My grandfather’s war story
by Bertha Henson
MY GRANDFATHER and an uncle were executed by the Japanese during the Occupation of Singapore.
I’ve heard this story often from my late father, who said the public beheadings took place outside the Cathay building in Dhoby Ghaut. I have always thought it was a romantic tale, which also accounted for my father’s visceral hatred for the Japanese. People go “wow” when I tell them this – even though I didn’t know much else.
Until a TMG reporter was asked to report on a law academic, who recently launched a portal on hearings by a British war crimes tribunal in Singapore. Dr Cheah Wui Ling gave him an example of a father-and-son team, who were tortured by the Kempeitai for months because an acquaintance had accused them of being British spies.
It didn’t occur to him that the names, Sidney Henson and Joseph Henson could be connected with me.
My father, a decorated police officer who later ran his own security firm, had told bits and pieces of the story to my younger brother. The gist was that his family owned a restaurant in Changi, and an acquaintance who had a beef with his brother Joseph over some girl, told the Kempetai that the family had a short wave radio or wireless transmitter to relay information to the British.
There were many gaps in the story because my father, then married with two children, seemed to be estranged from the family. Then Dr Cheah directed me to transcripts of the tribunal in the British archives and I asked the National University of Singapore’s Central Library to get me access.
What I received: more than 300 pages of court transcripts, documents and hand-written notes on the trial of two Japanese military policemen and a Josef Kutron, a Hungarian national who worked as an informer.
It made for strange, horrific and disconcerting reading. Strange because the men were not on trial because they murdered two civilians, but because they had ill-treated them before their court martial which sentenced them to death.
It had to do with treason attracting capital punishment, although the Kempeitai never found the transmitter and had to rely on confessions forced out of the two men and a few others who were tortured.
Witnesses told the tribunal that my grandfather screamed at the court martial, presided by three Japanese officers, that their confessions were obtained under duress but it seems the panel was satisfied with what information they had been given.
The horrific part was about the torture they endured at the Kempetai office in Oxley Rise and later at Outram Gaol.
Cigarette butts were stubbed out on my grandfather’s face. Both he and my uncle endured beatings with a bamboo stick and were submitted to electric shock treatment.
Dimensions of the stick were detailed, as were how the electric wires connected to a box were stuck to thumbs making the victims jerk violently.
I half expected to read about the infamous water torture, where water was continually poured over victims making them choke or suffocate. They didn’t have to go through that.
But others who were hauled in, in what was known then as the Henson incident and who lived to tell the tale, said they had their wrists tied together and suspended by a rope slung over a beam.
I’ve read stories about the fall of Singapore and how thousands of Chinese males were marched out to the sea off Changi and shot in their backs. And the horrific tales of doctors, nurses and patients gunned down in Alexandra hospital. The stories (non-fiction) always made me wonder at the strength and resilience of that generation who lived through World War Two.
The heroes who lived and died. The traitors and collaborators. Those who survived on sweet potato meals and trading on the black market. They were just names and some didn’t even have names.
Until I saw my own surname.
A bit of history was brought home. One of the things my father let fall was his hunt for the informer right after the Japanese surrender, when the British reclaimed Singapore. It was a time of reprisals as people sought out collaborators to eke out extreme justice. He did the same too, armed with a pistol, except that his target was already somebody else’s victim.
I wondered often who this target was, who got my father’s blood up. At various times, my father described him as a Malay gardener who worked in the family home or someone who was in my grandfather’s business.
Was the family really spying for the British?
There was no proof that my grandfather ran a spy ring from his restaurant at Jalan Besar. It was called the Cafe Vien and it sort of doubled up as a boxer training area round the back of the premises.
Then comes the disconcerting part. The restaurant was opened in 1942 after he pulled strings to secure a licence from the Japanese administration. How? It seemed he had passed himself off as a German and was an informer for the Japanese.
Then he switched allegiances because, so the Japanese said, the Allied side looked to be winning the war.
Wow! A double agent? Or merely a family which was trying to survive under war circumstances? The island was a colony under the yoke of the British and then, the Japanese. Did it matter if mere natives worked for one or the other? My image of my hero granddad looked like it was about to be broken…
Then again, court records also showed that my grandfather, uncle Joseph and an aunt were hauled up once before, in 1942, for dealing in rice and sugar on the black market. So he couldn’t have been on such good terms with the Japanese right? Sheesh! Why does it matter?
It was around this time that Josef Kutron appeared in the family’s life.
Kutron, who listed his occupation as a magician and was actually booted out of the United Kingdom because he was an “undesirable alien”, was the archetype bad man and painted black. Court documents and witnesses said he had deep grudges against the family.
He claimed that he had arranged for the business licence in return for a share in the restaurant and that my grandfather reneged on his promise. Then there was his pursuit of a certain Rosita whom my uncle was also interested in.
Family members testified about how Kutron had flaunted his military police credentials to warn that he would “put in” members of the family, especially Joseph. He seemed to have thought he scored a coup with the Henson incident, going along with the police to raid the restaurant and the family homes in Bras Basah.
Joseph and two other friends were nabbed at Great World City where a boxing tournament was in progress. That was in February 1944.
What was interesting was that he was involved in the torture of Joseph, kicking and beating him bloody. It was a charge he and the Kempetai denied, stressing that by then, he was no longer on the informer payroll and it was not protocol to let civilians into interrogations.
Then again, the two Japanese soldiers also denied resorting to any torture beyond slapping them a few times with an open palm.
The interrogators said that they were under orders to produce results quickly in the aftermath of the destruction of six oil tankers in Keppel Harbour by saboteurs. The Hensons were accused of using its network of spies to relay information on the ships’ whereabouts. The two Japanese officers were interred for five years and two years.
My grandfather didn’t come off flatteringly in the court documents. He had fingered another Eurasian as head of the supposed spy ring. The man was brought in, interrogated and later released for lack of evidence.
The Eurasian, a lawyer, testified at the war crimes tribunal and had some rather scathing words for both my grandfather and Kutron, whom he described as “birds of a feather”.
He also recalled how after his release, Kutron kept pestering him for more information that would implicate the family further. Kutron was sentenced to two years in a case which actually made the news.
Where was my father when all this was happening?
According to a journal he kept of that period, he was a medical orderly in a mental hospital in Changi and was put in charge of a ward filled with British prisoners of war.
But my father’s war story is for another day.
Because I have just found the cassette tapes that my father recorded for the Oral Archives Department in 1988 before he died. He also left behind journals of his post-war stories as a policeman in colonial Singapore.
Time for me to read what he wrote and to listen to his voice again.
Featured image by Natassya Diana.
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