortunately there is no way of telling how severe a tremor will turn out to be. One such tremor struck our area just as we were settling down on the tatami with our evening rice. Immediate panic overtook all. Ladders from the upper tatami to the floor clogged with struggling humanity; men jumped directly down to the tables below at the risk of broken limbs; and all thoughts, other than that of escaping to open ground, flew from their minds.

Or you might think so? When we returned in the few minutes it took for us to realize that it was only a tremor, six bowls of rice were empty—including mine!

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Footnote: As the fire bombing of the Japanese mainland intensified, it became increasingly difficult for the Japanese to supply POW camps with fuel. Since rice needs large amounts of fuel to cook, the rations became smaller and smaller. They were made up in kind by the ubiquitous Soybean which could be ground up and eaten raw. This harsh diet, however, further assaulted weakened digestive tracts and soon dysentery was rampaging again. But the war was about to end and many a POW owes his life to the Atomic Bomb.